Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Dare to Be Different?

When I first built my own law firm, I often was asked what it felt like being “different.” Funny, I did not think of myself as different, but I am. I am brown. Not just a light caramel, but a nice chocolate brown. When I walk into a board meeting for the first time I really stick out since often I am the only “brown” person there.

My first partner in my law firm was Jewish and refused to wear a suit. We often laughed at what a pair of “odd” people we were to be building a firm in Minnesota—a Jew and a Hispanic American Indian. I remember approaching young partners at the big firms to join us. They all turned us down, even though I could show them how they could make more money and had a chance to help build something great.

Since we could not recruit any senior lawyers, we decided to hire people right out of school and train them. It turned out that every person we hired to work with us (both lawyers and paralegals) was a woman. This was at a time when there were still relatively few female corporate lawyers, yet nine out of eleven of us were female. I would like to say it was because we were forward-thinking and egalitarian, but in all honesty, it was probably because we were just different enough to attract people out of the mainstream.

We were the crazy guys in the suburbs with the office located through a client’s back door (or, later, above the day-care center). Our job interviews—almost an embodiment of the idea that we weren’t out to hire anyone too normal—even involved taking candidates to the local bowling alley with the group to see how the social dynamics worked.

In the end, though, I honestly believe our differences allowed us to compete with firms that were much larger and had bigger marketing budgets. We had no allegiance to old ideas and prejudices. If anything, we had a bias toward being different from the rest. We didn’t need a strategic plan to help us find subtle distinctions between us and our competitors—we were distinct from them in so many ways. We were smart and driven to succeed and it did not matter that we were young, Jewish, Catholic, men, women, whatever. It became almost a religion to ask “why” and “why not.”

When I teach students in my entrepreneurship class, I talk about one of the universal traits of entrepreneurs—the belief that they can do something better, their willingness to do things differently. These days, people talk about diversity, but I think they forget about the benefits of hiring people with diverse ethnic, religious, or social backgrounds. One of these benefits is the infusion of new ideas that different cultural and economic experiences can foster. The other benefit is willingness to try different things. Even large organizations can benefit from diversity, but not just to meet some quota so they can say they are diverse or get priority on contracts. The real benefit can be that diversity increases the chance for genuine innovation and creativity that often is lacking in a large organization.

A Post by Frank Vargas, Guest Blogger


  1. Awesome article Frank!! Really captures the spirit of what you guys are up to, and what you stand for!

    Keep rockin' it!

  2. Frank,
    I just finished reading, "The Social Animal" by David Brooks. You should read it. It's a fun read, and very interesting when it talks about the unconscious understandings we all have that are based on ethnicity, environment, culture, etc., and which are the silent underpinnings for every conscious decision that is made. You will enjoy the humor and it will provide additional fodder for your thesis. Steve Smith

  3. Steve,
    Just wanted to mention that one of David Brooks's earlier books, "Bobos in Paradise," is on my list, and I was planning on posting about that. Maybe I should replace it with "The Social Animal." In any event, thanks for tipping me off about this one.