The year is 1996. Over 10 million people are now using this new thing-y called “the internet”. Dance clubs are filled with Macarena maniacs. Mad cow disease is scaring the bejeezus out of everyone.

And I’m finishing up my master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium.

My classmates are an “interesting” combination of artists from 12 different countries. Every day we simultaneously clash and make magic, which is an inevitable consequence of sticking a bunch of creative people together. Due to our different cultures and viewpoints, we eventually feel bridled by the traditional, structured art training found at the Academy. We came to explore various ways of expressing our personal stories and visions, not to be stuck in a box.

So what did we do?

We rebelled. We stirred the pot. We bucked against the system.

I “blame” most of our rebellion on Fred Bervoets. He was the “wild child” of Belgian’s art scene and happened to be our instructor. Fred had an unusual way of teaching that involved hanging out at the local pub together. Our beloved watering hole was a bar named De Jezuiet. It was a cooking pot where ideas, philosophies, absurdities, and musings about art, painting and life simmered and melded. Through the din of dialogue and debate, Fred taught us about the power that comes from diversity.

Fred Bervoets at Gallery “De Zwarte Panter” in Antwerp, Belgium.

“Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.”  ~ Jacqueline Woodson

When I hear the word “diversity,” I think about my days at the Royal Art Academy. Sure, we were there to learn technique. Each student had an incredible drive to paint. But we were also there to express what made us unique. We were diverse not because of our skin color or nationality or gender, but because of our distinct points of view and desire to stand out from the norm.

When I think about diversity in business, a strategically crafted 10-point mission statement is not what comes to mind. Diversity in business is about brands adding something unexpected to humanity’s cooking pot, stirring things up, creating magic. They figure out what makes them different. They express and measure it against a totally different yardstick than what the world uses. Like an artist with her clay, they shape their differences into something people crave.

Wondering about your own brand’s diversity? Ask yourself these questions:

  • How does your brand stand out? Does it look like everyone else’s?
  • How does your brand give people an experience that is memorable?
  • What does your brand give to the world that’s never been seen before?
  • How does it break free from the traditions and structures of society?

“We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”  ~ Jimmy Carter

I’ve just returned from Antwerp where I participated in an art show with my old classmates. Hanging out with them for five days made me realize what a beautiful mosaic we created during our time at the Royal Art Academy. As we gathered 20 years later, brought together by our current collective exhibition named Duikboot, I saw how our differences back then helped transform our work today. Thanks to our diversity, our friction, our need to deviate from the norm, each of us carved out our own space in the world. When we reunited, something magical happened…

We figured out how to walk through this world together.

Exhibition “Duikboot”. My “Magical Art Wear” piece up front.