How Startups Can Bake Diversity Into Their DNA

Mike Peña, Stanford University March 21, 2018

Startups are in an ideal position to increase diversity and prioritize inclusion, especially in the largely homogeneous tech sector. Young firms are less likely to suffer the inertia commonly found at bigger, established businesses, and by implementing measures at the start, diversity and inclusion (D&I) become part of the company’s DNA.

A 2016 study on diversity in tech supported by Intel reported that the advantages of diverse teams include faster innovation, greater financial returns, easier fundraising and lower employee turnover. It may seem obvious, but can you imagine working at a company where no one else looks like you or understands what cultural values you hold most dear?

“When employees feel that you have an inclusive environment, it affects engagement and retention,” says Sonja Gittens-Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at the fast-growing work-management startup Asana. “We also know how expensive it is to hire and train employees. So you can imagine, that when you lose employees, the impact that has, right?”

Fostering a culture of inclusion at your company — one that values diversity of gender, race and other traits — may be a messy and monumental task. But as long as you believe in the cause enough to sustain the effort over the long haul, the steps you need to take go from being deeply strategic to delightfully tactical.

Gittens-Ottley is a frequent speaker on the topic: at workshops, conferences and on platforms like LinkedIn and Medium. Prior to joining Asana, which had under 200 employees when she arrived in 2015, she managed Facebook’s global diversity efforts.

Gittens-Ottley advocates for top-to-bottom participation in inclusion programs, the use of metrics to measure progress, and transparency in regards to employee surveys and processes. A robust approach includes so much more, she notes. But here’s a four-step process to get going at your startup:

First, lay the groundwork

Come to an understanding with your founding team about diversity and inclusion. Diversity includes seen and unseen traits, like spirituality or veteran status, while inclusion can be defined as the concept of making everyone feel like they belong and can “bring their full authentic self to work,” as James Loduca, director of equality at Salesforce, once put it.

You should also acknowledge and commit to the fact that realizing this vision may take time, Gittens-Ottley says. “Honesty about where you and your team stands, what needs to improve, and what your strengths are is a great first step to understanding how to build an inclusive culture,” Gittens-Ottley wrote on LinkedIn.

Next, put your plan into action

Given that diversity and inclusion may require years to take hold, Gittens-Ottley says the most important move a company can make is to hire a full-time D&I lead, preferably within the first year. It signals that inclusiveness is just as high a priority as finance or marketing, and acknowledges that a lack of diversity hurts businesses.

The work is constant for a D&I lead, whether that’s identifying recruiting goals with leadership, or teaching employees how to form resource groups that both become safe spaces for candid discussions, while still conveying inclusivity to all. The position also oversees the many ongoing efforts to collect employee feedback, share results, assess efforts, iterate on programs and recommend new ones.

Startups that lack the resources can consider reaching out to organizations such as Project Include, Change Catalyst or Paradigm to develop D&I strategies and goals.

Can you imagine working at a company where no one else looks like you or understands what cultural values you hold most dear?

Show your commitment

With goals defined, you can start doing highly visible things to demonstrate that your startup values D&I. Here are a few Gittens-Ottley suggests:

  • Designate certain restrooms as gender neutral with signage
  • Give your meeting rooms diverse names
  • Pick inclusive images for your website, wall art and collateral
  • Comb policy documents for legacy phrases like “maternity leave” and update them with more inclusive wording like “family leave”
  • Encourage the use of inclusive language in company communications and in-person meetings

While tactical, such gestures will show what your fledgling venture stands for and signal to both majority groups and minorities that D&I is a bedrock value. Hanging an all-gender sign on a bathroom opens the door to real – and perhaps difficult – conversations with everyone about why it’s important, Gittens-Ottley says.

Sustain the culture you envisioned

While diversity and inclusion are increasingly important in tech culture, firms are not yet measuring key performance indicators for D&I with the same rigor as they do their financial, customer and growth data, Gittens-Ottley explains in a blog post on Medium co-written by Ellen Pao, co-founder and CEO of Project Include.

They identify three areas that startups should measure:

  • Employee and individual demographics: In addition to traits such as age, race, gender and education, startups should ask how long employees have been at the company, how senior they are and have they received a promotion or raise recently.
  • Employee sentiment in nine areas: company satisfaction, job satisfaction, belonging and inclusion, growth and advancement, company culture, company values, communications and decision-making, and compensation.
  • Company benefits and actions: ranging from standard programs like parental leave, or how compensation is determined, and how offers are negotiated.

Gittens-Ottley recommends startups begin with employee surveys – an extensive annual questionnaire, supplemented by shorter polls quarterly to gauge how responses are trending. She says surveys should always allow for anonymity to encourage complete honesty.

Pao and Gittens-Ottley end their piece by pushing for total transparency. Allowing employees to see all responses lets them know they were heard and aren’t alone. Meanwhile, sharing the results with managers and executives allows them to develop tailored action plans.

“It’s clear that proactively building an inclusive culture, supported and driven by leadership in both statements as well as actions, ultimately supports all employees and benefits a company in the long run,” Gittens-Ottley says.