More rare than a Unicorn — gender parity at a venture-backed, deep-tech startup. Here’s how they did it.

By Heidi Roizen, DFJ Partner

One of my most memorable board meetings this year was with Memphis Meats. I literally had to stop the board meeting over one slide, as I had never seen a slide like this in my 20 years as a VC.

And no, it wasn’t about product development or regulatory strategy or burn rate. It was about the company’s newest hires — five highly accomplished people, all of whom with advanced degrees and significant past achievements in their careers.

And all five were women.

I stopped the CEO, Uma Valeti, right at that moment, to tell him I had never seen a slide like that. And that in turn surprised him, which probably explains in part why Memphis Meats is such a leader when it comes to diversity.

Memphis Meats is a trailblazing company whose mission is to grow real meat from the cells of high quality livestock in a clean, controlled environment. The result is the meat that consumers already know and love, with significant collateral benefits to the planet, to animals and to human health. I’m proud to say they have applied that same trailblazing attitude to growing their team as well.

At Memphis Meats today, 53% of the team are women, and 40% of the company’s leadership positions are held by women. Beyond gender, the team represents 11 nations and 5 continents (Australians, please apply!) and about two-thirds of the team are omnivores, while one-third are vegetarians or vegans. I’ve met most of the team, and I heard all sorts of educational backgrounds: BS, MS, MD, MBA, PhD. (lots of those). I met parents, brothers, sisters, immigrants, activists, friends, researchers and operators, and I heard 34 different, mission-aligned reasons for joining the company.

Anybody who is paying attention knows that companies and workplaces around the country are grappling with how to build and maintain diverse and inclusive workforces. Silicon Valley is certainly no different — gender imbalance is a well documented problem in tech. Once I saw that slide, I knew I had to dig deeper into what Memphis Meats was doing right. So, I sat down with Megan Pittman, the Director of People Operations at Memphis Meats, to learn more. Here’s what she had to say.

HR: Before we talk about diversity and inclusion at Memphis Meats, we should probably start by defining what we mean when we say those words. What do they mean to you?

MP: We believe that having a diverse and inclusive team happens when you build a culture that’s genuine, welcoming and protected. We don’t have a document that outlines “D&I Policies” here. We didn’t start by looking at our team and saying “wow, there’s a problem here that we need to fix.” We started by committing to build an inclusive company made up of extraordinary individuals. We committed to putting people first, before anything else. We also made the decision to build a People Ops function early, when we only had about 10 employees, so that we could really follow through on these commitments.

HR: I see a lot of companies hire their first HR person when they have 50 or 100 staff. 10 is early! What were some of the changes you were able to make by getting started early?

MP: We’ve curated a high touch and authentic hiring process. After we closed our Series A last summer, we got started on a hiring plan to grow from 10 to about 40 people, and we wanted to do it in about a year. We began recruiting and interviewing immediately!

Pretty quickly, we realized that our interview process wasn’t working very well. We were spending a lot of time with candidates who had amazing resumes, but we weren’t developing unanimous conviction around who to hire. We weren’t being blown away. So we stopped interviewing for a bit and started debugging. We realized that our interviews were too formulaic, and too focused on checking boxes on the job description. We were talking to people who had already accomplished amazing things — in industry or academia, or both — and we weren’t letting them tell that story. So we couldn’t assess their accomplishments, their ambitions and their ability to innovate. We could only assess their resume, and maybe their small talk skills.

We decided to rebuild the process to let the candidates shine. Now, we ask all prospective hires to start their interview day by giving a ~30 minute talk to our team, typically focused on their greatest accomplishments or a topic that they know extremely well. The talks are a great way to see a candidate at his or her best. They provide great context for the 1-on-1 interviews later in the day. And our team learns something new every time a candidate comes in. There have been some pretty amazing light bulb moments and inspiring conversations that have originated because of these talks. Our team loves them — they’re always a hot ticket in our office!

HR: How do the talks connect back to diversity and inclusion?

MP: The talks let us have a really relevant, organic conversation and put the candidate’s resume to the side for a moment. After the talk, we can ask the candidate how they could have done that better, or faster, or cheaper. We can hone in on moments where they did something creative, and learn about their thought process or problem solving strategies. We can hone in on roadblocks, and understand how they motivate themselves through the most difficult moments.

We’ve seen plenty of data showing that companies that hire based on resumes and checkboxes end up with homogenous workforces. Don’t get me wrong — great resumes and hard skills are requirements at Memphis Meats, but they’re the price of admission and not the focus of our hiring process. When we go beyond the resume, and let the candidate shine, and expand the hiring criteria to include self-awareness and creativity and tenacity, we see a very diverse group of people rise to the top. And they happen to be the exact people that we need.

Now that we’ve been doing this for a while, we’re also getting better at writing job descriptions. Our hiring managers now ask “what do we need our next person to bring that our team doesn’t already have?” There is a quote by Walter Lippman, an American writer, that speaks to the importance of this. He says, “When all think alike, then no one is thinking.” Our team is sold on the value of new perspectives, and we’re now thinking about it before we even start to meet candidates. It’s a virtuous cycle.

HR: What happens after the hiring process? Great, you’ve found the person — now what?

MP: We’ve put a number of tools in place to ensure that we can close great candidates and get them into their new role here. For example, mobility platforms have enabled us to not be limited to hiring scientists, engineer or operators in the immediate Bay Area. We are able to comfortably source individuals from top companies or labs — whereverthey are. Switzerland? No problem. Canada? Great! Minnesota? Easy. We offer professionally managed relocations so that we can pull talent from a much bigger pool.

We have partnered with a top immigration attorney so that we can support any qualified individual in obtaining employment eligibility. We have worked with hires on multiple visa applications but one sticks out. We interviewed an incredible scientist who is a French citizen. She is so smart, so hard-working, and so talented. For a few reasons, we realized we would only be able to hire her on an O-1 visa, which is reserved for individuals with “extraordinary ability.” The bar is high, and nobody is a sure thing to get this type of visa. We spent months working on the application, and demonstrating her accomplishments as thoroughly and accurately as possible. After more months of waiting, we literally received her visa approval hours before her previous employment eligibility expired. The entire Memphis Meats team celebrated. The room started cheering, we high-fived, we picked up a cake, I probably cried. She has since been named on our most recent patent filing and has contributed in so many measurable and immeasurable ways to our team. She was absolutely the right person to hire and we did everything we could to make it happen.

We diligently pay fair to market wages and make offers that are not based on salary history. We have never requested salary history from our new hires. We prefer to base all offers on the market, our fundraising stage, precedent in the company and level of experience. Period. We take every offer very seriously and will continue to make that commitment to every one of our team members.

We constantly solicit feedback on our processes and look at data. We track the source of our hires: are we relying too much on one company or one local university lab? We track the candidate experience: are candidates feeling respected by us, our process and our timelines? We track our internal rates of diversity. All of this works to discourage complacency in our processes, and ensure that we are constantly aiming to be better.

We took a different approach to benefits compared to many other venture backed companies. We don’t invest our money into dry cleaning and massages and abundant free meals. Instead, we’ve invested in a generous paid family leave policy, and great health care, and a floating holiday policy that allows for religious or cultural differences. People need to be able to live their lives how they choose with a job that supports that without question. We ask a lot of team members so it’s our responsibility to support them in their lifestyle choices.

HR: Many companies start with the best intentions, and compromise those as they grow. How do you imagine Memphis Meats staying the course?

MP: We’ve really made inclusiveness part of our identity. This goes way beyond a D&I policy, which can be easily forgotten or lost in a handbook.

We talk a lot about our “big tent,” which is really a cornerstone of our company. We’re making meat in a better way. You might think we’re out to “disrupt” an incumbent industry or to make consumers feel guilty about what they’re eating today, but the opposite is true. We recognize and respect the role that meat plays in our cultures and traditions. Many members of our team eat meat, and we celebrate that. Many members of our team do not eat meat, and we celebrate that. There’s just no place here for moral judgment.

Over time, that philosophy expanded to cover the companies and organizations we work with, the investors we raised money from, and the language we use. We happily work with large meat companies like Tyson and Cargill. We happily work with mission-driven organizations that work for animal welfare or environmental stewardship. We happily talk to consumers of all stripes. We’ve built a coalition that we never would have expected. We’ve found that everyone we talk to unites behind our goal of feeding a growing and hungry planet. Our internal culture and our people processes are consistent with the idea of the “big tent,” so I don’t think they’re going anywhere.


Originally published at heidiroizen.tumblr.com.

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