Field Notes on Inclusivity

Baltimore, Startup Champions Summit, September 2016

Over the last two months, I have talked more about Inclusivity than in the previous five years combined. A good sign. No doubt. We’re making progress. My team and I dealt with criticism of not being inclusive enough at Unreasonable Lab Virginia, we discussed Diversity and Inclusion among a group of ecosystems builders from around the U.S., and I just returned from a three-day B Corp conference titled Towards an Inclusive Economy.

Once I had a first draft of this post, my partner threw me by asking whether I really wanted to be part of this conversation, wasn’t my time better spent by discussing things I actually knew something about? I have to assume that I am not the only dazed and confused about the in’s and out’s and potential pitfalls of ensuring diversity and inclusion are reflected in everything we do. The following 1142 words sum up some of my observations — and lots of questions — I brought back from the field. They are not based on research. Additional reading is provided at the end.

Why is This so Hard?

Startup Champions Network is a group of self-identified startup ecosystem builders from around the United States. Twice a year, we get together to discuss pressing issues in our work, and remind ourselves that we are not crazy. During the most recent summit, three days of torrential downpour in Baltimore, we worked on better understanding what our role is in the circle of Inclusivity in the startup world. Often, the very term “startup” is associated with tech and pale nerds in band shirts, baggy jeans chucks. At Startup Champions Network, however, the picture is much more diverse. Startup communities evolve from location-specific resources and strengths — agriculture, tourism and lifestyle, creative industries. The more pressing question for us, however, is how to attract more diverse players in our ecosystems and make those actors heard that aren’t currently part of the conversation. Where do we even find people who are working on similar issues but that we aren’t aware of because they operate in parts of the community that we have little connection with?

We ran into similar troubles in launching Unreasonable Lab Virginia. While we ended up with a well-mixed group of different ethnicities, ages and gender in the first round, our founding team was not diverse which caused criticism. Again, we got to a point of asking ourselves who we were not reaching. When you are not sure who and what you are looking for, it’s hard to know to start.

Diversity & Inclusion at B Corp Champions Retreat, October 2016

Three days ago, I returned from the 2016 B Corp Champions Retreat. Under the title Towards an Inclusive Economy 520 representatives of 290 B Corps from 19 countries around the world came together to figure out how we can use the power of business to build a more inclusive economy. Similarly to my experience at Startup Champions, one of the main questions was How do we set a good example without being elitist? We were all too aware of the divide between us in the ballroom at the 4-star Sheraton, and the rest of companies around the world that — by definition — were not part of this conversation. An intimidating undertaking.

Addressing Inclusivity

In each of these networks, Inclusivity means something else. Is it about inviting other actors to the table? Giving everyone a platform to have their voices heard? Treating each other with respect? Turns out it’s something slightly different to everyone.

When you don’t know where to start, start with what YOU can do. During our Startup Champions Fall summit in Baltimore three weeks ago, we discussed some practical small steps on how to make events and personal interactions more accessible to diverse communities. In true startup fashion, we followed our mantra of starting small and testing:

  • House rules to ensure inclusive behavior and outline how to treat everyone respectfully.
  • Accept that everyone perceives certain power structures. The less we look, talk or act like the other person, the more misconceptions we have to overcome.
  • Meet people where they are. Be intentional about meeting on neutral ground, or meeting new partners on their “home turf”. Inviting a community worker to meet in the Executive Boardroom of a high-rise law office may amplify perceived hierarchies. It would make ME uncomfortable!
  • Remember that “communities of… [fill in the blank: color, certain sexual orientation, etc.]” are NOT homogeneous.
  • Be vulnerable. If you’re uncomfortable or unsure about how to handle a certain situation, be honest. Don’t try to “wing it”.

On an ecosystem level, three days of discussion led us to an easy yet difficult conclusion: You can’t do it all, and certainly not by yourself. Find allies and build partnerships. This may sound obvious and easy, it’s the implementation that makes me take a deep breath.

Working session notes at Startup Champions Summit

Throughout the Summit, I struggled with translating these findings into the Richmond context. With an eye on upcoming programs and our potential second Unreasonable Lab I knew that as a white woman from a middle class household I would have little ground to stand on to recruit ex-convicts, Latina single mothers, or low-income populations into any program. I just wasn’t comfortable with the idea. The partnership piece, however, put me at ease. I am meeting with individuals and organizations that do some fantastic work at the grassroots to find out what type of support is still missing.

The notions of Do what YOU can and Build trustworthy partnerships resonated equally at the B Corp Champions Retreat. By the way, if you think “retreat” means we got massages and float therapy, I can assure you that the name is misleading! We spent three long days in workshop sessions creeping out of our comfort zones trying to figure out how private sector companies can lead the charge in an inclusive economy.

On a company level, Inclusivity is mainly reflected in workforce development. The majority of our discussions focused on recruiting and maintaining a diverse, aware and mutually respectful workforce. With that said, nobody gets excited about that HR email announcing the next mandatory diversity training. I am not ashamed to admit that I am grateful for B Corps like TMI Consulting that specialize in workplace diversity and inclusion. When in doubt, get some experts with more experience and let them help.We came up with some tangible steps from making the hiring process and workforce development more diversity-friendly:

  • Blindsided application process: Remove names and pictures of applicants to reduce implicit bias
  • Involve a diverse team of existing employees in the interview process
  • Create anonymous feedback opportunities for employees to bring attention to discriminatory behavior.
  • Avoid Tokenism.
  • The Business Case for Diversity: Help leadership and employees understand why diversity and an inclusive workforce make a company more successful.

One B Corp outlined how they are training the next generation of consultants for their company in cooperation with a local nonprofit. Talk about long-term investment and commitment, I was impressed!

B Lab, the nonprofit behind the B Corp Certification is calling all B Corps around the world to participate in their Inclusion Challenge, an effort to enhance inclusion (3 key metrics or more) within the next 12 months. Who is signing up?

B Lab calls all B Corp to become more inclusive through their Inclusion Challenge

With all this in mind, I feel we have a long way to go. I have more questions than answers and feel as though we are barely dipping our toes into the Inclusion waters. Let’s accept that we all are biased and start from there. Once we understand how our implicit bias influences decisions and behavior, we have a starting point to be more intentional about avoiding these behaviors. I would love to to able to talk about issues of inclusion and diversity openly, without fear of offending anyone or being called out for being me.

Can we agree that this is a really difficult conversation and that we are all in the same boat in trying to understand how to get better about Inclusivity?


Further Reading: