Diversity Debt: How Much Does Your Startup Have?

Jenky whiteboard drawing I did recently — as you can see, diversity falls on the “important” axis but rarely “urgent” which is why it rarely gets addressed.


1) Start as early as you can.

People often ask me: when in a startup’s life does it makes sense to prioritize diversity? TL;DR answer: Debt starts to accrue around the 4th hire, speeds up around #10, REALLY HARD after #20.

2) Be proactive about your website, job ads, interviews, and benefits.

  • Define culture fit, and be specific about what exactly your core values are and the message you want to send to current and new team members. For example, does “work hard, play hard” as a company value manifest as 14-hour workdays and wild weekend drinking adventures as a team? If so, it’s also a huge repellent for anyone NOT a young, extroverted 20-something without kids or any desire for balance. A recent article wrote about how Stripe is rethinking this:
  • Examine your job postings for language that alienates women, minorities, parents, older people. This includes highly exclusive language and aggressive language. Hire More Women in Tech is a fantastic resource and primer. Read more about writing better job ads here.
  • Revamp your interview process. Beware of whiteboard technical interviews or alcohol-based social test outings with prospective employees.
  • Publicly offer and describe benefits on your website, and include domestic partner benefits, maternity, paternity, and adoption leave — even if no one needs it.
  • Use referral bonuses with care. If your startup is currently dominantly young, white, or male, $10K referral bonuses may be contributing to your diversity problems… which brings me to my next point:

3) Understand unconscious bias, and try to compensate for it.

Educate yourself and your team about unconscious bias. Here’s a great video.

For example, one of my friends runs a very popular hardware meetup that always fills up. He created a separate mailing list for the women in the group and sends any meetup invites to that list first and waits a day before blasting to the whole community. Another friend has a policy in her startup that if their team is on the fence about a diverse candidate, they will bring the candidate in the office for another interview.

These types of measures are often accused of being “special treatment” or somehow unfair. I don’t see it that way. If you acknowledge unconscious bias in your team, these types of policies can act as a safeguard to counteract unconscious team biases and lead to meaningful learning for the whole company.

  • Try to interview at least one diverse candidate for every major role you’re hiring for. It’s a version of the Rooney Rule strategy that helped the NFL increase coaching staff diversity. Key is to take them through full process — and it doesn’t count if you rule them out before meeting them. Why? a) You are giving the candidate a better chance to be fully vetted, and b) So you become accustomed to interviewing candidates with backgrounds different from yours. Facebook has started doing this for a select set of roles.

4) Build an inclusive culture from Day 1.

There’s a lot of emphasis on hiring, but the attrition rate for women and people of color is the more alarming problem in tech. Your culture changes with each early hire. Too often, I notice this culture forms without much thought. When I joined my first startup, my co-workers would make fucked up jokes all the time. I thought this was normal. I would often hear comments that hiring more women or parents or a black person would mean we would “have to hire a HR person” — which is code for saying the “fun” culture would end. A couple years later, when I grew tired of working with startups with similar cultures and started speaking up about diversity, a close colleague asked me if I was becoming a “feminist.” Startups should be fun, but they should also be inclusive, safe spaces, even before a diverse candidate joins.

  • Lead the team by example, and speak up. I spoke to a young female engineer who told me that another more senior engineer asked her to give him a back rub in front of their founders, and the founders didn’t do or say anything.
  • Be mindful of humor and defining what’s acceptable — ask yourself, if a healthy number of women and people of color and generally mixed bunch were here, would we be making the same jokes? Work should be a place where people can have fun and be themselves, but founders should use best judgment here and set the tone to prepare the culture for a diverse team long-term.

5) Position matters — and watch the office housework!

When I was helping hundreds of companies with their taxes, accounting, and payroll, I noticed that the first woman a startup would hire would usually be an office manager or administrative role. Now, that’s not to say these roles are not important or valuable (I started my career in customer success/operations), but having primarily women in these roles or as the first female hire sends a message about power dynamics and influence in the office, and it can really turn off potential women candidates in leadership and other roles from joining a culture that feels very Mad Men.

  • Devote resources to finding women in leadership positions and key roles in engineering, product, and sales as soon as possible.
  • Take extra care with handling administrative roles and communicating their value to the team. Female office managers have often mentioned they feel like second class citizens in their organizations. Respect is key.
  • Currently, women do most of the office housework. Pay attention to who takes out the trash, orders food, stays after to clean up after events. Create a rotating schedule for these tasks.
  • If your startup hires a woman or person of color, it’s not their job to increase the diversity — it’s everyone’s job. Diverse teammates often have to take up the second job of increasing diversity, which may or may not be important to them.

6) Do your best.

I empathize with founders who believe in creating an inclusive culture and make an effort, but still lack the diversity on their own teams.

Very Short List of Groups (so much more at Hire More Women In Tech and this fantastic piece):



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Andrea Barrica

Andrea Barrica

founder/ceo at O.school. previously: venture partner @500startups. co-founder @inDinero. she/they. QWOC.