Diversity and Inclusion Strategy at Ananda
Interview with Sonia Allinson-Penny
Sonia, what does ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ (D&I) mean?
D&I means embracing differences genuinely. You can have a diverse workforce, but if you are not genuinely embracing your diverse workforce, you are not being “inclusive”. It’s about not gravitating towards what you are familiar with, becoming at ease with difference and realising that diverse perspectives can bring benefits such as creativity and innovation. Healthy conflict brings different views and better outcomes. A company can expect to make between 21% percent and 36% percent more profitable returns with a racially and gender diverse workforce. I want to introduce the topic of “equity”. ‘Equity’ is about saying how can we bring all the marginalised groups quickly up to the same level, because we acknowledge there have been structural problems in the past that have resulted in less opportunity to prove capability.
You are actively involved in an advisory capacity at Ananda. Based on your observations and assessments, what does D&I mean at Ananda?
As the Project Manager, I always want to first get the hearts and minds of the leaders. We started with the Partners at Ananda in a typical change management approach. They are genuine in their intent and now we are changing policies, systems, processes, and behaviours in the recruitment phase, in the onboarding phase, and with our portfolio companies. We have initiated training to involve the whole team. We are about to move into the phase where our new and existing portfolio companies will be impacted. Ananda has always been very open regarding diverse founders and has been investing in quite a few of them during the last 12 years at a rate that is way above industry standards. But compared to their set goals, Ananda is at the ”awareness stage” of D&I. The awareness stage is about first acknowledging that D&I really matters and co-creating how to improve it constantly. The awareness stage is the most critical point to make sure that we keep a broad and open mind. We don’t narrow it down to just one or two target groups and then consider ourselves “diverse”. The intent is to genuinely implement some changes that will induce a change in society. We influence the ecosystem, and we want to be a positive influence for good, learn from others and be one of the leaders in this space.
Ananda has removed gender-coded language in job adverts. Why is this important, and in what areas is Ananda looking to do more to improve D&I?
Change and impact requires a balance from a gender point of view: is there some kind of language, which is not as attractive to women or not as appealing to men and putting them off? It uses natural language processing (NLP), using AI to look at how these words make more men or women apply for a certain role to even out the diversity of a department or we can opt for a gender-neutral language to avoid inadvertent discrimination. We also use non-standard sources of talent: searching for people from different (e.g., socially disadvantaged) backgrounds. We are adding the term ‘degree or equivalent’ into our job descriptions. Potential applicants can demonstrate the capability to do the job even if they didn’t complete a degree in that topic (e.g., neurodivergent applicants), because that’s not the only route to competence. What we are trying to do in the recruitment process is to say: you are worthy if you get this job because we put in the hard work upfront to know what we are searching for — from a knowledge, skill and competency point of view, while reducing the potential for unconscious bias typical with a more ad hoc approach.
You have mentioned ‘new portfolio companies’ before. How is Ananda working on D&I in the context of investment decisions?
The investment process assesses potential portfolio companies, tracks and reports on the deal flow demographics, and gives ongoing support to portfolio companies. We go about investment sourcing through networks. We are broadening our networks, making sure that we spend time with people who are traditionally different to the network we had in the past. Zoe, our Principal, is very active, not just with Female-led companies, but also Black-led companies, ethnic minorities and LGBTQI circles. She is expanding our networks in the UK, and she is now handling our first Female-led investment process. We are broadening our visibility through ‘Founderland’, a network for female entrepreneurs of colour, and also ”Diversity VC” accreditation. Second, we assess our investment portfolios with the “ESG questionnaire”, which contains questions about their approach to D&I. We also track and report on our deal flow demographics to measure and manage the ratio of the diverse groups per portfolio company.
And how can portfolio companies learn and profit?
We created a resource hub for them, drawing attention to Google’s free training on unconscious bias, for instance, and granting access to our written policies as a template. At the tail-end of the assessment process for our portfolio companies, we give them recommendations, and part of that includes mental health suggestions as well as D&I actions. We also learn from some of our portfolio companies. The more diverse we get in our selection of portfolio companies, the more we switch to listening and learning together.
What value is Ananda’s D&I strategy expected to bring to the company’s identity, brand, and growth as an investor?
On the Ananda website, our language is very clear about the support and value you get as a portfolio company — beyond the initial investment phase. It is meant to demonstrate that we are genuinely an attractive investor for portfolio companies from less-traditional backgrounds. I use that term because Venture capital companies tend to go after traditional backgrounds. It’s to say that we understand there has been a systemic problem. We are at the awareness stage: open to learning, discussing, and working with all of our stakeholders.
Interview by Mufutau Muyiwa, 22.03.2022
Sonia Allinson-Penny is a qualified psychometric practitioner with a Bachelor (Honours) Degree in Business Studies , a master’s degree in human resources leadership and certificates in coaching, and leadership development, plus a Postgraduate Certificate in Autism. Her passion for the ”human side of business” has led to a portfolio career building corporate culture, bringing integrity, value and growth to private individuals, high-growth startups, small and medium-sized firms, and blue-chip companies. She conducts the human factor due diligence process for Ananda and other VCs.