Start-ups, take a lead on diversity

Part 1: What is diversity and why look for it in startups?

I recall an all-hands meeting at one of my previous employers where the CEO introduced the new management team — he was very proud of how diverse it was. And, to him, it was diverse, since not all the team was from the same country and with experience from the same industry. But in my eyes it wasn’t. I saw only white men with one exception: the head of HR — a white woman. So I guess the answer to the question “what is diversity and why look for it in startups?” isn’t that simple. It depends on your background and what you’re used to. What is clear though is that if you only have the perspective of the majority, something is lost. Diversity is not only gender and ethnicity, it also includes (but is not limited to) sexual identity and orientation, physical abilities, social economical background, age, religious status, work experience and much more. I also believe that striving for cognitive diversity and identity diversity are complementary lines of action, not oppositional. If I try to define the mind-set that would make diversity thrive, I would say that it’s not only tolerating differences but the ability to relate to individuals outside of the groups that we ourselves belong to.

So why is diversity needed? For some, it might not be obvious why diversity is important — especially if you’ve never felt negatively affected by the lack of diversity (or sat in a conference room feeling like a UFO). I’m hoping that many of the startups I meet will become large companies with the power to influence and change our society. It’s important to include a diverse set of people in this journey. Numerous events in history have shown us what can happen if power is wrongly distributed in society — in the end it’s all about the vision we want for the future. Different actors — tech companies included — are a part of building that future and here are a few thoughts on how diversity can contribute to your startup:

  • Culture — we all know that the key to success is your team and a diverse and including workplace will contribute to creating a more accepting environment where employees are content and thrive. Consequently, employees will stay longer and be more loyal.
  • Diversity makes you and your team smarter — you won’t miss out on ideas that could change a product or a business model for the better. You can learn things from everyone but you will learn the most when you meet people who are totally different from you — if you’re ready to listen and iterate. Surrounding ourselves with a diverse group of people will challenge us and the way we think. It will make us more flexible and adaptable to new ideas and that might be just what your company needs to beat your competitors. I mean come on, Darwin discovered this way back!
  • Understanding new audiences — your team might reflect current users of your product but what if your team reflected the potential users of the product as well? A diverse team will make sure you don’t miss out on key target groups (perhaps even ones you didn’t know existed).
  • International expansion — by having a diverse workplace, your company will have an easier transition when scaling. Adding talent that has local knowledge and can efficiently communication and navigate in new markets will help ensure you take cultural differences into account and avoid unnecessary mistakes that might slow down your growth.

The reasons stated above will boost your financial growth and in the end isn’t that exactly what you want?

(Stay tuned, there will be a post on how to achieve diversity next week)