Start-ups, take a lead on diversity (pt.2)

Indra Sharma
Published in
7 min readFeb 12, 2019


The importance of founders in achieving greater diversity in tech

Artist: ME!!!

Who is responsible for diversity? The correct answer is everyone has a responsibility. While this is true, we all still have different chances to influence diversity in our workplace. If you’re a person of power in an organisation, e.g. a founder or member of the management team, you have the greatest likelihood of creating a diverse organisation, and with great power comes great responsibility. Change can occur very quickly if it comes with authority from the top. I recently met with a founder who mentioned that his all-male team had concluded that the lack of diversity had a negative impact on the business. Consequently, so they decided to recruit from a more diverse candidate pool for several leading positions within the company. The new investment in diversity and talent helped improve not only the culture but also their product.

Achieving diverse and thriving workplaces is a learning process, but here are a few thoughts (based on experience) on how we can get there:

Build the culture from the beginning — when building a company, you need to think of diversity from the start. Of course it’s easier said than done as, when companies grow, things move very quickly and diversity can easily be forgotten. However, if you don’t take the time to build a diverse team from the start, it will be harder to change the company culture in the long run. And if diversity is not a priority to you, well then why would anyone else care?
Start with your founding team and, when you grow, make sure that the management team is diverse as well. If you’re diverse from the start, the points below won’t be a problem.

Broaden your network — as a VC, I see how essential personal networks can be when it comes to recruitment. It’s all about your network and who you know. If you’re only surrounding yourself with people similar to yourself, this will also be the pool you’ll recruit from and diversity will be difficult to obtain. If you’re left with a very homogenous group of candidates in the last steps of the interview process, your candidate pool was likely probably not diverse enough from the beginning. If you’re operating in a male-dominated field, for example, when you review CVs from female candidates consider the following: Have you been fair in your judgement? Did you miss anything that could change the assessment? Is your recruitment criteria well thought through or are there other experiences or skill sets that could benefit the role?
Another concrete action is to analyse who you’re regularly interacting with (lunch, business dinners, events etc.). If there is a lack of diversity then proactively reach out to people that could add to the diversity in your network. It could start with a lunch request over LinkedIn to someone with an interesting but different background than you.
An anecdotal story which illustrates the above: After moving on from a tech company where I mainly had positive experiences, I provided the CEO with this very suggestion, which he passed on to the management team. Shortly after I left, one of the managers contacted me to go for lunch. This was the start of building a good professional relationship. In my new positions, we’ve since been able to work together, and I’ve been able to refer him for positions. It all started with a simple lunch — slightly outside of the comfort zone.

Be a leader who’s there for all employees — in my female network we talk about the corporate bro-club culture. The fact that men take time to talk to “bros” in the hallways and that some (not all) men prefer to interact more socially in the office with other men. The solution is not to decrease any “buddy relations”, it is to proactively increase interactions with female colleagues. Be aware that networking might come more naturally with people similar to ourselves. If you’re working in a male-dominated field, start including female colleagues (the same goes for other minorities) in activities that they might otherwise be excluded from. Don’t do this just once but regularly in order to build relationships and trust. If you have people’s trust, they’ll will share their experiences and then you’ll get transparent feedback on your corporate culture. If there is no trust, the company will miss out and qualified staff will inexorably be lost. If someone does not feel they are part of the journey, why should they stay?

Make sure that your performance reviews are unbiased — it’s not uncommon to hear managers and leaders say that they don’t have any type of biases. To assume that we evaluate each individual strictly based on performance seems quite common but unfortunately it’s a misperception. There’s even research that shows the traditional 360 process is not reliable when it comes to objectively rating an individual’s performance and that annual performance review often are subjective which affects women negatively. The consequence is that there’ll be high performing individuals who feel that their hard work isn’t noticed and eventually they’ll leave making your organisation even less diverse. Make sure to train your leaders in understanding unconscious bias and that we all have them. My personal opinion is that it’s often worth using external consultants for this matter but if this is too costly, you should educate yourself by reading and discussing the subject as much as possible within your organisation. Make sure the subject of unconscious bias is on the agenda. Get started by googling ‘Idiosyncratic Rater Effect’ and go from there.

Use inclusive language — we need to stop referring to founders, heads of and product managers as “he”. A previous manager at a tech company I worked for was great at correcting these types of errors in both internal and external communication. It’s not a coincidence that his team of seven had four women and four different nationalities represented. Another manager I worked for continuously used football references when trying to inspire us. I’m not saying that no one in the team enjoyed football, but I can guarantee that the points he was trying to make were lost with a large part of his team. If you use an inclusive language you increase the chances of all your employees feeling just as excited as you are (and no, everybody does not love football and hockey — shocker!). Everyone should feel that they’re part of the team.

Listen more, talk less and stop interrupting — give your colleagues the space to talk without interruption. All of us want and should be treated with respect and be allowed to finish when we speak. As highlighted in the press and experienced by many women in business, we’re often cut off and not allowed to finish. There is a reason why so many women speak quickly — we have a lot to say and we know that we will soon be cut off— our air time is shorter than most men. And of course, when your colleague is being interrupted, help to point it out and turn focus back to the interrupted party.
Many women in my network have shared experiences where men dominate a meeting and then give the feedback that “you should talk more in meetings” to female colleagues. If you have given that feedback to a female colleague you should ask yourself what would happen if you just talked a little bit less and listened a bit more.

Set the right benchmarks — last but not least, do not compare with the worst, compare with the best. I often hear excuses for lack of diversity saying “we’re much better than company x or team y”. Why is it that when it comes to financials we tend to compare with the best but when it comes to diversity we compare with the worst?

For leaders and influencers in tech, if the lack of diversity has never been an issue to you, you need to make diversity an interest. Yes, just like golf or chess. An interest. It will take time but you can do it. And when you’ve made it an interest, it will open new doors and experiences and these form a mind-set. When it becomes a mind-set, you’re part of changing the world. And isn’t that what people in tech dream of?