Sarah Cordivano
Published in

Sarah Cordivano

How to approach Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for your startup.

Photo of office with exposed brick walls, colorful chairs and edison lightbolbs.
Photo by myHQ Workspaces on Unsplash

In the early days of building a company it can be difficult to focus on DEI in addition to everything else. It is possible though to take conscious steps towards building a diverse company with an inclusive culture without derailing your broader vision. A sensible approach to DEI for a seed-stage startup is not just about taking the typical methods for a bigger organization and scaling them down. It requires a different approach that is more agile and flexible. This blog explores the steps for a young startup to purposefully consider DEI while building a company.

First, what is DEI?

Diversity encompasses all the ways in which people are different including visible differences and less visible differences. This includes (but is not limited to) race and ethnicity, gender, cultural background, class, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language and life experiences. All of these differences shape who we are as human beings and they influence our perspectives. Taking care to hire a diverse team requires planning but having such a team will help identify blind spots and build a product for a broader audience.

Inclusion means creating an organizational culture where people feel comfortable to be themselves and bring their differences to the table; where they feel that they are valued and are welcome, especially if they’re different from the majority. Inclusion is necessary, especially for a diverse workforce, because it ensures everyone, no matter who they are, is heard and able to contribute.

Equity refers to working towards the fair treatment, access and opportunity for all people by striving to identify and eliminate systemic or individual barriers that prevent the full participation and engagement of groups and individuals. Improving equity involves recognizing and addressing institutional and environmental systems of injustice as well as unequal distribution of resources and opportunity. In a workplace, this translates to having fair and equitable processes, addressing barriers that make it difficult for people to access opportunities to work with you and making sure you build a product that does not perpetuate bias and inequality.

With those definitions in mind, here’s how to make DEI a priority for your startup with 5 clear steps.

1. Consciously decide you want to care about DEI

For a founder, it’s a very personal decision of how you want to run your business and how DEI fits into that vision. There are so many different things vying for your attention. How can DEI fit in as a priority among them? It must be a conscious decision, because it won’t really happen organically. There are too many structural barriers in place to make it likely that a diverse and equitable company will just naturally form. It takes a conscious decision that DEI is a priority and you are willing to invest time and resources.

So in order to make this conscious decision, ask yourself:

What kind of company do you want to build?
What kind of company are you proud to put your name on?
What kind of relationship do you want with your employees?
What kind of impact do you want your product to have on the world?

You don’t need to write a whole vision statement, you just need to think on these questions in relation to DEI and be on the same page with the other leaders in your company.

2. Build your culture purposefully by role modeling inclusion

There’s a misconception that the important part about DEI for startups is hiring a diverse team (often startups focus their efforts on hiring women). Yes, it’s important to have a diverse team (gender diversity is just one piece of that, by the way). But the bigger, more immediate opportunity for startups is focusing on an inclusive culture, from the beginning. The founders and leadership team have an important role in purposefully building this culture. First, it’s important to understand how inclusion, bias and equity fit into a work culture. Take some time to embark on a learning journey to understand how bias influences our decision-making (check out some books: here, here). And make an effort to understand the way our identities have made things easier or more difficult for us (read more here). When it comes to role-modeling behavior, it doesn’t matter who your founding team is, you have an opportunity to shape the culture and acceptable behavior of the company.

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the founders are willing to tolerate. Because of this, you have to take purposeful steps to role model inclusive behavior. Small companies are close-knit. The founders are already role-modeling behavior whether they are doing it purposefully or not. Employees naturally look up to the founders. It’s a huge opportunity to acknowledge that responsibility. Here are a few purposeful behaviors to role-model:

  • Call out sexist or racist jokes or comments, even among your other founders. Conflict is difficult, but letting those comments go unacknowledged means everyone in your company got the message that it’s ok and it’s part of acceptable day-to-day conversation.
  • Set expectations for inclusion in meetings, make sure everyone’s opinion is heard before a decision is taken. (Read more: Inclusion in a Virtual workplace).
  • Actively use inclusive language (gender-neutral and avoiding stereotypical language).
  • Organize team events by asking for input from employees and trying to make an event that is fun for everyone (for example taking care to have alcohol-free options). Give people space to bring their own interests to the table.
  • Take feedback on your own behavior humbly and as an opportunity to learn and grow. Be open to your employees that you, too, are learning and are open to feedback.

Don’t think about these behaviors as a checklist to suffer through but as an opportunity to identify moments throughout your life where you can bring someone else’s perspective into the conversation or actively consider their needs and involvement.

3. Make thoughtful hiring decisions

Once you have spent some time on the two steps above, start thinking about hiring. Early hires are really crucial for a young startup because they are often the people that stay for the long haul and grow into leadership roles. There’s extra importance to make good decisions here.

How to reach a diverse candidate pool?

  • Communicate about Diversity: Job seekers have the ability to be discerning when it comes to applying for their next role. If working for a diverse and inclusive company is important to them, they are likely looking for signs telling them whether your startup is the right place for them. On your website and in your job posting, make sure you include a statement about your perspective on DEI and how you prioritize it in your work (read more). Review your job postings, make sure you include the benefits you offer. Make sure the team is introduced on your website and the hiring process is explained.
  • Build a diverse network: Don’t rely on your immediate network for hiring. It may be tempting, especially if you want to hire quickly. But if your network isn’t diverse, you’ll end up hiring people just like you. Build relationships with community groups in your industry that unite and support underrepresented people in tech. Consider offering to give a talk or make a donation to support their communities. Building these relationships in an authentic way takes time. You can also find diversity-focused job boards that are relevant for your field or use a recruiting agency that helps you reach a more diverse group of candidates through sourcing.

Remove bias from your processes:

  • Interviewing: Think about your interviewing process. Do you have more than one person conducting the interviews, are the interviewers diverse? Do you have a standard set of questions for interviews to avoid bias? Do you have culture questions? Be sure to include some questions that ask the candidate about their understanding of DEI and whether they have considered inclusion in the tech they build.
  • Making a decision: Wait to make a hiring decision until you have a diverse list of shortlisted candidates.

If you are not getting a diverse group of finalist candidates, revisit your job description and hiring processes to see if you have blind spots or bias built-in.

4. Put fair, transparent policies and processes in place

Even if it seems too early, start documenting your processes when it comes to HR and employee topics including hiring, promotion, benefits, holidays, and harassment. Otherwise, as your startup continues to grow, lots of ad hoc decisions are made without any transparency. This is exactly how bias sneaks in. These processes do not need to be over-complicated, some can be written up on one page. Here are a few considerations around processes and policies:

  • Make sure all roles have job descriptions that are transparent to the employee and their team. It’s ok if these evolve over time, but be sure to document them as they do.
  • For hiring, document the process of how an application is reviewed, selected for an interview and what the overall interview process entails. Make sure there is a clear process for who makes the hiring decision.
  • For salary and other forms of compensation, have a planned range for each role and tie the position within the range on the qualifications of the role. For other benefits, such as equity, decide how this will be distributed among new hires in a fair way.
  • Make sure to communicate a process to receive harassment complaints, with a responsible person that is different from the leadership team. Have a clear process to investigate these complaints.
  • It’s trendy to have unlimited time off policies, but this can have the adverse effect of its generous intentions. Sometimes unlimited PTO causes people to feel guilty about taking time off or forget to take it. Make sure to have a clear policy on a minimum number of PTO for all employees to make sure they have the time to rest and recharge.

5. Build your product with equity and inclusion in mind

A lot of DEI work looks inward to the company culture and diversity of teams. But as startups develop new technology or products, they are well-positioned to consider inclusion and bias in their work. Explore how the technology you are building may be contributing to society’s inequalities. Check out some books about how tech can perpetuate and amplify these inequalities:

And secondly, think about how your users access your product. Are there accessibility barriers in place that make it difficult for users with low vision or limited mobility to access, for example? Does your tech team have the skills to build an accessible product to begin with?

Final Thoughts

An approach to DEI for startups is all about making the conscious decision that it is a priority for you and your company. Following through requires being purposeful in your behavior and in developing your processes. As you go on this journey, consult experts and peers who can offer guidance on best practices. And make sure to stay curious to learn new things and welcome feedback as an opportunity to grow.

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This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

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