If you can start a company, why not make it where you actually want to work?
Inclusion is the new black of the startup world.
Yes, I get the irony. It’s intended. People of color, women, veterans, people of varying physical abilities, LGBT, you name the group, the tech industry needs to attract more to our ranks. The benefits of greater diversity among tech companies and investors is widely reported and written about, so I’m not focusing there. I already buy into the philosophy of inclusion being the key to greater creativity, new markets and wider opportunities.
What I’m interested in is the type of company and culture we’re trying to recruit more diverse people to become a part of. It’s easy to say that learning to code is the universal tool any kid can use to unlock a good job in a software-driven world. But to what end? When I read this post about becoming a human-centric company I thought I had found an answer.
It’s no wonder startups perpetuate the corporate norms they see. But I also mean this for organizations like my own that invest in and support entrepreneurs — we have educational sessions, mentoring events, meetups and other networking opportunities in endless succession to help get companies off the ground and further along their growth path. Problem is, many of these events are in the evenings that make it hard for people with childcare or parent-care issues. Startup Weekends and hack-a-thons by their very definition preclude parents and care givers who often can’t make arrangements for alternative care for such long periods. Would it be ok to angel and seed investors if some of their money goes to childcare so a parent founder can fully participate in an accelerator? That’s not rhetorical — I’m really asking. If an entrepreneur delivers on the promise of the technology and the company’s potential, can s/he get there no matter that the means look different than the expected 70-hour weeks and adopted bro culture? Is there an alternative?
Yes, we must reach more deeply into our communities to attract more under-represented groups to our accelerator programs and investment ranks. That is a given. But once there, how will we all coach our young, fledgling companies to deal with family leave issues among their founder teams, pervasive but subtle sexism in our culture, biases and slights that the majority doesn’t see are harmful to building and sustaining talented workforces and open new markets? Healthcare, savings, flexible work hours, freedom from bone-crushing commutes in high cost of living locations, work/life balance — these are not just ‘millennial issues.’ They are human issues. These are not nuanced tweaks that need to be made to a system that needs to improve. These are sea changes that founders need to think about early and revisit often as they build great businesses that go the distance. And those of us who support and invest in startups need to live, model and coach them for the results we expect in the same way we teach founders to create a P & L statement.
When I was eight months pregnant, I interviewed for and got a job in a high-profile economic development organization which — among other goals — supported startup entrepreneurs. My enlightened boss was a middle aged, white man. This was my third baby and I was itching to get to work on my new project, so I brought the little guy into the office frequently while he was still in the stage to conk out most of the day and I could crank out some work. Over time as he and my other two children grew, I needed and received more flexible work hours. I jumped off to join a startup where — surprise! — another white, male, middle aged guy ran the company with a completely flexible time-off policy. A surgeon, researcher and faculty member, now entrepreneur, my boss was a hard-charging guy. But he and his co-founders created a culture where other talented people could be trusted to manage their time and still grow a company. In the crush of the tech bust that was 2001, that startup unraveled and I was home for the first time ever with my school-aged children. A year later when I went to work for a local seed fund, the CEO was a woman and the only other member of the team to have young children at the time. Though she herself had a nanny and no other member of the management team had little ones, I asked for and received a flexible work schedule so I could walk my kids home from school in the afternoons and I worked from home evenings and weekends. Now that my kids are grown and nearly grown, I can take on after-work or weekend events so my colleagues can attend their kids’ games and performances, finish a masters degree or just be.
This can be done. The first example I gave was in 1998. And this is Pittsburgh where I happily live and work. So please don’t tell me ‘society isn’t ready for this.’ ‘Guys aren’t ready for this.’ ‘Only The Almighty Valley is progressive.’ ‘I’m just lucky.’ No one is on a lucky streak for that long. We actually can do this, people.
I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas about building startup cultures that are inclusive and help maintain a human-centric company. Please join the conversation — that’s the only way to get a diversity of solutions. And diversity wins every time.