The Five Whys for Diversity in a Startup

Image: #WOCinTechChat/Flickr

By Asmaa Malik, EdJ Contributor

In our journalism entrepreneurship course, graduate students share case studies of successful media startups. During one particular class early in the spring semester, a student introduced the class to Blavity, the culture and tech site founded by Morgan DeBaun, which calls itself “the voice of Black millennials,” and everyone let out a collective sigh of relief.

“Finally,” exclaimed one student, “a startup not founded by three white guys.”

Diversity is not often a top priority for new startups focused on acquiring customers and searching for business models. But what happens when all of the people in on the ground floor — founders, developers, marketers — share the same cultural and socioeconomic outlook?

Just this week, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky admitted that his team did not anticipate the kind of discrimination people of color have faced when trying to make reservations (see #AirbnbWhileBlack). “When we designed the platform, three white guys, there were a lot of things we didn’t think about,” said Chesky, speaking at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo.

According to Business Insider, Chesky was also challenged about employment diversity at his company and whether that had an impact on how quickly Airbnb realized its user experience was different for non-white customers. “What happens inside the building manifests outside the building,” Chesky said. “There’s no question we are late.”

In my classroom, the presentation on Blavity led to a discussion on the problems with a hegemonic startup culture based on the popular image of a privileged, white Ivy-educated male founder (i.e. Mark Zuckerberg) and the dangers of creating products for “people like me.” We talked about companies such as TheSkimm and Skift, which break the founder stereotype, as well as places like BuzzFeed, which has made a public commitment to a more diverse workforce.

It soon became clear that issues of diversity — whether they are related to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, age, ability — cannot be an afterthought, something that needs to be accounted for at the end of the startup process. Instead, students must ask questions of inclusivity and challenge presumptions at each step along the way.

Lean Startup guru Eric Ries has outlined what he calls “The Five Whys for Startups,” based on Toyota management principles. The questions, which are designed to get at the root cause of an issue, are based on the idea that root of every supposedly technical problem there lies a human one. In his example, Ries explains how at a startup, asking “why” five times in succession could lead a team from identifying a technical server issue to pinpointing a fundamental flaw in training protocols for engineers.

With this concept in mind, I’ve started reverse-engineering “The Five Whys for Diversity,” a human-centered way to help my entrepreneurial journalism students bake diversity and inclusivity into the startup process from the get-go. I’ll be refining them with my grad students over the next year and keeping an eye on the kinds of products and services that result.

The Five Whys for Diversity

1. Research: Why have you decided to solve this problem for this group of customers?
 
Account for different kinds of diversity in the communities you are targeting, related to race, gender, income. You can’t be all things to all people, but be clear on why you choose certain groups over others.
 

 2. Team: Why did you pick the people on your founding team?
 
Don’t exclusively work with your friends or people in your immediate personal networks. A shared vision is essential, but diverse perspectives and experiences outside of the classroom will enhance the process.

3. Prototyping: Why does it work this way?
 
Ask whether your product or service is accessible to everyone you expect to use it. Identify and address potential barriers even if you can’t tackle them right away.
 

 4. Testing: Why did you pick this group of testers?
 
It’s important to zero in on your core customers, but consider going beyond your target audiences to find new applications and uncover new complications.
 

 5. Adaptation: Why are you prioritizing fixing certain issues over others?
 
Your minimum viable product is, of course, your central focus, but when you’re choosing to leave out specific features, be aware that it may have an impact on the kinds of people who use your service or product.

Asmaa Malik is an assistant professor at the Ryerson University School of Journalism in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @asmaam.