DEI in startups

Startup founders, especially in the early stages, usually have a lot going on. They need to work on their product/service, take it to the product/market fit stage, get traction from a great set of customers, chase growth numbers, and do several other things to get the ball rolling. All this while putting together a stellar team to march towards the vision they have.

When it’s this chaotic, do you think startup founders might want to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) while hiring their first few sets of team members? I can see you shaking your head with a doubtful expression on your face. But, that’s a mistake they might want to avoid, says Jennifer Brown, inclusion and diversity expert

In this Frehteam Leadership Series session, the founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, a certified woman- and LGBT-owned firm, will make a compelling case for startups and small- and medium-sized businesses to focus on DEI right from the very beginning

Based on her vast experience of having worked with some of the largest firms such as Walmart, Starbucks, Microsoft, and non-profits worldwide, Jennifer takes us through practical steps that you can implement in your organizations. She also talks about where you should start, how you could go about it, the different things you need to consider before implementing a DEI strategy, and, importantly, what kind of funding you would need to implement such plans.

 

Edited excerpts:

Question: Why should startup founders train their lens on DEI from Day 1?

Jennifer: I would argue that it’s a risk not to focus on it because adjusting for diversity is much more challenging once the train has left the station as a startup. However large that is, your founding team is critical because the diversity you commit to bringing in at that beginning stage will beget more diversity as you build further.

Many times candidates will look at the founding team’s diversity to decide whether or not they are reflected and whether or not they’re going to be comfortable in a given culture. More and more, there’s an expectation and awareness that toxic workplaces that have unconscious bias are not the kind of places a lot of us want to work. And, we’re more informed about that than ever, particularly after the last year and a half that we’ve lived through, with everything that we’ve learned.

So, it will be challenging for candidates to say “yes,” and we want them to say “yes”. We want an attractive place to work, an inclusive place to work because more and more, that is a value, that is a priority, particularly for the younger generation of talent. They are looking for overt signs, looking for a commitment to it. If we’re in a hurry to hire and build a team, we go to our networks. And our networks are not typically very diverse.

When we say diversity, we should clarify we mean gender diversity, ethnic diversity. Around the world, that looks different. We talk about Black talent, Latinx talent, LGBTQ+ talent, and it extends to backgrounds, education, experience, and functional diversity in the US. So, there are all kinds of pieces of mosaic that we have to keep in mind. We should slow down a minute to say, “How diverse are our candidates’ slates? And, are we happy with who we’re grabbing? Because it has consequences. It isn’t just we have to populate the org chart. These decisions have ramifications for a long time to come.

 

"More and more, there’s an expectation and awareness that toxic workplaces that have unconscious bias are not the kind of places a lot of us want to work."

Question: What are the advantages of having a diverse team versus founding members seeking people just like themselves? That’s typically the situation for startups or any company?

Jennifer: For sure. I just mentioned the ability to attract diverse candidates. I think that becomes more difficult when you see a homogeneous team or what we believe is a homogeneous team. The other problem or the opportunity is that much of diversity is also invisible. I identify as LGBTQ+, but I feel I need to disclose it because it may not be correctly assumed about me. And there are many other things like disability, neurodiversity, lots of invisible aspects about diversity too. I want to make sure we mention that. It’s not always the visible categories that think about.

The risk is as you go to build products and services as a startup, you are serving and building for a diverse marketplace. Your buyers are of all identities, and when you have a homogeneous team creating those solutions, you will miss a lot of the richness you will need to build for products that fit a diversifying customer base. You are in danger of a group thing when you have a homogeneous founding team or products team, design, engineering, whatever it is.

I know all of you probably know if you know your business, you read, you know about the problems with AI (Artificial intelligence); you know about the challenges of having a lack of diversity designing AI. And the things, therefore the technology misses in its design. And, thus how AI, unfortunately, perpetuates those biases and turns them into these exponential realities that now are discriminatory. So, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is something you have to read up on and understand as one of the starkest examples of what can happen when we don’t have diversity around the table and when we don’t listen to that diversity, which is inclusion.

We say “diversity” and “inclusion” a lot. Diversity is who is around the table. Inclusion is “how comfortable and safe do I feel giving an input? Will I be heard? Will I feel valued for the input?’. So, both of those things are two sides of a coin that need to be present together.

 

"Your buyers are of all identities, and when you have a homogeneous team creating those solutions, you will miss a lot of the richness you will need to build for products that fit a diversifying customer base."

Question: What kind of goals do I set? How do I go about goal-setting? Let’s say I’m starting on a blank slate now.

Jennifer: Diversity is the representation piece. Mapping the current state, understanding your workforce data - critical. And sometimes, we don’t disclose our diversity dimensions because we don’t feel safe doing so. People with hidden disabilities, people who are LGBTQ+. If I feel afraid to disclose my diversity dimensions, that says something about the culture. That’s something to keep in mind. Most companies do not do enough to create psychological safety so that people will be honest about how they want to identify. So, we all have work to do.

The metrics around the current state and future state - over a period of time, what do we want to look like? And holding people accountable. Honestly, it’s kind of pretty simple. Difficult to do in practice. And maybe, people feel, “What do you mean by telling me who I have to hire?” This has to be driven from the top. It has to be serious. Everybody has to take this on as their responsibility. You will get that pushback. Let me just say that. People don’t like to be told what to do. They don’t like to be told to think outside the box in terms of “well, we can’t hire this candidate because they don’t have x number of years of experience or these kinds of degrees or these schools”. And this is still a very prominent bias.

So, somebody in the organization has to be strong enough to cut through that and say, “This is precisely why we are doing this exercise.” And that has to come from the top, honestly. I want to underscore measuring inclusiveness, measuring belonging. A company of any size, I don’t care how big or small you are, should be surveying people, creating opportunities for listening dialogues, collecting information - either through focus groups, anonymous surveys, 1-on-1 interviews to understand who in the organization is feeling the tension of unconscious bias, microaggressions, lack of opportunities, lack of equity.

We have to be extremely curious and invested in understanding that because that derails talent. We could work super hard to create that diversity, but if we don’t get our culture right, we don’t know what we don’t know. We assume, which many of us do, that everybody else is comfortable if I’m comfortable here. If I feel this is equitable for me, then everybody is equitable. This is a classic sign that because of the privileges that some of us have; we feel more comfortable in a system that we built. Of course, we are comfortable in a system we built. This stands to reason.

However, we have learned that the same workplace environment can be experienced differently and that each of us walks through that workplace with our identity, in our bodies. I hear different things that reference my identity on a day-to-day basis - more than a man may hear. It’s just a fact. And if I were Black, I would hear very specific things about my identity as a Black person or Latinx person, or LGBTQ person. So, the work we have to do is recognize the limitations of our interpretation of experience and take our lens off. We got our lens. Don’t worry about it. We’re always going to know what our experience is about. That is something that we will always carry, but we have to get very perceptive and empathetic about the lid experience of other people in our organization. And it’s vital data to collect.

And then it’s crucial to act on it and to hold ourselves accountable for shifting things. And then, to check in to say, “Is this making a difference?” Has it been addressed?” So, the 360-degree process of good leadership is to check back in and say, “We heard this. We intended to address it. We addressed it. Did it have a result?”. It’s the difference between intent versus impact. It’s so important that we talk about it all the time. It’s not on me to say whether my intent had an impact. It’s on others to reflect to me that “this information was given, this action was taken, but the impact didn’t resonate.

And, then what I need to do is go back, revisit, and develop another solution. Better yet, putting people in charge of solutions and helping to sort of crowdsourcing that because, by the way, that lens I talked about - that one lens we carry - is limited in terms of my understanding the problem solved. It’s also imperative to examine where we develop the solutions that we implement and according to whom? And then, according to whom have we been successful? So, this has a massive shift in terms of how we think about our leadership, how we lead, and how others lead us. Even if we’re in a senior leadership position, and I said earlier, the top has to own it. Owing to it, yes, but the top is not going to have all the answers. The top is probably going to understand diversity in the workplace the least. So, we must go to the rest of the workforce to get that improved.

 

"We assume, which many of us do, that everybody else is comfortable if I’m comfortable here. If I feel this is equitable for me, then everybody is equitable."

Question: Let’s assume I’m a startup founder at one stage of growth. Let’s say I’m growing from 0 to 500 employees, and I’ve not really thought of DEI from the beginning. I’m now starting on a clean slate. Where do I begin? What do I do?

Jennifer: It’s a great question. You can start this work at any point. So, even though we said pre-start it (from the beginning), you can undoubtedly do it later, and many companies have to. In fact, I’d probably say most. So the “diversity” is really the who. So, the metrics, the representation of identities, the visible and the invisible - to the extent we can collect the data to understand “what is our current mix?” and “what are our goals?”. Setting a goal may be a percentage, numbers, targets, maybe a way to hold our hiring managers accountable for generating diverse slates.

Also, not just the slates but also the actual hires need to be diverse. I’ve seen cases where “Oh, we had a tonne of different kinds of candidates,” but then when you look at who actually gets hired, they all look like the people that are doing the hiring. So, you have to think of the talent life cycle. Any leader worth their salt needs to understand talent management: recruitment, retention, promotion, advancement, performance reviews.

We need to examine these gates in talent management in this sort of life cycle for bias. And, we need to measure what is happening at each of those junctures for our talent and their problems, where are we missing out, where are we making choices that mean more homogeneity, where are we losing people with exit interview data. If you can get it, (you could figure out if it’s) because of culture or the lack of inclusiveness of our culture. So, we should be examining and identifying where the gaps are, what does good looks like.

The top leadership team needs to be deeply involved in this. This is not something that’s just driven by, and if you’re lucky enough to have an HR, depending on how small you are - startup founders can say, “I just don’t know anything about people management”. Unfortunately or fortunately, this can’t be somebody else’s job. It needs to be something that leadership owns. It’s critical - CEO, founding team, board. Those metrics should be developed and agreed upon at the top. It should be driven, and there should be accountability where the management says, “We hold ourselves accountable as leadership, and we also hold accountable the next level of directs and directs and directs, etc.

And, if you want to get fancy with this, you build this and bake these metrics into performance, expectations, and compensation and incentive structures for people. And they will take it seriously. What gets measured gets done. But what I also wish is diversity and inclusion weren’t a compliance exercise. So, I think that the bigger goal for an organization is to understand why this is so critical to our business. This isn’t just an HR exercise - (it should not be like) somebody is not making us do this. It is the difference between us surviving and thriving or maybe not even surviving. And I think if you don’t take this kind of stuff seriously, what you don’t know can hurt your ability to grow and get investors.

More and more, our business ecosystem is holding us accountable. So, we go in to get the funding, and investors might ask, “So, what’s your plan for diversifying your team? How are you holding people accountable?” because it’s viewed more and more like a business risk. It’s a health indicator. It’s a viability indicator. Investors know that homogeneous teams have blind spots. And those blind spots can lead to disastrous business decisions, misplaced product launches, and reputational risks in social media. We’re living in a different world of accountability and transparency. I think we are at significant risk if we don’t embed this. We must take it seriously and ensure it channels through the whole organization.

 

"So, we go in to get the funding, and investors might ask, “So, what’s your plan for diversifying your team? How are you holding people accountable?” because it’s viewed more and more like a business risk."

Question: Let’s say I’m a startup founder, and I’m going from one stage of growth to another. How do I look at scaling my DEI efforts that are already on? 

Jennifer: The scaling question of any effort really is about what I call the frozen middle. So, when you’re big enough as an organization to have a middle, the middle is where things get lost. They get watered down; they get deprioritized. You can often have great leadership at the top, but as it cascades, it gets weaker and weaker until the signal gets lost.

So, the accountability when you have a team of teams, when you’re managing managers is to hold those, to coach and support those managers in the middle to carry this forward - these goals, these behaviors, these expectations, to walk the talk, to role model what we need. And often, this piece is where a lot of trouble happens. It concerns me and every single consultant I’ve known because strangely enough, I feel like the top gets it because they’re in the world and they’re sort of visionaries, and they look at their peers and competitors, and they say, “we know where we need to go”. They’re often really passionate and consistent, but I think they’re less skilled at driving this through.

I think of it as skill and will. So, x-axis and y-axis. Skill and will (forming the two axes). So, you can picture, as we’re coaching our leaders... Right, if I am a top leader and how I’m driving us through - Am I coming up against a lack of skill in terms of inclusive leadership, which sort of dictates one set of solutions (training, coaching, enforcement, feedback)? If there’s a will issue, the will is, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t understand why it’s important”. So that’s a different conversation, and it’s a different level of meeting the learner where they’re at because you can find in the middle too, there’s a different variety of attitudes about this.

But the attitude is the will, and the skill is the behaviors of ‘I know what to do”. Ideally, I know what to do and why we need to do it. And I believe why we need to do it. So, if any of those are not quite 100%, that’s where we can begin to coach, mentor, hold accountable, and train. But for the senior leaders, it has to be on their dashboards. It has to be something that we revisit just like we revisit other management and business outcomes and metrics regularly - like when we do our stand-up meetings, when we do our dashboards. We need to talk about if you really want to introduce accountability publicly.

It’s not just a side conversation to say, “Hey! You know I’m kind of concerned about your diversity numbers. What’s going on? Your function looks different than everybody else’s. Why is that?” Yes, there are real challenges like STEM fields or whatever, with the pipeline… But the pipeline excuse - a lot of us are tired of that, honestly. Because like I said earlier, we have a lot of cases where we have sourced a lot of diversity in our process, but then very few get chosen. And to me, that speaks about the bias in the interviewing process, bias in the hiring process, when we look at resumes. We have to remember that we’re powerless with our biases.

Like a lot of times, we are unconscious, and we don’t see them at work. And we think we’re better than that. We’re really not better. So, this is why there are technology solutions as well that exist to help us de-bias our language. There’s something called textio that I really like, that I know many large and small companies that use. It removes gender bias language from, for example, job descriptions and suggests alternative language. And language is powerful. Words matter. They have been shown to repel female talent - just the job description. So, it’s everywhere, and I think we need to be vigilant, and we need to be asking for feedback a lot. We need to be employing diversity bias-busting technologies that are proliferating right now.

We need all the help we can get because we are flawed as humans. That self-reflection is difficult to come by, but when we have it, I think the challenge is to examine ourselves, hold ourselves accountable, and build a new muscle, that is the inclusive leadership muscle. But it takes time. It is a habit like anything else. It’s a muscle that’s built - not overnight. It’s a way of watching ourselves work, watching ourselves make decisions, watching ourselves speak up in a meeting when something’s missing, or something is said, or checking with somebody as to “how did that thing resonate with you? Are you feeling okay?”.

It’s becoming what we call an ally, an advanced version of inclusive leadership, which is “I’m vigilant - both for myself and everything around in the organization that I take responsibility for what happens in the organization”. And I speak up. I agitate, challenge, ask why, give difficult feedback, and have conversations with myself, about myself and others. So, that’s kind of an archetypal inclusive leader and the ultimate goal.

But you know, we are all at various places on the journey… the skill and the will, right? That’s a crucial thing to think about because you want to meet people where they’re at. You don’t want to give somebody something that’s helpful, but it’s helping the wrong. It’s the symptoms of the wrong disease. I would tell the senior leaders if you’re listening to this, we really need to dig into the middle because the middle has everything to do with whether we keep talent or not. People leave managers before they leave their jobs or companies. The direct boss has so much to do to retain the diversity that you worked so hard to get. And that relationship needs to be really, really strong up the chain.

 

"If I am a top leader and how I’m driving us through - Am I coming up against a lack of skill in terms of inclusive leadership.... If there’s a will issue, the will is, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t understand why it’s important”. So that’s a different conversation, and it’s a different level of meeting the learner where they’re at because you can find in the middle too, there’s a different variety of attitudes about this."

Question: Can you please share any examples where you had to work to improve the will of a leader because that’s relatively harder?

Jennifer: Will is harder than skill, for sure. But, sometimes, “will” can be shifted in a moment. I’ve seen a powerful story be told. I’ve seen something happen in a family where they suddenly get it - they have their ‘aha’ moment. Sometimes, the business case we have is very compelling for people. So, even if morally, they don’t agree, they can, for example, the dangers of homogeneous teams and groups. Or innovation. How a lack of diversity hurts innovation.

Some people respond really well to metrics and accountability. I almost would say you can operate without the will if the skill and accountability pieces are very strong. And sometimes, the will sort of brings up the rear. People are kind of slow to, “Oh! Now I get it”. But the will, a lot of us resist, deny, argue and debate. We think we are good people, and we believe we are doing enough. So, a lot of this speaks to our own defense mechanisms and our own ego frankly about how we lead - “This has always worked for me” or “This is the kind of person I am” or “This is the kind of leader I am”. 

Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there”. These days everything is shifting. We have to revisit how we view ourselves, how we let ourselves off the hook, how we think we’re better than we really are… Based on what? Because you know, we believe we are a good person, we’re a good leader. I’m here to tell you that we need to evolve. We have needed to evolve for a really long time. I’ve been in this work for 16 years, and just because the last year just turbocharged this whole conversation, it doesn’t mean this is a new issue.

Leadership has not been empathetic, not been transparent, not been humble. You can lead an organization and be humble. If you do not have the answers, be transparent, be empathetic. You have to be. The world has changed, and this is what people want/ need to get through this really stressful and unpredictable time. So, leaders have to shift. One of the shifts we can make is what I’ve been talking about is we are all in this together, and no one’s going to escape the challenge of this moment. And this is not just a moment. This is our future.

So, I think that I’ll just end with saying that this is an opportunity for transformation, what we’re sitting in right now. And to resist it, deny it saying, “I’m uncomfortable”, “I don’t want to do it”, “I don’t like it”, “I don’t agree”, to me, it’s sort of misplaced energy because it’s missing the opportunity to really take everything to the next level and create a workplace that is welcoming for all. We can all do our best work, which I do think we all agree is the goal.

 

"One of the shifts we can make is what I’ve been talking about is we are all in this together, and no one’s going to escape the challenge of this moment. And this is not just a moment. This is our future."