// 07.28.2020

diversity in startups: what are you doing about it?

Diversity matters. Everyone knows it. Yet the startup world remains depressingly white and male.

In 2018, female-founded startups in the US raised just 2.2% of venture capital investments. And only 1% of venture-funded startups have Black founders

To change these dire facts, startups have to do more. Interview processes have to be reconsidered. Job advertisements have to be aware of biased language. Leaders need training. Workplaces have to cater for different cultural practices and diversity has to be a topic of discussion.

Beyond the moral need to be diverse, the benefits of diversity for startups are real. Diversity drives innovation, improves creativity and productivity, attracts talent and increases financial performance.

So, whilst it may be uncomfortable for startups to address diversity, the benefits for all are clear. Here are six steps to promoting diversity in your startup.

1. Start early

For many startups, it’s easy to see diversity as something to address later, especially when faced with the day-to-day demands of an early-stage startup.

But not focusing on diversity from the start will build up diversity debt. And it builds up quick. Each person a startup takes on shows who and what the business represents, so if you don't tackle diversity in your startup early enough, your debt can grow to problematic proportions. The experts also agree on this.

2. Attract not detract

Attracting talent from diverse backgrounds begins with your website. If either your ‘About Us’ page or a job description contains biased language – such as masculine words like ‘competitive’, ‘confident’ and ‘dominant’ – it’s likely it will put others off.

You may think a few words won't make a difference, but studies say otherwise, particularly when it comes to women finding jobs appealing or not. So, if you want to create a diverse team, every word counts. Luckily, there are tools to help and guides to get you started.

Also, post job advertisements not only on the job boards you know but on those that actively promote diversity. And when it comes to screening and interviewing: screen blind, strive for a diverse interview panel and create structured interview questions that maintain relevance to the job.

3. Talk about it

Since the vast majority of startups have a diversity problem, it’s not surprising few talk about it. But communicating diversity efforts both inside and outside your startup is key to improving.

Focus groups, employee surveys, monthly inclusion meetings and being transparent with both employees and customers are all tools to create a community where anyone can express themselves.

And if your startup has an outlet for sharing opinions such as a blog, give employees the chance to write about diversity. It's healthy to listen to others.

By creating a conversation about diversity, not only do people of all backgrounds feel valued, but it also allows for you to ask fundamental questions. What are our diversity aims? Why are those aims important? What are our biases? Are we doing enough? What can we do differently?

4. Educate leaders

Improving diversity starts with leaders. They'll be crucial in creating a workplace where everyone feels empowered and they’ll be the drivers of progress and discussion. But if leaders don’t take responsibility for making diversity important in a startup, it’s difficult for anything else to follow.

For leaders to champion diversity, however, they have to be proactive in educating themselves and other leaders. Can inclusion training be mandatory for leaders? Can training in unconscious bias be made available?

Don’t assume that people in higher positions already have the knowledge and skillset to tackle diversity. Also, leaders must be held accountable for progress. How can developments be tracked and reviewed, and how can leaders be held responsible if they fail to meet targets?

Outside of a startup, leaders should educate themselves through articles about other leaders who uphold diversity, TED Talks about the issue and podcasts that get you thinking. Recognize the power of leadership and use it for good. It’s your responsibility.

5. Build it into the fabric

Diversity shouldn’t just be an intention or a statistic. It should be built into the fabric of your startup at every level.

Achieving a specific percentage of people of colour in your startup, for example, is all well and good, but if all of those employees are confined into traditional silos, how truthful and useful is that statistic?       

And whilst increasing the number of underrepresented groups is essential to improving diversity in startups, it’s also essential your startup’s structure and workplace supports a variety of customs and practices.

Have an area for prayer, allow flexible hours for those working in different countries, distribute meeting materials in advance so employees who are speaking a second language have time to prepare and recognize the time-off needed for religious holidays.

6. Create the right events

Events are where people connect and culture is built. They’re a chance for employees and founders to put down their titles and find out more about each other. But they can also be a chance where walls are put up rather than broken down.

Picking an activity, location or restaurant based on your personal preferences may seem harmless, but you won't be tackling your biases. If you then repeatedly organize all the events, people of different races, cultures, ages and sexes etc. may feel alienated and stop coming.

So, can ideas for events come from different employees?

Can different cultures be celebrated through food and music?

Can different cultures be celebrated through out of office trips or activities?

Is your only annual party for Christmas?

How many observance days do you acknowledge?

Can people of all ages join in your events?

Asking these questions isn’t to encourage an event for every day of cultural importance, but to reveal biases that might be undermining your diversity efforts. And if you’re unsure as to where to start, ask your employees to tell you what’s important to them. Go from there.

 

We're proud to announce that the Dutch Startup Association and B. Amsterdam signed the Dutch Diversity Charter in July 2020. This means that 219 companies and organizations in the Netherlands are now affiliated with the Charter. 

By signing the Diversity Charter, the DSA and B. demonstrate their commitment to diversity in all areas: ethnic-cultural background, gender, age, LGBTI+ and work capacity.

 

Next read: the post-pandemic world: how to adapt your startup.