// 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 a meager 2.2% of venture capital investments. 1% of venture-funded startups are Black. And whilst attempts to tackle startups’ diversity problem are having an effect – the percentage of female co-founded startups doubled between 2009 and 2019 – the issue goes beyond simply having diversity reflected in a team’s makeup.

To improve diversity at a startup’s foundation, more has to be done: interview processes have to be reconsidered to minimize biases; job advertisements have to use language that doesn’t deter certain groups (races, genders, cultures, religions, sexual orientation, backgrounds etc.); leaders have to be trained; workplaces have to integrate a variety of cultural practices and diversity has to become a regularly discussed topic.

Beyond the moral necessity to be diverse, the benefits of diversity for startups in business terms are tangible. It drives innovation, improves creativity and productivity, attracts talent and increases financial performance. So, whilst it may be uncomfortable for startups to address diversity and reveal current pitfalls, the benefits for all are clear. Here are six steps to promoting diversity in your startup.

1. Start early

Since the benefits of diversity within a startup are so evident, it’s important to start as soon as possible. For many, it’s easy to dismiss inclusivity as secondary to other priorities in the early stages due to a lack of resources, time and available talent, but not doing so will quickly build up diversity debt. Each person a startup takes on contributes to who and what the startup represents, so if diversity isn’t tackled early on, its diversity debt can grow to problematic proportions. It also seems like the experts agree on this.

2. Attract not detract

Attracting talent from diverse backgrounds begins with your website. If either the ‘About Us’ page or a job description contains biased language – such as masculine leaning words like ‘competitive’, ‘confident’ and ‘dominant’ – it’s likely that it will skew the people applying to your startup.

It may seem too small a thing to make a difference, but studies say otherwise, particularly when it comes to women finding jobs appealing or not and considering if they belong in a position. If you want to create a diverse team, every word counts, and luckily there are tools to help and guides to get you started.

Further down the line, make an effort to post job advertisements not only on job boards you know but on those that actively promote diversity. Also, try and share opportunities at your startup with people further afield than your friends, even if friends mean familiar. And when it comes to screening applications and interviewing candidates; screen blind, have a diverse interview panel (if possible) and create structured interview questions that maintain relevance to the job.

In doing so, biases and favoritism are minimized, and diversity is given a chance. And, fortunately, one silver lining of the current pandemic is that the mammoth move to remote working has opened up a world of possibilities to hire diverse talent from around the world. Now’s the time.

3. Talk about it

With the vast majority of startups having a diversity problem, it’s not surprising few talk about their shortcomings. But communicating both internally and externally is key to improving. Focus groups, employee surveys, monthly inclusion meetings and being transparent with employees about current shortcomings and future goals are invaluable tools in creating a community where anyone of any background feels able to express themselves.

Also, if your startup has an outlet for sharing opinions (blogs, podcasts, social media), can employees be given the chance to write about diversity and inclusion both inside and outside the company?

By talking about these issues openly and frequently, not only do people of all backgrounds feel valued, but it also allows for you as a business to constantly ask the questions: what are our diversity aims? Why are those aims important? What are our biases? Are we doing enough?

4. Educate leaders

Efforts to improve diversity start with leaders. They’ll be paramount in fostering a workplace where everyone feels empowered and they’ll be the drivers of progress and discussion. If leaders don’t step up and take responsibility for making inclusion a core value within 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 to them? Don’t assume that people in higher positions automatically have the knowledge and skillset to foster inclusivity. 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 the internal structure 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? Unless you truly incorporate diversity at the team level, you’re unlikely to feel the benefits.        

And whilst increasing the number of underrepresented groups is an essential part of improving diversity, 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. Such ideas contribute to that all-important sense of belonging, and the more your diverse team feel at home, the better it is for people and business.

6. 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 be pooled 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 into 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.