Maintaining balance: building DE&I at an early stage startup

At seed and series A attracting great people to your team is a big challenge overall –  your brand is unknown, your team is small and your culture is still being solidified as you grow at pace. At the same time, this is a great opportunity to establish the foundation for the diverse team to thrive. The truth is, it is only going to get more tricky to attract diverse talent to your team at series A or B when you did not manage to do so at seed. 

Here are 3 points to get you prepared and ready to go:

Assess the situation

Before taking any steps, it is critical to evaluate where you are currently standing on the topic – how does your organization look right now? What bias have you already uncovered? How does your full hiring process enable those involved to assess the individuals with minimum bias? What do you currently do to make sure you are visible and welcoming across the protected diversity characteristics? Does your theory match the actions currently taken in the organization?

This is a deep topic with roots in the culture of the organization, and sometimes you might need to make difficult (or rather easy) decisions that contradict the inclusive culture of the team. DE&I is not about just getting the right proportion, although it starts there, it is about making sure you enable all individuals in your team to feel comfortable and valued, which will be hardly possible if toxicity is present.

Needless to note that commitment to diversity and inclusion is a long-term process originating in the core values of your organization. Similar to all the processes you review internally, evaluate your improvements on DE&I parameters, for example:

  1. Across the hiring pipeline, how do we evaluate, track and ensure the diversity of candidates in our long list?
  2. Across the pipeline, where does most of the “drop” occur? What is the reason for it? What can we do about it?
  3. How is our retention looking across the organization overall? Is it maintained for our diverse groups? 

This should enable you to locate the opportunity for improvement and tackle it. Strive to track it for every process and every role proactively, that is – do not wait for the process to finalize if you spot the issue at the start. It is inevitable that there will be some roles where reaching even a good gender split would be extremely difficult simply due to the lack of female professionals in the space (yet do not give up!).  Observing our current niche talent marketplace, do not wait for the talent to come to you, proactively reach out to the individuals you’d like to work with.

Remain open

When you put people into the “traditional” descriptions and look for a specific “type” of a person, you really miss out on unique traits and wealth of experience the individual is bringing. The notion of the “A-player” profile is not necessarily 10+ years in banking and MBB experience, it also could be an ex-NGO leader or ex-professor or a person who changed careers/industries/focus areas. In the craze of the labels, do not forget to learn to look behind them and into the actual experience of the person and their quantifiable achievements. Keep your requirements flexible to allow a good proportion of candidates from diverse backgrounds to join.

Success has many faces.

Inclusivity starts with understanding. Each individual in an organization brings with them a diverse set of perspectives, work, and life experiences, as well as religious and cultural differences. The power of diversity can only be unleashed and its benefits reaped when we recognize these differences and learn to respect and value each individual regardless of their background. From leadership support on daily basis to positioning to offsites to meet the team f2f, open communication and supportive culture are central.

Transparency and Visibility

Communication and openness rank high on the priority list for ensuring that you position yourself in front of the right talent and attract the right kind of people to your team. Being clear and open about your values, culture, support structure, and sharing the stories of the people who work with you is an absolute must. Think about establishing ambassadors whiting the organization who are interested to be a spokesperson to the audience. Another idea is to include the team meeting at the end of your hiring process to allow the potential new hires to meet the people they will be working with and where they may have an equally diverse background. Marketing materials can only get you so far, nothing trumps real communication with existing employees.

Naturally, these are just the helpful basics to allow the team at pre-seed/seed to already at such an early stage embed the necessary processes, tracking, and mindset, which will bring the fruits of labor throughout the life of the organization and, I may add, the product itself.

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