When we started Elevate, diversity and inclusiveness (D&I) were two values that were core to how we wanted to run our company. We knew it was important when looking at statistics about the lack of startup diversity in security – with the most gracious studies showing minorities made up 26% of security employees – but also knew that building engaging software that helped influence behavior required us to build a team that encompassed the diversity of the users of our products.
Last year I wrote a post on “What High Performing Teams Should Look Like Today”. The core message was, if you want to hire a diverse and high performing team, you need to have intent behind that desire. It’s a simple message, but most places just don’t have it.
Given we’ve had a year more under our belt and recently announced our Series A fundraising, it feels like the right time to revisit the startup diversity topic, share our lessons learned since then, and how we feel we can move forward on continuing to build and grow a high powered diverse and inclusive team.
That post was our most read blog last year. In fact, it was 10x the number of reads over any of our other posts. It got quite a bit of reaction, both in public when we posted to LinkedIn and in private from individuals who reached out to me personally.
In public, the comments were almost entirely positive. Most centered around ‘hey, someone is actually doing what they say they do’ or ‘can I come work for you?’. We occasionally received a comment about the lack of the team’s diversity from a certain angle (we were only 8 people!), but I think those comments were made mostly as observations or simply in jest.
In private, the comments came in two flavors, from job candidates and other startup founders. The differences were quite stark.
Job candidates loved the post. It was amazing to me that the message on startup diversity from candidates was one of isolation and loneliness that I heard so frequently. Time and time again, I heard the same comment – “I was the first <fill in the blank> hired into my company. The company is <insert number larger than 100> people and I feel like I can’t bring my true self. They say that startup diversity is important to them, but I’m expected to do all the work [to advance D&I] on my own and I have no resources, financial or people, to help”. On top of that, the expectation was that they would do these things, on top of their day job. That’s an extremely unfair proposition, particularly when it comes to performance reviews when there’s an apples to apples comparison of engineering work output.
Several startup founders had a different reaction. I expected them to say – ‘I’d love to hear more about how you’ve built a diverse team?’ or ‘let’s trade notes’, but instead I got this:
“My board is not measuring me on diversity. I’ll think about that once I’ve got a much bigger company.”
That made me sad. Of course this is coming from a group where only 1% are LatinX and 3% African American. They aren’t going to ask you about diversity. Why would they? It’s unfortunate that the incentives around startup diversity are so short-sighted and lead to the same outcomes we’ve always seen.
I said this in my earlier post, but I’ll say it again. You cannot wait till you’re 100+ employees to start thinking about diversity. Beyond the dozens of obvious reasons, it literally makes financial sense. By the way, I made that all caps, because you should read it. Seriously, read it.
If you don’t do anything, you will end up with someone calling me about a role at Elevate saying the same story I hear time and time again and described a few paragraphs earlier.
H̶m̶m̶m̶.̶ ̶R̶e̶t̶h̶i̶n̶k̶s̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶I̶ ̶w̶a̶n̶t̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶w̶r̶i̶t̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶o̶r̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶.̶ ̶M̶a̶y̶b̶e̶ ̶I̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶t̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶a̶d̶v̶a̶n̶t̶a̶g̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶t̶a̶t̶u̶s̶ ̶q̶u̶o̶,̶ ̶h̶a̶h̶a̶.̶.̶.̶
Startup Diversity Lessons Learned
Over the last year, we’ve learned a lot of important lessons. I hope they’re useful for others who are also on this journey.
Don’t Slow Down
In hindsight this is obvious, but I do believe we got a little complacent. It felt like we had made great progress, if you looked around the office, we’d hired on quite a diverse team, but I think that we got to a point where it felt like the engine would just keep running itself without any extra effort.
What ended up happening is that individuals on the team felt that the weight of doing this work fell on them and only them. That’s 100% not what we wanted and it was a wakeup call to get that feedback.
If it’s important to your company, you can’t just assume that it’ll run smoothly. It’s like a garden, you can’t just plant it expect it’ll grow. You have to constantly tend to it, prune and fertilize it and the effort you put in will equate to healthier plants and a vibrant garden. Think about your company in the same way.
Reviewing, Renewing And Living Our Values
As part of the response to that, we took a step back and had the company give feedback on our values as a company. We expected “Embracing our diversity makes us stronger”, one of our original values, to be one of the popular ones, but it was not only the top choice of our employees, but their top choice by double the next closest option.
That vote and discussion led us to take the next step.
Building a D&I team
We knew that startup diversity and inclusion can’t be one person’s job and no one should ever feel that way. So, we built a D&I group where anyone in the company who wanted to join could. We built a vision for the team around hiring, onboarding, career development, and external community engagement. We keep the agenda completely open and document the discussion and action items for anyone in the company to see and contribute to.
We’re still early, but I like the direction that this team is heading. Keeping it open, actively assigning homework and action items have proven to work well so far!
Job boards, fairs and meetups
We’ve tried posting to diverse candidate job boards, but haven’t had much luck in candidates applying. We’ve found that meeting people in person is a much more effective way of establishing relationships and building trust. We’re very lucky that we’re literally a few blocks away from one of the most diverse cities in the Bay Area, so we’re taking advantage of that by hosting meetups in our office and sharing the space with diverse meetup groups like Tech by Choice.
If you see someone giving away free cookies or coffee at a local BART station that may be us
What’s Up Next
While much of our D&I efforts were focused externally, we quickly realized that internally we have to put forth significant effort around inclusion. As the saying goes, diversity is getting invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance. We need everyone in the company to feel like they can bring their full and authentic selves to work every day.
Just recently we began what will soon be a quarterly survey we send out to the company gauging how safe they feel at work. If you’ve read Google’s in depth assessment of what makes high performing teams, the number one indicator is psychological safety. We recently shared the results of the first survey and used time at our bi-weekly all hands to discuss the results and share thoughts on how we can continue to improve.
Weaving a Startup Diversity Quilt
While building the D&I team internally with volunteers was a great first step, the next step is how we weave D&I into everything we do. Not only how we think about it from a recruiting, onboarding and sustained perspective for employees, but how we continue to reinforce that message with our hiring managers, in the offices we build, how we design our products and more. I’m sure there’s a lot we’ll learn over the next year, but referring back to my last post, it’s not about getting everything right, it’s about working on it with intention. We’ll get there together as a team!
Keep Sharing What We Learn
We want to keep writing about this topic and sharing our experiences in the hopes that other startups can learn from our challenges and what’s worked and use that to grow their own diverse and inclusive teams.
I’m not quite sure the cadence or when we’ll post, but I’ll use the feedback we get from this post to see what folks reading would like. Let me know!
Oh, and if anyone wants to know, we still don’t have Aeron chairs.