In the early days of a startup, entrepreneurs and founders are often strapped for time and focused only on finding talent with the skills to get the job done. All too often, diversity becomes an afterthought.
This is due, in large part, to the fact that human beings are most comfortable with what we already know. So when we feel crunched for time, we take a cognitive shortcut — assuming that people who look like us or have the same alma mater or career trajectory will be good fits for our company. This is one reason, among others, that the tech industry is largely made up of white and Asian men from specific groups of schools.
The Value of Diversity
Seeking out and hiring candidates from a variety of backgrounds may take more time and focus, but it’s an important goal. Diversity adds real value to any company. According to a Boston Consulting Group study, organizations with more diverse management teams report higher innovation revenue (19 percentage points higher, to be exact) than those with less diverse management teams. As any tech entrepreneur knows, innovation is everything.
Startups are unpredictable, chaotic, and unstructured by nature. Employees from nontraditional backgrounds can thrive in such an environment. To bring this concept to life, consider two fictional candidates:
- Matt grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston, studied computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and joined Amazon as a software engineer before becoming an investment banker. Now, he’s looking to join a fast-growing startup and has applied to your company as a senior software engineer.
- Jasmin grew up in a predominantly African American working-class neighborhood in Boston and was raised by a single mother. She worked part-time jobs during school to help her family pay the bills. She’s always had a deep interest in and knack for tech, and she taught herself how to code in C++ and Python. She studied computer engineering at the University of Akron and was hired by a local software company, where she was consistently a top performer. She comes across your company, is enamored by your mission, and applies for a job.
Who would you hire? For many companies, including my own at times, we see a person like Matt and immediately jump to the conclusion that he’s highly competent. This is often true, and Matt would probably add value to your company. However, someone like Jasmin has shown that she can succeed despite the odds. She played the game of life in “hard mode” and has nonetheless thrived. In addition to her technical know-how, Jasmin would likely bring resilience and creative problem-solving to your startup.
Laying the Framework for Diversity
I personally learned the value of diversity while serving in the United States Marine Corps. We operated as a combined arms team, which is based on the idea that the greatest synergies occur when a team is made up of people from different backgrounds.
I took that experience with me into entrepreneurship, and my partner and I founded our company with diversity as a big part of our DNA. I was born in Taiwan and grew up in South Africa before coming to the United States; my partner Ben grew up in Europe as the son of U.S. diplomats and is fluent in German and Mandarin; Jacob, our first hire, is a practicing Jew who speaks fluent Mandarin. The list goes on.
This diversity has benefited us from the very beginning. In the 18 months since we founded the company, we’ve raised $2.3 million from the University of Chicago and top venture capitalists and have landed numerous high-profile customers. This has only been possible because we have team members who, to paraphrase Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ben Horowitz, have done hard things, and we constantly challenge each other to push the boundaries of our comfort zones.
Even if you aren’t at a stage where you can execute on diversity initiatives, you can begin establishing a framework for diverse hiring by taking the following steps:
- Follow the Rooney Rule. The NFL abides by something it calls the Rooney Rule, which stipulates that any search for a head coach or general manager must include interviewing at least one diverse candidate. Apply similar rules to your company by making a concerted effort to interview candidates who are women and people of color. They can shine when you take the time to understand them outside the confines of their résumés or LinkedIn profiles.
- Don’t give name-brand schools or jobs too much weight. Seeing an elite institution on a résumé doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate will be great. Graduating from Princeton University or working at Google could mean that candidate thrives in a structured, intellectually rigorous environment — or maybe not. According to a 2019 analysis, 43% of white students admitted to Harvard University are legacy students, recruited athletes, children of faculty or staff, or children of donors.
At my company, we have candidates who graduated from elite schools — and team members who graduated from lesser-known institutions. We’ve found zero correlation between an employee’s alma mater and his or her performance. In other words, treat elite pedigrees as data points, but don’t salivate over them. Someone’s graduating university or past employer tells you little about whether that individual can deliver, is passionate about your company’s mission, or is a good culture fit. These things can only be determined by asking smart questions during an interview.
- Keep an eye out for diversity holes. Unconscious biasis real, and the very fact that it’s unconscious means we must actively work to uproot it. If you notice any holes in your hiring — e.g., if your team consists largely of individuals of a certain race, socioeconomic background, or gender — ask yourself why. Teams don’t have to be perfectly representative of broader society, but you do want to check your inadvertent biases occasionally to ensure you’re creating the strongest team possible.
At my company, my co-founder and I noticed our team was light on women. Tech hasn’t always been an easy place for women to work. But as tech founders, we realized we needed to be more intentional about bringing women into the fold instead of expecting talented women to come to us organically.
In Marine Corps parlance, when you have a truly combined arms team, you will benefit immensely from a wealth of viewpoints and experiences. If diversity initiatives are something you’ve been putting off, now is the time to make it happen. Begin laying the groundwork for diversity in three simple steps, and you’ll quickly see the value.
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