Unless you spent July of 2017 living in an underground bomb shelter with no Internet, you probably heard something about a certain Google memo, in which a Google engineer attempted to argue that the company was putting too much emphasis on diversity.
The memo quickly went viral, first within Google, then around the tech-sphere, and finally across the country. But somehow, amidst the storm of tweets, posts, and think-pieces on the subject, the most important points got lost: why team diversity matters in the first place, and what startups and other companies can do to make sure they’re building the strongest, most diverse, most kickass team they can.
So, we decided to devote a session of Startups Live to talking about exactly that. Joining us for this session was Diane Flynn, co-founder and CEO of ReBoot Accel, a career accelerator for women. Needless to say, Diane is a huge advocate for building diverse teams, and she had some awesome perspective on how to build diversity into your company’s DNA from day one.
If you take nothing else away from this article, take away this: team diversity is about much more than checking a box or minding the p’s and q’s of “political correctness.” Making diversity a priority on your team isn’t just the “right thing” (which, by the way, it totally is) – it’s the right thing for your business.
Research abounds showing that upping your team’s diversity brings a whole raft of benefits, from greater innovation to higher ROI and even longer staying power. With benefits like that, the question isn’t “Why would you want a diverse team” – it’s “why wouldn’t you?”
Let’s go back to Google. Critics of Google’s diversity initiatives argued that, by implementing these programs, Google was sacrificing the quality of their product – and the future of the company. But let’s think about that for a second. We’re talking about the most sophisticated data operation in the world. Do diversity detractors really think that Google would do anything if the data didn’t support it?
Google may be a leading voice for social progress, but at the end of the day they’re still a business, and they wouldn’t do anything they didn’t think was in the best interest of their company. If Google thinks a push for greater diversity is worth the investment, the startup world should probably take note – and follow suit.
When we think about team diversity, particularly in startups and in tech, we tend to think along two major axes: race and gender. But while those two categories are definitely key, it’s important to think expansively when you’re evaluating diversity on your team.
“The goal of increasing team diversity is to bring as many different perspectives and experiences to the table as possible.”
“I like to think of diversity in many ways – gender, sexual orientation, race, age,” says Diane Flynn. “I also like to look at the cognitive diversity that comes from different life experiences, like raising a family, pausing a career and other factors.”
Ultimately, the goal of increasing team diversity is to bring as many different perspectives and experiences to the table as possible. The more areas you can find to add dimension to your team’s experience, the more dimensional your team’s thinking will become.
We’ve listed a few of the benefits that come with increasing your team diversity. But it can be equally helpful to look at what can happen when there’s not enough diversity on a team.
Diane brought up one famous example of what can go wrong when you don’t have diverse perspectives at the table.
Years ago, a team of automotive engineers was testing airbag safety in a vehicle that was about to hit the market. But the engineers never tested the airbags for the dimensions of women and children. “Women and children were dying because airbags weren’t designed for their height and weight,” Diane says.
“The more diverse your team and the voices contributing to the decisionmaking at your company, the more likely your team is to spot the airbag problem with your product.”
One possible explanation for the oversight: the teams responsible for building and testing these cars were made up entirely of men. If a woman (or three, or five, or twenty) had been involved in the engineering process to begin with, the error may have been spotted sooner, and hundreds of lives could have been saved.
Another more recent example of the pitfalls of lack of diversity comes from the tech world. Last year, Snapchat came under fire when it introduced a filter that bore a disturbing resemblance to racist depictions of East Asian people. The Snapchat team claimed the filter was an homage to anime characters. But East Asian critics looked at it and saw something different. It’s not hard to imagine that, if someone of Asian descent had been on the team and felt empowered to speak up, they might have raised the issue and the whole fiasco could have been avoided.
Granted, the Snapchat story ends with far less dire consequences. But it was still a no good, very bad day for the Snapchat team. It forced them onto the defensive, and diverted their energies toward damage control and away from the next awesome thing they wanted to build.
Moral of the story: the more diverse your team and the voices contributing to the decisionmaking at your company, the more likely your team is to spot the airbag/racist filter problem with your product – and the stronger your product will become.
Hopefully by now you’re convinced that making team diversity a priority at your company is worth it. So the next question becomes: what steps can you take to ensure that you’re building the most awesome, diverse, and kickass team you can be?
Step one: make sure you’re building diversity into your hiring processes right out of the gate.
“It’s important to include a variety of candidates in your interview pool,” Diane says. “Some companies won’t interview unless the recruiter brings at least 30-50% women to the table, for instance, or people of color.”
“Left to our own devices, we tend to think we ‘click’ best with the people who remind us of ourselves.”
Once you plant that seed in the early round, make sure you carry it through all the way to the final rounds of interviews. “Many companies require that an individual from an underrepresented background be included in final round interviews,” Diane observes.
It’s important to note that ensuring diverse candidates are included in your later rounds of interviews doesn’t mean lowering your standards when it comes to the skills and qualifications you’re looking for. But a funny thing happens when underrepresented candidates make it into those final rounds of interviews, Diane says. “Oftentimes, they prove to be the best candidate.”
Above all, it’s important to be intentional about making diversity a priority in your hiring practices. That’s particularly key – and particularly challenging – in the early stages of a company, when your team is small and you’re making the majority of the hiring decisions yourself. We all want to work with people that we “click” with. But left to our own devices, we tend to think we “click” best with the people who remind us of ourselves.
The solution: be proactive about hiring people who are different than you, and making sure your own unconscious bias isn’t getting baked into the selection process.
Diverse hiring practices are key, but diversity initiatives don’t end once a new hire walks in the door. It’s important to pull that focus on diversity through all aspects of your company culture.
“Having shared values like integrity, respect, high levels of service, excellence, and response time are critical to hiring decisions.”
A great place to start: by being open with your team, customers, partners, and potential hires about the fact that you’re pursuing diversity, and why it matters. “An increasing number of companies are self-reporting diversity numbers,” Diane says. “Bringing these into the public light helps the entire company focus on improving metrics in key areas.”
One final thought: as important as diversity is to building a strong, dynamic team, there are a few areas where it’s definitely important to be on the same page. “Having shared values like integrity, respect, high levels of service, excellence, and response time are critical to hiring decisions,” says Diane.
The good news: those qualities come in every shape, size, and color of the rainbow.
Want a real-world example of the consequences of diversity (or lack of it)?
Check out our chat with Michel Feaster about overcoming gender bias in tech.
Looking for more tips on how to build your company culture for success?
Hear Kim Malone Scott talk about Cracking the Culture Code.
Need more guidance on setting your company culture?
Get Dave Kashen’s tips on setting your company culture from day one.