Culture develops surprisingly early in companies, for the good and for the bad. A recent New Yorker article about Uber compared founders to parents, who pass their DNA on to every facet of their company’s cultures. Because of this, it’s exponentially more difficult to alter culture after you’ve scaled than it is to hire for diversity at the outset. We’ve seen this play out at multiple large tech companies, including at Google (with the “biological differences” memo), Uber (just settled multiple lawsuits over gender pay discrimination), and Tinder (whose former VP sued the company over its misogyny) — and these companies are just the tip of the iceberg.
The truth is that if you don’t emphasize diversity in your company from the very beginning, it becomes 10 times harder to emphasize it down the road. And unfortunately, due to the aforementioned issues, a vicious circle has developed in the tech startup landscape: It is harder today to attract female employees than male employees — after all, why would women want to work in toxic environments. This means that being passive about gender, race or any other dimension of diversity is not good enough. As a company, you have a responsibility to be proactive and intentional. If you just go through the motions of interviewing and hiring, you will end up reproducing the bias of your industry — and for tech startups, that bias is pretty strong.
I was lucky enough to witness these issues and discuss them with other CEOs and founders before I created my company. Here are some of the lessons I learned through experience, from colleagues, and from the mistakes of other CEOs and founders who were kind enough to share their experiences with me.
Choose women for the right roles.
Pay attention to where you’re hiring women: If it’s only for junior roles in marketing, sales and operations, that’s a problem. When I founded my company, I knew I wanted a female co-founder on the tech side of the business. I wanted our engineers to be reporting to a woman from the very beginning to ensure that five years from now we didn’t have an internal memo circulating about how women are biologically inferior to men when it comes to the sciences.
Being intentional about this meant that I had to do some heavy due diligence in my search. I didn’t choose the first, second or third person who came along — I targeted the people whose identities espoused the kind of culture I wanted to create. Eventually, I found Anuja Ketan, an incredible and experienced technologist, and also a woman of color. I reached out to her (not the other way around), and convinced her to join NewtonX as a co-founder. She has since been instrumental in developing a culture of respect and diligence in our company — and writes frequently about being a female technologist to inspire other women.
Choose women for leadership roles, and in particular, leadership roles that are traditionally male-dominated. Be intentional about these choices — it will pay off as your company grows and develops. It does not mean you need to sacrifice talent, it means you need to work harder to find diversity and talent.
Retain women through cultural values.
If you’re not intentional about fostering a culture of diversity, it’ll get away from you. Make it clear to every new hire that your company values racial and gender diversity in order to weed out those who disagree with this approach.
Set rules early — not after you start witnessing your diversity issues. Don’t yell, don’t tolerate gender jokes or racial slurs, and don’t ignore complaints. Remember that even a company with 50 percent women can still be hostile to those women.
When my co-founders and I were making our first hires, we evaluated personality as much as skill. We didn’t hire people who would contribute to unwelcome environments (those who tend to yell, make flagrant statements, etc.). We also established norms around drinking and off-sites — we have a weekly happy hour, but limit alcohol consumption and wind it down after about an hour. We’re not draconian about these limits, but we were intentional about setting norms and expectations.
Get your inspiration from diverse startups.
Uber, Tinder and Google are all incredibly successful companies. But, that doesn’t mean everything they do is beyond reproach. Other startups may be less successful in terms of valuation or growth, but incredibly successful based on other metrics such as diversity, employee satisfaction, wealth distribution, employee retention, etc.
Rather than taking one company as an absolute role model, startups can look to several companies (one for each dimension of excellence) to use as guidance. You don’t need to be exclusive to be a disruptor.