Sometimes the best collaborations are sparked by the most unlikely circumstances. At least this was the case for Pedro Muller, Zendesk Startup Initiatives manager, and Khalida Ali, senior manager of Diversity and Inclusion at Zendesk. Although they had been coworkers for about a year, their work never overlapped. So it was really by chance the two found themselves chatting at a conference in São Paulo, Brazil and realized their jobs intersected at just the right point to create something meaningful. This conversation became the foundation for a session they presented at Relate 2018 on how to build diversity and inclusion (D&I) into the foundation of your startup.
Ali, having worked on Wall Street for a number of years, was well aware of how difficult it can be to make positive changes to a company once its culture is ingrained. She had graduated from a Historically Black College (HBCU) among 800 other women of color, yet found only three peers on the trading floor that looked like her. This prompted her interest in D&I, so she approached her superiors about pivoting her career into diversity recruitment. “I wanted to explore the impact on the career paths people pursue,” she said, “This was in 2006, before D&I was really a thing.”
Muller, by contrast, is a Brazilian native who came to the United States to seek his master’s degree in international business. After interning at Zendesk for a year following the completion of his degree, Muller went back to Brazil to be a part of the first Zendesk office in Latin America. Yet it was a change to find himself in a business environment so different from the Silicon Valley-inspired culture he’d grown used to in the U.S., with its flexibility and workplace cultures designed around keeping employees happy. “A regional office can feel a bit like a startup within a larger company and you have to work to create and uphold the company culture,” Muller said.
Your culture is your identity
Often when people discuss the culture of their workplace, it gets confused with the perks. The ping-pong table, snack wall, and company hoodie are not the things that define a productive and satisfying work environment. “Those things are easy to replicate, and won't retain or attract talent, or even shape it,” Muller explained. “Culture is the reason people stay together, it's how they power through challenging days.”
Muller believes employees are any company’s most important customer—if they aren’t buying into your company’s message, how will anybody else? This puts the onus on executives and other supervisors to create a work environment that makes everyone feel welcome, trusted, and respected. Sites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor have put transparency about work environments at an all-time high. So if your organization isn’t focusing on making the workplace an inclusive space, it’s a missed opportunity to differentiate yourself and could directly hurt your recruiting efforts.
Starting off on the right foot
Startup founders and other early stage employees have to recognize that their personalities and values are going to be what shape the company going forward. Therefore, it’s crucial that the values you begin with are reflected in tangible actions and aren’t just a talking point during investment pitches.
Ali used the example of Veamly, a productivity app that helps organizations consolidate information from other collaboration apps into a single drive with unified search. As a remote-friendly company, Veamly needed a way to foster company culture since many employees never meet in person. Their founder decided to leverage communication tools like Slack and Zoom to help with this—but beyond the business environment. Veamly holds events like “Gratitude Monday” and “Meditation Wednesday” that employees can attend in the office, or tune in to remotely, to allow the team to expand their relationships and foster a sense of community despite the geographical limitations.
It's crucial that the values you begin with are reflected in tangible actions and aren't just a talking point during investment pitches.
“As a leader, you have to think about creating a culture that is going to enable other leaders to rise,” Muller said. “Those leaders are going to hire their teams, those teams are going to become departments, and they’re going to be the ones building your products and services.”
Ali likened company culture to DNA strands. The original piece of DNA unzips and is copied to become the blueprint for all identical pieces of DNA thereafter. So it is with startup cultures: if the original team is putting an emphasis on transparency, collaboration, and diverse recruitment, then the company will continue hiring people and building a business that embodies these values.
[Read also: Should D&I training be mandatory?]
What’s in your DNA?
Advances in technology over recent decades have allowed deep-rooted industries like hospitality, travel, and retail to be disrupted and challenged by small, innovative, customer-focused companies. This is beginning to level the playing field in job markets previously dominated by workers who were expected to look and act a certain way.
“You want to reflect the diversity of the world within the walls of your organization,” Ali said, speaking to the fact that consumers are demanding social awareness and responsibility from the places they do business. But it doesn’t happen on it’s own.
Yelp is one tech company that has tackled this challenge head on. Although they were not lacking talented applicants for their engineering department, the company recognized a severe lack of diversity in the applicant pool. How can you promote diversity when all the applications come from similar backgrounds?
Yelp decided to be proactive and began sending recruiters all around the country to job fairs and universities with high concentrations of minority engineers. They eventually built partnerships with these universities to ensure that a wider range of applicants were aware of the opportunities Yelp had to offer. Year over year, the organization saw a 50 percent increase in the number minority background engineers on their team.
“If you want to see change, you have to find creative ways to fix the culture of your organization before it's too late,” Muller emphasized.
Yet creating a strong and sustainable D&I culture goes beyond conscientious recruiting. It also involves showing employees what growth, promotion, and advancement will look like within your organization. Transparency can be a powerful tool for building trust in your organization—making employees feel safe and valued in the workplace.
"If you want to see change, you have to find creative ways to fix the culture of your organization before it's too late," - Pedro Muller
Muller pointed to the importance of making innovation a part of your startup’s DNA as well, by ensuring that your company rewards those who think differently. This means giving recognition to folks who come up with new ideas or solutions, without hogging all the glory. Fostering this care and concern for employees will make them proud to live up to company values, both in and out of the office.
Fighting unconscious bias and facing the elephants in the room
The biggest challenge to building and promoting a positive culture, for individuals and groups alike, is accepting that your ideas and views of the world might be wrong or incomplete. How this plays out in corporate recruitment is through unconscious biases.
The way Muller described it: “Unconscious bias is judging people based on their background, without knowing them deeply enough.” Hiring managers must be careful to vet candidates on equal terms, rather than give in to assumptions they might have about the last company somebody worked for, the university they attended, their gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation.
Yet in the startup universe, unconscious bias of investors can be as just as harmful to D&I efforts. Ali called out the role of venture capitalists (VCs) and the impact they can have if they choose to invest in diversity.
“In 2017, only 2.2% of VC dollars went towards female-led startups...out of the billions of dollars that VC's have under their control,” she said. This can likely be traced back to “pattern recognition,” which Forbes reported in 2018 was responsible for less than 1 percent of VC-backed founders being of African-American descent.
Recalling the analogy of DNA, Ali feels that some responsibility for improving the D&I within startups falls on investors. “It's really about moving beyond and challenging the status quo, not continuing with more of the same, and being inclusive in terms of supporting underrepresented and diverse founders,” she said.
The difficult thing about overcoming unconscious bias is that people don’t realize what prejudices they might have. Calling out active discrimination is tough enough, but pointing out biases people weren’t aware of is a whole different ball game. That’s why Muller and Ali stress the importance of feedback and breaking down silos. Getting constant feedback from employees and customers can go a long way toward highlighting issues an organization might have overlooked.
Calling out active discrimination is tough enough, but pointing out biases people weren't aware of is a whole different ball game.
Airbnb recognized this after a company-wide survey called for more transparency. This feedback led to the initiation of the “Elephant, Fish, Vomit” initiative. The main idea is that at every Airbnb all-staff meeting, leadership take the time to hear people's complaints and suggestions—elephants in the room, dead fish (issues that have been lingering for awhile), and vomit (a chance to let anything out that is on your mind).
While there’s no secret formula for creating a positive and inclusive company culture, Ali and Muller recommend where to start. “So much of this stuff can seem pretty nebulous, or it can be complex and nuanced,” Ali said. “An important starting point is to take ownership for what it is that you can actually change."