Workplace Diversity

European Tech Startups Are as Homogenous as Silicon Valley's. Here's How to Fix That.

Building an inclusive, welcoming culture isn't just possible -- it's a must for success.
European Tech Startups Are as Homogenous as Silicon Valley's. Here's How to Fix That.
Image credit: graphicstock
Guest Writer
Founder and CEO, Streetbees
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's common knowledge that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem -- in that there isn't any. Most tech companies have a largely homogenous workforce, and cultural blind spots and insensitivities are the result.

But, you already know this.

Related: Why European Investors Are Leaving Money on the Table

Less familiar, though, is how other tech centers worldwide are unwittingly copying that lead, creating ecosystems where white men might thrive, but other genders and cultures are less visible.

Want proof? Well, according to a recent report from VC fund Atomico (full disclaimer: our lead investor at Streetbees), women make up just 9 percent of CxO positions at venture-backed European startups, including just 2 percent of CTOs and only 6 percent of CEOs. In the VC sector, just 13 percent of decision-makers are women.

Meanwhile, the UK's tech body reports that only 19 percent of the country's digital tech workforce overall is female, while 15 percent are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) -- far from representative of the U.K. population as a whole.

It's easy to make excuses as to why. The number of European tech companies and startups is exploding, so it's hard to find enough talent to go around, let alone recruit from different cultures or from the shallow pool of female coders or data scientists, given that women are less likely to study STEM subjects.

However, it is completely possible to create a tech startup that doesn't just pay lip service to diversity, but includes it as a fundamental part of its ethos and make-up.

Related: 3 Common Roadblocks for Women Business Leaders in Europe, and How to Move Past Them

Quotas don't work.

At Streetbees, we now employ about 100 people across London, Lisbon and New York, who come from 23 different countries. Around half of our workforce are women, and that's represented across the leadership team. Around 30 percent of our staff are from a BAME background, and about one in 10 identify as LGBTQ.

We haven't achieved that by applying quotas -- people are people, and we don't select for gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. We've simply always given the job to the best person we've found for it.

So, how has this happened? I suspect that in part, as a female CEO originally from outside the U.K., people see Streetbees and believe that we will judge on merit, encouraging applicants from different backgrounds to apply. But, ultimately, building a diverse team has been built into the Streetbees DNA from Day One because of our mission and what we wanted to achieve as a business.

Basically, we want to make human data available anywhere in the world -- and we do that by listening to our users and analyzing the photos, videos and open text they share with us. But, first we need to motivate them to participate and share intimate moments of their lives, and to do that we have to understand what matters to them.

Doing that from a monocultural ethos would be impossible. It's business-critical for us to be culturally diverse, or we simply wouldn't be able to get global communities to engage with Streetbees.

Related: How I Overcame Loneliness as an Immigrant Entrepreneur in the U.K.

Here are five tips to hire for success.

How do we make this happen? Here's how to encourage diversity at any startup:

1. Look at your hirers: People tend to hire people who are similar to them, so it's essential that the people doing the hiring for you come from a range of backgrounds. If you are so early stage that this is impossible, invite advisors, peers from other startups or investors to help with the interview process. They'll spot things you don't.

2. Make the interview work for everyone: An interview is not only a chance for you to hire the best -- it's also a window for people outside the company to get to know what you've built. Make sure that as part of the process, you give candidates a good tour and even introduce them to their potential colleagues. That way, they know that if they join you, they will get what they see.

3. Ask people to reveal their world view: I discuss with candidates what kind of company we are and our approach to diversity, and ask how they'd feel working for it. A lack of commitment to that ethos means they are unlikely to be a good fit.

4. Learn something new: I have a simple rule about interview candidates -- I want them to tell me something I don't already know. Startups need new skills and new ways of thinking, so we must hire people who challenge what I know or believe to be true. This guideline helps screen out homogenous perspectives and encourages a culture inclusive of different points of view.

5. Look for diversity on your doorstep: We often recruit students with language skills for internships and throw them in to challenging roles delivering projects across the world. Many of them are from abroad, and not all of them succeed -- but those who do, we advance quickly and make sure we retain. They're a key driver of the company's success.

Related: Why I'm Moving My Company From the U.K. to the Continent

Follow these, and your company can be multicultural, with a healthy gender split -- and according to experts like McKinsey, will function at a higher level, and make more money, as a result.

The alternative? Well, inaction could come back to haunt you -- either because your business's own culture becomes toxic (as a fair few companies have discovered), or because strong candidates decide not to join.

I've even heard horror stories of companies hiring people who weren't the best qualified from the pool because they felt they needed to diversify their workforce. That not only harms a business's performance, but can even cause people to resent the new hire for being suboptimal -- the worst of all worlds.

After all, don't we all want to build companies that benefit from different viewpoints and cultures, and can hire from the widest pools of talent? The answer is almost certainly yes -- so why not take the steps to make that happen now?

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