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4 Steps to Bring More Much-Needed Diversity to Startup Culture

The earlier you prioritize representation and inclusion, the quicker you'll reap the rewards of a diverse team.

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The business case to make diversity a priority has never been more apparent. Diversity drives revenue growth and encourages innovation. And, employees are increasingly seeking out employers who embrace this reality. Despite all this evidence, actions lag behind words. It's easy to talk about the importance of hiring women, minorities and other historically disadvantaged groups. But talk is cheap without pushing for courageous changes in policies and hiring practices.

A September 2021 Glassdoor survey found that 76 percent of employees and job seekers prioritize a diverse culture when weighing job offers. That single statistic — and there are plenty of others — underscores why it's so instrumental for diversity and representation to be ingrained in the decision-making processes for every company. From behemoth conglomerates to feisty startups and everyone in between.

I readily acknowledge that my experience as a leader in the corporate world is much different from those of my entrepreneur friends. Building a startup is so hard: Making sure you have the cash flow to pay your people, to build the business, to cover the bills, to take care of your team — the list is long. Because of these stressful priorities, I can understand why diversity might seem like an afterthought. Surviving to fight the next day can occupy a lot of brain space. But ignoring diversity in those early days can be detrimental to getting a business on its feet. After all, having more voices and points of view at the decision-making table increases the likelihood that you'll spot market gaps and new business opportunities.

Related: How Diversity Helped Bring My Company Together

Uncovering new layers of greatness

A melting pot of perspectives can bring new ideas and a new path forward to founders and produce amazing business results. It can also attract investors and customers who value the richness that diversity creates. Here are a few strategies for small business leaders who want to guide their businesses to be more diverse and representative:

1. Seek out diversity groups to gain deeper understanding and compassion

We tend to live within our own spheres of influence This naturally leads to gaps in perception and unseen biases we often aren't even aware of. To gain a wider perspective, it can be helpful to enlist some outside support to break out of the status quo and inspire new ways of thinking.

A great way to accomplish this is by joining established groups already committed to guiding businesses in building more diverse workforces. It's eye-opening to mingle among people who talk about these challenges and brainstorm creative ways to solve them.

I'm part of the Young Presidents Organization, and the group does a fantastic job of realizing the importance of diversity and inclusion. YPO gives its members the education, tools and support necessary to think about business differently. Plenty of like-minded organizations are out there to fit whatever need you have in your specific communities. Seek them out.

Related: 3 Ways Leaders Can Step Into Accountability for Diversity and Inclusion

2. Push hard for more diverse applicants and hires to balance the scales

According to the Glassdoor survey, nearly one-third of employees and job seekers (32 percent) won't apply for a job at a company with a lack of diversity among its workforce. That's telling.

Getting diversity numbers up to acceptable standards isn't about optics either. Studies have shown that more diverse workforces are up to 35 percent more productive than more homogenized ones. Beyond that, according to McKinsey & Co., companies with gender diversity at the executive level are 21 percent more profitable than their less diverse competitors and outperform them by 33 percent.

These findings highlight just how vital a diverse staff is for sustained success. Take the time to really hone your startup's approach to recruiting and retention. From declaring diversity's importance in your job postings to making sure minority applicants get a fair shake in the deliberation process (as well as future promotions). Take a page from Atlassian in creating a more equitable company. Within one year, the software company had boosted its proportion of female technical hires by 80 percent — from 10 to 18 percent of its overall workforce.

3. Put someone in charge of diversity and inclusion

Who's in charge of pushing internal diversity initiatives at your company? Even at big organizations, only 52 percent of Fortune 500 companies had a chief diversity officer in place as of 2021 (compared to 47 percent in 2018).

Our enterprise didn't have such a position in place early but has corrected this within the past six months. We now have a vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at our parent company. Already, this role has made a meaningful impact on how we operate and it's incredibly refreshing.

Of course, startups may not be positioned to have an executive role like this. But that doesn't mean nobody should be overseeing diversity efforts. Make sure someone is — an HR associate, a recruiter or an operations person might be good candidates. Better yet, your employees might want to take part in a volunteer committee to oversee diversity and inclusion efforts. It doesn't matter so much who is in charge of this initiative so long as there is accountability and responsibility.

Related: 4 Ways to Cultivate Inclusion and Compassion In the Workplace

4. Remember to reflect diversity of life experiences

Diversity isn't limited to skin color and gender identity: Do disabled workers have equal opportunities to shine at your company? Are older workers represented fairly? Think through all types of diversity that could benefit your organization. When you employ people across the spectrum of diversity, your overall insight sharpens. And, your community impact on inclusion and representation deepens.

Another often overlooked group of marginalized people are working mothers. Clearing the path for these talented women to simultaneously be the best workers and parents they can be is one place to consider in the quest for better diversity and inclusion. Some 3.5 million have stepped out of the workforce since the onset of the pandemic. That's astounding. The stress that mothers continue to carry during this interminable pandemic is unlike anything I've ever seen.

Be compassionate toward every walk of life and those who find themselves in different life situations from you. One way to promote community among employees is to create employee resource groups. These allow employees space for table talks to discuss current events facing their communities. Medical genetic testing company Invitae expanded its DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts in 2020. It added ERGs (employee resource groups) for women in tech, Latinx employees, mental wellness support and more to reflect its employees' diverse lived experiences.

If current trends are any indication, it will be essential for every entrepreneur to think about the positive impact they're creating for society at large. While it's common to look to corporations to spearhead diversity initiatives that hopefully trickle down to other facets of life, the fact remains that 99 percent of U.S. businesses are small. Top talent is increasingly being attracted to mission-driven companies that have a broader view of what society needs to thrive. How startups respond (or don't) will shape our communities in substantial ways for decades to come.

Is your diversity and inclusion where it needs to be? The sustained success of your company likely depends on it.

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