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How to build a diverse company from day 0 — a toolkit from Diversity VC’s Check Warner

May 3, 2019

Written by Lucy Fuggle

“Our industry is producing the biggest companies of the next ten years. I for one want the children of this generation to be included in all of those companies.”

“I know the word diversity can prompt some eye-rolls,” shared Check Warner on the Turing Fest 2018 stage. But if you ignore it, you’re endangering your culture. You’re also surrendering a vital competitive edge and a key to a more sustainable, thriving business.

Check is the co-founder and CEO of Diversity VC, the first non-profit dedicated to diversity and inclusion in the venture capital industry, and a venture advisor at space-focused VC fund Seraphim Capital.

After deciding that acting wasn’t for her, and dabbling in advertising, Check entered the male-dominated world of VC. At one conference early on in her career, she approached a group of suited-and-booted men who passed her an empty drink, assuming she was a waitress. “It was like there was no possible way I could’ve been there for the conference,” Check recalls.

I saw how much this feeling of being an outsider and not being part of something was compounded for people who were from much less privileged backgrounds and had many more challenges around diversity than me.

So Check co-founded Diversity VC…

We help young people get into the industry. We help VCs think about the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. We help entrepreneurs access capital from diverse backgrounds. We collect and publish original data on the subject of diversity and inclusion.

Got 30 minutes? Watch Check’s full talk…

Women represent just 13% of decision makers in UK venture capital. Most shockingly for Check, 66% of firms have no women in their decision-making team. 

In 2018, it surfaced that 40% of venture capitalists in the US went to either Harvard or Stanford, and 78% of VCs are white or Asian men. In the wider tech world, there’s also a lot of room for improvement: “it’s really not a good situation at startups at the moment,” she observes.

Check advises thinking of diversity and inclusion as a pair. As the saying goes — diversity is being invited to a party, inclusion is being asked to dance.

Diversity is completely useless if you don’t also have inclusion. The two things need to come together. You need diverse employees, but also to include those people and make them feel they can bring their whole selves to work.

Check mostly invests in teams of 5-10 people, and understands life at an early-stage startup: “Your customers are leaving. Your investors are pissed off about something. Your metrics aren’t working…”

So why should you prioritise diversity from day 0?

Check Warner diversity small decisions, massive impacts.png

“If you are just one degree off when you first start out at something, you can end up a really far distance from where you need to be,” notes Check.

It’s crucial to lay the right foundations, even if you’re a team of just one or two people. “Otherwise you’ll end up with diversity debt,” she adds. Like technical debt, if you don’t lay the right foundations at the beginning, cutting corners will come back to bite you later.

To arm you in discussions about diversity, Check encourages you to highlight these four pillars:

  1. Financial performance. Gender diverse teams perform 21% better and ethnically diverse teams perform 33% better.

  2. Talent. People who are struggling with cultural issues are 3x more likely to leave your company. As 80% of operations expenses go to talent, according to LinkedIn, that’s a substantial cost.

  3. Decision making. Groupthink was arguably behind the terrible decisions of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Don’t let bad decisions made by homogeneous groups compound at your early-stage company; seek out diversity of thought and experience.

  4. Product design. If you don’t have people around the table who reflect your customer base, your product design process is completely flawed.

Check emphasises that diversity and inclusion are not just a “downside risk mitigation tactic.” When done right, they can lead to incredibly exciting and innovative areas of product creation and company development.

Diversity don’ts:

  • Diversity committees. Check warns not to pin the responsibility on a single group of people: they may feel like the problem is with them and they have to solve it. A commitment to diversity and inclusion starts at C-level and trickles down to every other aspect of the business.

  • Tackling gender first. Don’t tackle one single issue first. It can make other under-represented groups feel ignored.

  • A ‘pledge’ with nothing else that comes out of it. Instead, you need something tangible and actionable. Intel linked 7% of manager bonuses to diversity metrics, saying “if you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.”

  • Ignoring it. You need to embrace diversity and inclusion. Leadership teams should be vocal about their commitment to it, dig into their data, and open up about where they can do better.

So how and where do you start?

  • Understand & prioritise. Diversity is a multi-layered issue, you can’t just understand it from a blog post (sorry!) It requires substantive conversations, deep dives into your culture and data, and time spent questioning your assumptions and biases.

  • Measure & report. You can build your data with number-driven surveys, but you can also just ask questions and talk to your team. Can people bring their full selves to work? Do they see people like them in your leadership team? Check also recommends calculating and fixing your pay gaps with Gapsquare.

  • Hiring. Be conscious of your biases and involve a diverse team in hiring decisions. Instead of including a long list of requirements in job profiles, use Applied to judge a candidate for their work.

  • Onboarding & culture. Onboarding is a great time to find out if a new hire feels included. From a person’s first day, open up a dialogue about their experience with your company culture.

More resources for your diversity toolkit

For more resources and tactics, Check encourages you to visit the Diversity VC Toolkit on their website — it’s primarily designed for investors, but there’s value there for entrepreneurs of all stripes. 

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