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How can we discuss racial diversity and inclusion at work? (interviews with founders)

Diversity and inclusion have always been a slightly controversial topic, just brewing under the surface, waiting for a trigger. One of those recent triggers was the killing of George Floyd, which has prompted nationwide protests in the US and globally since it happened in May this year. It has continued to spark conversations about race, justice, policing, and politics in the workplace and at home, not just in the US but globally. Discussions on race, diversity and inclusion have since taken center-stage worldwide, AND rightfully so.

In Europe, the 2019 State of European Tech Report, commissioned by global investment firm Atomico in collaboration with 20 European companies and over 70 European tech stakeholders, paints a stark picture of the state of European tech diversity and inclusion. In 2019, 92% of funding went to all male teams, a similar level to the figures which shocked readers last year. A break down the data by race, age, education, and socioeconomic background, uncovers more problems: 43% of Black/African/Caribbean founders have experienced discrimination – of which 80% link it to their ethnicity. Black founders made up only 1% (0.9%) of the more than 1,200 founder respondents, which is a story of its own. People from a less privileged socioeconomic background are less likely to become entrepreneurs: 81% of founders surveyed said they were living comfortably before they founded their company, against a European norm of 39%. Clearly the state of diversity and inclusion in European tech is not good enough.

There is a lot that needs to be done. A good place to start is to talk about race, diversity, and inclusion, in our everyday lives – at home and at the workplace, and not make it a topic to avoid. Productive conversations, especially at the workplace, will facilitate discussions about “what’s wrong” and produce a more comprehensive “what to do” framework.

We reached out to founders and CEOs from different European startups and asked for their thoughts on discussing race at work. We spoke with Paul Kupfer and Marian Gutscher, co-founders of social enterprise soulbottles (Berlin, 2011); Deborah Choi, founder of consumer platform for plant care, horticure.com (Berlin, 2018); Nicolas Dessaigne, co-founder of search-as-a-service platform Algolia (Paris, 2012); Alex Stephany, founder of crowdfunding for homeless people platform Beam (London, 2017); Wendy Oke, founder of edtech management and compliance platform TeachKloud (Cork, 2017); Ismail Jeilani, founder of teacher brand-building platform Scoodle (London, 2017); and Naren Shaam, founder of leading global travel platform Omio (Berlin, 2012).

What advice can you give to first-time founders or new entrepreneurs on how to approach racial diversity and inclusion at work?

Deborah (horticure): Founders should approach thinking about diversity when building their companies, as a critical asset to growth, and not just “something nice to do”. We’ve seen this over the last several years with much larger companies; embarrassingly tone-deaf product launches, marketing campaigns and strategic decisions that are then quickly culled back with inauthentic sounding apologies after the consumer fallout. Forgetting about diversity carried a high brand and monetary cost in all those cases, one that smaller and younger companies may simply not be able to afford. Build a team and build a board that reflects the reality of 2020; Europe is a highly diverse continent with informed customers that hold high purchase power, while covering the full racial spectrum. When new companies and startups launch products or marketing campaigns that do not reflect this reality, your customers see that, and they have options.

Naren ShaamNaren (Omio): Start early, This is the best way to create a diverse work base and inclusive environment.  The first hires are crucial. – create a diverse group, and discuss these issues. And, although it is easier to start early, it’s never too late to have a voice. If leaders are vocal in their support of diversity, it becomes easier for managers to enact D&I policies throughout the organisation. Finally, find ways to ensure your teams fairly represent your customer base, this is the best way to build customer centric products.

Marian/Paul (soulbottles): Do an anti-racism training with Tupoka Ogette; read her books, read other books on the topic (e.g. Alice Hasters); educate yourself. And if you are white it will probably feel “weird” or uncomfortable in the beginning but that is no excuse to not approach these issues.

Nicolas (Algolia): Educate yourself: Now more than ever, there are plenty of resources, and there is no excuse to ignore the issue. If you are among the predominant white male founders, read this great article about white privilege. As you will most likely hire people from many different backgrounds, I highly recommend the book Culture Map. Also prioritize diversity from the start – No one wants to be the first female in a large team of males or the first black person in a team of whites. The more diverse your team is, the more diverse candidates it will attract.

Wendy founder TeachKloudWendy (TeachKloud): I would start off by quoting Martin Luther King Junior who said that “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” CEO’s and boards need to engage in a mind-set shift regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion; confronting one’s own bias first and challenging previously held assumptions is the first step. Once we engage in continuous self-reflection, we can then begin to engage in meaningful conversations in the workplace. Then we can begin planning and implementing intentional training on diversity and inclusion. I also believe that when we see in-justice within the workplace, we need to speak up and challenge it immediately. Importantly, actually having diverse workplaces would automatically bring change because workplaces would be representative of the world. Research indicates that “ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their peers.” Ethnically and gender diverse companies also have incredible benefits for work culture and productivity. Lastly, I would echo Jesse Jackson who stated that “inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.”

Ismail (Scoodle): It can be very easy to ‘believe’ you’ve got this diversity thing figured out when, in reality, you could be way off. Understand what unconscious bias is, and how it can potentially affect the way you make decisions. A good way to do this is to speak to founders from different backgrounds.

Alex (Beam): It’s easy, especially in the early days, to hire people who are just like you. My advice to first-time founders would be to actively hire people who are different from you. Whether that’s someone who has come from a different background, race, or with different life experiences. Not only will this help you forge a more inclusive culture from the beginning, but it will also ensure a greater diversity of perspective, which is critical when building a company. Everyone has blind spots and it’s important to hire people who will challenge you on a daily basis.

How do you handle questions or opportunities to talk about racial diversity and inclusion at work?  

Ismail (Scoodle): A company’s culture is an extension of the founders. The easy answer is to say ‘open communication is key’. The problem is, sometimes it isn’t easy to communicate openly. You have to feel comfortable. I’m fortunate to be a founder. That’s why, where possible, I try my best to be open pro-actively both in 1 to 1 meetings and group meetings.

Nicolas (Algolia): Each and every opportunity to address questions regarding race, diversity and inclusion should be leveraged. For example, each time our Inclusion & Diversity squad presents at a company ‘all hands’ meeting, this is an opportunity to reinforce how important diversity and inclusion are for the founders and the leadership. A few genuine words coming from you can go a long way.

How you consider racial diversity and inclusion in crafting your company policies, company culture and goals/targets? 

Deborah (horticure): I like to think more broadly about ‘diversity’; personally I am a black woman, an American citizen, and also a mother. I think about race, gender, age, economic and ableness diversity in building my team at horticure. The ROI is huge: my biases and in general, the way I view the world is frequently and positively expanded, by nature of working closely with others who do not necessarily look or think like me.

Marian/Paul (soulbottles): We do, but still have quite a way to go. We are in the process of defining diversity goals, as for the composition of our staff. We have communication guidelines that educate people on how speech reproduces racism. I think we have become more aware of not falling into the trap of tokenism. When people invest time and energy into diversity/inclusion/anti-racism projects, when people propose specific goals, propose to spend money on it, there is a supportive atmosphere for that. Quite simply: Having BIPoC in the company started the process – it was them who raised the issue and then others joined in and supported.

As founders/CEOs, how do you manage diversity and inclusion in your companies, and has this changed over the course of being an entrepreneur, from the time you started up until now?

Nicolas (Algolia): At first, it was simply implied by our values and our behaviour, but as the company scaled, we wanted to be more proactive. In early 2018, we created our Inclusion & Diversity squad (we chose to start with Inclusion instead of the typical D&I terminology as we think that an inclusive culture is a requisite to succeed at diversity). This squad is composed of diverse team members of the company who are empowered to make changes on several fronts: awareness, inclusion, diversity, partnerships, and employee resource groups. Listening circles to provide the space for employees to share their own personal experiences and perspectives with one another, as well as bringing in expert speakers to discuss how we can each make a positive impact to end racial injustice, have been received very positively. Externally to the company, diversity and inclusion is one of the 4 key pillars of our social impact.

Alex (Beam): Beam supports some of the most disadvantaged people in society and we actively encourage and promote diversity on our platform. We do this by ensuring the people we support are representative of the community of people experiencing homelessness. For example, 43% of the homeless people we serve are single mums and 65% come from BAME backgrounds. We also try to reflect this level of diversity in our own hiring too. We proactively seek out employees from BAME backgrounds and/ or those who have experienced social disadvantage, so we can identify better with the communities we serve. We’ve also recently launched a Community Champion initiative, where we create paid-for opportunities for our beneficiaries to act as Beam Ambassadors. This could involve speaking opportunities, events, generating referrals, testing new products or content creation.

Do you think there are enough measures or programmes across Europe to tackle racial diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Wendy founder TeachKloudWendy (TeachKloud): I think measures and programmes are important but we need to focus on our foundation. If we as a society believe in the importance of inclusion and diversity, it would be automatic that we would want to do our best to include everyone, while hiring the best person for the job. My team consists of amazing people from all walks of life – I don’t hire based on who know or who looks like me, I focus on the person as an individual and their characteristics. Unconscious bias can hinder the hiring process and it is something we need to talk about more in order for change to occur and for measure/programmes to be impactful.

Deborah (horticure): I’m a Nigerian-American, now living in Europe for the last 5 years. The discourse and programmes focused on racial diversity in workplaces are several years behind what I see happening in the US; we’re only now having the important discussions and actionable support on the topic of gender diversity here in Europe.

Thank you to all of the founders that contributed to this discussion. For further reading, check out our article The 360° benefits of building an inclusive startup team from day one.

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Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez has over 10 years of experience in various fields including trading, supply chain management, logistics and manufacturing. As well as helping startups to raise funds, she is an award-winning public speaker and the current President of Toastmasters Nice, a bilingual club that promotes public speaking and leadership.

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