A diversity challenge: tech start-ups have a great opportunity

For decades we’ve been complaining about the lack of diversity in the technology industry. We’ve worked on the pipeline problem. We’ve worked on reducing bias. We’ve worked on the sourcing problem. We’ve worked on the retention problem. The net result thus far is that we’ve barely moved the needle.

Most of the companies that are investing in diversity programs are the larger companies. For them, their continuing lack of diversity is a public embarrassment.

At scale though, it is a far greater challenge for a company like Google, Microsoft, or Facebook to get to any percentage of the tech workforce that mirrors their customer base. The numbers are too large to move the needle. It’s far easier for startups.

A critical part of building an inclusive culture that supports diversity is reducing the “otherness.” Inclusiveness is also much harder to do in a large company. If Google hired 1000 developers of color across all their offices, those individuals might never encounter another person like themselves on a daily or weekly basis. They may still be the only person of color that their peers see at work. They will be spread too thinly across the population.

Large technology companies should still work consistently to improve their diversity, but startups are much better suited to solve the diversity problem for the industry as a whole.

A startup with a development team of ten, four of them being women, has a ratio of 40% female developers. Any woman who interviews with the company will see that they are welcome. Any man that interviews will understand that they would be joining a company that takes diversity seriously and will be expected to conduct themselves appropriately. This would be the same for any other underrepresented group. If the company is serious about building a diverse workforce, they will find it easier to continue to be diverse as they grow.

Bringing in a diverse workforce at the early stages of a company will also mean leadership opportunities for those employees as the company grows. It will help address the lack of diversity in industry leadership, which further helps build minority representation. It will also eventually mean more startups started by underrepresented industry groups, which will continue to fuel diversity in the industry. Some of these startups may be acquired, putting their leadership into the leadership of other companies and increasing diversity in those companies as well.

According to most surveys, startup founders’ biggest challenge is hiring development talent. Meanwhile, there are ever-larger numbers of coding schools and boot camps graduating eager junior developers, willing to work hard, and coming from largely underrepresented populations in the industry. There are also many experienced minority developers at the larger companies who would be interested in being in an environment that lets them feel free to be themselves.

Unfortunately, most startups neglect the critical cultural aspects of building their company as they chase product/market fit, funding, or customers. What many of them haven’t considered is that building a diverse company will help them find the right product for mainstream audiences, that sources of capital are increasingly valuing diversity in their funding decisions, and that diverse teams build better products that attract more customers.

So, I call on my fellow startup CTOs and CEOs to take on this challenge. If we succeed, we will not only build a better industry; we will also create better companies for our shareholders, our employees, and ourselves.

3 thoughts on “A diversity challenge: tech start-ups have a great opportunity”

  1. I commend you for writing this post, Kevin. Will you also admit though that the pipeline is a huge problem here? This is a longterm problem to be solved (and could definitely be a post for another time) but in my opinion the educational system is what is holding us back in many ways today. For major impact I think that CS, at some level, should be mandated in underrepresented communities. Either that or these large tech firms should partner with the government to create curriculums and programs that will be added to these schools. This will change everything. Over time students will create their own startups and/or be more prevalent in universities leading to more job opportunities. Like you said, large tech companies can only hire so many minorities to make a real dent so to me if we fix the pipeline, we get one step closer to narrowing the gap!

  2. We have been working on the pipeline problem for a long time. Decades. For much of the time that we as an industry have been focused on this, we’ve been working on the pipeline problem. It hasn’t made much of a dent. I don’t think we should ignore building up a strong pipeline by helping encourage and support underrepresented groups in STEM fields. It has to be paired with bringing more diversity into the industry now though. Part of the problem is that the industry is still a white boys club. Famous for it. That discourages other groups from even considering careers in our field.

    As an aside, I am a big supporter and volunteer for http://www.washingtonstem.org/ which is working on STEM access for underrepresented groups at the middle and high school age ranges.

  3. As a minority I have benefited from people of all races giving me a chance to succeed. That said, I can’t expect the white boys club to let people like myself in. I know that I have to prove and do things myself. What may force their hand a bit though is if the government changes curriculum….. Education is the main reason why I have any level of success and the single reason why my Mother was able to come to this country. STEM education to me solves everything.

    In tech, “scale” is all that matters and to me putting these programs in schools is the only way to do that. This is no doubt another hard problem to solve as bureaucracy never moves fast enough. We shall see. Again I commend you on bringing light to this and volunteering in your community, Kevin. It’s more than what I’m doing at the moment!

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