The many obstacles to inclusion in startups (and one aid from Innovate BC)

For startups looking to make positive changes, it’s important to first have a conversation about bias.

A large majority (82 percent) of individual contributors say that a company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) stance matters to them as a candidate. The benefits for companies are also becoming clearer, with research indicating diverse companies have more innovation capacity, creativity, and customer empathy.

As companies globally face the Great Resignation or Great Reshuffle, building inclusive workspaces is necessary to not only fill staffing gaps but also stem the tide of resignations within your organization.

Yet startups face multiple challenges in building inclusive workplaces that bigger companies can often more easily navigate.

These micro examples should not obscure the larger, systemic issues that undermine diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

First, many basic work practices are not inclusive of all people, particularly in the tech startup world. For example, almost all social events in tech companies revolve around alcohol and take place at night, creating a situation where many people can’t or don’t feel comfortable attending. Since a lot of networking and tap-on-the-shoulder promotions can stem from these events, not being included is a direct career blocker.

Second, many startups can’t afford to follow every inclusion best practice to attract a diverse pool of candidates. For instance, a commonly cited and valuable best practice is to offer extensive parental leave to all parents, regardless of birthing status or gender. Not only is this expensive (to cover salaries and benefits of employees not actively working), but startups often operate with such a lean team that losing one employee for weeks or months at a time could be massively detrimental to the company’s growth potential.

Third, the knowledge around DEI concepts is complex and ever-evolving, often ending up with startup leaders feeling overwhelmed amongst other business decisions. The company likely doesn’t have the budget for a head of DEI or a consultant to distill these concepts, so they end up not taking any action for fear of doing the wrong thing and harming someone.

These micro examples should not obscure the larger, systemic issues that undermine diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace — issues that are not easily fixed by a new parental leave policy. But, particularly in smaller companies like startups, ignoring or solving for these micro issues can either exacerbate or help ease individual pain and concern, particularly for people from historically diverse or marginalized backgrounds. And making it easier for people from diverse backgrounds to succeed in the workplace is an important step towards breaking down systemic obstacles.

The fight against bias and towards inclusive growth

On top of individual changes (or changes that make work more inclusive for individuals), companies also have a role to play in dismantling larger, systemic issues. But for startups looking to make positive changes, it’s important to first have a conversation about bias.

The honest reality is that everyone has bias and it operates as a psychological shortcut all human brains use to make sense of a complex world. Unfortunately, that leads to problems when trying to build a company comprising a diverse group of people to solve big, difficult problems. This is especially a problem given the fact that bias is often developed subconsciously, meaning most people aren’t even aware of where their biases come from, let alone how to handle or change them.

“Everyone has bias – even if unconscious – which prevents inclusive hiring from happening naturally,” said Raghwa Gopal, the CEO and President of Innovate BC, in an interview with BetaKit. “So, it has to be an active practice. That’s why programs like the Innovator Skills Initiative are important.”

Delivered by Innovate BC, the Innovator Skills Initiative is designed to help increase diversity in the BC tech sector, with a focus on helping businesses fill talent shortages necessary to grow. Specifically, the program provides up to $10,000 per candidate in grants to cover the cost of hiring people from diverse and under-represented backgrounds who are new to the tech industry. On top of cash, the Innovator Skills Initiative program helps employers with “resources to support them in recruiting, retaining, and developing employees who self-identify as under represented.”

Beyond inclusive hiring grants, Innovate BC also offers a DEI support for founders including a curated library of DEI resources to help startup founders pick up key knowledge quickly and a mentorship program that helps founders apply an equity lens to business fundamentals.

“Innovate BC recently partnered with the TAP Network (formally the HR Tech Group) to further develop their Diversity and Inclusion Resource HUB, a guide to help tech companies understand and implement inclusive hiring practices,” said Gopal. “And this great resource is available to everyone on our website.”

On top of the need to hire and retain great employees, there’s also increasing public scrutiny on corporations and the role they play in society, meaning that growth techniques out of step with inclusive principles can result in negative publicity, employee resignations, and investor pressure.

For Innovate BC, the answer to these challenges is to focus on embedding inclusion throughout your entire business system as early as you can – even as early as day one. That’s why the program was built with three prongs: DIY resources, 1:1 mentorship to apply the content to each startup’s unique context, and financial support to help actively hire people from underrepresented backgrounds.

“It’s absolutely essential that we encourage diversity, equity and inclusion in BC’s tech sector and I’m very excited to see the impact of the redesigned Innovator Skills Initiative as we roll it out,” said Gopal. “As we all know, diversity helps build stronger communities and equity. But it also leads to stronger companies.”

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Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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