Hiring for diversity is hard, but worth the effort - practical tips from the CEO frontline

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett November 29, 2019
Equality tips from women CEOs - break the wheel, leave that jerk boss behind, and don’t hire the best person for the job?


As part of the Equality Summit stream at last week’s Dreamforce conference, four female technology chief executives came together to share how they’re promoting equality within their own organizations and the benefits it brings.

Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-founder at Ellevest, a digital-first investing platform for women, set the scene with a clear outline of why equality matters:

The research tells us that diverse teams outperform teams that are based on meritocracy, that diversity drives higher returns, lower risk, greater innovation, higher client engagement, higher employee engagement - all good things.

Krawcheck cited stats from her old industry, Wall Street, where currently 98% of mutual fund dollars are managed by men, 90% of traders are men and 86% of financial advisors are men - and all mostly white men. She added:

I love men. I've been married to a couple of them, so I know they are very talented, but 98%, 90% and 86%? Particularly when the research actually tells us that women are as good or better investors than men. Clearly, the industry has chosen comfort of working with people like themselves, inertia of working with people like themselves as opposed to diversifying the field.

Now let me tell you why you should care. We should care because those are terrific, engaging, challenging, exciting, well-paying jobs and why shouldn't everybody have access to them?

Hence Krawcheck is clear on the importance of Ellevest being built as a diverse company. Currently, its engineering team is majority women, it has 48% people of color, and it over-indexes on the LGBTQIA community. However, originally she wasn’t hooked on the idea of women needing their own investing platform:

I thought it was sort of a dumb, maybe sexist idea. But when you recognize that women don't invest as much as men do, I thought - given that I've had this career I can't believe I've had on Wall Street - I need to try to fix this, because if we can get women investing more, then we give them more degrees of freedom in their own lives so that they can go out and start the companies they want to start, or they can leave the jerk boss they want to leave, or they can leave the relationship they don't want to be in and help society. There's nothing bad that happens that I have yet thought of when women have more money.”

Meaningful money

TaskRabbit is another business setting a positive example for equality. Fifty-five percent of its workforce are women, along with 60% of the leadership team. However, the firm has also built a platform that is empowering countless more women to find meaningful income. Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO at TaskRabbit, explained:

Many women earn more than $35 an hour [through TaskRabbit] because they're handy women and they can do a lot of things that they might not have access to, like electrical work. So part of our job and part of our mission is to really create diverse communities, equal communities for all people. Equality and diversity are how we built the company and we have to follow all of that.

Design marketplace Minted was similarly established to remove the potential for bias in art. Designers and artists from all over the world, many of whom are self-taught, enter Minted’s design competitions. It’s then up to customers to vote and tell the firm which wall art and stationary designs it should sell. Mariam Naficy, Founder & CEO at Minted, said:

That voting process is completely blinded, so you can't tell who has submitted anything. You don't know their name, their race, their gender. The true talent always rises to the top. What's remarkable is how people who have really no access and no training are actually winning these competitions over people who've actually had a serious arts education in some cases.

Minted’s whole ethos is based on an understanding that talent comes from unexpected places. The statistics are showing the firm that often the winning designs and the best selling items are the ones coming from those designers without a formal education. For Naficy, this highlights the importance of expanding the equality message outside of race, gender and sexuality. She said:

Diversity means a lot of things including socioeconomic diversity and educational diversity, and allowing these different voices around to come out and come to the surface.

For those businesses still not convinced, the panel highlighted the consequences of not investing in workplace equality. Sarah Friar, CEO at neighborhood social network Nextdoor, noted that if the company didn’t have diversity in its engineering, product and machine-learning teams, it would be impossible to build a successful product:

We're selling out to communities, and communities are the world, so they are 50/50 gender. It is so odd to me that despite the research, people still scratch their head about how can I make my business perform better when one of the most obvious things in front of them is have a more diverse workforce.

The panel also highlighted a concern in the lack of willingness or opportunity to try something new when it comes to diversity. Most CEOs understand why it’s important, but they engage in ‘active inertia’, doubling down on the same initiatives they’ve already got in place like a mentoring group or hiring more people at early stages. Krawcheck said:

As if by doing the same thing that you've done before is enough to change it, as if it's really just getting a few more people of color into the entry level and then they will be good enough to make it through. I have really gotten to the conclusion that middle management is where diversity goes to die; that when the CEO gets it, when he or she throws it to middle management and says, 'Now promote diverse people', that a lifetime of socialization overcomes that directive. Because I just so intuitively know that that person who looks just like me is going to be more successful than the research says someone different will be. And if there are no real consequences, then they keep doing what they're doing.

CEOs just need to break the wheel and do things that are radically different. What we've done at Ellevest is when we start to become undiverse, which for us is we're hiring another white woman, then we’re just not going to hire.

Banishing ‘culture fit’ from the hiring process will also have a positive impact on diversity, as this notion can mean someone who thinks just like everyone else and therefore is not diverse. Krawcheck said that she looks for a cultural add instead, someone who can shift the culture of the company rather than keep it static, and represents its users:

I won't let people say, 'Hire the best person for the job';  it's got to be the best person for the team. It could well mean that we don't hire the person who had an A-plus average at Princeton, that maybe we're hiring someone on an A-minus average at the University of Virginia.

It’s what are we missing on our team right now. Do we have too many women? It'd be good to have a guy. Do we have too many introverts? We need an extrovert. Do we have too many Caucasians? We need a person of color. And that actually makes hiring much harder, but when you blindly go for just the best person, then you're often just going for yourself.

Leadership tips

Brown-Philpot finished with her three top tips for creating a more balanced workforce.

(1) Be courageous

For CEOs or any leader, there's never been a more important time to speak up and lead from the front. Be willing to not tolerate the things that have led to current inequality.

(2) Get proximate

Referrals tend to happen with people that you know, so get to know some people who aren't like you. And then maybe you'll refer somebody who isn't like you and maybe your company will therefore become more diverse.

(3) Encourage all voices

The level of innovation possible in technology is only achievable if we actually seek to hear all the voices that need to be heard.

My take

Dreamforce may be over for another year, but hopefully the prominence of the equality message throughout the event will have a long-lasting effect, and will see more organizations sharpening their efforts around diversity and inclusion.

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