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5 Things We Learned About Starting a D&I Initiative at a Tech Startup

By Casey Paxton

Last winter, some of us here at Salsify started to notice an interesting pattern. Though diversity and inclusion had been hot topics in the corporate world for a few years, conversations were just starting to happen closer to home. More meetups and panels focusing on diversity and inclusion started popping up around Boston, and casual conversations with friends and coworkers started dancing into diversity territory. This can be attributed to a number of different factors: national political and social conversations, a handful of unfortunate scandals at companies like Uber and Google, and even our own growing pains as Salsify continued to expand. In any case, a closer look at diversity and inclusion at Salsify felt like the right thing to do, and — as we soon learned — was also good for our business.

“Building a world-class company requires hiring and mentoring a diverse employee base where different skill sets, backgrounds, and opinions come together to create a culture of empowerment and meaning,” said Ben Holcombe, Sales Director and member of the Salsify Diversity & Inclusion Initiative. The numbers back Ben up: when you can pull from a larger pool of candidates, you will be able to have a more qualified workforce, and studies have shown that businesses that fail to establish a diverse and inclusive environment see higher employee turnover rates. Companies with large gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, and companies with large ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outperform their peers. Not to mention, millennials prioritize having a diverse workforce. They want role models and managers who look like them.

Members of the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative at their weekly meeting.

Spearheaded by a group of employees across a handful of departments, our Diversity & Inclusion Initiative has grown into a company-wide program. It is run by a core team of eleven people, with representation from almost every department within the organization, and holds an important and visible role in the company’s annual goals. The goals for the group are to provide a trusted outlet for voicing D&I-specific concerns within Salsify, and to take meaningful and measurable action towards improving diversity and inclusion in and out of Salsify.

While we have come a long way from where we started, we are by no means perfect, and we have a long, exciting road ahead of us as we continue moving this initiative along. But there are some things we’ve learned already that will hopefully make our road, and maybe even yours, smoother along the way. Here are five things that we’ve learned since starting this D&I Initiative.

1. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Even though our formal D&I Initiative is relatively new, we’ve spent a lot of time as a company introducing and evolving programs to strengthen our company. For example, we’ve done anonymous TINYpulse surveys, created Salsify Slack channels like #ladies-at-salsify and #salsify-parents, and encouraged employees to bring any feedback they have around our culture to upper management. We also started a STEM program in partnership with Boston Public Schools in Fall of 2016. In this STEM program, which we have dubbed Guppy Tank, we bring in a group of sixth graders every quarter and expose them to career paths within STEM. This program has actually become a Boston-wide initiative through partnership with TUGG.

Salsify’s STEM program.

Once we started our formal initiative last year, we were eager to hit the ground running and immediately start planning events. But getting a company-wide initiative off the ground takes time. We had to be patient and understand that sometimes, just a conversation with a few people to gut-check our ideas and get feedback is a good start. Learning that we couldn’t do everything at once was a frustrating mindset to accept, but it was the truth.

We learned very early on that addressing the lack of diversity in an office is something that can’t be solved in a day, a week, or a month (or even a year). There’s a lot of planning that goes into setting up meetings, training sessions, seminars, and programs, and that takes time.

2. Messaging matters.

We have a motto here at Salsify that says, “Fast, not flawless.” But creating an appropriate and inclusive message needed to be approached from a different angle.

“We wanted to be clear that this initiative is for everyone, that all are encouraged to join in the conversations and participate,” said Engineering Director and member of the D&I Initiative Tacita Morway. “We needed to make sure we had the wording right in the message to make sure that every single person in the company felt comfortable getting involved.”

When we started talking about the mission of our initiative, we immediately agreed that it had to feel welcoming to everyone. We didn’t want to present the initiative as an opportunity only for women or racial minorities, which many D&I efforts can sometimes do. We wanted to educate the company that every single person brings an important perspective to the table based on many different facets of diversity, and our goal of the initiative was to highlight those perspectives.

“We’re looking at all the ways diversity exists, and we want to emphasize that we need different points of view. I think we can prove that not only is it the right thing to do, but also that there’s business value to be had because it make us a better company,” said Emily Saka, a UX Designer and member of the D&I Initiative. “The core of diversity and inclusion is being exposed to view points you may not have ever even heard of, and that’s a great way to foster innovation in a business.”

Amber Sinicrope, a Business Development Special Projects Manager and member of the team, added: “We want to demonstrate how impactful diversity and inclusion can be. We’re not trying to attack anybody or talk about how companies have messed up, or raise a red flag on things not done well. Instead, we want to highlight how companies can and are doing things differently.”

3. There are a lot of little things you can do to make progress.

Like we mentioned before, establishing a diverse and inclusive environment can be an overwhelming task. But what we’ve learned is that there are many little things each person can do to contribute to the cause. For example, we established a program called “Coffee Buddies”, where people get randomly paired up with others across the organization so that they can meet new people that they otherwise might not have spoken to, or even met. Just making the effort to get to know each other and finding out how we’re similar and different was a great step forward for us.

With easy little things like this, we started to wonder, “Why isn’t this more commonplace?”

“There’s a lack of knowledge,” said Anthony Franco, Technical Program Manager and member of the initiative. “People know it’s a problem but they don’t know why. When I talk to people about it they say, ‘Oh yeah, I completely agree it’s a big issue,’ but when they try to explain it to you, they can’t do it. If we would just sit, listen, and try to understand the issue we would have a more diverse workforce.”

We’ve learned that while having trainings, seminars, and panels are definitely helpful, sometimes just an open conversation over a cup of coffee or a quick email about using inclusive language around the office can be just as effective.

We’re constantly reminding ourselves of this as we plan our roadmap ahead as well. This year, we’re pushing ourselves to remember about movie screenings, “office hours,” and other quick wins; not every project has to take a few months.

“You really just have to get the ball rolling,” Devers Talmage, Senior Software Engineer and member of the Salsify D&I Initiative, said. “Change like this isn’t going to happen by accident; you have to take charge and drive forward. You can’t just wait and hope that something happens.”

There’s not a “one size fits all” step-by-step guide on how to establish a flawless D&I Initiative because every company is different and has different needs. It was best for us to just try new things that we thought might work for our company’s situation, and then adjust as we go. But it was imperative for us to take that first step.

4. Gather feedback early and often.

Getting feedback from people outside of the core group was critical for use so that we could capture all possible solutions and perspectives; we didn’t want to get stuck in an echo chamber.

Being able to effectively communicate our goals and ideas to our executive team, our core team, and everyone within the office was a crucial part in getting our D&I Initiative off the ground and providing value for as many of our employees as possible. We also had to keep in mind that this is a two-way street: when we put on events or training sessions, we learned that it was incredibly important to get feedback from people who went to the event to see what they enjoyed, and see what maybe we could change in the future.

“I think one of the most important things we learned these past few months is to just start running events and activities, to see what’s working, how and why,” said Tacita. “We were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves in the beginning to be perfect and put on perfect events, but spreading the word and getting the conversations started is how you will learn what’s going to work and what won’t. You can find smaller steps that get the ball rolling and then iterate from there.”

Tech startups typically have the “Build the ship as you sail it” mentality that can easily be applied to starting a D&I Initiative. You don’t have to have all the right answers or the perfect plan; we sure didn’t. But it’s just about taking that first step forward, no matter how big or small, towards creating a comfortable work environment for everyone.

5. It takes a village.

It can be daunting to stare head-on at the lack of diversity in the workplace, especially in the tech sector, and say to yourself, “I need to solve this problem by myself.”

The good news? You’re not by yourself! The number of executives who say that inclusion is a top priority has risen by 32% since 2014. In a 2015 Global CEO survey, 77% of CEO’s already have a diversity and inclusion strategy, or plan to adopt one in the next 12 months.

Our “Unconscious Bias” Training.

It was also really helpful for us to establish partnerships with other organizations dedicated to establishing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. For example, we partnered with She Geeks Out to put on an “Unconscious Bias” training session for our employees. We were also able to develop a great partnership with the Boston Public School system through our STEM Guppy Tank program.

Without these partnerships and participation from others within the office, this initiative would never work. A successful D&I Initiative requires a massive team effort, and outside supporters as well.

Establishing a diverse and inclusive environment is something that can’t be tackled by one person or one organization. If the entire community puts their heads together and collaborates, we can make great strides forward. Our hope is that by opening up about our journey and what we’re learning, we can encourage more companies to join the conversation and work together to make the future of tech more diverse and inclusive.

Have your own tips and tricks for establishing a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative? Leave them for us in the comments below!

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