In the early hustle of a startup, the founders get worn through and stretched thin. At a certain point, the idea inevitably occurs that they just need “another me.” In fact, leaders in the DEI sector are saying it may be the last thing they need.
The strength of a company is measured by people and ideas. The more diverse the population, the more diverse the ideas. This is true at every scale of the enterprise, but it is seen nowhere more profoundly than in start-ups and scale-ups. So why, when large businesses are devoting tremendous resources to people ops, to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), are these concerns so often left on the back burner among Canada’s young and growing companies?
Gorick Ng is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Unspoken Rules, a powerful career guide that has been especially valuable to professionals from underrepresented backgrounds. As a speaker at the upcoming Venture for Canada All Things People Conference, he’ll be talking about employee engagement through the lens of DEI. According to Ng, success in this endeavour begins from the very first hire.
“Every person you hire who looks like you talks like you, or has the same background or perspectives as you do makes it that much more likely that the next person, you’ll hire will be similar, too,” he says. The most forward-thinking organizations hire not for ‘culture fit’ but for ‘culture add.’ “Hiring for culture fit means finding someone who blends into the existing culture. Hiring for culture add means finding someone who brings something that the team lacks.”
Founder of Bright and Early Nora Jenkins Townson, a workshop lead at All Things People on March 24th and 25th, shares, “Assuming you are not building for only a specific audience or market, having diverse perspectives behind the scenes can lead to your product and marketing having a wider reach.” A ‘culture add’ approach means creating an environment of inclusions first. “Having a working culture that is inclusive of all means you’ll have an easier time (and a wider candidate pool) in a tough hiring market,” she adds.
Stephanie Bergman, a Senior Consultant and Team Lead at Bright + Early paints the picture clearly, “Beyond the business case, as a company that is operating in this day and age (arguably in any day or age), we also have a moral and ethical consideration to invest in DEI.”
How you start dictates where you end
In the tech industry, one of the most feared business pitfalls is ‘technical debt,’ where early decisions to prioritize quick fixes over resilient and optimized solutions leads eventually to a patchwork behemoth built on a foundation of sand, too tangled to fix and too expensive to rebuild. The same thing, Gorick says, happens with ‘DEI debt,’ when diversity is set aside as something to worry about later. When ‘later’ comes, it’s going to be a big problem.
Nora pointed out that ‘DEI not being prioritized early makes it so much harder and more expensive to pivot later; it’s harder to attract candidates, it’s harder to make sound decisions and products that reflect society. Focusing on it earlier also means that you make it part of your culture, it attracts more candidates, people have more psychological safety to bring ideas forward and to safely make mistakes”.
These are not roads any company goes down intentionally. But, if the more than 40 leaders, innovators, and experts speaking at the All Things People Conference had a single overarching message, it might be this: The turns you make early with people ops and DEI will determine your destination.
There’s a reason big enterprises spend so much time and money on DEI. It matters, and not just for reasons of social impact, as critical and valuable as those reasons might be. Diverse organizations perform measurably better across all kinds of metrics, including the most objective financial ones. Opening the door early to new ideas, like those being discussed at All Things People, not only expands the toolkit of thought during the growth phase, it also builds a foundation rated to carry lasting success.
“DEI isn’t just for the heart,” Gorick says. “It’s also for the head. None of us have lived enough lifetimes to have diversity of thought. We need each other.”
As Stephanie Bergman, Senior Consultant (HR and DEI) & Team Lead at Bright + Early points out, “both thinking of DEI as ‘optional’ and continuing to give it passes poses problems. By focusing DEI and inclusive cultures from day one as the standard, there is much greater potential for impact, greater potential to set up companies and individuals for success, and the chance to save the time and costs associated with having to pivot later towards inclusivity.”
Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Unspoken Rules
Nora Jenkins Townson
Founder of Bright + Early
Senior Consultant and Team Lead at Bright + Early