Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) have been front and center in the past year. We have seen companies stress the need to create a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable workforce. Many have taken a formal stance on the issue. Now, it’s time to finally turn these words into actions.
While taking a stance is an important first step, how can ScaleUp companies drive significant and lasting change?
This is the question that’s on my mind and on the minds of my friends, peers, and many of those who are Black. The worst thing you can do is tokenize us as you seek to build DE&I in your company. Philosophically, we all want the same things. We want to be prosperous and healthy, support something with real purpose, and work for a company that values our contributions. Oftentimes, as Black candidates and employees, we run into roadblocks to meet these goals – be it due to a lack of access to opportunity, support or unconscious biases.
Creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable company starts with what I like to call the “Four Cs” – careers, connections, community, and capital.
Let’s start with careers. When I look at the composition of many Executive Committees and Senior Leadership teams, I don't see one Black person. Why is that?
Historically, Black people have been hired to do much of the frontline work. My grandmother, for example, was a nurse, and my grandfather was a carpenter when they moved to the UK from Jamaica. In fact, the occupational categories with the highest black representation are healthcare support (24%), protective services (22%), and community/social services (20%). While these are necessary and important jobs, it’s generally not where wealth creation occurs.
Today, in the ScaleUp software industry, this is different. With the continued growth of SaaS companies, jobs are being created in more lucrative “white collar” areas – a place where we need to see more diversity. The growth of SaaS has created a huge opportunity for companies to hire diverse talent, and for that talent to access meaningful and impactful roles.
Companies, however, can’t just hire diverse talent. While careers start with “recruiting,” they can only flourish through the development of new skills, continuous feedback, and new opportunities.
Companies need to ensure that diverse talent has a clear opportunity for advancement, and this starts with outlining career progression and actively supporting talent on their growth journey. Managers should provide tangible feedback and put together action plans to ensure the continuous development of their employees. It also means building a meritocracy so that talent is rewarded for good work.
By developing a pipeline of diverse talent – starting with entry-level and junior employees – companies can foster more diverse leadership teams as well. Employees who are diverse need to see people like them reflected in the makeup of the workplace – from the Board level down. As the saying goes, “It’s hard to be what you cannot see.” Representation matters – and companies need to make sure it permeates all levels of the organization – entry-, mid-and senior-level roles.
That brings us to the second “C”: connections. Real career growth and a sense of belonging at an organization stem from how engaged and connected the individuals are to the organization.
There’s an old Jamaican saying that has largely shaped my career: “Each one teaches one.” In other words, it’s important to take what you learn and pass it on to others. This teaching needs to start at the top. If senior executives make time to support diverse colleagues, it benefits the talent, it benefits the team, and it cascades to the entire organization.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have senior executives coach me. They took the time to connect, to learn more about me and my family, and where I was coming from. I had weekly touchpoints with my mentor, as well as 1:1 exposure to a CEO on a quarterly basis with no real agenda, apart from what I chose to discuss.
While CEOs do not have time to mentor everyone, having that CEO invest time in me was important to my personal and professional growth. It made me feel seen and valued, and I learned from each conversation. This is something all leaders should do – foster and mentor high-potential talent both inside and outside of their company.
Importantly, the learnings from these mentors did not stop with me. Following my own mentor discussions, I would go to lunch with colleagues and friends and share all I had learned with them. They would then do the same for their other colleagues and friends. It became a chain reaction of knowledge sharing. While this knowledge sharing is instrumental to the continued growth of talent regardless of background, ethnicity, and race, it is especially important for underrepresented communities.
Closely related to connections is community. I grew up with a close-knit family and the importance of community was instilled in me at a young age. Why is community so important? Because in any community – especially marginalized communities – banding together is better than being apart.
Fostering a real sense of community at work isn’t simple. In fact, it is perhaps the most difficult “C” for an organization to tackle. Community must be embedded in your organization’s culture and every single employee must champion diversity for it to work.
Companies can’t simply host events to celebrate each other’s cultures (e.g., a Black History Month event). While these events can be valuable to raise awareness around certain issues and recognize different cultures, they can also feel like a box-checking exercise.
Instead, companies need to take steps to unpack unconscious biases, offer real career paths, and make sure diverse voices are heard. One practical example is both building and investing time into your Employee Resource Groups. ERGs are one way to foster community among all employees. They help people across departments get to know each other and support one another. For ERGs to work, they need a budget, participation from leaders, and commitment from the top to foster open dialog and to listen. They can become a conduit for diverse voices to be heard, which is one goal along with community, learning, and support.
Tactically, making sure there is space for everyone’s voice to be heard is critical to inclusion. From everyday meetings to bigger business decisions, finding meaningful ways for diverse talent to participate in company-wide events (like speaking at an annual company kickoff), to make sure there are safe ways for talent to share feedback directly with managers and leaders, as well as anonymously, is critical. It’s about creating an inclusive environment where all talent is set up to succeed.
The value of fostering a diverse community is irrefutable. If you put in the real work to develop community, you not only lift up diverse employees, but you elevate your products, services, and the organization overall.
Now for the last “C”: capital. Real change at an organization takes serious investment. Many companies have superficially “invested in” DE&I but haven’t made real progress in their organization or aren’t tracking their outcomes. Top diverse talent will quickly recognize whether your company has fostered a culture that genuinely embraces diversity or is simply checking a box.
Companies must develop a robust implementation plan to address the three other “Cs” – careers, connections, and communities to successfully foster DE&I. Companies should be intentional about putting capital behind this plan – both monetary and human capital commitments. Thereafter, as with any investment, leaders need to track how their company is progressing on this plan to ensure it’s delivering positive outcomes. This is an additional investment of your team’s time, but if you get measurement right, it helps ensure your company can successfully hire, onboard, and retain diverse talent long term.
The first investment is in hiring. It’s one of the most important decisions your company makes, and it’s one that will pay dividends if you invest wisely in building a pipeline and hiring diverse talent. The second investment is onboarding and training employees, setting them up to succeed. Take care to onboard people in a way that provides a sense of belonging and be transparent with them about where you are – and want to be – with your diversity program. Finally, invest in programs and initiatives that will help close the diversity gap.
These “Four Cs” are just a glimpse of some of the ingredients that can empower your company to have a successful DE&I strategy – one that encourages a real sense of belonging.
If it feels like a lot, remember that you don't have to go at it alone. There are proven practices that work and an entire ecosystem that wants to help you succeed. Align yourself with those organizations or communities, while also making sure to listen to the ideas of your employees and the candidates that you’re interviewing – whether they end up joining your organization or not. Those who take this seriously will have a vast, competitive advantage in the talent marketplace.
Insight Partners recently launched a ScaleUp CEO DE&I Pledge and resource center to help our portfolio companies who are committed to DE&I drive real change at their organizations. Marcus and the team at EQ Community are focused on bridging the gap between diverse professionals and SaaS companies. If you are not sure where to start with DE&I or you have already started to put your DE&I strategy into action and want to make sure you’re on the right track, the EQ.Community team can help.