5 obstacles I faced starting Abl
Below are some of the obstacles I encountered while focusing on D&I at Abl from day 1.
Obstacle 1: My network wasn’t that diverse
When I started Abl, it became obvious to me that my network of senior-level engineers and product designers was not that diverse. I now know that this was due to a failure on my part to make more of an effort to expand my network.
If you are thinking about starting a company someday, I highly recommend being more aware of your network now.
Start by acknowledging to your network that you care about this issue. Join a company that values diversity. Talk about it on Facebook and Twitter. Start bringing it up with your friends and colleagues, and not just your “diverse” friends, either. You should also get involved with organizations focused on D&I (See link to resources below). Figure out how you can contribute to those communities. Become a mentor, attend conferences, offer to help. Be really open with everyone you meet about your goals and don’t be afraid to offer or ask for help. This isn’t about finding a token minority friend either. If you approach people with humility and sincerity, you will find many people will go out of their way to help you. By putting in continuous extra effort to meet new people, I’ve greatly diversified my network.
Obstacle 2: The Seniority Gap
Historically, those in the majority group are more likely to have senior titles and occupy senior roles. For example, for every 100 women promoted to manager, 130 men are promoted. Men are also more likely to be part of founding teams. While they tend to be more aggressive in asking for promotions, they also often benefit from unconscious bias in their white male managers.
When you’re evaluating candidates, it’s important to distinguish seniority from title. Title is just one crude proxy for experience. Many people with less senior titles are actually more experienced than those with more senior titles. A candidate with a Senior Engineering title may have just as much experience and expertise as a Director of Engineering at the same company. You will have to develop other heuristics.
At Abl, we look at what you’ve done and the skills that you bring, instead of relying on title as a proxy. This also means we’re more thoughtful about who we bring in at the top of the funnel, as opposed to ruling people out based on their resumes alone. My first senior product hire was a woman who did not have a senior product title, but had a diverse body of work that demonstrated her level of skill.
We also don’t want the only people from underrepresented groups we hire to be junior.
You could easily end up with a team which was diverse overall, but where members from underrepresented groups are always subordinate to members from the majority group. This can easily happen if you only leverage channels which have predominantly less experienced talent.
Another way Abl tackled an issue with D&I was to create a standard offer compensation formula to ensure we’re paying people equitably and not basing compensation on their negotiation skills or past privilege. Women and URM have statistically been hurt by compensation packages that are based on negotiations or offers based on previous salaries. We give candidates choice with regard to how to structure their offer, but we do not negotiate individually with people.
Obstacle 3: There are few channels to find highly experienced candidates from underrepresented groups
While there are many efforts to improve the pipeline of underrepresented groups today, most of these efforts focus on entry-level talent who are usually not experienced enough to be your first hires. There are an increasing number of channels to reach diverse groups of entry-level candidates, but there are far fewer channels for senior candidates.
After many months searching for candidates on LinkedIn, I’ve observed that 2013 was really the year startups started taking D&I seriously. In 2013, you see a dramatic rise in the number of graduates from coding academies as well as many more people from underrepresented groups starting at tech companies. This happens to coincide with when tech companies started releasing their diversity stats. As a result, there are fewer underrepresented candidates with more than 3 years of experience and they are even less represented in senior roles.
Even though few D&I focused organizations focus on senior talent, I still recommend attending events and getting involved in these organizations (See below). While they may not have a robust pipeline of experienced candidates, it’s a good way to give back, and getting involved is probably the best way of expanding your network. If you want to find more female engineers, it helps to know more female engineers. I’ve also found that these events are a great way to continue to educate yourself on grow in your own understanding of these issues. I also recommending bringing on advisors and board members from underrepresented groups.
Obstacle 4: The risks of startups aren’t seen equally by everyone
If someone is a white male engineer they have a lot of reasons to believe they won’t have a hard time finding work in the future. They’ve probably seen people who look like them quit their well paying jobs to join a risky startup. They’ve also seen how even if that startup failed, those people were able to take their [now inflated] title and find an even better job. Because they’ve seen this play out so many times, when an experienced entrepreneur asks them to leave their comfortable job for a startup, they know the risks are actually quite low. Worst case scenario, they can probably get their old job back if it doesn’t pan out.
On the other hand, if someone is an underrepresented minority with a senior title at a respected company, they’ve likely had a different journey than their white male counterparts. They may be the only woman or person of color at their rank on their team. They may not have had the same opportunities and may have had to work harder than their white male colleagues to earn the same rewards they did. They may not want to trade a guaranteed higher salary for speculative equity. They may have a harder time picking up where they left off if that enticing startup goes bust. Backward or lateral moves in their resume may call into question their fitness to take on bigger challenges in the future.
As a result, I’ve found it’s much harder to convince senior engineers from underrepresented groups to join as one of the first employees at an early startup. This is especially true when there is no prior relationship, or when you are asking them to take a pay cut in exchange for equity. To help address this, Abl has tried giving new hires the option to take more salary and less equity to reduce the risk.
All of this reinforces how important it is to get involved with more diverse communities and widen your network. Friends of friends will see you as less risky than strangers. It is also important to make sure your website, job descriptions and any other public representations of your company are saying things that are reassuring and appealing to people from underrepresented groups. You can start by using tools like Textio and Joblint to make sure you don’t have exclusionary language in your job descriptions. But that’s just the start. You should be evaluating all of your messaging to understand how the people you are trying to attract will read it. How risky does it make you sound? All startups have risks, which is why I also recommend addressing those perceived risks when you first start talking to candidates rather than later in the process.
Obstacle 5: You only have one chance to hire your founding team
You have only one opportunity to hire a diverse founding team. There’s no way to hire your way out of the problem once you’ve hired your first 10–20 people. You may be able to increase the diversity of your team over time, but your founding team will forever be homogenous.
The problem is, given all of the obstacles mentioned above, it is very likely your hiring funnel will initially be mostly people in the majority group. And if those people are entering the hiring funnel faster than any other group, you will likely hire them at a faster rate. At Abl, even as our efforts to source candidates from diverse groups has improved, the top of our hiring funnel has remained overwhelmingly white and male.
It isn’t that people from underrepresented groups are less qualified or talented. There are just less of them in tech at the moment. As an example, imagine you have to interview 20 people on average to make 1 hire. If only 10% of senior engineers are underrepresented minorities or women then, without changing how you source, the first 18 of 20 people will be white/asian men. If you want to wait until you have also seen 20 URM before making that hiring decision, that means it will take 9 times longer to get that many UR people through the door. You can speed this up by focusing your top-of-the-funnel efforts and specifically recruiting underrepresented groups, but it’s still going to take longer to get the same number of candidates through the door.
This dilemma raises uncomfortable and controversial questions for founders and funders that value diversity. If you suddenly found a group of 10 highly qualified white male candidates, would you not hire them all? What if the rate at which qualified white men are being referred to you exceeds the rate at which you are finding qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds? Would you throttle the rate at which certain groups are entering the top of the funnel to make sure you have the time to find and consider qualified candidates from other groups?
We’re still wrestling with these questions. My guess is that larger companies who find they are not improving their company’s diversity fast enough will end up facing similar ones.