Taking action on DEI with limited time & resources: Tips from our startup journey
15 min read
This is the first of a two-part series on how we do DEI at Multitudes. This post focuses on how we embed DEI into our culture and organization – part two will speak to how we embed DEI into our product and design practices. We’ll share the link here when it’s live!
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is at the heart of what we stand for at Multitudes. It’s in our vision statement – “to build a world where every team is equitable” – and it’s woven throughout our values. We believe that everyone is better off without oppression getting in the way of living out their dreams and talents. We’re building Multitudes for the long term, and DEI is a huge part of that.
Of course, taking action on DEI is easier said than done. As an early-stage startup, we have limited time and resources – so we’ve been thoughtful and strategic about how we take action on DEI. We are often asked “how” we do DEI at Multitudes, so read on for:
Why it’s important to prioritize DEI from the start – even when you have limited time and resources
Our framework for taking action on DEI, including practical examples
Action steps we’ve followed to weave DEI into our organizational practices
Before we dive in, I will explicitly say that we’re still on our DEI journey – we have lots to learn and lots that we want to improve on. We’re sharing our approach not as “the answer”, but simply as another example that will hopefully give you some inspiration on your own journey. On that note, we’d love to hear what you’re trying too! Tweet us at @MultitudesCo to share.
What is DEI?
First, let’s get on the same page about what the three parts of this acronym mean.
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” ~Vernā Myers, lawyer and diversity advocate (TED talk here)
“...and equity is a system that ensures equal access to opportunity for everyone.” ~Meg Bolger, social justice facilitator (More here)
Diversity is about who is in the organization and on your team. Good hiring can help get new, more diverse people on to the team (though it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll stay).
Inclusion is about whose voice is valued and included in decision-making; are the diverse people at the key meetings part of the key decisions?
Equity is about having systems and structures that ensure that people will be treated fairly. For example, having a way to pay people fairly based on the work they do and not based on how well they’ve negotiated.
Why does DEI matter?
DEI is good for business
McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity research showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability, and companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 33% more likely to outperform in profitability.
As people who care about fairness, DEI is simply a way for us to live in integrity with our values. We’ve inherited a world that is still racist, sexist, ableist, and more – and while what we’ve inherited isn’t our fault, it is our responsibility to try to improve the world around us before handing it off to the next generation.
Currently, many talented people are being ignored by a discriminatory world. Imagine all the big world problems we could solve if we really valued and made the most of everyone’s talent - not just those of privileged folks?
What not to do
Before I share our approach, a couple words on who is responsible for this work: leaders, privileged folks, and people with power.
It’s not the responsibility of women to make sure they negotiate better for pay – it’s the responsibility of those setting the pay, and of those who are getting paid more, to make sure they’re advocating for fair pay and creating systems that ensure it.
It’s not the responsibility of Black or Indigenous folks to study STEM – it’s the responsibility of people in tech (especially white folks) to advocate for more fair hiring and promotion practices, and to do the learning so their comments don’t re-marginalize people at work.
Initiatives that put more responsibility on the shoulders of marginalized people are only making things worse.
A framework for taking action
My top tip for taking action on DEI is to build one new habit at a time. That way, you only need to learn one new thing, but you’ll be layering in more and more good practices over time. Here’s the general approach we’ve followed:
1. Lay the foundations 2. Co-create a plan 3. Track progress
1. Lay the foundations
We’ve heard people say that they don’t have time for DEI because they have a small team, or because they’re still finding product-market fit. What these people miss is that this is the best time to focus on DEI – because you have a blank slate.
Even if you’re working with an existing organization, starting today is still better than starting tomorrow – because the longer you wait, the more diversity debt (and equity & inclusion debt!) you’ll have when you do start to take action. Here's how we did it:
Set the vision
For Multitudes (and for me as a person), the vision is to make every team equitable. We do this in two ways – first, through the product that we’re building and second, through the organizational practices we follow
DEI is a core part of our vision, but even if the link is less obvious with your organization’s vision, I suggest you spend some time thinking about how DEI links in – get clear on how DEI helps support your organization’s “why”
Bring in the right people – and the sooner, the better!
As a white woman, I know lots of other white women like me. It would have been fast and easy to build a founding team composed entirely of white women – but I knew that the founding team sets the tone for how the company will look later. So I looked one step further, and found amazing people!
I met Vivek, a data scientist and one of our founding team members, at a machine learning bootcamp. He knew as much as the instructor – so I knew I needed to work with him!
I heard of Jenny, another data scientist and founding team member, from a blog post she wrote, where she spoke about equity and data science and kimchi. We shared a mutual friend so I asked her for an introduction to Jenny (thanks, Elina!)
And then Emily, our last founding team member and lead engineer, is someone that I had known for years in the tech scene. (Fun fact: We met at an event where she was speaking, and I answered a question correctly so got a free T-shirt, which I still wear to this day!)
Whether you’re founding a company or pulling together a team of people, look beyond the usual people to those who are one degree removed – the friends of friends, or the contacts of your colleagues
Write your values
Once we had our team, we wrote our values together
We hired an external facilitator to come in and run a values-setting session (huge thanks to Liv Dobrowolski!). Liv took us through a fun process of brainstorming what we cared about, grouping by theme, and then crafting the just-right titles to capture the sentiment. (Turns out that Vivek has a hidden skill in writing fun values!)
Because of the nature of our team and our vision, DEI naturally bubbled to the top in our values, most notably with “See and shape the system.” However, even if that isn’t the case for you, you can again spend some time thinking about how DEI is in line with your values
We’ve also put in the effort to make living our values a habit – we don’t just want them to be something that sits on the wall. Here are some practices we’ve added:
In our 1:1’s, we do a regular values check-in, reflecting on where we’ve done a good job of living our values and where we could be doing a better job
As a growing company, we revisit the values annually to think about how well they’re working for us and identify behaviors that are in line with our values
Consider your personal readiness for this work
Get ready to be uncomfortable – facing privilege is an uncomfortable task, but it’s necessary to authentically engage with DEI work
Get ready to learn – and make mistakes – in public. To engage in DEI work is to make mistakes, because we all have so much to unlearn and reshape. One of the best skills you can cultivate is learning how to take responsibility & apologize, correct yourself, and then keep moving forward
Find your community. This all probably sounds hard – and it is! – but you don’t have to do it alone. Find some people that you can talk to as you’re figuring it out. They might be colleagues at work or friends and family – anyone who you can talk to about the feelings that come up for you on this journey. (Note that this is an area where it’s good to look for people with similar privileges – for white people who have feelings of guilt about the harm caused by white folks, it’s best to talk to other white people and not put more work on people of color. Similarly for men who have feelings about being part of a sexist system – it’s best to get support from other men to work through those, especially since women get loaded with lots of emotional labor.)
2. Co-create a plan
Once you have the foundations, you can put in place a longer-term action plan. Here's how we did it:
We created some reflection questions and had each person consider them individually before discussing as a group:
When you hear our vision (making every team equitable), what does that mean to you?
When it comes to this vision, what would success look like to you?
What are your biggest aspirations/hopes/dreams in this work?
What does it mean to be an anti-racist organization? To be an organization that honors the Indigenous people whose land we’re on?
What are your biggest fears around doing this work?
Who would you want to see us respond when we get it wrong with our team? With a broader, more public group?
Who/what organizations would you want to see us work with as part of this work?
We took the notes from our discussion and created a living document that held our brainstorm about actions.
Set goals and practices
To give us foundational skills in understanding oppression and taking action, we did an Ally Skills Workshop
With the team geographically distributed, we decided to engage learning about each country we work from, starting with New Zealand. We did a series of workshops about colonization here, and to learn more about te reo Māori and tikanga (Māori language and customs)
Approaching the work by creating one habit at a time - gradually weaving in more practices around hiring, remuneration, and more
In internal operations (remuneration and more):
Quarterly learning & development training sessions about oppression
All employees have an allyship action plan with an accountability buddy
Internally transparent salary bands and ESOP allocations
In our 1:1’s, we reflect on we each as individuals and as a collective have lived our values
Daily Karakia at Stand Up and Stand Down (this is a Māori practice to open and close a session)
Considering the share of voice in our team meetings to consciously create an environment that listens to different voices
Rotating “office housework” tasks, which people from marginalized groups are often expected to do without appropriate recognition or compensation
Sharing resources and learning and development opportunities within DEI – including on a page in our internal Wiki where we have a round-up of great resources
Team discussions about what companies we will and won’t work with, to make sure we’re living our values in practice. Whether or not someone will say no to money is a real test of their values!
Set the criteria in advance (since setting it after you meet candidates is ripe with bias)
Focus on competencies and skills rather than years of experience
Have a criteria for “culture add” – and not “culture fit”. “Culture fit” can lead to hiring people that think and act like you; “culture add” looks for people who can add something new to the culture
Reach out to people from different communities to share opportunities for working at Multitudes
Check for values alignment and people who are adding to our culture as an organisation
Ask candidates to reflect on their privilege and how they think about oppression
Ask candidates what action and commitment they have already shown towards DEI
3. Track progress & invite accountability
We've all heard that what doesn't get tracked, doesn't get done — same applies here. Here's how we did it:
Each week, we use data from the Multitudes app to track that both support and work is distributed fairly across the team
Each quarter, we check in on our allyship action plans
As often as possible, we publicly share our journey (this DEI blog series is one example!) as an invitation for others to give us feedback on what we’ve done so far
While it looks like a lot, this truly was developed by adopting one habit at a time. Plus, as our team has grown (and thanks to a hiring process that ensures we bring in DEI-focused team members), we now have ever more people to ensure that we’re doing this work well.
What’s exciting is that the work we’ve done is already becoming self-reinforcing – we’re building habits and systems that are more equitable, and we’ve built a team that collectively cares about this and raises the big questions to make sure we live our values. Ultimately, this has helped to create a stronger team.
Watch this space for part 2, which covers how we’ve taken action to weave DEI (including good accessibility!) into our product and design practices.
Resources for taking action on DEI in your organization