As a woman working in tech, there’s one question I inevitably get during most panel events and media interviews: what’s it like to be a female founder, and what roadblocks have you faced along your journey? Like most of my female-identifying peers, I dread this question — mostly because it would never be asked of a male founder, and it distracts from what I really want to talk about (my business!).
But when I reflect on the answer, I feel fortunate to say that being a woman in tech has never been a hindrance for me because I’ve always been in female-dominated, diverse environments. From journalism school which was 90% female, to my first PR agency job — again, 90% female — to then starting my career in tech where I worked for a female founder, I always had strong female role models early in my career. When I embarked on my own entrepreneurial journey I knew that diversity would be a core part of how I grew companies — when I ran a PR and marketing agency, we were about 75% women, and had team members from various diverse backgrounds. When I founded a wine tour business, my co-founders were two of my female best friends. So when I joined my husband Kevin at Willful, it wasn’t a question that I would strive for the same level of diversity within our company as I had seen represented in all of my prior companies and jobs.
When I say that being a woman in tech hasn’t been a hindrance for me, it’s with the knowledge that I say that from a place of extreme privilege. I am an able-bodied, white, heterosexual woman from an upper middle class family. While I don’t have an Ivy League education and I wasn’t handed six figures by the bank of mom and dad to start a business, I know that I have so many advantages that set me ahead on my path to being a founder. Even the fact that we were able to raise friends and family funding is privileged, since our friends and family had the money to invest.
Diversity has always been at the forefront of mind in any of my businesses — I’m proud to have built an extremely diverse workplace at my previous agency, and I saw firsthand how having a variety of backgrounds helps create healthy debate, varying viewpoints, and ultimately a higher calibre of work — not to mention it adds rich culture and viewpoints to the company culture for our demo days, team events, and everyday work.
Despite my commitment to diversity, we could be doing better at Willful. This article outlines our public commitment to improve our efforts to foster diversity and inclusion at Willful, why it’s important to our business, and how we plan to get there. On some fronts like gender diversity we’re better than the norm — for example as of May 1st Willful will have 14 full-time team members, and of those, 7 are female-identifying. Of our C-Suite, 50% are female, including the CEO and COO (though we don’t have representation from non-binary folks, which means there’s still work to be done here).
But we get a failing grade for representation from other underrepresented groups, including people of colour, indigenous people, non-binary folks, LGBTQA+ folks, and people with disabilities. Our engineering team is comprised of white males. Our leadership is made up of white team members. And we know we have a lot of work to do here to ensure that our team is representative of more cultures, voices, and backgrounds. It’s always been a benefit to build diversity into your business plan, but it’s taken too long for leaders to view it as an imperative. It’s also important because our customers at Willful are from every demographic and socioeconomic group you can imagine, and having diversity on our team means we can better represent our customers’ best interests.
Instead of talking about this behind closed doors, I want to be open with our commitment, and how we’re improving our hiring processes and culture to be inclusive so we can not only attract great, diverse talent, we can foster an environment where anyone can thrive. Here’s what we’ve already done:
- Transparency in the hiring process: We worked with Avery Francis and her team at Bloom to adapt our job descriptions to include more inclusive language, and to be more transparent about salary ranges when possible (knowing we’re a startup, publishing salary ranges can actually be detrimental when not communicated alongside the mission/vision/values and total compensation package), and what the hiring process looks like. Women specifically are apt to only apply to jobs if they meet 100% of the requirements, vs. men who will apply if they only meet 60%, so we’ve also been open about applying if you don’t meet every qualification. (See this in practice in our JD for a current open role — Senior Full Stack Developer). As part of that hiring process, we are also open about accommodations that may be needed during the interview process (for example interviews outside work hours to accommodate existing jobs and/or childcare), and we commit to being responsive to each candidate to ensure everyone has a positive experience.
- Commitment to diversity in pipeline: If you interview 10 white males for a job, chances are…you’re hiring a white male. The best way to ensure diversity in our pipeline is to set minimum expectations for candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, and to do the work to ensure job descriptions get in front of those candidates. We’ve set a target for 50-75% of interviewees to be from underrepresented backgrounds, and we have hit that metric for the current roles we’re hiring for, thanks in part to the great work of our recruiting firms, Creative Niche and Bloom. When not using a recruiter, the work falls on us to work with organizations like Juno, Lighthouse Labs, Growclass, the StartupWomen group on Facebook, and other organizations that can amplify our job postings to their audiences (though we still need to proactively diversify and deepen our network of partners).
- Setting (and living) Willful’s values: In 2019 we undertook a values-setting exercise that helped us to develop our internal and external values: Purpose, Agility, Accountability, Empowerment, and Empathy. These values reflect diversity at their core — especially the values of accountability and empathy. While yes, these are posters on a wall at our office, we try to live the values every day — for example we have a five-minute values spotlight at our monthly town hall, where in the last one we talked about Purpose and how that’s reflected through our focus on legacy giving (Willful has generated over $33 million in gifts to charity in wills so far!), and we use these values as a barometer for day-to-day decision making (“is this reflecting our value of accountability?”) Values are meaningless if they’re not reflected in the daily work, so our annual reviews and performance feedback are all centred around how people exemplify these values both internally and externally.
- Overhauled employee handbook: Avery and her team at Bloom audited, expanded, and improved our employee handbook and moved it into Notion to make it more accessible and inclusive (Notion is extremely searchable and easy to navigate). This involved adding a diversity and inclusion hub; a land acknowledgement; an improved parental leave policy; an equal opportunity statement; and a workplace harassment policy. We share this handbook with prospective hires so they know our values up front, and they don’t have to ask about sensitive topics like parental leave during the interview process.
- MESH Diversity: I first met the MESH team when Dr. Leeno Karumanchery held an anti-racism workshop in the spring of 2020, and soon after Willful signed on to their diversity and inclusion software platform. The platform helps companies establish a baseline inclusion score — each employee completes a survey about their own behaviour, and then completes surveys about their colleagues. The results are pulled into an individual score, as well as a baseline company score. Each person can see how their behaviour is reflected in a variety of indicators like self-awareness, approachability, and divergent thinking, and more importantly, they can see how others rate them on the same indicators. The discrepancy between how we see ourselves and how others see us can be eye-opening, and it can frame conversations about how our intent and our impact are very different.
- Leadership & mindset training: Every 6 months we invest in a company-wide training program that aims to help with career development and personal skills. In August 2020 we completed Raw Signal’s Blueprint management training program, and right now we’re in the middle of a high performance mindset training course led by Emergent. This course teaches skills like resilience, confidence, mindfulness, and connecting your work to a deeper purpose, and while especially helpful during COVID-19, these programs also help to upskill and amplify our team members from all backgrounds. Since 83% of tech executives are white, we want to be an organization where we advance and promote from within, so diverse team members have opportunities for advancement.
- Flexible work: We have flexible schedules for team members with kids, or who otherwise need accommodation, including no-meeting Wednesday afternoons. We also discourage emails and Slack messages after 6pm or on weekends, and encourage everyone to take their evenings and weekends to recharge — and we set that example from the top (although, of course, it’s still a startup so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t work any evenings or weekends!).
Those steps have been a great start for us, but we know there’s still work to be done. Here’s an overview of what we’re committing to in the next 6 months:
- Building D&I into our company OKRs — every quarter we set company-wide OKRs, and this quarter we’re making diversity one of four company-wide goals. This includes goals like diversity in our recruiting pipeline, and completing MESH courses and surveys. By making this objective front and centre at Willful, we can not only highlight its importance, but we can make it a part of every leadership meeting and conversation.
- Establish our new MESH inclusion score baseline — around this time last year our team completed the MESH surveys, but since then we’ve had new team members join, and we’ve grown as an organization. We need to retake the surveys across the company to establish a new baseline inclusion score, and to see how that company-wide score has changed — but more importantly, we need to see how individual scores have changed, and use those scores as conversation-starters around how to ensure we’re living our values internally.
- MESH courses — MESH has just launched a series of events and courses for clients, and our team will be completing one of these courses per quarter. This quarter’s course is on communication, and how to bridge the gap between intent and impact.
- Reviewing vendors and suppliers — We work with quite a few external vendors and contractors, most of whom are led by white people. It’s not enough to commit to diversity internally; we also need to see that diversity represented in our vendors and suppliers, so we will be committing to a vendor and supplier review in the summer to ensure we have not only internal benchmarks and goals, but external ones as well.
- Relationship-building — We need to continue building relationships with associations, schools, and other groups that represent underrepresented groups, so we can ensure our job opportunities and RFPS for vendors are getting in front of the right people.
- Working to improve processes — We know this is just scratching the surface of how we can improve our D&I efforts internally. Other things we’ve discussed include analyzing any hiring biases; continuing our anti-racism education via MESH Diversity; exit interviews with departing employees; and more.
I know I’m not the only founder who struggles with how to increase the diversity in their team, but I wouldn’t be living our value of accountability if I didn’t share these thoughts publicly. While I think we’re taking the right steps, I’d also love any suggestions, advice, or tactics that have worked for your team as we continue on this journey. And on the accountability front, I commit to posting an update here every 6 months to showcase the progress we’ve made, and challenges we’ve faced.
PS — we’re hiring a Senior Full Stack Developer and a Director of Product, and we’ll be putting these recruiting adjustments into practice. If you’re interested in applying and have any questions, please reach out anytime.