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How This Company Transformed Its Dismal Diversity Numbers

Leadership at a small tech startup lamented the lack of diversity in the candidate pool, so they took a more proactive approach.

How This Company Transformed Its Dismal Diversity Numbers
[Photo: Flickr user Jun Seita]

When Robi Ganguly speaks in front of a group of people, he knows most crowds take one good look at him and think, Oh, I expected this. The cofounder and CEO of mobile startup Apptentive is half-Indian, half-white, and is considered a racial minority in most instances, except in the tech world, where being male, white, and/or Asian is the typical majority.

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Nearly two years after his company launched, Ganguly and his cofounders continued talking about hiring a more diverse team, but couldn’t quite crack the diversity code.

“It really started to bother us, because you’d look around the table and there were nine or 10 people and they all kind of looked like us,” he tells Fast Company. (The other three cofounders are white males, and all four are graduates of Pomona College.) “We felt like we were trying hard, but we weren’t meeting results around that effort. And that was challenging, but that was also the reality of the situation.”

The tech industry as a whole has been struggling with a similar situation for a long time: a heavily lopsided demographic. Pull back the curtain at most tech firms, and you’ll likely see a homogenous group with little diversity. This reality was accepted by most until recently, when a string of events started to shift tech’s landscape. Last year, Google released a report showing most of its workforce as male and white. African American Googlers made up 2% and Latino Googlers made up 3%. This year, the tech giant announced it’s pushing harder on diversity efforts, with plans to spend $150 million on diversity initiatives compared to the $115 million it spent last year, as recently reported by USA Today. Following Google’s footsteps, a number of tech companies have released their own demographic data reports. Several others, like Intel, Apple, and Microsoft, are setting aside millions to grow a more diverse workforce.

At Apptentive, the team has currently grown to 30 people, with 15% women and another 15% “underrepresented minorities” in the tech community, like Native Americans, explains Ganguly, who says his team makes a “conscious effort” to hire women into leadership positions. The company’s leadership team is currently made up of 50% women.

“We didn’t want to be in a situation where we look back on the company we’ve built two, three, four years from now, and what we’ve done is institutionalized a homogenous culture,” he says.

But finding hires for a diverse team is a struggle in tech. Part of it is not having diverse applicants with the right skill sets. The other part is not knowing where to look for those people.

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“If you want diversity, you don’t necessarily have a readily available candidate pool of people from varying backgrounds, people of different genders, to choose from,” says Ganguly.

All Talk and No Game?

Around the same time that the diversity conversation was being kicked up inside Apptentive, outside its walls, minority groups were speaking up against tech’s ugly diversity problem. Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson calls fixing tech’s lack of diversity “the next step in the civil rights movement.” Ganguly and his cofounders knew they needed to step up on solving their own diversity problem if they wanted to grow into the company they had so long talked about being.

So, they changed their strategy. “Before, we were more reactive,” he explains. “What shifted after this point was that we started to be more proactive. We started to go out and talk to communities. For example, in Seattle, there’s a burgeoning of women in the tech community. We started to go to those. I started to ask people when I went to those events where I should be looking [for talent] and who I should be meeting.”

“We started fostering a community and hosting events to bring the mobile community together,” he adds. “We started to see a broader set of the Seattle mobile community and we started to get more diverse people just showing up at those events. As a result of that, we were able to spur conversations with people.”

Those efforts began spinning interest in Apptentive, and the pool of applicants slowly started getting more diverse. In the hiring process, Ganguly says the team thinks carefully about the inherent biases each one of them may be struggling with and are aware of how those biases may stop them from hiring the right person for the job.

“People talk a lot about culture and fit, but cultural fit is not ‘Do you like this person?’” he says. “That’s just your own personal need to belong.”

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Since their efforts began, Ganguly says even conversations about diversity itself has become “much more well-rounded” within the company.

He says: “When there was just nine or 10 of us, we had a harder time putting our finger on what diversity felt like or was. Now that we have people on our team who represent different backgrounds, they’re able to talk, from their perspective, on what has worked and what doesn’t work. They’re able to talk about their networks and the people that they know and who they might refer to join us.”

For companies that want to fix their diversity problem, Ganguly advises being careful as to how you communicate your diversifying efforts with your team. The one thing you don’t want to do is come across like you would hire less-qualified people for the sake of diversity. “That should never be the message,” he warns. “What you want to communicate is that it’s important to have diversity, build better products, build better teams because you have diverse thinking.”

At the end of the day, what better way to make sure you have all your bases covered than to have someone representing all those bases directly report to you? That’s not just smart; it’s now required.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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