Not long after founding his company, H20.ai in 2012, Sri Ambati walked into the office one day, looked around, and had a staggering, yet embarrassingly obvious realization. Of the six engineers working at H2O, a platform for open-source predictive analytics, there wasn’t a single woman. Ambati knew he had to make a change, and fast. “This is a cultural piece that needs to be put in very early on,” he says. “The initial phase is what makes the biggest impact, and that’s where stepping out of the ordinary has to happen.”
Stepping out of the ordinary for Ambati meant not just waiting for women to apply for the job, but actively seeking out and recruiting female engineers to join the company. In a world where some of the biggest names in tech have admitted weak representation of women and minorities among their employees, Ambati has learned it takes a lot more than simply lip service to help correct the stark gender imbalance in the field.
H2O now has seven women on its data science team, and the 50-person company is made up of 43% women. For comparison’s sake, the national average of STEM jobs held by women is 27%, while only 13% of engineering jobs are held by women, according to statistics by the National Girls Collaborative Project.
What has been Ambati’s approach to achieving a more equal gender balance? “It’s about instilling diversity in the early days,” he says. “After a certain point, it grows on its own.” Fast Company spoke with Ambati about how he and his team have worked to try and bridge the gender tech gap, and what more can be done.
Just figuring out how to keep the business afloat can be more than enough for most startup founders to handle in their early days, let alone thinking about developing a diverse staff. “A lot of people forgo stuff like gender balance and reasonable working hours in the beginning because they are so focused on just making it,” says Erin LeDell, a software developer and computer scientist at H2O.
A few years back, when Ambati wanted to hire LeDell to work at H2O, it took him two years to convince her to join the company. At the time, she was still finishing her PhD and working for a competitor where she was the only female engineer. What ultimately helped convinced LeDell to leave her job for H2O was the sense that she was coming into an environment that was both challenging and welcoming. “The previous company I worked for, I was the only woman there, and after a while, it wears on you,” she says. “There’s an appeal to this company based on Sri himself and the culture he created here. We’ve had a diverse group to begin with.”
Regardless of whether he’s hiring a male or female employee, emphasizing that the company is a place where family is embraced has been important to the culture of the business, says Ambati. As a result, he makes an effort to host kids’ parties or company events that involve not just employees but also their families. The way he sees the recruiting process, it’s not simply about winning over prospective candidates, but “getting the whole family to buy into the vision of the company,” he says.
There’s an unspoken understanding at pretty much every company that when a lot of your employees start having babies, you’re looking at a hefty benefits bill. For too many companies, that turns female hires who haven’t yet had children into a major expense.
Ambati tries to convey the message that a career in tech doesn’t have to come at the expense of not having a family or being forced to freeze your eggs. LeDell vividly recalls a conversation with Ambati during the hiring process, when he alluded to the fact that quite a few of the company’s employees have young children. “He’s a smart man and he knows I’m a woman in my early 30s and that’s something I care about,” says LeDell. “One of the times he interviewed me he said: ‘We have a lot of people with kids and a lot of H2O babies running around.'”
While H2O has been able to build a diverse roster of employees, Ambati recognizes there’s more work to be done. For example, he is now focusing on building a more gender-balanced board for the company, another perennial issue in the tech world. According to a recent report by research firm Equilar, while tech companies have increased the number of women on their boards in the past five years, the industry still falls far behind others when it comes to diversity at the very top. Only 18% of board members at S&P 500 technology companies are women.
According to a Credit Suisse Research Institute report on gender diversity and corporate performance, companies with women on their executive boards have been shown to outperform companies with all-male executive boards. The takeaway: A lack of diversity isn’t just hurting your company culture, but also your bottom line.