To be perfectly honest, I started thinking about diversity later than I should have. There was, of course, the kind of diversity that I couldn’t help but think about from the outset, as a woman cofounder of a synthetic biology company. But I didn’t think strategically about diversity and inclusion until we started growing rapidly after raising our Series B funding.
As we started to ramp up hiring, our already pretty bad proportion of women at the company (27%) started going down. When I saw that trajectory, I got really worried. I knew we needed to act, but I still wasn’t sure this was the right time. We were still small at that point, with a team of about 40 and a lot of work to do to achieve our mission—was now really the best moment to focus on diversity? Would these issues distract us from our core mission? Maybe, but I realized it would really suck to wake up one day, having totally nailed that mission, only to realize we were just another tech company full of white dudes.
It was around this time that my cofounder (and husband) and I watched the 2011 movie Moneyball. And sitting there together as the credits rolled, something clicked.
Moneyball, to refresh your memory, tells the story of Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics. Faced with a very limited budget, Beane had to figure out how to put together a winning baseball team. To do so, he relies on “sabermetrics”–basically, the statistical analysis of baseball–to identify and sign great players who are undervalued according to the typical criteria used by other teams. The A’s go on to have a record-breaking 20-game winning streak during the 2002 season. In fact, the Red Sox use a similar approach to break the “Curse of the Bambino” and win the 2004 World Series.
Watching Moneyball suddenly made me see diversity issues differently: The real challenge, I thought, is to look for talent that’s being systematically undervalued by the competition. As almost any study will tell you, women and underrepresented minorities hold fewer positions and make less money in our industry than other demographic groups.
Since I believe women and minority candidates are every bit as smart and talented as their counterparts, it follows that they’re being systematically undervalued in the marketplace. In other words, if I took more of a Moneyball approach to diversity, it wouldn’t be a drag on our growth–it would be crucial to it. If we could make Ginkgo a place where these folks want to be, it would give us a competitive edge, right when we needed that most.
Right away, we sat down to sketch out some methods for turning around our diversity numbers.
For starters, we realized that many companies were facing the same problem: not recognizing a diversity problem before it’s (almost) too late, then having to play catchup. We hadn’t exactly prevented that from happening, but we knew we could stop it from continuing. So we convened a diversity roundtable and invited the whole team–not just HR and execs.
Simply talking about our diversity problem and how we might tackle it pushed hiring managers to take a closer look at candidates from underrepresented groups and come up with ways to approach them more effectively. Our hiring managers then asked the recruiters they worked with to look out for those candidates explicitly. We even asked the team to recommend their favorite female candidates (even if they weren’t on the job market) so we could target them for recruitment.
We’ve also found that when it comes to work culture, small gestures can go a long way in helping minority employees know they’re more than just part of a quota. At Ginkgo, we changed some of our happy hours to breakfast meetings so parents working shorter days don’t miss out. And we started a Slack channel where the awesome women at the company can share ideas and support.
To be fair, watching Moneyball may have helped me think about diversity differently, but it didn’t magically solve those problems. Indeed, the analogy quickly comes to an end when we discuss salary. Fair and equal pay is vital to attracting and retaining top but overlooked talent. And make no mistake: Our approach isn’t about fielding a team for less money or paying anybody less—it’s about hiring great people who are being unfairly passed over by other companies. Recruiting and retaining great talent is one of the key challenges that any startup faces.
So while we still have a long way to go, I’m proud to say that 2016 was the year we reversed the downward trend in our team gender ratio. We entered 2017 with 37.5% women, compared to 23% just 12 months before. Our ratio of women in technical (35.8%) and leadership positions (34.5%) is now close to our overall percentage. And taking a queue from Moneyball, we’ll continue to track these figures as rigorously as possible so we know where we stand, and whether we’re still moving in the right direction.
We’re going to keep talking about diversity and working to make our networks, job ads, hiring process, and culture more inclusive for everyone. And we challenge other companies in the space to help raise the bar.
Reshma Shetty is a cofounder of Ginkgo Bioworks, an organism design company expanding the role of biology in our world. Shetty holds a PhD in biological engineering from MIT and has been active in the synthetic biology field for 15 years.