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The New Face of STEM: Fostering Equity and Inclusion on Technical Teams – a Recap from Denver Startup Week

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Research shows that gender-diverse and ethnically diverse executive teams financially outperform their non-diverse counterparts. And yet, intentionally hiring a diverse workforce is fraught with challenges, particularly for startups who need to make quick and decisive hiring decisions to fill a talent gap. 

I joined Zari Zahra, co-founder and head of research and development at Spekit to chat about equity and inclusion on technical teams during a session at this year’s Denver Startup Week. This Q&A session unpacked the meaning of diversity and inclusion, overcoming challenges

in hiring, and our role as founders to foster a culture of equity and inclusion.   

What does diversity mean? 

As Zari put it, there’s a traditional understanding of diversity – gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. But the conversation around equity and inclusion is evolving to be more engaged with what the reality of diverse perspectives means,  and that includes age, work experience, mental health, and non-work-related hobbies. 

On top of that, while hiring for diversity may mean one thing in one country, state, city, or company, it may mean something entirely different in another. Finding diverse talent isn’t necessarily about hiring more women; instead, it’s about understanding the fluid nature of equity and adapting to meet a company’s changing diversity needs. 

Why does this matter?

Intentionally hiring for diversity isn’t about ticking boxes or trying to feel good about ourselves. The numbers tell us that building diverse teams is good business. 

When someone with a different perspective joins our team, they engage with the product differently, consider the use case from a different point of view, and ask different questions. This drives us forward in product development and problem-solving. 

For us here at AgentSync, we really need curious, open, creative mindsets of people who are willing to challenge, push boundaries, and approach problems differently. Those people aren’t necessarily from the insurance industry or from the tech industry, but they’re smart individuals who are willing to be open to hearing what the real pain points are and thinking through how we solve them.

“When you think about R&D, when you think about STEM, at its very core, the best companies that do it really well are innovative,” said Zari. “To be innovative, you can’t be a giant echo chamber of all of the same thoughts, and all of the same voices, and perspectives. When we’re designing solutions, we want to be sure we’re accounting for the widest common denominator for end-users.” 

And the best way to do that is with a pool of diverse talent building the solution. 

How do you create a diverse technical team?

The reality is, it’s hard work.

When you decide to focus energy on hiring a diverse team, there is this expectation that suddenly you’ll have an easier time finding diverse talent but that isn’t the case. 

There’s a pipeline issue. Startups need to hire the best candidate for the role but at the same time, diverse talent may not have access to the same opportunities as non-diverse talent. Zari had a really clever approach to this issue with her concept of “lazy filters.” Instead of expecting a candidate to work at company X or attend university Y, we should open up our thinking about what can make a candidate succeed in a given role.

But that’s tricky because it requires us to address the potential areas where we’re unintentionally introducing bias in our own hiring processes. We’ve all been taught about who should show up to what role and how people should talk about their experiences – and often those standards change based on diverse backgrounds. But ultimately, we need to think through every step of the hiring process, rethink the language we use, and contribute to the evolution of hiring processes for the better. 

Beyond that, when you want to see a diverse panel of candidates for every role, you need to understand that it will take time. Unfortunately, for startups, roles need to get filled quickly to solve a gap in the organization. Time just isn’t something that we have an abundance of. For both of us, the answer here is hiring recruiters who are passionate about equity and inclusion but also have a deep understanding of our organizational needs. 

Embedding equity and inclusion in company culture

Creating a workplace where people feel safe and comfortable to be themselves is absolutely crucial to building a culture of equity and inclusion. After all, if your diverse workforce doesn’t feel comfortable expressing their perspectives, then you’ll never unlock the potential of that talent. 

But you have to understand that what makes one person feel safe might not work for someone else. And this isn’t a matter of achieving something and then never talking about it again. Psychological safety is a never-ending work in progress.

“As a startup, people tell us that we’re too young to worry about this problem,” said Zari. “But it’s never too early for certain things that are core and fundamental for the business and culture.”

There’s this biased idea that startups don’t need to concern themselves with equity and inclusion because successful startups of the past never worried about it. But the traditional startup mentality of “move fast and break things” can often result in breaking people, and that isn’t something that we want to be associated with. At AgentSync, we don’t follow that template, but we’re working hard to create a template of our own that we can be proud of. 

“Reputation is hard to reverse,” said Zari. “Our focus on diversity and inclusivity has only been a positive for us.”

And reputation is also really hard to build. 

Strengthening organizations through inclusivity

In a startup, there will be mistakes. But it’s important to always have a conversation and be ready to learn something new. 

Nobody is immune to bias. Just because we have experienced those structures of bias, doesn’t mean we won’t unintentionally create structures of bias ourselves. It requires constant dialogue and growth. 

While there isn’t a perfect line between a culture of inclusivity to product development, we do believe that when we iterate and trust each other as a team, there will be better product outcomes from that. 

Check out our Careers page to learn more about AgentSync’s company culture and open roles.