10 Ways to Embed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion into Start Ups

Start-ups and small companies have an advantage when it comes to building a sustainable culture of belonging because by embedding best practices into the culture during early stages of growth.

Why DEI Matters for Start Ups

Best-in-class companies are embracing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace as an operating model. This means they lead all interactions and decision-making with a diverse and inclusive lens, making DEI the way they do business.

This makes sense because DEI is good for business. Embracing DEI principles at work results in belonging, the feeling of being valued, accepted, safe and supported. When employees feel a sense of belonging, they are more willing to express opinions and contribute without fear, enabling you to harness diverse perspectives which leads to more thoughtful and innovative decision-making, improved team performance and better outcomes. 

Research shows that companies with a strong sense of belonging are 35 percent more likely to outperform their competition and achieve greater business results. For these reasons, the ability to bridge across differences to bring out the best in everyone is a fundamental leadership competency that can be the differentiator for success and survival of start-ups. 

How to Embed DEI into Start Up Culture

You don’t need a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer to drive a culture of belonging. In fact, start-ups and small companies have an advantage when it comes to building a sustainable culture of belonging because small efforts implemented consistently have big impact and it is easier to embed best practices into the culture during early stages of growth.

The key to achieving sustainable DEI outcomes is to focus on embracing empathy, understanding and curiosity in your day to day. In doing so, everyone can contribute to fostering belonging by approaching daily interactions and decision-making with a more inclusive mindset.

Here are ten easy steps to get started. 

First, do the inner work. Meaningful actions starts with commitment and reflection:

  • Know Your DEI Why. Reflect on why DEI matters to you. How can you, your company, customers and people you care about benefit when you lead with a more  inclusive mindset? How do DEI principles align with your values and the leader you want to be? Craft a DEI “why” statement and weave it into communications about your company and personal vision, mission and values. Consider including it in your website, recruiting materials, marketing collateral and “mission moments”.
  • Become More Self-Aware. Be honest about biases, assumptions and stereotypes that you may be reluctant to or unable to detect. Pay attention to whenever you have a strong reaction to someone (positive or negative) and ask yourself why. It could be affinity bias at play – the tendency to favor others who share similarities with you. Start to notice situations where you give more weight to information that supports your beliefs and discard information that does not – that’s confirmation bias. 

Next, practice bias busting behaviors. Be intentional about broadening your perspective to inform decision-making. Practices these behaviors in meetings:

  • Focus on the “what”, not the “how”. At start of meetings, reinforce how the meeting aligns with a shared vision, mission and purpose to unify everyone around “good commonalities” while being open to diverse perspectives and approaches to achieve shared goals. 
  • Invite input. Practice asking, “what do you think?” more often during meetings to encourage ideas. And remember to be open to what you hear by seeking to understand, not to agree. Assume you can always learn even when you don’t always agree.
  • Talk less and listen more. Challenge yourself to be the last person to speak up in meetings to minimize the tendency for others to agree with the boss. Challenge yourself to repeat what you heard after someone speaks to reinforce you were listening and accurately understanding. 
  • Ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute. Do not assume someone’s silence means they agree with the discussion or they have nothing to contribute. Instead, intentionally invite those who have not spoken to share their thoughts. Routinely ask if anyone has anything else to add before ending a meeting.
  • Be intentional about selecting your thought partners. Do you only collaborate with people that look like you or come from a similar background? Are your thought partners usually the same people? Regardless of their role in your start-up, every person has a unique perspective and value to add. Widen your “inner circle” by asking thoughtful questions about your team’s strengths and selecting experts in those spaces to participate in meetings and brainstorming sessions (even if they are not leaders).

Finally, invest in personal relationships. While it’s a human tendency to gravitate towards people similar to you, having diverse relationships makes you better informed, more thoughtful, more empathetic and more balanced – all competencies for a great leader!

  • Be present during 1×1’s. Turn off all electronic devices when meeting and embrace getting to know others with genuine curiosity. Ask thoughtful questions to spark interesting and insightful conversation.Try, What are you learning?” or “What are you looking forward to?”. 
  • Let others know they are valued. Too often we don’t share with others the positive impact they have. Doing so is a sure way to boost morale and engagement. End each 1×1 by sharing with someone what they uniquely do well or qualities and behaviors you admire in them.  Let someone know what you have learned from them and how they have positively impacted you.
  • Integrate team building into the day-to-day. Team building should not be a one and done experience, but should be maintained on an ongoing basis. Find ways to incorporate relationship building into the day-to-day work experiences. Carve out a few minutes at the end of meetings to have colleagues share about interests, hobbies, traditions or bucket-list items.

Remember, culture starts at the top and as the founder, you set a tone whether intentional or not. Be intentional about the culture you are building by modeling these inclusive behaviors to make a positive and lasting impact.

Let's Connect

Beth Ridley is a former corporate executive turned organizational transformation consultant, speaker and author. Beth combines 25 years of global leadership and management consulting experience with expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to partner with leaders to transform workplace cultures to better achieve their vision and goals. Beth’s work is featured in national publications and she frequently delivers keynotes and workshops at events around the world. Beth lives with her husband and three children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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