Sarah Nahm started out her career as a speechwriter for Marissa Mayer at Google and eventually ended up running Lever as CEO

For two years, Sarah Nahm was the only woman at Lever, the company she co-founded and now runs as CEO.

Even though Nahm started off her career a decade ago as a speechwriter at Google for Marissa Mayer, one of the highest-profile women in the industry since the first dot-com boom, Nahm says she never felt like she could make a difference in diversity in tech.

“I didn’t think about how it affected me,” she said. “I won’t even begin to speculate about why.”

But today, the enterprise startup she runs, which builds software for human resources managers, has roughly 100 employees. There are the more conventional signs of Lever’s success — that it has more than 1,000 corporate customers and raised a subsequent $30 million in funding over two rounds.

But more unusually for a Silicon Valley startup, Lever, has a roughly 50–50 ratio of women and men among its employees.

The management of Lever is 53 percent female. The company’s board is 40 percent female. Technical roles are 43 percent women and the company overall is 40 percent non-white.

Nahm says, for her, the turning point was the day when one of the company’s earliest engineers, Rachael Stedman, gave a presentation on diversity and inclusion and what it was like to be a female engineer in a predominantly male industry.

At the time, Lever, which is also one of our portfolio companies at Initialized Capital, had about 10 employees.

“To me, I remember that day and it went great,” Nahm said. “But for her, the fear was becoming a stereotype — being that one woman rattling for diversity.”

Stedman says, “There’s a joke that I’ve heard about the Society for Women Engineers, that it’s the Society for Whining Engineers. I was thinking that if I came out and talked about this, were people going to see me as a woman first and an engineer second? Because you have this choice of bringing it out in the open, or pretending it’s not a thing.”[Public] Diversity & Inclusion at LeverDiversity & Inclusion an open discussion about diversity & inclusion at Lever

Stedman’s presentation, embedded above, was itself provoked by an internal discussion over whether Lever’s recruiting software should have an input field for a recruiter or hiring manager to comment on whether a candidate was a “culture fit” or not. The company ultimately decided not to have “culture fit” as default criteria in its hiring software, although customers could opt-in to add one.

“It was a really small change that ended up being a really big discussion,” Stedman said.

What’s interesting about Stedman’s original presentation is what it omits, or doesn’t even talk about at all.

“We deliberately exclude any kind of teaching or information sharing — like what is privilege, what are the latest diversity and inclusion issues in tech, what are all the statistics and so on — to avoid making the session overwhelming and possibly discouraging people from exploring further,” Stedman explained.

The goal, rather, is to emphasize that Lever as a company cares about the topic of diversity and inclusion. Stedman says this approach leaves people comfortable to continue the conversation, instead of feeling scared or intimidated that they might say the wrong thing.

“It can be a sensitive and stressful topic at times, especially if you’ve never really talked about it before,” Stedman said.

Stedman’s presentation became part of Lever’s standard on-boarding process, and became the basis of an approach where there aren’t necessarily explicit Rooney rule-requirements for interviewing candidates or recruiting bonuses for successfully attracting hires from underrepresented communities, which one might find at larger companies like Facebook.

Instead, a message that diversity matters and that conversations about it are important emanates from the very top through Nahm and her other co-founders.

Deciding as a company what diversity means

“We wanted to set diversity goals that really resonated with people inside the company. The way that most mainstream media wants to define diversity is that it’s tied to race and gender and it has this implicit goal to get to underlying composition of the American population,” said Nahm, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. “We wanted to set diversity goals that made sense to us.”

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The team at Lever, where the company is roughly 50–50 men and women. The company’s management is 53 percent female. The board is 40 percent female. Women make up about 43 percent of technical roles and Lever overall is 40 percent non-white.

That meant consulting with and talking to members of different teams about what goals resonated with them. They asked Jordan Leonard, who worked on sales at Lever, about whether it made sense to add more women to her team.

Leonard ended up writing about it for the company. She pointed out how sales recruiting can be biased to favor more masculine, aggressive traits:

Sales job descriptions are littered with phrases like “shark,” “sports-minded,” “hunter mentality.” During interviews, more than one company explained their strong preference for college athletes, which I wasn’t, and pointedly asked for examples of times I’ve had to compete; I didn’t exactly feel set up for success. Once you’re actually in the door, it doesn’t necessarily get better. I’ve heard a number of stories about sales cultures ranging from the innocuous, like regular boys’ trips to the golf course, to the overtly offensive, like porn at the office or private chat rooms for discussing and rating female employees.

Other team members also publicly wrote about their perspectives on race and inclusion. Another engineer, Leighton Wallacewrote about what it was like to be African-American in the industry. At a different company, he noticed that a team of white engineers from affluent backgrounds chose to delay shipping an Android version of the product because they believed they would make less money on the platform. But it turned out that Android users were far more engaged than iOS ones, and the group later regretted prioritizing the wrong platform.

Then overall as a culture, Nahm said the company decided it wanted a culture that focused on fairness, equal access to rewards and opportunities and practiced what she called “cross-functional empathy.”

“In technology companies, there is this divide you can end up having between “technical” and “non-technical” roles and how they’re valued and perceived inside an organization,” Nahm said. “I’m considered a non-technical founder, despite the fact that I have an engineering degree from Stanford and maybe I guess I don’t look like a technical founder.”

Stedman also explained that diversity and inclusion are different. Diversity is about having a workforce with employees and leaders from different backgrounds. But inclusion is about whether those differences are leveraged to produce the best product and company culture possible. Stedman said a work environment can be diverse, but exclusive, and experience a lot of turnover if the value of that diversity isn’t recognized.

Turning values into practices

From there, Lever took tactical steps to turn these values into concrete practices.

  • In the hiring process, they put in place a project interview that would allow candidates the ability to demonstrate soft skills and how they would work on a team. “When an engineer is giving code reviews, we want to see that they’re actually energizing their teammates. When they’re having conversations about how to build something, they’re leaving their teammate energized instead of tearing them down. You want to feel like your co-worker is in invested in making you become a better engineer,” Stedman said.
  • They sponsored third-party diversity-focused events to put Lever’s brand out into the public eye, instead of waiting for candidates to discover the company.
  • In every job posting, the company made sure to explicitly mention that it was looking to build an inclusive and diverse workforce.
  • They opened a Slack channel where employees could freely talk about diversity and inclusion.
  • They declared “Culture Fit” an invalid reason for disqualifying candidates, and replaced it with more specific, descriptive breakdown of qualities.
  • They designed job postings with gender-neutral language and less on hard requirements and more on expected results.
  • They developed a compensation philosophy that was conscious about not rewarding aggressive negotiators, nor punishing those who were conflict averse.
  • They started and funded Employee Resource Groups like a group for called Leverettes for women, and a group named Leverhues for LGBT employees.
  • They created a full-time Diversity Programs Manager position early on, when the company was just short of 100 employees.

A Slackbot for office chores

They company also took a look at seemingly superficial parts of office culture — like who does the dishes. They realized, for example, that the only people who washed plates in the office were women.

“Shit like that was unnecessary. We just noticed that chores end up being a gendered task inside our company,” Nahm said. “Instead, we could build really simple systems that could create transparency and fairness.”

So they built a Slackbot that assigned and circulated dishwashing responsibilities around the entire workforce. They decided that the opposite of the word “guys” was not “girls,” and that they would use the word “women.”

How did others inside the company react?

“It’s hard to reconstruct all this stuff,” Nahm said. “But it did open up participation for some people. You could tell that some people were relieved.”

One employee previously had a software engineering job in scaling and infrastructure in the pornography industry and never felt like he could openly talk about its culture or attitude toward women.

“He needed permission to care and have a right to speak up and steer the culture,” Nahm said. Nahm said the engineer now runs diversity and inclusion training at Lever’s Ramp Camp where the company on-boards new employees.

The low-hanging fruit in diversity and inclusion:

Stedman said while there’s a lot of pressure for early-stage startups just to do whatever it takes to survive before figuring out diversity and inclusion, there are small steps they can do now.

She remembers the dilemma from when Lever only had 10 employees.

“The default problem for a startup is to exist, so often the priority is just on that. People will say they don’t have the bandwidth to do this extra thing — like it’s nice to have — they’ll say they don’t have time for nice-to-haves,” she said. “But diversity and inclusion is essential as employee engagement.”

Stedman said she’ll attend conferences on diversity and then ask leaders from other companies what three things they could do right now that would show they value diversity and inclusion. Often times, they haven’t done them, she said.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in wanting to have this perfect program and to know what you’re doing before your get started,” she said. She said the workshop she gave a few years ago was ultimately about empathy.

“It’s about truly listening and learning from your co-workers and having empathy for them,” she said. “These are skills. Empathy is a muscle. You have to actually work on it and pay attention it.”

She said there are six or seven things that startups can do today to be welcoming to a broader pool of candidates.

They can:

  • Write a company statement emphasizing that the leadership cares about diversity and puts it somewhere visible so that employees can see it.
  • Have conversations with the team about what diversity and inclusion means to the company.
  • Include it as part of the on-boarding process.
  • Explicitly say that the company cares about diversity and inclusion in job postings.
  • Put it into manager training.
  • Create a Slack channel where employees can bring up ideas and discussions about it.
  • Send out a survey to see how employees are thinking about it or if they have ideas they want to see implemented.

Ultimately, being a smaller company gave Lever the flexibility to experiment in ways that are harder for companies with higher public profiles, larger workforces and pre-established internal cultures.

“We’ve gotten to be a little bit more of a laboratory on what you can do if you invest in diversity when you’re an early stage startup,” Nahm said. “We can be a little more tactical and more creative.”

She added, “The results are there.”