Advice on why it’s important to create a diversity plan, where to find diverse candidates, and how to hire for culture add instead of culture fit.

Many of our early stage founders want to build a diverse and inclusive team, but get stuck at step one: the job is posted, but the candidate pool lacks diversity. When this happens, I often hear, “the top of the funnel is just not diverse,” or “there’s a pipeline issue.”

In certain fields like engineering, where the assumption is that it’s hard to find female engineers, we often hear these excuses. This is the wrong attitude to have. I’ve seen this play out in many of our portfolio companies, where the pressure to hire and scale quickly led to prioritizing speed over diversity.

In this article, I asked our principals and in-house talent and culture experts Scott Moss and Kat Steinmetz to share some advice on why it’s important to create a diversity plan, where to find diverse candidates, and how to hire for culture add instead of culture fit.

Why It’s Important To Have A Diversity Plan 

This is an important topic for me personally. Throughout my career, I, like many, have experienced varying degrees of harassment due to my race and gender. I’ve worked in organizations where DE&I policy is undefined, so problems fall into a chaotic, unstructured zone. 

Many people bear these types of situations silently because they don’t feel supported or empowered to change them. It doesn’t have to be so, and prioritizing a healthy, diverse culture from day one can, in fact, set your company up for greater success in the future.

This is why the first few hires at an early stage startup really matter. 

Nobody wants to be the “first of anything” to enter any work environment. It’s much easier to recruit diverse talent when you are a small team of three or four employees. 

“When you start off well, it dominoes from there,” said Kat. “Those first few hires become an exponential benefit in your recruitment process because they bring their networks, their way of thinking, and they add to the culture.”

Where To Find Diverse Candidates 

As a company representative and leader, it is your responsibility to widen your network and open up the pool of candidates. “Have conversations with candidates in rooms you don’t normally have access to,” said Scott, who regularly mentors young engineers on how to break into tech. 

If you’re hyper-focused on the business school networks, consider candidates from state schools. Many of us at Initialized didn’t go to Ivy League schools but were still able to start companies and succeed in our careers. We live in a world where Ivy League does not necessarily equal talent. What’s more important to measure is having diversity of thought, or the ability to bring different viewpoints to the table as a team.

Beyond business schools and Ivy Leagues, Scott also recommends looking for talent through coding boot camps, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, women’s colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions.

Here are some additional suggestions:

1) Use Twitter as a Recruitment Tool 

If you’re getting similar-looking resumes from LinkedIn, try Twitter or another social media platform. One of Scott’s mentees went from working at PayPal to having three offers and tripled her salary in two weeks through Twitter. 

What she did specifically was tweet APIs and other examples of her work as a developer so that recruiters could get a sense of how she worked.

“There’s a high success rate of finding diverse talent on Twitter,” said Scott, adding that eight out of 10 engineers he mentors have seen success in job placement by simply tweeting. Oftentimes, underrepresented engineers and developers are overlooked or ghosted on LinkedIn, so they’ve moved their job searches onto other platforms. 

Similarly, many founders don’t naturally think of Twitter as a place to look for talent. 

 “Most people only think of posting thought leadership on Twitter, but the short game is finding diverse candidates outside your normal recruiting process.”

2) Widen Your Search Outside of NY or SF

In a remote work environment where a candidate’s location is less important, try widening your search outside New York and San Francisco. Kat, who has built out HR functions for companies like Box and Stitch Fix, recently hosted an internal workshop for our early stage founders on this topic. Her key advice: If you are thoughtful and intentional about building up your company’s culture and set of values, it won’t matter where your employees are based. 

3) Emphasize Culture Add Instead of Culture Fit

A common mistake we see early stage founders make is to look for culture fit instead of culture add. People tend to hire people similar to themselves, especially when starting a company. 

“Many people try to weaponize that and argue that their culture is what makes them great,” said Scott, adding that the frat house environment is actually a “gating mechanism” for diversity. 

Instead, seek candidates who can bring a fresh perspective to your organization. Go beyond a diversity training video, HR poster, or checking DE&I off a list. Culture add is when a combination of the people who are working there can interact with one another beneath the iceberg.

“You have to cultivate a good feedback culture so that people feel like their ideas can be heard and they won’t be seen as the outlier,” said Kat. As the CEO, it’s your responsibility to engage employees to take part in creating a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming environment with you.

4) The importance of storytelling through marketing and website material

Most early stage founders neglect marketing, social media, and their overall website experience until the final hour. I can’t tell you the number of times our head of portfolio PR Daniel Sherman has had to remind a founder to create a Twitter account the week before a company launch.

I’m here to tell you why ignoring storytelling can be one of the biggest mistakes a founder can make. Many of our own employees at Initialized have told me our firms’ website was a clear differentiation during their recruitment process.

I’m proud to say that while only 15 percent of general partners at US VC firms are women, our current senior investment team is over 50% women. Attracting diverse talent is easier when you already have a strong base. Visual representation and storytelling matter, especially when recruiting a more diverse workforce.

Your brand identity is the first thing a prospective candidate or customer will see when they visit your website. How are you supposed to “sell” your company to candidates if you don’t have a clearly defined mission or vision? If your website copy and visuals don’t represent a diverse and inclusive work environment, how do you expect to recruit the best employees? 

5) Improve the Candidate Experience 

Not enough emphasis has been placed on improving the candidate experience and interview process. For the candidates that you interview but don’t want to proceed with the hiring process, it’s important to get back to them. Don’t make anyone feel like they are a number or a statistic in the hiring process. 

Traditionally, companies like Google asked tough brain-teaser questions like how many golf balls can fit into an airplane. Years later, Laszlo Bock, who ran people operations at Google, admitted they were a waste of time. 

 “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart,” he said.

It’s much better for companies to re-think the candidate’s experience and reform their interview process. Scott experienced this firsthand when interviewing at Netflix in 2021 for an engineering role. Instead of asking complicated brain-teasers, the recruiter asked him practical questions about how he would get the job done. As a result, he ended up accepting the job offer.

Another way you can remove the barriers to entry is to be a more empathetic interviewer. Bo Lu, president of one of our portfolio companies, Clipboard Health, has shared a lot of advice on this topic, including:

  • Be transparent. Clipboard has a public guide on what an engineering manager candidate can expect during the final interview process.
  • Peer review the interview process. Have your colleagues critique a job description before it’s posted, and have recruiting managers experience what it’s like to be a candidate interviewing for a position by setting up recorded mock interviews. 
  • Open the line of communication. Clipboard constantly updates its blog to give potential employees a realistic view of what it’s like to work there. A good example is a post titled “Letter to Folks Working with Bo.” 

I can’t stress this enough. If you’re an early stage founder, it will benefit you to create a diversity plan earlier rather than later. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. 

If you’re unsure where to start, we recommend checking out this downloadable blueprint from Paradigm for creating a DEI strategy to drive impact across your organization, as well as this medium post on how a young startup can proactively prioritize DEI.

If you need one more reason, having a diversity plan in place is also better for your business. A 2020 report from McKinsey found that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance for gender and ethnic diversity in more than 1,000 companies. 

It may take a bit longer to fill positions with diverse candidates, but it’s worth it because creating a diverse workplace continues to pay dividends as you build your company, culture, and team.