Diversity and Inclusion in Startups: Lessons Learnt from Academia

As a university professor and CEO of an EdTech company, I have experienced first-hand various challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the two sectors. While systemic issues persist, there are opportunities for individual companies to adopt best practices. Here are three tips for startups.

First, it's crucial to establish the necessary support structures before promoting DEI goals within your organisation. Startups are hustling and bustling with limited resources, racing against time to make their mark. It's easy to fall into the trap of shortcuts. But when it comes to DEI, there's no fast-track to success. In fact, adopting DEI goals without the necessary training can easily backfire.

Here is one example of how merely adopting lofty DEI objectives without providing employees with proper training on cross-cultural differences can lead to unintended consequences. My academic colleague, Loleta Fahad, shared the following experience with me: Loleta worked in a university department where everyone was encouraged to bring their “whole self to work”. This is a popular DEI goal. However, when Loleta brought her “authentic self” to the university office, her expressive and impassionate talking got ridiculed and earned her the label of an “angry Black woman.” So, instead of promoting greater diversity, the DEI encouragement fuelled discrimination. 

In our book Inspirational Women in Academia, Loleta and I describe further examples of how without the right guidance, individuals may find it challenging to put DEI goals into practice. My advice to startups therefore is: take the time for discussions and training to understand the essence of DEI aims. Before diving headfirst into new policies centred around DEI goals, make sure to empower your team with the knowledge and skills they need to understand them.

The second tip focuses on the additional challenges faced by members of minority groups when they are tasked with taking on mentorship and leadership roles. The academics I interviewed shared with me how often they have been invited to meetings to fill the quota of underrepresented groups rather than because of their professional contributions.  Representing a minority group at strategic events implies more work on the shoulders of a few for the benefit of many. This, paradoxically, compromises the advancement of the individual’s own professional career.

I have seen many startups made up of individuals from the same background, who whenever there's a need for representation, consistently rely on the one colleague who stands out as different. Here's the thing: by constantly assigning this responsibility to that colleague, they unintentionally burden them with an extra weight. Instead, it is better to consider establishing DEI champions within a company who can take on this role. DEI is a shared responsibility and commitment, and it's even more impactful when those from the majority group take a front-and-centre role in championing DEI efforts.

Finally, remember that DEI is about intersections: gender intersects with age, culture, disability, class, economic background and many other markers of diversity. That means that a young woman from a working-class background has different needs and skillsets than a middle-aged woman with a chronic illness. Or a mother leading a startup and a fresh graduate looking to join the team.

Here are two key considerations for your startup: avoid blanket policies and promote diverse mentorship possibilities. Take the example of mentorship for women in startups. Research shows, and yet businesses don’t seem to realise, that diverse and multiple mentorship relationships are best to advance careers.  A blanket policy for “all female founders” is unlikely to meet the diverse needs that women have. Instead of setting up a “women only club”, build a DEI club.

So that minority representation does not become a form of minority discrimination, businesses need to provide diverse mentorship options and leadership training. Think of a mentorship programme where a female startup CEO shadows a male CEO of a large company. Such a dynamic can yield tremendous benefits that may surpass those of a women-only club, where women exclusively learn from other women.

Last but not least, bear in mind that DEI is not a checkbox exercise—it's a profound commitment that comes with many hard lessons learnt along the way. Yet, the competitive nature of business means that often startups only share their DEI successes. Do not be swayed by the allure of success. The most inspirational academic women we interviewed have long “shadow CVs” and they see their failures as teaching moments. In both business and academia, failures should be celebrated as instructional strategies for advancing careers. By openly sharing vulnerabilities and lessons learnt from mistakes, we lay the foundation for a culture of understanding.