How do you build a more diverse tech company? It starts at the top


When Huda Idrees ground Dot Health, a health technology startup in Toronto, she had a radical thought: what if her new convention’s culture didn’t have to suck?

In an industry where women and human being of colour are often underrepresented, a company’s first hires typically throw its founding team — so mostly white, and mostly male. But Idrees’s startup is a remarkable example of what can happen when the opposite is true.

“If I’m leading the entourage, I can set the tone for it,” said Idrees, who was previously the chief product officer at the financial affairs startup Wealthsimple. “And it does happen top-down.”

A common refrain centre of those who have spoken to CBC News about diversity and inclusion in Canada’s tech community in new months is that there is no single trick that can help a gathering diversify the gender or race of its hires, or make its workforce more full.

‘I really would love to build a company, that’s a tech convention, that’s mostly women.’ Huda Idrees, founder and CEO of Dot Health

But one text in particular that has come up repeatedly is that, if anything is going to fluctuate, it has to start at the top — with those who are funding, founding, managing and mentoring Canada’s known and future tech companies.

“If we had valued this from the get-go, I don’t notion of that we would be in the mess that we’re in,” said Saadia Muzaffar, the destroyed of Tech Girls Canada, an organization that advocates for better deposition of women in STEM fields, in an interview with CBC News in June.

She believes that if investors figure oned diversity and inclusion efforts as one of their metrics for a company’s success, trade “would start happening tomorrow.”

At Dot Health, Idrees says she’s fortuitous enough to have investors and a board of directors who understand this, and importantly, are sympathetic of the inclusive company she wants to build.

“I really would love to bod a company, that’s a tech company, that’s mostly women,” replies Idrees, whose six hires have all been women so far. “I think the diverse happens all the time.” 

Building better accelerators

Across the industry, seconds for diversity and inclusion are working toward solutions in different ways. One organization, the Toronto-based Innovate Inclusion, has turned its attention to the early stage strengthen structures for entrepreneurs — the technology accelerators and incubators where many institutors get their start.

Co-founders Jessica Yamoah and Sarah Juma comprise spent the past few months interviewing Indigenous, Latino, African and Caribbean entrepreneurs in Canada — communities that don’t typically have planned the same access to mentors, funding, and business-building programs as other assemblages.

The pair want to understand the challenges that entrepreneurs from these underrepresented communities despite and how Innovate Inclusion can partner with incubators and accelerators — which forearm support programs for things like mentorship, training and financing — to relieve a more diverse group of entrepreneurs succeed.

Jessica Yamoah

Unhappy with the scarcity of diversity she saw in the tech world, Jessica Yamoah, pictured, and Sarah Juma irrefutable to launch an advocacy group for entrepreneurs of colour called Innovate Numbering. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

“This is where all the innovative technology is coming from,” holds Yamoah. “And if the people who are creating what’s next aren’t reflective of the communities that they’re spawning for, then certain communities — underrepresented communities — get left behind.”

They scheme to release a report containing their results in the fall, and hope to shape with politicians in Ottawa — where much of the funding for accelerators and incubators comes from — on causing their recommendations into future policies and plans. 

The funnel — and beyond

For some already created companies, making changes to their hiring practices — the so-called top of the funnel — has paid encouraging results. Storytelling tech company WattPad told CBC Communiqu it was able to increase the percentage of women on its 39-person engineering team from 10 per cent in first 2016 to 25 per cent this year — in part, by rewriting job reports to use more inclusive language and widening their recruitment pool. They now secure at least one woman and person of colour are interviewed for each role.

At the advance tech startup Borrowell, co-founders Andrew Graham and Eva Wong set a purpose to have gender parity across the company, but admit they in any case have a ways to go.

“I think I sort of felt like, well now that I’m one of the co-founders and I’m in the way of thinking of being a hiring manager, it would be really easy,” says Wong. In the since year, they’ve increased the number of women overall from 20 per cent to 40 per cent, with ladies now accounting for 60 per cent of Graham’s direct reports.

Sofa Box

A Shopify staff member works in the company’s Toronto office. The company previously told CBC Intelligence it is still collecting and analyzing its diversity data. (Paula Wilson/Shopify)

And at Shopify, aptitude acquisition director Anna Lambert, who has helped grow the company from 150 staff members to over 2,000, says they’ve received anecdotal feedback that restoring their job descriptions has already made a marked difference — “decent that small line that says ‘Hey, you might not have the rigorous experience we’ve placed here, but it’s still OK to apply.'”

“We’ve definitely had people say they pass on not have applied had that not been there,” says Lambert. “That’s been in reality great to see.”

‘Holding yourself accountable’

However, experts caution that these sorts of attainments work best when they’re part of a wider diversity and grouping strategies — and not merely an attempt to try and hire a problem away.

In the spring, Muzaffar and gender imprisonment consultant Steph Guthrie co-authored a diversity guidebook for startups needed Change Together. The pair worked with a Toronto software developer shouted The Working Group over the course of a year to identify a range of games — including improved hiring practices, but also more open communication between superintendence and employees about diversity efforts and goals, and self-reflection on the concepts of leave and oppression — and published the results publicly, warts and all.

“Since then, their cooking has changed. Everybody who comes in mentions that report,” says Muzaffar. “So I do differentiate that if you do go ahead and do this work and do it in a way where you’re very clear that it’s a operate in progress, and you’re holding yourself accountable, I think that it’s a beacon to in the flesh to whom this matters — which should honestly be everybody, but proper to people on the margins it matters more to.”

Getting leaders on board

But for these elbow-greases to have any success, experts say they have to be driven and supported by those at the top. 

Latest tech industry executives Melissa and Johnathan Nightingale launched a consultancy entitled Raw Signal to help build better bosses and improve leadership at tech followers. Often they say they’re called when there’s a problem or a summons a leader doesn’t understand or know how to solve. One of those things is inconsistency.


Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is a frequently cited example of how a coterie’s culture is greatly influenced by the behaviour of those in charge. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

“A lot of the in good time dawdle, they’re trying to figure out how to make a problem go away,” says Johnathan Nightingale. He guesses it’s a red flag when senior leaders say they don’t pay attention to diversity and classification, but say they have someone who does. “There are parts of your corporation where that kind of delegation works. This isn’t one of them.”

“Objective because you have a general counsel on staff doesn’t mean that no one else should control about what the law is,” Melissa Nightingale says. “And we laugh about it because that’s ludicrous. But somehow on diversity and inclusion we say, “Oh we’ve hired a D&I [diversity and inclusion] person and as a result we’re covered.”

Rather, one of the things that they tell leaders is that individuality and inclusion efforts can’t merely be someone else’s job, but important to a company’s absolute leadership and management structure. The idea is that if this sort of evaluation is embedded across those who lead the company, those values wishes trickle down — the same way toxic behaviour at companies such as Uber can drip down, too.

Idrees, the founder of Dot Health, agrees. “Until the CEO is focused on winning this a priority, it’s not going to change,” she says. “And they can’t pay lip service to it, which is what most of them do.”

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