Our journey to fill the role of VP of I&D at Techstars has taken a number of years, but some of the most enlightening moments came from interviewing the fantastic dozen or so finalists we lined up for the position.
One of those moments came in a discussion of the importance of inclusion in any D&I initiative. It was like a lightbulb went off for me. Inclusion was a word that felt true to what I wanted for Techstars and our portfolio.
I grew up in Montreal, Canada, a society where inclusion was celebrated. We learned in high school that Canada was a cultural mosaic – a country made up of many cultures – and the differences between the cultures were to be celebrated.
We would go to the various neighborhoods in Montreal, the Greek neighborhood, the Chinese neighborhood, the Jewish neighborhood, and more. Not just to eat at the restaurants (although we did that too), but to experience the life and culture of as many different people as possible.
That was life in Canada, we accepted everyone. We had a gay prime minister and it wasn’t even a news story. I can’t imagine that in the United States. One of my favorite stories involves of one of my oldest friends, Louis (hi, Louis!). He was the first of my friends to meet a girl and settle down. It has been one of the great love affairs of all time, and 30 year later, when their kids moved out of the house, was when they decided that maybe they should celebrate by getting married. It never mattered there, but it sure would here.
So that inspired me to change the title of the role we were looking to fill here at Techstars from Diversity & Inclusion to Inclusion & Diversity. It’s not my original idea – it’s been done before. But I thought it might cause us to pause a bit and ask why. It would give me the chance to tell my story on why the word “inclusion” resonated with me.
Diversity is important, but will be a wasted effort if you don’t allow people to bring their whole self to work, whatever that might be. Creating an inclusive work environment will bring more diversity to your organization.
Welcome Jason Thompson to Techstars
To continue with our initiative, we are excited to announce that Techstars has hired Jason Thompson as our new VP of I&D. Jason has had a long career in Diversity and Inclusion, most recently with the US Olympic Committee.
Jason has developed award winning D&I programs for sports organizations, healthcare and higher education. In 2016, the D&I Scorecard Jason developed to measure diversity for the National Governing Bodies within the US Olympic Movement was recognized as the number one innovation at the 13th Annual International Innovation in Diversity Award by the Profiles in Diversity Journal.
We made public our commitment to diversity as part of our attendance at the White House demo day event three years ago, but we started on our initiatives well before that.
Techstars has both implemented and learned a lot over this time period. We have tried many things, some have worked and some haven’t, at least not yet. But what has remained unchanged is our commitment to creating an inclusive and diverse environment, and to serve as a role model to others.
Jason, we’re happy to have you on this journey with us.
If you’re around me long enough, you’ll most likely hear me talk about the importance of radical inclusion at a Techstars Startup Week™. Making sure everyone, regardless of background, feels welcome and included is at the heart of this community building effort.
As organizers of Techstars Startup Week, this sense of welcoming is just as important as the educational content that’s delivered – maybe even more so. Creating a space where people feel safe and have a seat at the table where their voice is heard is a huge step towards creating a healthy and sustainable startup ecosystem.
One of the tools that we use to create this safe environment is our Techstars Startup Week Code of Conduct. These are the parameters by which all participants in Techstars Startup Week agree to abide by. Whether you’re a panelist, speaker, volunteer or attendee, by participating in the event you agree that you’ll take part in creating an environment that’s free from harassment.
In order for our Code of Conduct to work, it’s your responsibility to enforce it. It’s one thing to have people agree to follow it, but it’s an entirely other thing if an incident arises but no one is willing to take action.
Failing to take action can have a long-term, negative impact on how your community grows.
There have been many examples throughout the years where organizers of other events failed to act when something was reported, resulting in a dark cloud hanging over their event, and sometimes causing damage to the community afterwards.
I know that enforcing the Code of Conduct can be difficult. When a report of inappropriate behavior comes to our attention, it can feel like a punch to the gut. But it’s in those moments where we have to step up and protect the integrity of our work. If we’re truly committed to bringing our community together, fostering deep and long-lasting connections between entrepreneurs, then you owe it to them to act when something comes to your attention.
I encourage you to read through the Techstars Startup Week Code of Conduct and share it with everyone participating in your Techstars Startup Week. If an incident should arise during your event, having this code to point to will help tremendously, especially if the person accused feels they did nothing wrong.
In situations where you feel stuck or need some guidance, feel free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or through our online reporting tool, saysomething.techstars.com. We’re here to help you and make sure your attendees feel any situation is handled appropriately.
I also encourage you as a Techstars Community Leader to sign a pledge to abide by our Techstars Code of Conduct if you haven’t done so already. It’s a great way to let our community know you’re committed to upholding the ethics we all stand for.
At Techstars, we often hear from startup founders that hiring is one of the most challenging things to do right. We recently held an AMA on this topic (Ask Techstars: Hiring & Culture – Scaling Your Startup) with me (Sabrina McGrail, VP of People at Techstars); Emma Straight, Sr. Recruiter at Techstars; and Natalie Baumgartner, Founder & Chief Psychologist of RoundPegg, a company culture and engagement tool.
How do you make remote employees feel part of the team?
Sabrina: We are actively trying to figure this out at Techstars; we are in 30 locations in 10 countries at this point so we are all over the place. When I chat with people on video calls and ask them how they are doing, I am always so grateful that they are saying they feel connected to the team. Sometimes it’s the simple things, like in the on-boarding process to always get on video calls versus calling someone over the phone. Have more tools where you can connect in real time with people. It does depend on your company and what is right for your company. I know a lot of companies use Slack heavily, (we use Slack), and we use Voxer, which is basically like a walkie talkie, but it really helps me feel connected to people on the fly at work. With time zones especially, and this is one that we have had trouble with since we are all over, before you set a meeting, make sure it is at a time when at least most people can attend. Record your meetings so you can send them out after the fact for people who weren’t able to attend. Find different ways to be considerate, it was a learning process for us and it still is every day. Take time to get feedback, especially from remote people, on what they thought of a meeting or if they feel the level of communication is where it needs to be. It’s a lot of little things stacked on top of each other.
Emma: I worked remotely for about five years for companies in the US; there were some things that really worked and some things that didn’t. The number one thing for me that really helped was that if there was any kind of company meeting, holiday party or anything like that, to get the invite to it. It really helps to feel like you are welcome at those events. Try to make sure you have someone there as a point person to introduce you to everybody and make you feel a little more involved, while also making sure that everybody knew who you were. Those are really important things. I know there is a cost involved, but there are also cost savings with not having someone in a physical office, so that can kind of equal out in the end. Really getting together live and in person is essential, even once per year just to make that connection. I worked for a company in San Francisco and I was able to go out once a month. That helped tremendously to actually get to know people in person.
Natalie: We talk with organizations about this a lot at RoundPegg because, to your point, it is becoming more and more common that people have remote workforces. I was at an event not too long ago where the topic was around culture and disparate workforces. It is really important to not forget about your people that are remote and to really incorporate them and be mindful. It is so easy for that not to happen, not intentionally but just in the busyness of work and lives. Use culture to find out what people’s core values are to link them in. If the value is team orientation, give more opportunities to orient that person into the team. Culture is the glue that holds us together.
If a full time employee’s work doesn’t provide good ROI, or you realize that the person doesn’t fit well with the company’s culture, is simply hiring and firing legal?
Natalie: One of the things that is important to talk about when you bring someone on the team is where you see the synergies and where there might be some gaps so that the stage is set from the beginning. Culture does not have to be good or bad, it can just be a poor fit. So setting it up from the get go, such as a, “Here is where we stand, let’s just watch these things that may not work between us.” It’s just easier to have that tough conversation when it becomes really apparent that there is just not a fit – you’ve been in the conversation all the way along and so you can have that conversation on the fact that those things that you are not aligned on aren’t playing out that well. If it is handled that way, people will self select out. When it comes out of the blue is when there can be a problem, and perhaps they even feel like they are a great fit. Those separations are far more painful.
Sabrina: Those are really good points, especially setting expectations early on. It happens often where you’ll hire someone and they are great at 90% of the job description but the other 10% is something they are really going to need to work on. Setting the stage early on so that it’s part of the discussion is the key component to managing the relationship the right way. Make it a constant conversation and have regular one on ones to check in on progress on how those things are going. From the legal perspective, the US is at-will employment. Every country has different employment and labor laws, so if you are outside of the US those are things to look into. That being said, in the U.S. you can terminate someone without giving them notice or without performance discussions. It is not a best practice. From an employer and brand perspective, you want to make sure that you are doing what is right by the employee. When I have these conversations with people about performance, the best way to approach the situation is to consider what you would want if you were in that position. If you weren’t doing well or you weren’t fitting, wouldn’t you just want to at least have a direct, open discussion about the problem and try to at least feel heard throughout the process?
The goal is to make sure it is not a surprise, but it is not always perfect. Some people really feel rooted and aren’t understanding or are missing what you are saying to them. Just try to make sure you are being as direct as possible when things aren’t lining up and take a step back to see if there is anything that you or the environment is doing to make it really challenging for them. Be a little bit introspective as a manager in the process because it might be something that will come up more and more as the organization grows, so taking that step back is important as well.
Emma: I agree with all those points. Having the conversation early, setting expectations from the beginning, and also giving them a chance. Sometimes there is just a misalignment or miscommunication that they did not realize. The flip side of this is to try to invest in management training because there are so many poor managers. Either they never should have become a manager, or they just haven’t had any training to do so. That is a huge investment for a company. It is so valuable learning little tips along the way, how to communicate effectively, how to understand where someone else is coming from because they may be very different from you. RoundPegg offers the solution to learn how people work best to and almost learn their language, trying to get a midpoint between two people who may be very different.
What few things should candidates do to vet a startup before accepting a job? ex: culture, management style, mission.
Sabrina: Get an understanding of where they are at and where they come from – the history of the startup, the progress they have made, why they are there as founders, and walk into the interview with a set of questions for each person that you speak with that touches on something a little bit different to give you a good sense of the environment and what you are walking into. Questions like, what is your average work week? What is the pace like? What are communications like? More specific questions can include, how are we doing? What’s our runway? Dive into the details in the interview process and ask the same questions a few different times to different people to see if the stories align. You can also just look around the office to see who is working there too, is there any diversity there? Is it clearly just a group of guys that went to college together and are now building this thing? You have got to start somewhere so it’s not that, that is a terrible thing but if it is that way, maybe bring it up in the interview process. Just pay attention to your surroundings and how people are working together.
Natalie: If you ask an organization what their culture is like, it is important to note that we all have different understandings of what culture is and what that word even means, so maybe a better way to get more rigorous data would to be to ask them, how do you do things here? That is what we think about when we consider culture – how do you make decisions? What determines what gets prioritized? How do people communicate here? And what gets rewarded? That doesn’t mean just monetarily rewarded, but what gets encouraged and supported? If you ask about these specifically, you should be able to get a much better read on the culture. If you just ask what their culture is, you may just get answers about their off shoots of culture, answers like, we have a lot of fun here, we’re great, we love each other, we have been together forever, we have a keg, etc. These are things that come out of a culture but they are not really culture.
Emma: When you’re going into their office, really try to pay attention to everything. Look around, who’s working there? What is the vibe like? I had an interview once at a startup and one of the co-founders just kept yawning during my call interview and I was like, well this is not a good sign for so many reasons, but he’s exhausted. So I asked him what he likes about his day and it was a very lackluster answer. That was the person at the helm and running the organization, that behaviour and attitude is going to trickle down and that spoke to me. Also, ask what their retention rate is and if people are leaving very quickly because that could also be a sign. Try to talk to as many people as you can and try to get an authentic answer of what they’re liking and what they’re not liking. It’s always hard in an interview setting, but just pay attention and ask a lot of questions.
What pro-tips do you have for startups or scaling companies to best vet culture fit during the interview process?
Emma: We use RoundPegg, I think it helps. It should not be an indicator of who you should hire and who you shouldn’t hire, but it does help to assess who a person is, how they look at things and how they communicate. It also gives you an understanding of how to communicate more effectively with them. During the interview process, it is always hard because people are probably giving you the best side of themselves, so it is important to have more than one person interview them. Maybe take them outside the office setting, like go get a cup of coffee or take a walk to let them have their guard down a little bit. Also, try to ask other people that had contact with them – ask the receptionist how they acted with them. This is always important because a lot of people treat different levels of people differently. People on the interview team have to be really attentive to things they are feeling, noticing or seeing and how they are communicating via emails, how quickly they get back to you about scheduling an interview, how flexible they are about scheduling interviews, etc.
Natalie: Even if you aren’t using a piece of technology to evaluate culture and culture fit, just get clarity on what the three to five values are that are most important to you. A quick and easy way to do that is to jump on RoundPegg and make a profile for free. Print out your profile and sit down to find what the three values are that you have in common – what are the few that are most core to us as an organization? These are what you really want to be evaluating. However you gather that data, you need to understand the three to five values that are really inherent to what you are and what you want to build your company on, and then you need to be able to, in some way, figure out what is important to this individual that you are interviewing. This is difficult in the interview process because you are selling yourself. Have a list of strength based values and ask them what three they think are the most important to them and then talk about it and ask for examples. This way, you can get under the surface and gain a richer understanding of who someone really is. For example, RoundPegg’s value is being organized and it has been one of our values from the beginning and as we have grown and shifted. One of the questions that we ask is, “talk about a time when you worked in an organization where there was very little systems or processes in place and when it was a problem for you, as well as how you managed it.” That kind of behavioral interviewing question about culture can give you a lot of information.
Sabrina: What I try to do during screens (and it is a lot easier during the first screen than it is down the line) is try to understand their happy place and their unhappy place. I try to get really curious about it and use digging questions about interpersonal relationships, team dynamics, environment and pace. Who is the best manager you have had and tell me about that relationship? What is your least favorite work environment you have ever been in?
Join us for our next Ask Me Anything session with David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Techstars – June 23rd at 10am PT! Ask anything about startups, fundraising, accelerators, and more! REGISTER.
Diversity and inclusion is something we take seriously at Startup Weekend and with every edition we try to come up with ways to inspire a good representation of different groups to come experience a world of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Perhaps these 3 women will further inspire you to get in on the action as they did as participants, organizers and leaders in a short space of time:
Masha Ilina says:
I went to a Startup weekend for the first time in November 2014. I wanted to get to know Dublin’s startup community which this event is perfect for! I was surprised by the quality of mentors and the amount of help you get.
One of the most empowering things for me was to really realize that no idea is a stupid idea and to go and pitch it in front of people. It’s execution really that matters and you have a pool of talent there to work on this idea with for the next 54 hours.
I learned a big deal about group dynamics there. It wasn’t easy to lead a team you barely know! And of course it opened up lots of opportunities for me.
Masha went on to lead her team to win the 1st prize at the November 2014 edition of Startup Weekend with Gift Me – an app that allows you get the perfect gift for a friend as well as crowdfund for it. She also currently on the organizing team for July 2015 edition.
Aimee Clancy says:
My team Medxnote winning Start-up weekend 2013 was my first experience of Start-up Weekend. Before this I didn’t know a UX Designer from a Back End Developer, I had limited experience with technology and no experience in Start-ups. Start-up weekend showed me with entrepreneurial spirit, a good idea and a willingness to learn, regardless of our career history, knowledge or experience we can all connect, inspire and do great things.
After this, my interest in Start-ups gained speed. I once again was part of a winning team – Baffle – in 2014 followed by joined the Start-up weekend organising panel in 2015 and currently I’m involved with leading an innovative tech incubator StartLocal which is supported by FCR Media. I now actively encourage more women to get involved with Startup weekend as the benefits are endless – whether you’re there to learn something new, incorporate innovation into our daily lives or simply just to have a hell of a lot of fun, you won’t be disappointed!
Aimee cannot wait to host you at the July 2015 edition of Startup Weekend, and if there’s one thing I can attest to she’s the best host you can ever ask for.
Tracy Keogh (as told by Nubi Kay)
Tracy’s Startup Weekend story is a very interesting one. She attended in June 2014 as a participant and decided to pitch in the last minute. She went on to win the prize for best pitch as awarded by the Judges for her idea – Insurify – a system to help users better navigate the insurance marketplace. Tracy got so in tune with entrepreneurship and weeks later she decided to go all in, quit her job and co-found Deposify – a deposit management service for landlords and tenants.
By November 2014 she was back at Startup Weekend as a co-organizer and then decided to lead it April 2015. Now that’s impressive, going from participant to leading the Startup Weekend in 3 short weekends.
I hope these stories do inspire you to lean in. If these women can, then you too can and don’t forget to grab tickets for the July 2015 edition of the Startup Weekend Dublin before they run out.
Dublin was home for 3 days to all that love technology, innovation, and belong to the diversity and inclusion school of thought. As a community leader I had the opportunity to secure tickets to the #InspireFest2015 and after all said and done I am most excited to have had the chance to sit in that audience and engage with other participants and speakers.
Although my total time spent at the Bord Gais Theatre, venue for this year’s Inspire Fest, was 10 hours it was a really packed conference and here are 5 main takeaways:
1. We’ve got a hopeful future in the next generation
With people like Lauren Boyle, Emer Hickey, Ciara Judge, and Laura Browne with initiatives like Cool Steam Kids, Germinaid Innovations, and PowerScout, one can confidently hope for a better future. These young people are not build apps to become the next Facebook but are looking to solve big problems from education (STE[A]M orientation), to ending world hunger, and energy management.
It was also great to see today’s people providing the environment for these young chaps to thrive. From university programs in DCU and Trinity to Anne-Marie Imafidon’s Stemettes, we can begin to hope again because we’re in good hands.
2. There are business gains for a diverse inclusion agenda
Perhaps the most profound quote from #InspireFest2015 for me was one from Steve Neff, CTO Fidelity when he said:
— Nubi Kay (@NubiKay) June 18, 2015
Steve showed how inclusion and diversity brings about knowledge and value that a business may have never bargained for. Age, wealth distribution, customers, competitors are also some changes driving need for diversity-driven innovation, not to mention opportunities for entrepreneurs when trying to solve the issue of inclusion e.g. Child carers on demand for working women.
3. Fashion and Technology loving up in today’s world
As you’d see in the very short clip below, fashion and technology seem to have a thing going. Intel labs showcased one of its work with duo Turkish designers at the #InspireFest. I got discussing this with a friend after the conference when I said – wouldn’t it be cool for your dress to link up with your watch or phone and tell you as you’re about to leave the house whether your clothes go with the weather.
4. The future of work is an interesting one
This is a statement DAQRI‘s co-founder Gaia proved with the showcase of the smart uber-cool helmet known as the 4D. She touched on the current outlook of work today – repetitive, laborious and monotonous. With technology such as 4D, work becomes purposeful, connected, and empowering. DAQRI just opened its European HQ in Dublin with a first hackathon to get the developer community in on the future of work. No doubt things are about to get interesting in this space one can agree things are about to get interesting.
Discussions on the future workplace also took place on the first day at #InspireFest2015. While it’s easy to sense some form of consensus among the panelist that work is to be flexible and virtual, that’s a very interesting debate as Yahoo’s Marisser Mayer is currently pushing the agenda to get everyone back to the office building.
5. You should be at #InspireFest2016 because Cindy Gallop said so
— Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) June 21, 2015