Spire Global and several other startups in Silicon Valley are taking steps in their early stages to embrace diversity. Above, Austin Ellies, a satellite operations engineer at Spire, holds a mock frame of the company's second-generation satellite platform. Courtesy Spire

After a decade in the tech industry, Isaac Schlueter decided something had to change. Schlueter, the CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based npm, wanted his latest venture to be less like the others, and that meant more diverse in gender, ethnicity and, by extension, in thought.

Schlueter, 36, is your typical, carbon-copy techie “white dude” who went to school for computer science, but he understands that surrounding himself with a bunch of other white men is not the best way to run npm, a popular JavaScript package manager that has raised more than $10 million in funding.

“That’s boring. It’s not a good way to solve problems. You end up having the same thoughts over and over again, and it makes you really vulnerable,” Schlueter said.

With Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity being such a big issue recently, many hot startups like Schlueter’s npm are making it a priority from the get-go. For these young companies, embracing diversity is not only the morally right thing to do, it also gives them a competitive edge over startups that ignore the brainpower of women and minorities.

The tech industry’s diversity problem largely stems from the startup culture of “move fast and break things,” popularized by Facebook and other tech giants that grew quickly but didn’t stop to consider that their way of hiring largely ignored women, African-Americans and Hispanics -- until they were embarrassed by activists like Rev. Jesse Jackson who pointed these issues out to them.

At Google and Twitter, for example, female representation is just 30 percent while Hispanics make up 3 percent of the workforce and African-Americans represent 2 percent of the employee bases. Fixing diversity when you get to that size is an effort that will take many years, but embracing it right off the bat allows young companies to be inclusive almost immediately.

“If half the ideas in the room are getting shut out before they get voiced, then your company as a whole isn’t as intelligent as it could be,” Schlueter said. “It’s not as effective.”

Some in the venture capital community are also looking at homogeneous teams as a potential risk in funding new companies.

“We think that complementary executives and complementary team members at early-stage companies and growth-based companies is really important,” said Matt Holleran, general partner at venture capital firm Cloud Apps Capital Partners. Holleran said it’s important that young companies not be made up of similarly minded individuals. “We think having different perspectives aides to making the right decision in how they grow.”

Diversity Dashboard

At Buffer, the startup behind a social media sharing tool of that name, diversity became a priority after the company last year added “Do the right thing” to its list of official values. That was the catalyst for a group of Buffer employees to kick off a number of diversity initiatives, including building a “Diversity Dashboard.” Launched in June, this open-source tool lets anyone see real-time data on the diversity of Buffer’s employees and its job applicants.

“If we were to develop a new product or a new feature on our product, we would want to validate it. We would like to have the data behind it,” said Courtney Seiter, a Buffer employees who works on diversity. “We thought maybe we could have the same opportunity with diversity.”

Diversity Dashboard
Buffer, a social media tool startup, tracks its diversity progress using a public "Diversity Dashboard" that shows the gender and ethnic make up of its employees and its applicants. Buffer

Spire Global, which builds miniature, data-collecting space satellites, also has a group of employees who focus on diversity and look for ways to make the company more inclusive. This ranges from major actions like working with diversity consultants to smaller, yet still-important steps, like including receptacles for feminine products in the restrooms.

“There’s no one thing that you can do,” said Chris Wake, Spire’s head of business operations. “It really comes down to a thousand little things that you can do to be a better citizen effectively and a more neutral party to make an inviting workplace for women, men and any additional cultures.”

Other companies try to be conscious of diversity by creating a work environment that is welcoming to more than just your recently graduated “brogrammer.” Change.org, for example, offers both men and women 18 weeks of fully-paid parental leave while Schlueter and his npm co-founders make it a point to remind their employees that it’s time to go home every day around 5 p.m., effectively getting rid of the pressure to work non-stop that some workers in the tech industry feel and that is unattractive to many women who wish to work in tech but also have children.

Isaac Schleuter npm
Isaac Schleuter, CEO of npm, has made diversity a priority for his startup, which he co-founded in 2014. Courtesy npm

Enough 'Hardcore Ninjas'

Startups love to use nontraditional job descriptions and titles, but some of those are under review for words that may be uninviting to women and minorities. “If you say, ‘We're looking for a rockstar, hardcore ninja to come in here and just murder the code,’ that's kind of violent and oppressive, and indicates you have a company culture of machismo and chest-beating,” Schlueter said.

Both npm and Spire have worked with consultants to go through their job descriptions and eliminate any wording that might be turning candidates away.

Meanwhile, Lever, which builds software used to track job applicants, has eliminated the use of requirements from job listings. Studies show women often do not apply for jobs unless they meet 100 percent of the necessary qualifications, while most men apply as long as they hit 60 percent of the criteria. To eliminate that obstacle, Lever replaced requirements with a list of the impacts the company expects applicants to have on the company.

“We saw the volume of candidates applying [go up], which for a small company is a big deal, and we also saw the quality of the candidates go up,” said Sarah Nahm, CEO of Lever.

We don't care about your credentials. We really only care about what you can build.

Changing the language in job descriptions is effective, but some tech startups are going further. Earlier this year, personal-digital locker KeepSafe tried out a hiring process for an engineering position that asked applicants to disregard their resumes and instead send a paragraph describing a recent project they’d created and what was cool about it. The purpose of this technique was to focus squarely on applicants’ skills rather than credentials like where they went to school or where they’d previously worked -- both of which are known to have no correlation with the quality of a coder’s skills.

“We don't care about your credentials. We really only care about what you can build,” said Zouhair Belkoura, KeepSafe CEO.

Rooney Rule

Many startups are using policies that require managers to interview at least one woman and one person from an underrepresented group before they make a hire. This policy is often referred to as the Rooney Rule because it is modeled on a policy used by the National Football League and named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

At api.ai, a tech startup, 38 percent of the workforce are women, most of which hold technical positions. Above, a portion of the team: (from left to right) Tatiana Kramareva (Linguist), Marina Ashurkina (Lead Linguist), Julia Potanina (Quality Assurance), Evgenia Bobkova (Linguist), Daniya Bulkhina (Customer Support Agent), Ekaterina Sokryukina(Linguist), Ksenia Solovieva (Linguist). Courtesy api.ai

Api.ai, which makes conversational voice interface software that third-party developers can integrate into their apps, is one of the startups that has a Rooney Rule-like policy in place. Every time api.ai has an opening, the company includes female and ethnically diverse individuals in its pool of candidates. This is accomplished by giving serious consideration to candidates from schools that don’t typically feed into Silicon Valley. Additionally, api.ai works with TenXList, an organization that identifies top female software engineers and recommends them to tech companies when they are hiring.

Through these types of efforts, api.ai has reached 38 percent representation for women, the majority of which are in technical roles. “Some other companies or even schools have said that they didn’t want to lower the standards of their candidates to incorporate women, but that’s never been a problem for us,” said Christina Apatow, api.ai platform lead. “We’re able to find the best women candidates.”

Diverse Leaders

Among the most critical components any startup can have is a diverse leadership team. For starters, diversity within the leadership ranks brings more ideas and more perspectives to the table, ensuring the company makes decisions with a wide array of consumers and clients in mind.

“We see building a diverse company as good for our team, good for our business and good for the world. Everyone really wins when business is diversified,” said Benjamin Joffe-Walt, chief people officer at Change.org, which has 40 percent female representation among its leaders. "Diverse teams perform better."

For employees and job candidates, diversity at the top sends the message that they have the opportunity to be rewarded for their hard work by rising within the company.

Although most of these companies have embraced diversity, there is still more work to do. Most of these companies, for example, are doing a much better job of hiring women than they are of hiring Hispanics and African-Americans. But by putting in place mechanisms intended to boost hiring of all sorts of individuals, these companies are setting themselves up well for a more diverse future.

“The bigger a company gets, the harder it is to change the company culture,” Schlueter said.