Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Jack Dorsey. Elon Musk. We all know their names, most of us know their faces and we all know their companies. Beyond the fact that they've each left an indelible mark on our history here on Earth, it's impossible to ignore the fact that they are all white men.

The tech industry is notoriously lacking in diversity at the executive level. Even though we've made some progress in elevating female leaders in recent years (Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer), there is still an enormous gap. I grew up in Montreal, Canada, a society where inclusion was celebrated and we accepted everyone. Having a gay prime minister was never considered a news story. But that's not the case here.

I've learned a lot during my time at Techstars and we've tried many things, some that worked and some that 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. Here's a glimpse into what I've learned throughout that journey:

Start by fostering inclusion

At Techstars, we believe that the best innovation is born out of diverse teams, and that a wider variety of perspectives, produces better outcomes. We actively seek out diverse founders and work to partner them with mentors that can provide them with differing points of view. But while diversity is important, it 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.

Inclusion training is a great place to start. Make sure your leadership team is educated on what inclusion is, why it is important and then let them come up with programs to foster inclusive practices throughout your organization. Once leadership begins to model inclusive behavior and prioritizes inclusion as a key pillar when creating new programs, the rest of your teams will follow suit. Inclusive organizations engage in active listening and encourage different points of view--in meetings, performance reviews and other interactions.

Make diversity part of your foundation

If you make diversity one of your corporate pillars as a founder, then you're more likely to constantly consider it as a priority as you grow your business. When it comes to hiring, push yourself and your teams to look for employees that are diverse, come from backgrounds that are different and have a unique experience that brings valuable outside perspective to what you're trying to accomplish. Part of this is also making sure you address any of your unconscious biases in the hiring process.

Forming an Inclusion Council made up of team members from across the organization, outside of the founder or CEO, provides a strong foundation for ensuring your organization remains diverse and inclusive. The role of the Inclusion Council is to provide a line of communication about D&I related challenges and opportunities to your leadership team. This gives employees a voice and builds inclusion thus building a diverse workforce. They also work with employees to create programs that promote diverse employee engagement, address diversity challenges within the workplace and provide support to underrepresented employee groups.

Create diverse mentor relationships

There are certainly a number of arguments and factors for why the diversity gap in tech exists. From gaps in pay, to gaps in investment and a lack of diverse leaders at the executive table, underrepresented groups in tech are at a distinct disadvantage. But a key disparity that doesn't get as much attention, is the diversity gap in mentorship.

Mentorship is one of the key pillars to success at Techstars. We believe that mentorship provides a mutually beneficial opportunity for both the mentor and mentee, and can open doors in ways entrepreneurs may have never imagined. But mentoring and training programs that lack diversity will fall short.

Successful mentoring programs forge long-lasting relationships and catalyze beneficial behavioral changes in an organization, an outcome of particular benefit for companies eager to promote diversity. Establishing diverse mentorship matches (i.e. majority-minority) allows mentors and mentees to challenge each other in a safe environment that encourages taking risks and sharing fears. These relationships often yield new perspectives that are beneficial to both the mentor and mentee, and can have a profound impact on corporate culture.

Mentoring is a way that startups can increase engagement among staff. When tech startups offer mentoring programs, it empowers employees to reach into their networks and feel ownership for the mentee's success. By taking proactive steps and creating organizations that focus on inclusion and diversity from ground zero, startups can help us all work towards closing the diversity gap in tech.

Published on: Aug 30, 2018