Diversity and entrepreneurship can be a very touchy subject as TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington found out last year when he commented publically on the relative lack of minority founders in Silicon Valley. The resulting kerfuffle, as well as the ongoing debate about "brogrammer" culture at start-ups and even the recent sexual harassment case at a high-profile VC firm could give the average entrepreneur the sense that diversity--beyond the obvious common decency of never discriminating against a candidate based on their gender, race, or affiliation--is a fraught political and legal issue that he wouldn't want to touch with a 10-foot barge pole.
But the experience of accounting software company Kashoo shows that, for a fledgling company, thinking actively about diversity isn't just a way to avoid trouble or a shouting match, but rather a means to add value to your business relatively easily.
What did Kashoo do? To a 12-member team that CEO Jim Secord described to Inc.com as "not diverse" and "typical start-up: younger, tech savvy, male dominated," the company added a middle-aged, female CPA with limited tech know-how, giving her a customer-support role. Oh, and by the way, she lives in New Jersey, about as far away from Kashoo's Vancouver offices as you can get and still be in North America.
It's worked out wonderfully, according to Secord. "We provide accounting packages for small business, typically owner operated, and there's a certain mindset of that business owner in terms of what they're trying to get accomplished. Just having done bookkeeping and accounting for our customer segment, she was able to bring a lot of practical, every-day, useful experience to the questions and problems that they present," says Secord.
He wasn't sure that such an out-of-the-box hire would work. "It was an experiment. If it doesn't work out, we'll fail fast and thanks for your time," Secord reports telling his unlikely new employee. But after a little bit of instruction in the ins and outs of Google Docs and Skype, some hand wringing about cultural fit and eight months on the job, she's thriving. And customers love her. "A lot of the customers are her demographic so it's easy for her to relate. Her style with the customers is really good," says Secord.
Plus, the geographic diversity has added benefits. Aside from being available earlier to customers on the east coast, a New Jersey-based employee simply costs Kashoo less. "Vancouver, San Francisco, Seattle, you're faced with cost-of-living issues," explains Secord, "so when you are recruiting someone, you're typically paying a premium. The fact that we're hiring out of New Jersey where it's not exactly a tech hotbed helps from a cost perspective."
Kashoo's approach to diversity is just what Shirley Engelmeier, CEO of InclusionINC and author of Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage, recommends. Forget ticking boxes or political correctness, hiring a heterogeneous team is all about bringing the competencies necessary for success into your business, according to Engelmeier.
She recommends looking at diversity "through the lens of, what are the diverse competencies you need to build your business, and those diverse competencies are going to show up in different people. Don't just do it to get numbers. Don't just do it to make your team look different. That's part of corporate diversity fatigue. For a couple of decades we've been counting women and people of color without linking it to what the bottom line business rationale is for that, and the bottom line business rationale is about skills," she says.
And don't think of "diversity" as simply a matter of race and gender. "Frequently in this space, right wrong, good or bad, diversity has become about race and gender. It's about whether you're Generation Y or a Baby Boomer, whether you live in Minneapolis or Manhattan," says Engelmeier.
Is it time for your business to think more creatively about who you hire?