It's a well-known fact that diversity drives innovation and fosters successful companies. So, one would think it'd be a top priority for all organizations. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story. In the tech industry, in particular, a staggering 76 percent of jobs are held by men, and 83 percent of tech execs are white.

At the same time, the tech industry is arguably one of the spaces where diversity is most critical. For example, tech like artificial intelligence, which my company Affectiva develops, has the power to improve lives. But it also has the potential to widen the bounds of inequality, if it is only developed by one group of like-minded people, based on their own identities and experiences. After all, humans tend to solve problems that we know, so if we only consider our own realities, we'll continue to put others at a disadvantage.

This issue is really personal to me: as a Muslim-American woman and mother, I know what it's like to be in the minority. I've been in rooms full of all-male investors, and had to find ways to relate and get my point across. Considering that female-founded companies reportedly receive less than 3 percent of VC funding--and women of color get even less than that--I am hopeful that I can use my position as a startup CEO to help open more doors for the future female and minority leaders who will come after me.

Here are three actionable ways to promote diversity and inclusion in your organization.

1. Celebrate diversity of cultures and backgrounds.

Many organizations are striving to hit certain goals for diversity in hiring, but it's not just about checking a box. If you want to truly claim to be inclusive, you need to celebrate diversity in all of its forms.

I'm really proud of the diverse team we've built (and are continuing to build) at Affectiva - over a third of our team are women and majority are non-white, hailing from all corners of the world. But I know that simply having a diverse team isn't enough. So, we have traditions to encourage employees to share their backgrounds with one another.

One of my favorites is international potluck lunch. Everyone is invited to bring in a dish from their home country or heritage, and we often share music, customs, and stories. While it's fun (and delicious) to enjoy a meal amongst team members, the larger goal is to encourage employees to constantly share what makes them unique, in the hopes that that mentality transcends the way we approach working together every day.

We also give employees the opportunity to share highlights from travels at weekly meetings. Not only does it help to show what people across the organization are working on and where they've been, but it promotes the idea of taking a global approach to everything we do. These may seem like small practices, but actively celebrating diversity can have a significant impact on making people feel welcome while reminding us all to incorporate different perspectives in our daily work.

2. Make flexibility the rule, not the exception.

Flexibility has long been recognized as an important perk for employee satisfaction. But flexibility isn't just a "nice-to-have"--it's a must-have in order to make people of all different backgrounds feel included. After all, people have different obligations in life, that may make it easier for them to work outside of the typical 9 to 5. That doesn't mean that they can't make valuable contributions, though--it just means that organizations need to offer them the flexibility to produce their best work.

As a working mom, ensuring that other working parents feel supported is especially important to me. Tech companies like Google and Airbnb allow new parents to work part-time, for full-time salary, even after their standard parental leave. Granting flexibility doesn't need to be such a large gesture, though. Perhaps it's as simple as offering flexible hours, or remote working options, to ease parenting and help spouses with childcare.

Beyond obligations, it's also important to take time for self-care outside of work, and encourage employees to do so. Personally, it can be hard to find time for self-care between being a CEO and being a single mom. But, I have a Friday Zumba class that I will always make time for. It's a small indulgence, but I hope it sets an example for others to feel they can do the same.

For me, what it comes down to is the fact that we're a goals-driven organization. We're on a mission to humanize technology, and each team member has an important role to play in meeting that goal. But when and where employees work toward these goals doesn't matter to me. And I've realized that when people (myself included!) feel supported, they will go above and beyond to get their work done, around their own schedule.

3.  Empower role models and champion diversity from the top down.

If we want the workforce to be more diverse in the future, we need to inspire the next generation with role models that come from diverse backgrounds. So, when thinking about leaders that are the "face" of your organization, it's important to highlight people who can show a different perspective.

For example, Dr. Taniya Mishra is our Director of Research, whom I've encouraged to become a leader within our organization and a public face of the research we do. She has amazing expertise to share, and as a woman of color, she has the power to inspire other young women to enter into the heavily male-dominated STEM field.

She's even gone on to spearhead which leads to my next point: Consider diversity not just in terms of race, ethnicity or gender, but age as well. Affectiva's internship program allows us to tap into young minds that bring new ways of viewing problems and creative approaches to solving them. Last year's cohort collectively spoke over a dozen languages and represented seven different cultural backgrounds. 

If a large internship program seems daunting, you can start small. But having programs for young talent, and providing them with mentors from all different backgrounds, will pay dividends for the next generation.

Published on: Feb 21, 2019
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