By Ashwini Asokan
“I organize hackathons, and trust me, women don’t show up”
“It’s easier to find women for positions with ‘soft’ skills”
“Most women out there prefer stable, safe jobs. Startups are not very conducive to a family life or stability.”
“I don’t want to compromise quality for the sake of diversity or perceived equality”
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As the co-founder of an AI and computer vision startup, hearing people make excuses for the lack of representation of women on their teams makes me mad. And the notion that “There are not enough women in tech” is often justified by a long list of arguments repeated endlessly at tech events and panels. It’s frustrating, because as someone who’s worked to ensure a gender balance at my startup, Mad Street Den, I know it isn’t an insurmountable task. So here’s a short tale of how we managed a work culture that isn’t hostile to women, and doesn’t treat women as a rare and delicate breed.
Given the nature of company we run, it’s essential that a majority of the folks we hire code, code well, code absolutely fucking amazingly well. The rest are best-in-class fashion curators, product managers, designers, content marketing and support folks. Our employees need to be problem solvers, people who understand that at the core we’re a tech startup and whose main goal is to make AI and Computer Vision human. Our business thrives on pushing the boundaries of tech, while taming it simultaneously. We have five broad categories of people in our company. Here’s the percentage of women in them – computer vision/AI as core skills (20 percent women), data science and Machine Learning (>50 percent women), product design and development (55 percent), sales, marketing and business development skills (50 percent) and finally, those that run operations. We’re a total of 30+ people today. With that bit of background out of the way, I’ll jump right into the main areas we focused on and what we did to achieve these numbers in our organisation.
Step 1: Ensure the founding team has a woman. The best way to set the cycle going, is to start at the top, on Day 1.
The WSJ, NYT and First Round Capital have published more than two dozen articles this year alone on the higher rate of success of startups with a woman in the founding team. But you’ve probably already read many of them. Aside from the core tech contribution of being a CXO (which I assume here is a given), it sends a message, sets the tone of the company culture, and creates an opportunity for women to know you’re not a bunch of stereotypical bros. It’s important to show potential hires that the founders have zero tolerance for discrimination, are gender sensitive and acknowledge that employees can have a life outside startup involving children, families and more. Role models are everything. A woman on the founding team sets the cycle of role models, mentorship and sponsorship. And the cycle feeds far beyond what you can see, creating waves through an entire industry. Again, there are several reports out there that highlight higher financial returns on ventures with women in them.
Hiring more women is not charity, it is math and it is business.
In the case of Mad Street Den, I took the time to discuss gender with every single one of our hires, whether they cared about it or not. I spoke about culture, diversity, respect and highest importance given to multi-disciplinary collaboration/teams, no cliques, a design critique-driven culture and much more. I am conscious that one of the roles I play is to hack the gender code, every single minute of my day. It’s been fascinating to watch the team evolve from vaguely awkward interactions to a place filled with endless discussions, arguments, fun and more fun. Mixed groups are now the norm, whether at lunch, a chai walk, a cigarette, at happy hour or during active brainstorming by the aisle. And suddenly, just like that – it doesn’t seem like a conscious effort anymore, just the natural state of the startup, it’s culture – and it absorbs every newbie that walks in the door. I am conscious though, that it is even more important for me to keep an eye on this and actively enable this culture as we scale from 30 to more. Three to six employees was easy, six to 30 hard and 30+ will probably be harder.
Step 2: Hire a diverse team right at the very start.
Picture this: your founding team is set, you’re just getting off the ground, you’re going to take a while to find people who believe in your vision and want to come on board. You’re literally just trying to build something – anything – to get you off the ground and gender may be the last thing on your mind. But the beginning matters. It sets the tone and the culture. With every extra person you hire, it gets harder to change the course you’ve already set yourself on. So while it is difficult, more often than not, hacking this at the start seems like a good way to solve the problem, for good. Here’s what helped us:
a) Having a diverse team from day 0.
At MSD, our designer was one of our first hires. She and I were the first two women in a five-person team and it certainly helped that Anand, my co-founder, was as vested in this. We set the tone early on. With an operations person to follow right after, we were 3–3. And then there was no turning back. Assuming you’re working on something that’s appealing to a broad population and a venture folks can believe in, you’ll note how much hiring seems like it’s about perception. Questions such as how friendly is this startup, how nice are the people, can I trust you to not screw me over – all played big roles in influencing the mindset of the first folks we hired. Setting the base philosophy, the character of the organization and expectations for the first few hires was crucial in causing a snowball effect. Hard as it is in the early days to be diverse, making the gender balance work in any small way mattered and influenced what came after. And the perception and promise of MSD mattered, especially when the women at certain points in our journey over the last two years were fewer than the guys; when some employees were planning to get married and shift, and when some needed paternity leave.
b) Recruiting the first few employees to actively discuss the importance of diversity, both publicly and within the office was crucial to growth.
We hired 6 of our 14 women through referrals, people within the office bringing others they know. Three of those six were referred by men, which in particular is an achievement I’m proud of. Both men and women in my organization get the importance of diversity, actively contribute to thinking and making it work. Not everyone has to take a stance or evangelize all the time, that’s certainly not what I mean here. But awareness, acknowledgement of a need to bridge the gap and a consistent effort to bridge it is a key to achieving the snowball effect.
Step 3: Put the best practices for hiring at the center of your agenda
Here are some simple, straightforward tips for good hiring practices.
a) Social Media overdrive:
LinkedIn: You’re probably reaching out to folks on LinkedIn. We reached out to as many women as men who had profiles that matched. We made a conscious effort to click on the women we saw in the results. I’ve noticed that fewer women than men keep their profiles updated. If a profile looked even remotely promising, we took a chance, sent an inmail and saw if it worked. Actively advertising for jobs on LinkedIn itself created interest. One of our best data scientists is a girl who recently moved to Chennai from Bangalore. She reached out on LinkedIn, which I’ve noticed a far fewer percentage of women do. She asked for a chance to come in and chat. I responded within 3 minutes of receiving the message, interviewed her that evening and hired her 10 mins into our drive to a team happy hour. She was that awesome!
Facebook: Our Facebook page is where we tell our team’s stories. We post pics of our dogs, children, happy hour, karaoke nights, and discuss the importance of diversity. It serves as our way to give the world a peek into our lives everyday. We spend 8–10 hours together every day, sometimes more – how can it not be important to form memories, tell those stories and grow the team in that spirit? We made two key hires because of Facebook referrals and job posts.
Word of mouth: I have my male founder counterparts always sending me referrals of women they know, resumes that come through the network. Not only have I recruited women that came recommended by them, I now have them actively asking me for recommendations of the awesome women who reach out to us for roles, whether or not we’re hiring. There’s the snowball effect I talked about earlier.
b) Having the talk:
I discuss diversity with every new candidate. I tell them we have a dog, family, child friendly workplace. I make it a point to discuss gender and how important it is to keep the company free of the bro-code. I explain that sometimes many of us don’t intend to offend each other on basis of gender and we still do, unknowingly. I explain that the organisation is very sensitive to gender-based stereotyping. It’s been interesting to watch how people transition from the interview and being a new hire to eventually finding their way into the company’s culture. This is also where the first few hires mattered. There was already an air of ease with men and women in the same space, working together. The points from ‘the hiring talk’ resonate with the candidates that join us, as they see it in practice from the start. There’s mutual respect for each other and the cycle continues.
c) Conferences and events:
The problem with representation of women in tech is systemic. You can’t solve the problem by just hiring women into your startups and never having them represent you. To keep the cycle mentioned above going, we try and solve the problem at different points in the system. We make a conscious effort to send the women in our startup to conferences and panels. It has further fed the hiring cycle, acknowledged expertise where it’s due, while filling the system with role models and much much more.
One thing that I have realized is that given the odds are against women in the workforce to begin with, the women that do show up in tech are already beating the odds. They’re much better at what they do when compared to the sea of applications we receive. They’re qualified, driven, not scared of asking questions and learning, self guided and motivated and all this makes a huge positive contribution to both the team culture as well as the performance.
And finally, what helped us enormously was setting the right culture. This is a loaded term, one that I’ve used generously in this article. Culture, to me, is the underlying set of gears that power my startup. It explains why MSD’s people work as well as they do, seem motivated to go far beyond their goals, feel empowered to challenge each other. Everyday, the endless laughter riot that our place reflects, to me, the principles on which it was built. It reminds me that the folks in there can totally have fun, make silly jokes, still respect each other’s boundaries, get slammed for it sometimes, learn, move on and continue to indulge in a healthy fun, respectful and hyper productive cycle.
Building gender into culture was essential for this, just like building any other value or philosophy. It’s not a one-time thing done at hiring or while posting pictures. It’s a way of life at work where gender gets woven intricately into everyday practices to the point where it eventually disappears because it’s now the norm. It’s about paternity leave, domestic work, stereotypes, watercooler conversations … it’s complex. Like diversity itself, which exists along multiple axes, including that of caste. And we aren’t resting on that front. We haven’t fully got a fix on caste diversity yet, but we’re working on it. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt, it’s that if you build the practices into the very base of your startup, it becomes habit. It gets built into the workings of a group of people, in an almost invisible way, like it’s the norm – nothing to see here.
Ashwini Asokan is co-founder at Mad Street Den, an AI & Computer Vision startup.