How 4 Chicago startups are using tech to address the industry’s diversity problem

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Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is one of the most talked-about topics in tech today. But a closer look at the numbers shows talk is often all that’s happening.

Atlassian, in collaboration with Market Cube, recently surveyed 1,500 tech workers on their attitudes and behaviors toward diversity and inclusion. While 80 percent of respondents agreed that it is important, the number of companies in Silicon Valley that said they had formal inclusion programs fell by 10 percent between 2017 and 2018.

Nationally, companies just began catching up to the Valley in implementation this year. Similarly, feelings of belonging among underrepresented groups remained relatively flat, as did retention.

What’s going on?

There are several factors at play. In my work conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting for growing and growth-stage startups, I’ve identified a few core issues.

Individuals within companies often experience diversity fatigue in the face of a slow process that often doesn’t yield results. They also feel overwhelmed by the complex problems of recruiting, retention, promotion, and protection, and often have no idea where to start.

The fact remains that fostering belonging and inclusion within a company is hard, and many of the methods we’ve learned to do this don’t work. Yet, in Chicago, a new wave of entrepreneurs have the specific goal of fostering diversity in tech, through tech.

Stella Ashaolu, founder and CEO of WeSolv, is one of the Chicago entrepreneurs at the forefront of closing the diversity gap and fostering inclusion within companies. WeSolv’s platform gathers real-world performance data to help companies more objectively assess MBA job candidates from more than 60 programs nationwide.

The idea for the company arose while Ashaolu herself was an MBA student looking for consulting roles.

“I think I had a really great background, but it wasn’t enough to convince companies that I had the transferable skills. I didn’t look like the people interviewing me, and my resume didn’t look the same either. It wasn’t until I started doing case competitions that I could showcase my skills, which lit a fire under recruiters to recruit me. I was able to land multiple opportunities, but it wouldn’t have happened without [the case competitions],” said Ashaolu.

WeSolv is focused on creating this opportunity for candidates through what the team calls ‘Case Challenges’. These Case Challenges let prospective talent show off their skills in assessments designed around the roles they will need to perform. Their performance can speak louder than background, shared personal affinities, or behavioral interviews, which often leave the door open for bias. In this way, WeSolv’s tech levels the playing field.

But Ashaolu points out that technology isn’t always a force for good.

“Technology can be used for good or bad for diversity. It can be used to close the gap or widen the gap. Technology gives access to more people [and] is a way to look at problems with a different lens using more data. But it’s dangerous to think technology can only help. We have to be critical of what is underlying the technology and how we can use it to get to the outcomes we’re looking for,” said Ashaolu.

Like Ashaolu, Ablorde Ashigbi founded his company, 4Degrees, as a result of his own experiences. During his career in venture capital, he learned that networks determined success in finding deals and connecting portfolio companies to customers and acquirers.

Ablorde Ashigbi, Founder and CEO of 4Degrees

Now 4Degrees’ platform uses artificial intelligence to help professionals manage and leverage the relationships they build over the course of their careers. For example, 4Degrees’ platform might use data from your email inbox and calendar to identify less-frequent contacts of importance or identify people outside of the network who might be helpful professionally. Using email metadata, the platform may also suggest email topics to facilitate reengagement.

Ashigbi sees diversity and inclusion as part of a successful business strategy focused on increasing revenue and improving performance.

“Our relationships are our biggest source of professional opportunity. [At 4Degrees], we see a massive gap based solely on the networks people were born into. We see that as a huge injustice. We think our product at scale can help people can traverse the network gap,” said Ashigbi.

Shaniqua Davis, CEO and founder of Noirefy, is working to directly connect professionals from diverse backgrounds with companies. Her company is based on the belief that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.

Above: Shaniqua Davis, founder and CEO of Noirefy

Noirefy is a digital platform that serves as a bridge between professionals from underrepresented backgrounds and companies looking to prioritize diversity within their organizations. Candidates sign up for free, upload their resumes, and apply for positions, while corporations pay a fee to recruit talent on Noirefy’s platform.

“Technology and referrals are the key to driving diversity into corporations. Diversity referrals are a huge resource that companies should start to take advantage of. People typically refer people who share the same background and interests as them,” said Davis.

Noirefy uses data and predictive analytics to create that broader base of referrals and works around a key idea: Diversity and inclusion play a major role in employee retention.

“As a diverse professional and a former underrepresented employee, I can speak first-hand to the uncomfortable experiences of being the only person or one of few in the office who share cultural similarities to you. Employee morale decreases, retention goes down, and companies ultimately lose more money by not investing in diversity,” said Davis.

Diversely cofounder Carlo Navarro also understands the need to build more bridges between diverse communities and corporations, especially tech companies. The career development platform helps candidates from diverse backgrounds get the training and network needed to connect with hiring technology companies. For example, Diversely provides soft skills training programs for its members, connects them with a mentor who can talk one-on-one with them, and shares their profiles with hiring companies.

“We can have all the tools to remove bias, help in the hiring process, and more, but we should use technology as a bridge to build relationships and trust with diverse communities,” said Navarro.

Navarro believes the first step for tech companies is to think differently about diversity and inclusion altogether.

“What needs to change is the mindset of tech companies to make D&I part of their DNA. D&I initiatives are not a separate bucket but part of holistic recruitment and retention. For example, if your employee referrals are coming from a non-diverse group of people, the candidates they will refer will be effectively the same. Companies should seek to build relationships with diverse communities and specifically seek diverse mentors in those communities to lean on for personal referrals.”

We’ll see if the rise in diversity tech startups brings a more inclusive mindset to the industry at large.

As the founder and CEO of Ethos, a talent strategy firm for tech, Alida Miranda-Wolff grows the teams that fuel rocket ship companies. By shaping culture and developing talent, she helps strengthen every company’s biggest asset: its people. With a focus on diversity, hiring practices, vision and values, and career pathing, she partners with tech leaders to make possibilities and aspirations concrete realities. Alida previously served as director of platform at Hyde Park Angels, where she was one of only two dozen Latina women in VC.

Originally published on VentureBeat on May 25, 2018

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