Fix It before It’s Broken – Integrating D&I to Education Might Create Better Companies

It’s starting to be widely acknowledged that in business, diverse teams outperform those that have little to no diversity. Be it gender identity, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, education, neurological differences or anything else, having people from different backgrounds working together leads to better results than a bunch of white male engineers patting each other on the back. Different people bring different opinions and ideas to the table and can find problems which would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed. Thus, diverse teams have more information to work with and are therefore capable of making better, more informed decisions that eventually lead to better products or services. Especially in the fast-paced world of startups, where one team might be the whole company and one bad decision could mean going out of business, diversity is crucial.

With this information available, one would think most teams — founder teams or otherwise — would be diverse already. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Too many teams still lack diversity or haven’t included diverse team members in decision-making.

Too many startups are still founded by a group of friends who all look at the world from a similar point of view.

One reason for the lack of diversity can be that spending time with diverse people isn’t always straightforward and can be frustrating. People who are unlike you, can have different values, different opinions and a different sense of humor. For diversity to work optimally, it needs respect and a common cause — two things organizations should have anyway. Many companies also claim that they simply don’t get applicants with different backgrounds. This rolls the blame to candidates, whereas it is the responsibility of the company to attract and look for diverse talent. What we often forget is that it’s not possible to build well-working diverse teams without an inclusive culture.


Creating an inclusive culture

An inclusive culture means that anyone, regardless of their background, can feel welcome and valued. Differences are not seen as hindrances, but neither are they disregarded — instead, they are positively recognized in an environment of respect and equity. No matter how hard a company is trying to hire diverse people, without an inclusive culture they either won’t attract the right applicants, or then the new recruits will underperform or won’t stay long.

Creating an inclusive culture consists of many steps, big and small. From providing a way for everyone’s voice to be heard and to the words used in internal communication, inclusion is much more than the lack of discrimination. The necessary steps depend greatly on the workplace in question, but there are some excellent starting points in for example this SHRM article by Kathy Gurchiek.


Going to the source

In many workplaces, especially those with long traditions, creating an inclusive culture takes time and can be difficult. For younger and smaller organizations with a more flexible environment, such as startups, it might be easier. If the people who founded those organizations, were already from diverse backgrounds and had an inclusive mindset, it might be no task at all. So while organizations of all ages and sizes should invest in diversity and inclusion, new founders have a unique chance of integrating those themes to the core of the company.

Instead of fixing something that’s broken, we could build it properly right from the start.

That is where education, and especially entrepreneurship education, comes in. Many companies, especially startups, are founded by higher education students after or even during their studies. What if those people would grow and learn in an environment where diversity and inclusion were a norm? If they worked with different people during their studies while simultaneously learning the best practices and benefits of D&I, maybe they’d learn to choose their founding teams from a more diverse pool of people. If they understood early on how inclusive organizations are built and learned to listen, respect and value all kinds of people even before graduating, maybe the companies they later found would focus on building an inclusive culture right off the bat.

There are several things educational institutes could do better to drive diversity and inclusion. Separate lectures on inclusivity and diversity are of course helpful. However, fully integrating the mindset of everyone’s equal value into education would most likely drive the lesson home even better — and would show that educational institutes lead the way for D&I by example. Making students work in groups that have people with different disciplines, ethnicities and genders will both broaden their way of thinking and can help in the course work, but it could also make diversity a norm for them. Introducing teachers or guest lecturers with, for example, physical or cognitive disabilities would show students that anyone can be a top expert in their field.


OK, but what can I do now?

Of course, this kind of change will take time. Even if we started to focus on diversity and inclusion at all levels of education right now, it would take years for the mindset to change and even more years for the companies founded by those students to mature. As companies slowly change, in one way or another, people with different backgrounds will be more and more valued and sought after.  While we wait, there’s no need to sit idle.

If you’re considering entrepreneurship, think carefully about the people you’d start the company with.

Do they provide you with additional ways to perceive the world, or do they just strengthen your own? Taking D&I into account already when starting up is a lot easier than introducing them later.

Diversity is a strength. You should look at your potential fellow founders from this perspective, but it’s equally true when applying to a job or thinking of joining someone’s startup idea. Instead of fitting into a culture, consider what you could add into it. If you think you’re too different or wouldn’t fit into a company or to a founding team, the odds are you just might be exactly what they need — even if they don’t know it yet.


Tommi Byman
Coordinator at Aalto Ventures Program

Photo: Lauri Manninen