Jon Topper : Diversity & inclusivity: the entrepreneur’s challenge

Diversity in the workplace, particularly in the technology sector, has been hitting the headlines more than usual recently after the now-infamous internal memo from James Damore went viral this summer. To refresh your memory – Damore, a Software Engineer at Google, who has since been fired, criticised the company’s ongoing diversity efforts and attributed the tech industry’s gender imbalance to biological differences between men and women.

Shortly after, Intel released its diversity report, which showed that progress towards its 2020 diversity goal had slowed, with white men still making up 68% of company employees. Intel claimed to be on track to meet targets nevertheless, but what can be done in the wider industry to tackle these issues? In particular, what can entrepreneurs do to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes?

For entrepreneurs, diversity needs to be something that is ingrained in the working culture from the get go. When starting up a business, founders need to be conscious of setting the right environment to foster diversity. Most importantly, I actually think it’s key to consider inclusivity rather than diversity. Ultimately, diversity is an outcome reached through greater inclusivity.

As employers it’s too easy to behave in a way that is accidentally exclusionary. For example, if every social event is beer and pizza in a noisy pub after hours, there will always be  groups of people who are not able or not inclined to attend. Especially in the early days of a startup, entrepreneurs must be careful not to fall in the trap of just hiring people who are exactly like them – something that can feel natural, but which logically leads to a lack of diversity right off the bat.

It is also important to remember the countless other intersections at play when we talk about diversity. Whilst we often consider diversity in terms of race and gender, dimensions such as age, sexuality, marital status, parental situation, mental and physical health are all facets against which we may unintentionally discriminate.

Since the very beginning, we have always been conscious and careful at our company to ensure we’re being as inclusive as possible, baking it into the company culture itself: we permit remote working and flexible work hours, both of which are useful for colleagues who have commitments like caring for children or infirm relatives. We try to ensure we mix up our social events so that there’s as much opportunity for low-key socialising as for evenings at the pub. As a founder, I try to model a healthy work/life balance and emphasise the importance of good mental health – such as by taking time out during the work day if things get overwhelming.

As has become clear, there are people who honestly believe that women and people of colour are genetically less capable of working in sectors like tech – a set of assertions based on exceptionally flawed science. Research shows that teams with higher levels of gender and racial diversity demonstrate better financial performance, a payoff that should be incredibly attractive to those launching a business and hoping to give their company the best chance of success.

However, these biases are deeply rooted in the minds of many people, and it’s important for us to challenge them where they surface. As entrepreneurs, it is especially important for us to challenge them within ourselves. Systemic bias leads to people from underrepresented groups quitting degrees, or leaving an industry to take alternative careers where they’re able to thrive.

We entrepreneurs have a chance to influence attitudes and set new standards for workplace diversity, ushering in a better era of inclusivity within the startup scene, and hopefully, eventually, the wider workforce.


Jon Topper, co-founder at UK tech company The Scale Factory


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