4 Ways For Start-ups to Launch DEI Initiatives

by Isra Hamdi

Many startups are in a constant battle to figure out what to prioritize with limited resources. Some fall into the trap of not considering the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives until problems or complaints start to arise.

It is possible to start DEI initiatives with limited resources. In fact, it is a crucial step to improving employee satisfaction and retention. Putting some thought into DEI at early stages can save teams a lot of money, time, and resources in the long run. Not only can investing in DEI prevent issues, but it will also create a more efficient, thoughtful team.

I grew up wearing a headscarf and moving around a lot. I looked different from the people around me, and I was always the new kid. That was so much of my identity. I didn't live anywhere for more than three years, and I was often moving to small towns where I was the first Muslim person that someone encountered. As a result, I am now very empathetic towards new people. Whenever there's someone who's new, or someone who's left out, I try to elevate those voices because I know how it feels. When I joined AcuityMD, there were only six employees, and I was the first woman and the first person of color. I wanted to make sure that, as we grow and scale, we were thinking about diversity. I did not have a formal background in DEI, I was just a person passionate about diversity. We crafted a diversity statement, and I put a working group together to support our statement. As someone who didn’t have work experience in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) before, it’s been a learning process to determine focus areas and how to grow diversity. Especially at a small startup, it can seem daunting with so many other priorities. But launching and prioritizing initiatives in start-ups is crucial for building a strong foundation and fostering a diverse working environment. Here are four ways we’ve set out to establish and promote a diverse working environment at AcuityMD:

Establish a DEI working group, and welcome joiners.

Determine what diversity means to you and your company, and write it down. When you have ideas on paper about broad topics like diversity, it’s much easier to take concrete steps towards inclusivity.

Then, look to the team to establish a DEI working group. Sometimes, the burden of advocating for diversity falls unfairly on the people who are diverse, so having a broader team can help make the task more equitable. Everyone has their own stories about why diversity matters to them. Even if you're looking at someone and don't think they would identify from an underrepresented background, you never know what people's stories are. Tap into that passion of people who want to get involved.

That's why, with our DEI group, we've been able to achieve tangible results at a small company with limited resources; we have so many people who are passionate about it. And as we've hired more people, the group has grown because we've found more people from different experience levels who have their own stories.

Build a culture of openness.

Listen to people's ideas no matter where they are in the company. The fact that I felt comfortable bringing DEI ideas to our CEO speaks volumes. There is a culture of trust, and everyone has a shared goal of making the team the best it can be, even when it comes to challenging the status quo. You might not even be maximizing your resources just because people might not feel comfortable or safe. You can facilitate this through sending out surveys to the team, having an open door policy, or other ideas. Any way you gather feedback, being receptive and having a culture of openness is vital.

Collaborate with leadership.

Ensure there is a connection between your DEI team and the leadership team so ideas discussed in your meeting create actionable change. We have at least one person from the AcuityMD leadership team attend DEI meetings. That way, there is a dialogue between the teams and we can incorporate ideas into the larger company strategy.

Now we're at a stage where we’re able to hire a Head of People, which will bring more resources and attention to our initiatives. Because DEI is officially part of their role, they will establish scalable and proven ways to build an inclusive culture.

Don’t be afraid to start small.

At the beginning, we focused on fun team activities that highlighted our diverse heritage. For example, during Black History Month we took a virtual tour of cities rich in African American history. For Hispanic Heritage Month, two team members shared important milestones and fun facts about their cultures. These activities are relatively easy to put together and help create cultural awareness of our employees and the broader world.

We then grew our initiatives to more measurable campaigns, such as evolving our recruiting process to attract more candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. For example, our application process is relatively straightforward, which helps us get more people into the pipeline. So many companies have initial application processes that are long – and often repetitive – that they're cutting out many candidates who are not going to have the time or resources to apply. We adapted our process to have as few barriers as possible and are continuing to broaden our sourcing to increase diversity even further.

With these four approaches, start-ups like AcuityMD can promote a more inclusive working environment and strengthen their commitment to DEI. As your company grows, a more formal DEI-focused role can provide additional resources and attention to further enhance the culture of inclusivity. Embracing diversity and creating a supportive environment is not only the right thing to do, but it also contributes to the success and growth of start-ups in the long run.

Isra Hamdi was one of our first employees, working as Operations Analyst at AcuityMD for two years. She is now enrolled at the Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine.

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