How to Kickstart Your DEI Program

Struggling with DEI and not sure where to begin? Start here.

Written by Quinten Dol
Published on Mar. 17, 2021
How to Kickstart Your DEI Program

As the chief operating officer for Female Founders Alliance, a Seattle-based support network, Rohre Titcomb meets a lot of entrepreneurs. In many cases, she said, the founders that FFA works with strike out on their own after finding their career growth stymied in larger corporations. 

“I recently had a founder say to me, ‘I was sitting there waiting for my boss, this average guy, to retire so I could get a promotion. And I was never going to get promoted until he retired,’” Titcomb recalled in an interview with Built In. “‘There was no lateral mobility. There was no path for me. So I figured I would just go and build my own company.’”

“I think that situation is happening a lot,” Titcomb added, “where there are really promising people who are just sitting around waiting for the person above them to retire.”

For tech workers of underrepresented genders, races, cultural backgrounds or sexual orientations, founding one’s own company is often the best of a bad set of options — if it’s an option at all

Indeed, when discrimination chases someone out of a company, it can also chase them out of the industry altogether. The toll of this phenomenon on the tech industry’s talent pool was laid out in startling detail by a 2017 report in which the Oakland, California-based Kapor Center surveyed people who had voluntarily left jobs in the sector. It found that bad workplace culture — often riddled with discrimination — was the main contributor to employee turnover, costing the tech industry more than $16 billion a year. 

Starting Your DEI Program

  • Take a look at your company, find what's lacking
  • Set targets
  • Put someone in charge of hitting them
  • But still ensure DEI is everyone's job
  • Understand there are no quick fixes


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“What’s striking to me is that literally billions of dollars are spent each year on diversity efforts, and we have just about nothing to show for it,” said Freada Kapor Klein, a founder at the Kapor Center and its social impact venture fund, Kapor Capital. “I cannot think of another area of business where billions of dollars are spent and targets are not reached — and there are no consequences.”

Entire C-suites get fired when an organization misses its product, design or shipping dates, she said, but “nobody seems to care if you miss your diversity goals.”

The findings of the Tech Leavers Report largely square with Built In’s own 2021 State Of DEI In Tech Report, released last month, which shows that professionals from marginalized communities largely do not make it into the ranks of the tech industry — and those who do are often made to feel unwelcome. While the industry made some promising moves amid last summer’s first real reckoning with systemic racism in decades, some fear the momentum might be stalling out. 

“After the murder of George Floyd there was a flurry of activity that was mostly about making statements, sometimes making pledges, often writing a check to a nonprofit civil rights organization,” Kapor Klein said. “What didn’t happen is holding up a mirror, and you’re not going to make progress until you understand all of the obstacles to achieving true diversity and inclusion in your organization.”

To help organizations move beyond ad hoc, one-off gestures, Built In spoke with several DEI experts and consultants about how to build a foundation for real and lasting equity and inclusion. What follows is a very basic blueprint to kickstart that change. 


1. Build The Mirror

For Kapor Klein, “holding up a mirror” doesn’t just mean measuring the demographics of your organization. Do employees from underrepresented communities feel a sense of belonging at work? Does that figure vary between different demographic groups? Do all your employees feel confident that they can grow their career without having to move companies — and do responses vary across demographic groups? How long do people in underrepresented groups typically stay with your organization, or wait for a promotion?

These are all relatively simple ways to gauge the state of diversity, equity and inclusion within your own company, yet our data suggests that less than half of employers evaluate diversity metrics for retention at some point during the year. Thirty-one percent of organizations don’t collect diversity data related to retention at all. Meanwhile, only 37 percent of tech employers evaluate diversity metrics for promotions and just a quarter take DEI into account when measuring time-in-role. When it comes to improving the state of diversity, equity and inclusion within your organization, the fruit doesn’t get any lower-hanging than this. 

“What gets measured gets done, and like any other business metric, you need to be able to find your baseline and figure out where you’re currently at,” said Tina Shah Paikeday, who leads diversity and inclusion advisory services for management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “Where are the gaps you need to close?”

This data analysis element of DEI work makes it bigger than the human resources prism we tend to view it through.

Read Our Report:The State of DEI in Tech


2. Set Targets And Make It Someone’s Job To Hit Them...

In the early days, diversity in the workplace was centered around the work of the Equal Economic Opportunity Commision, a government agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. The result, Paikeday said, was that “we saw a lot of lawyers and legal backgrounds in the field.”

“Then the pendulum swung — the U.S. population is diversifying, our workforces are diversifying, this is becoming a workforce mandate,” Paikeday said. “So how do we recruit and retain a diverse workforce? So the pendulum drifted toward HR backgrounds.”

That pendulum is swinging again, with businesses now looking for diversity leaders who can act as business partners. Whether it’s a consumer-facing company trying to serve a more diverse population or a B2B organization with clients who expect it to show up with diverse teams, companies understand the competitive advantage that comes from fostering a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. 

“Companies are looking for someone with a relevant industry background to help weave a deep understanding of DEI into their go-to-market strategy,” Paikeday said. In her experience, companies that have successfully driven change take the view that a DEI strategy should be integrated with business strategy. 

“So why is this important for the business? We know that diversity leads to better outcomes. Once a leader can make that case, they’re able to take ownership of the topic in the same way they would any other business topic. They prioritize it because they understand how it will help drive business outcomes — which is why they’re there in the first place.”


“Every company has a culture, whether you’ve paid attention to it or not.”


Kapor Klein puts it this way: “Say you’re an edtech company, you’re serving public schools in the U.S. and you want to set diversity goals — an obvious one is to have your employee base match your customer base,” she said. “It’s simply good business. You want your employees to be able to deeply understand your customers’ problems in an empathetic and nuanced way, because that’s how you’re going to help solve them.”

It’s part of the reason why Kapor Capital doesn’t write a check to a founder who doesn’t commit to building a diverse team and an inclusive culture. 

However, other experts caution that it’s not enough for executives to simply hire a DEI leader with industry experience, give them a set of ambitious targets and then congratulate themselves on a job well done. 

“I think for a lot of people, it’s a lot less confronting to think about DEI from a business perspective,” said Bianca Wilson, a co-founder at DEI consultancy Say Space. While extensive research has proven that diverse workplaces perform better than nondiverse competitors, the temptation to boil diversity, equity and inclusion down to its business case — and a single leader — doesn’t force employees from overrepresented groups to examine their own role in the change. 


crowd crossing the street

3. ...But Also Make DEI Everyone’s Job

While it’s important to have a leader who can drive DEI programs, Wilson stressed that everyone has a role in fostering true diversity, equity and inclusion. By simply hiring a leader and calling it a day, organizations run the risk of “putting everything on this one person, which gives away the individual power that employees have to co-create this company culture,” she said. “Even if you’re an engineer and you don’t have a touchpoint with recruitment or HR, you still have a sphere of influence. Everyone plays a role, and it creates group accountability.”

Wilson cautions leaders to reframe the common view of DEI as a separate piece of their organization, existing outside the core structure of a business. 

“DEI should be a fundamental piece of your overall vision for the company. If it’s part of your values, then everything you do should have equity built into it from the start.”

In other words, treating DEI as a separate “nice-to-have” makes it seem like a distraction. Wilson’s Say Space co-founder, Emily Race, said their consultancy tends to focus on turning individual employees into “change agents” — helping them identify and act on opportunities to correct instances of systemic discrimination. If DEI is built into the core values of a company, it empowers employees to take on that change agent role. 


“I would characterize it as three legs to a stool, and I would recommend having all three working in unison because you’re going to make the fastest progress that way.”


“This is a collective problem,” Race said, “and we need a collective effort to create a solution.”

The idea of creating group accountability has been around for a long time. In the 1980’s Kapor Klein started work at Lotus Software, famously tasked with making the company “the most progressive employer in the U.S.” To that end, she asked employees to rate their immediate managers, divisional vice presidents and CEO on how they lived out the company’s values on a daily basis. Yearly bonuses were then paid — or withheld — based on those ratings. 

This is an example of making a company’s values — in this case, progressive values centered around diversity, equity and inclusion — enforceable by rewarding good behavior. 

“It’s about looking into the subtle biases that are built into how you do everything,” Kapor Klein said. “How do you source? How do you write your job descriptions? Where do you post them? Where do you do on-campus interviews, and why? Do you hire managers without ever asking about their experience hiring, managing and promoting diverse teams? If diversity matters, it ought to be part of everybody’s job description.”

This recognition of the systemic bias built into many individual elements of an organization is what Paikeday called “the last frontier” for DEI work. In her view, it facilitates stripping institutional bias out of recruitment, retention and career development practices. 

So what are these elusive values that, if built into the core structure of a company, will allow employees and leaders of all backgrounds to flourish and grow at your workplace? It isn’t that easy. Every corporate culture is unique — and it can be a journey just to identify what the true values of a company really are. 

“I think every company has a culture, whether you’ve paid attention to it or not,” Kapor Klein said. To identify it, she recommends running focus groups with employees. “What are three words you use when you describe this company to your friends? What kind of behaviors get rewarded here? What are the characteristics of successful people?”

The ultimate goal is to have as little daylight as possible between the stated values and the practiced values. 

“That gap is where cynicism comes from,” Kapor Klein said. 

4. Recognize That There Are No Quick Fixes

For any business setting out to build a robust DEI function, there are a number of traps that threaten to condemn the latest effort to a dustbin of good intentions and poor execution. 

The first such trap is a simple lack of vision. Through her work with Say Space, Wilson sees a lot of organizations that can “list off all these problems. And then they have the ‘solutions’ that will address these problems. But that only gets you as far as the next problem, and it turns into a spiral.” 


“Organizations used to pride themselves on being a meritocracy, and I think we’ve all now acknowledged that there is no such thing.”


Instead of lurching from crisis to crisis, Wilson said an organization needs an overall vision to work toward — hence the need to set goals and empower change agents. It should go without saying that the vision should be a shared goal at all levels of an organization, rather than a platitude-laden manifesto handed down from leadership. 

“You can’t expect an immediate shift from zero to 100,” co-founder Race added. “Understand how to bring a growth mindset to this process and recognize that it’s iterative.”

Another all-too-frequent trap is to focus on one pillar of DEI at a time. For a long time, Paikeday said, companies focused on hiring a diverse workforce and then creating an inclusive space for them to work in later. Meanwhile, equity remained a major blind spot — until last summer. 

“Organizations used to pride themselves on being a meritocracy, and I think we’ve all now acknowledged that there is no such thing,” she said. “Now that everyone’s recognized the existence of inequity, equity has become the focus.”

While most organizations approach diversity, inclusion and equity sequentially (and in that order), Paikeday said it’s best to have all three working at once. 

“I would characterize it as three legs to a stool, and I would recommend having all three working in unison because you’re going to make the fastest progress that way.”

Ultimately, the biggest trap awaiting any well-intentioned DEI push is the belief that a single workshop, program or employee resource group will solve all discrimination within your ranks. A lone DEI leader will not solve the discrepancies in employee experience by themselves, nor will a single session on unconscious bias. And it is critical to remember that there is no one approach that will work broadly for every underrepresented group within tech. 

In the Tech Leavers Study, the Kapor Center asked everyone who left due to unfair treatment to categorize the discrimination that ultimately pushed them out of their company. The top reason — ranging from cases of stereotyping to getting passed over for a promotion — was different for every single demographic group. 

“So unless you’re doing customized and nuanced programs, you’re going to try to do a one-size-fits-all thing,” Kapor Klein said, “and it will fit no one.”

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