Fostering an inclusive and diverse culture can lead to positive business outcomes, and startups have a rare opportunity to get it right from day one, according to Lauren Crystal, co-founder of Hassl and managing director at design agency Your Creative Agency.
Speaking at LaunchVic’s Yeah Nah Summit in Melbourne earlier this month, Crystal noted her own founding team at Hassl is pretty diverse.
Each of the three co-founders come from different backgrounds, and identify with various sexualities and genders. Crystal herself also has Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and an auto-immune condition.
“We’re a very eclectic group,” Crystal said in her talk.
Building inclusivity into the business has come about from this, rather than being built in as a policy, “but it has been a commercial success,” she added.
“We have managed to grow our business with very diverse minds.”
While a startup founder could be running a team of 10 now, like Crystal is, they could end up running a team of 50, 100 or 1,000 one day.
“There might be someone in this room who ends up with 20,000 people, and an international business,” Crystal said.
“What we have is the opportunity to define what we want to have as a workplace environment, and hopefully set a benchmark for other places.”
While she accepted that founders have a lot on their plates, Crystal set out some ways in which founders can try to build diversity and inclusivity into their business from the very beginning, thereby creating a strong company culture, and encouraging growth.
“We’ve got so many other things to think about as founders. We’re trying to turn these ideas into large-scale businesses,” she said.
“We can start with a really simple question that we ask ourselves … does my team feel like they belong, and can they be successful here?”
Be an honest role model
This year, Crystal won a Telstra Emerging Leader Award, and later that same week, she had a scheduled operation and spent time in hospital.
“I didn’t tell my staff any of the gory details,” she explained.
“But I did share enough that they understood.”
Founders have an opportunity to create an open and honest environment, and to show they’re human, too.
That way, if a staff member has an issue in their own personal lives, they’re more likely to feel comfortable sharing that.
It’s not necessarily about sharing everything, it’s more about getting to a place where “they feel like when a similar situation comes up, they can tell me”, she explained.
Flexible work without stigma
Flexible working is “a very hot topic” at the moment, Crystal said.
However, it’s important for employees to know that working from home doesn’t mean not working as hard. This is partly what Hassl was designed to combat.
“There are times where, whether it’s for religious reasons, family reasons, medical reasons, people need the flexibility to be able to work from elsewhere,” she said.
“How do we make it so that people don’t feel like they’re being judged for not being in the office?”
It can be helpful to implement flexible working tools and mechanisms, to help normalise the idea that you don’t have to be in the office to be productive.
“However you make it work in your business is great, but it’s also about creating an environment where you feel okay to be out of the office, and you feel like you know you can still contribute, and people know you’re contributing.”
At startup and business events in Australia and abroad, Crystal says she often hears founders say their values end up becoming the bedrock of the entire culture of the company.
“That’s great, but I don’t think I necessarily have all the answers,” she said.
So, she suggested asking employees — especially the earliest employees — how they think the culture could be improved.
“We know at some stage we’re going to be a larger company, but this is the time we have to ask people what could make it better,” she explained.
This can also help those employees feel valued. In fact, Hassl’s first hire, Melanie, suggested a sustainability strategy, which is now firmly ingrained in the business culture, and something it’s even sharing with other businesses.
“Melanie’s confidence grew tenfold by being able to work on it,” Crystal said.
“I would never have thought of this in a million years,” she added.
“It really helped to ask if there was a way that we could make the culture here better, and therefore including people in the culture.”
Sponsorship over mentorship
While Crystal said mentorship can be an important part of a startup’s culture, within small teams you will often see interns, volunteers and early staff members who may move on.
“Within a small team, you can have this idea of sponsorship,” she said.
“It’s like mentoring, but you really back that person.”
Crystal herself acts as a sponsor for an RMIT student who worked with her as an intern.
“That means throughout her career … when she needs me for a solid amount of time, I provide that time,” she explained.
“It’s taking it that little bit further.”
And, although it can feel difficult to make that time, one day, the founder may be able to offer her sponsor a job.
“She’ll be dedicated and feel included as well,” she said.
Show you care
At Your Creative Agency, where Crystal is managing director, the team do 5% of their work pro-bono. And, while accepting that this may not be viable for early-stage startups, she says it has been valuable for the business.
“People always think that is really charitable for us, but it has a completely commercial reason,” she explained.
“We get to work on projects where we show our best self, and therefore we get more project work like that.”
Essentially, instead of putting 5% of its budget towards marketing, Your Creative Agency directs those resources to other projects, allowing staff to work on projects they may not usually get to.
“Your projects speak louder than words,” Crystal said.
However, if your startup can’t justify offering up work for free, startups could also show support for social causes by offering paid volunteer leave, value-based internships, or through blogging about causes they care about.
Call it out
Finally, Crystal called upon founders and anyone working in startups to call out non-inclusive behaviour.
The key here, she said, is to have a conversation, and create an environment where people feel comfortable to raise a point or correct someone, while making sure the corrected party also feels comfortable and safe.
Potentially, it could be easiest to do this via Slack, or another communications channel, “because sometimes people can feel a bit overwhelmed”, Crystal suggested.
“It’s more about having open ways of communication.”
As a founder, Crystal notes that it’s also important to consider her own shortcomings as the business grows.
“In the longer-term, there are things I can think about now in the business that I’m not quite doing right.”
For example, at the moment, everyone working at Hassl is under 30.
“I might, in the future, have an issue hiring people who are of an older age, because they don’t feel included,” she explained.
“We’re constantly trying to set ourselves lists of where can we be better in the future, and where can we do that when we plan for, hopefully, a large amount of growth.”