Choosing the Right Startup, With the Right Culture — A Brief Guide for Underrepresented Professionals
Practical advice for underrepresented professionals seeking to bring their whole selves to a new startup.
Authored by Orlando Gil
Claire Kennedy is VP of People Operations at Axios and the leader behind Axios’ DE&I Commitment. She recently connected with Colorwave Fellow alum, Orlando Gil, to share tangible ways to assess how serious a startup is at investing in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
It was 2014, I was 17 and like many teenagers I spent my time outside of class collecting some extra cash — bussing tables at a local restaurant in the Upper West Side. However, unlike any of my friends my age, I was undocumented.
At the time, it felt like this was where the road ended for me. Despite wishing for the freedom to pursue university and a career in business — I knew without working papers, I was locked out of a career and an education.
Serendipitously, I qualified for legal work authorization right after graduating high school and I scored my first internship at a consulting firm the same summer. For the first time in my life, I experienced a world previously inaccessible to me. My peers were more affluent, well traveled, and unlike me in nearly every way. I often found myself in rooms where I was one of, if not the only person, that looked like me. During moments when the differences between myself and my colleagues were most stark — I wondered, what does it actually feel like to belong? To be like everyone else?
Say you are an underrepresented professional — a woman, a person of color, an immigrant, or gay or transgender individual, etc. At some point, I’m sure you probably asked yourself what it would feel like to work in an environment where you can bring your whole self to work? Where you trust the workplace to have equal room for you? Where your contributions and those of your peers are rewarded on merit alone — and being different isn’t a constant, lingering anxiety?
In today’s workforce, diverse, underrepresented talent is in high demand and yet, investment in attracting, developing and retaining diverse talent through DE&I initiatives remains low. Few companies genuinely recognize talent diversity as a catalyst for growth and many merely incorporate it into their branding and public relations strategy.
So how can you — an underrepresented and job-seeking professional — identify a startup organization which genuinely aligns with your values of diversity, equity and inclusion? As a Colorwave Fellow, I’ve enlisted the help of Claire Kennedy, one of Colorwave’s partners, to answer this question. Claire has led People Operations at Axios, a media and tech startup, since its founding in 2016. She is now in charge of leading Axios’ new tech organization, where she’ll continue fortifying Axios’ commitment to DE&I.
Here are three strategies to help you in your search for a workplace that values you…
1. Research the startup’s commitment to Diversity Equity & Inclusion.
Dig deep. Does the company publish the demographic makeup of its employees? What is their track record on hiring/retaining diverse employees?
“Being transparent with staff about where diversity stands is critical to establishing trust with employees and involving them in the process. Startups simply cannot track the evolution of their company and target their resources strategically if they are not measuring outcomes. Startups must measure what matters.”
In 2018, Axios, a then 2 year old start up, had 15% BIPOC employees. By 2020, Axios increased BIPOC employees to 37%. In 2021, 42% of all of Axios’ new hires this year are BIPOC — increasing total share of BIPOC employees to 38%.
2. Ensure the startup and its culture are designed to support you through your onboarding & integration process.
If you have landed a formal interview or a coffee chat with an employee — use the opportunity to learn from a primary source about the company’s approach to integrating new hires into its culture. Ask, “What can a new employee expect from their first 100 days in regards to onboarding, orientation and job training?”
To integrate new hires into their team and environment, new hires at Axios complete a ‘user guide,’ which helps reveal to their new teammates some of the personal preferences and traits that it might otherwise take months to understand.
“Successful onboarding is critical to retaining talent, and it’s something that organizations need to heavily invest in from the beginning. Past an employee’s first week, employers should be asking: how can we ensure this new employee has the resources and support to be successful here long term? You can only truly assess performance if an individual has been given the chance to succeed.”
Do your best to gauge the level of support behind the onboarding and integration process since your first 100 days will be a springboard for the rest of your tenure.
3. Gauge the startup’s ability to evaluate performance & support your career advancement.
“For startups, developing complex systems for performance management is often a goal and not something they have the luxury of creating from the get-go, but it’s still important to ask and understand from a future employer: how will I be evaluated? How will my performance be judged?”
The key here is gauging the maturity of the organization. To increase your chances of being evaluated by a merit based promotion process, you’ll want to join an org capable of capturing standardized performance data and applying it within the context of one’s role.
For example, Axios ensures equitable career advancement by mapping employees’ key competencies along their function-specific growth track — helping each new hire understand how they are expected to grow in their role. They also evaluate employees’ performance using a bi-annual process of goal-setting, assessment and reward to ensure fairness, equity and transparency. Promotions are determined by growth in their job’s core competencies, performance against their goals, and the embodiment of core employee values.
If you are an underrepresented professional and you have made it this far in your career, you already have grit and resourcefulness. If you want to land in a workplace where your background is respected, where your abilities are embraced for their merit, and where your chance at opportunity is as equitable as anyone else’s — then dig deep, do your due diligence and distinguish between companies whose DE&I commitments are for publicity’s sake and those with legitimate means to implement a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace.
If you feel that the company’s DE&I commitment is lackluster but you are still passionate about the org’s overall mission — don’t be afraid to be an advocate for change and be the voice which starts that conversation.
More About Colorwave
Colorwave is a nonprofit organization focused on closing the racial wealth gap by connecting traditionally underrepresented professionals to the venture-backed ecosystem. Learn more about our work and impact at www.thecolorwave.org.