Most start-ups are focused on surviving and consider diversity an afterthought. We need to do better.
We in the technology industry rightfully pride ourselves on our role in driving the world forward through a commitment to constant innovation and disruption. However, while we’ve been instrumental in revolutionizing industries ranging from healthcare and agriculture to transportation and telecommunication, we’ve done a poor job of revolutionizing ourselves.
I won’t be the first or the last person to bemoan the lack of diversity in our field. USA TODAY has reported that women make up less than 20% of technical employees in Silicon Valley’s largest companies and just 30% of their employees as a whole. The statistics for women of color are even more anemic.
When confronted with these numbers most industry insiders acknowledge that there is a problem, but frequently cite wider social issues, such as the fact that fewer women study STEM subjects in the first place. Much of that is true, but we need to do more as an industry. Part of this is simply a matter of financial return. Research from McKinsey & Company demonstrates that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers.
So what’s a technology executive to do? How do you build a more diverse organization? I would argue that the key is to start early.
While building my startup, H2O.ai, the first five colleagues we hired were men. This wasn’t a conscious decision, simply a result of the labor market and my prior connections. However, my vision for the company was always to build a tolerant and diverse workspace and I knew that women bring holistic thinking to corporations.
I was raised in India by a working mom who took equal responsibility in the decision-making of raising a family. The women in my life, including my wife, mother, sister and two daughters, have had a profound influence on my outlook and that’s reflected in how I built my company.
The problem with the hiring strategy of many large tech companies is that they respond reactively or too late. Most companies pay little attention to issues of diversity until they’ve grown to the size of a Twitter or a Microsoft and find themselves in the public spotlight. Realizing that they have an image problem, these companies respond by throwing a lot of money at it. The resulting programs and hires should not be dismissed, but they’re too little too late. Once an organization’s culture has been firmly established, it becomes quite impervious to change.
Women hired into these companies subsequently complain about a “brogrammer” culture and their employers find them hard to retain.
In order to avoid that fate, and build an organization that I could be proud of, I knew I had to change course and I knew I had to do it fast. So when we hired our sixth employee I knew it was going to be a woman. A brilliant mathematician, she found an issue in one of our algorithms using just pen and paper.
Today, H2O.ai is beginning to become a reflection of our community: 43% of our users are women, as are 43% of our employees. However, like many companies in our space, we still have a lot more work to do. Of our 32 engineers, just seven are women, or about 22%, just marginally better than the industry average.
Sales and human resources are our only departments led by women. Out of all our employees, both technical and nontechnical, 17% are Asian women. Black and Hispanic women account for 2% of our workforce each.
These numbers are better than industry norms, especially for a company of our size, but not by as much as I’d like, and the one glaring issue I want to fix is to ensure that we have at least one female board member.
I know that if I wait until my company H2O.ai is in the public spotlight, it will already be too late. I, for one, pledge to start making a difference today.
Sri Ambati, CEO and co-founder of Mountain View, Calif.-based H2O.ai. Prior to H2O.ai, Sri cofounded Platfora and was the director of engineering at DataStax.
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