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What one start-up did when it got called out for being too white

Center City-based data company Stitch embarked on a journey to rethink its hiring processes and company culture. Here's what managers learned and what's been hard so far.

Head of people operations Sam Glasberg, who led the charge to rethink diversity and inclusion at Stitch, and CEO Jacob Stein.
Head of people operations Sam Glasberg, who led the charge to rethink diversity and inclusion at Stitch, and CEO Jacob Stein.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Anyone in the tech world can tell you those group staff photos — the kind where everyone's white and mostly male — are the norm.

So it was kind of radical when Technically Philly reporter Roberto Torres called out a local start-up in December 2016 for its very typical team photo.

"Now, as you may have noticed from that staff picture up there, Stitch seems to have a diversity challenge," Torres wrote, after listing a few job openings at the Center City data company, which was only a few months old at the time.

For Stitch leadership, the article was hard to read. CEO Jake Stein acknowledges he was "a little pissed off." But then, he took a step back and couldn't deny it was a fair critique.

Stein, and Sam Glasberg, who runs what start-ups call "people operations" for Stitch, said it was that article that really forced them to think about their "diversity challenge." And they realized that if they didn't make an intentional effort to change, nothing ever would.

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The Philly tech scene has been dealing with similar issues. Some smaller web development firms like Interactive Mechanics and Yikes, Inc. have scrutinized their hiring practices and are working on tools to manage bias in hiring. After the executive director of entrepreneur network Philly Startup Leaders resigned last fall following a disastrous appearance on a panel where speakers discussed diversity in tech, the group was forced to think about its role in the tech scene's lack of inclusivity. And yet, although the business case for diversity has been well-documented and some would say talked to death, power players like Google, Amazon, and Uber have still not made major strides in diversifying their workforces and boards, despite several, very public diversity-oriented catastrophes.

Glasberg says all tech companies, regardless of location, struggle with developing a diverse pipeline. Still, it has been a challenge to follow its own new inclusivity processes, she says. For example, Stitch committed to interviewing for each job at least two candidates, in-person, from groups underrepresented in their company, known as the "Rooney Rule." But its commitment to that rule meant sitting on a qualified engineer for a month as managers worked on finding another candidate, hopefully a nonwhite male. In the end, they did bring someone else in, but he was a young, white guy, too, effectively breaking the Rooney Rule. They eventually hired the first candidate.

The challenge, Glasberg explained, is that in the life of a start-up, time is precious. Work was piling up. And start-ups, especially those backed by investor dollars, are under outside pressure to perform. Glasberg knew the stakes of waiting.

"While I'm not able to quantify the cost of sitting on him for five weeks, I'm certain it's significant," she wrote in an email. "And now that he's here – it's a little unnerving to think that he could have easily not been because of our efforts [who sits on a talented engineer in this market for over a month?!?]."

Now the company's diversity and inclusion committee is working on improving how to execute the Rooney Rule.

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More than a year after that article calling out Stitch, Glasberg says the company isn't close to where it needs to be in terms of diversity — not just racial and gender diversity, but also things like citizenship status, religion, and age. Their staff of 32 is 90 percent white, 75 percent male, and 22 percent older than 35. This isn't a huge change over the last year, in part because the company has only hired about six people in that time, but Glasberg knows they won't see immediate results. (Glasberg wrote about what she had learned from the process in a blog post earlier this year.)

One of the components of Stitch's plan was to hire a company to host an implicit-bias training, similar to the kind that Starbucks will undergo Tuesday after public outrage over the arrests of two black men in April. Stitch's training lasted 2 1/2 hours and cost roughly $5,000, which included preparatory conversations before the actual training.

Here are some lessons Stitch learned from the experience.

Find a training that fits with your culture.

Glasberg sifted through a number of options before settling on training with a San Francisco consultancy called Paradigm that's worked with Spotify, Slack, and Airbnb. Some of the other options felt too corporate for Stitch's culture, said Glasberg, who draws the distinction between more traditional "HR" and people operations, which she says is more human-oriented. She was looking for a consultant that wouldn't sugarcoat the topic, someone who was ready to embrace that talking about bias can and often is an uncomfortable topic.

Define exactly what you’re looking for when hiring for a role and develop ways to measure those qualities.

You can't eliminate bias, Glasberg said they learned, but you can manage it. One way to do that is to have very specific skills and qualities you're looking for in a hire and to use a rubric to measure how each candidate stacks up. That way, oft-used "culture-fit" questions like "Do I like this person?" and "Do I want to have a beer with this person?" don't sneak in.

Pay attention to who’s speaking in meetings (and who gets interrupted).

The training urged staffers to think about the balance of power in a meeting, whose voices get heard, and who feels empowered to speak. If two people are monopolizing a meeting, teammates should think about turning to those who have been quiet and asking them to share their input. Similarly, when someone interrupts a teammate, it's on everyone to point it out. Glasberg says she's felt a big difference in meetings after this was raised in the training.

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