The Founder & CEO of Lever goes beyond the tropes of gender diversity, to talk about Lever’s fight to get to 50% female employees, how inclusion differs from diversity, and why talking about tough topics can yield the biggest opportunity to improve your workplace.
Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: How big is the company now?
Sarah Nahm, CEO at Lever: We’re just shy of 100.
Tim: Oh, 100.
Sarah: So the 100 mark is coming really soon.
Tim: And I just saw on Twitter, like you just reached also like 50% female employees, right? Is that it?
Sarah: It’s true, it’s a really big milestone.
Tim: It is, and it’s really rare, and it’s like it’s 2016 and you’re saying that like in progressive San Francisco in start up this would be like average, but it’s really not, right?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean to be honest I think that like yeah when we thought about doing a, we’re actually we’re planning a little bit of a blog post, a little news release and it was sort of funny how to frame this ‘cause I don’t think that many companies announce it because actually many companies don’t reach it. And, it’s been something that we’ve been talking about for years. However, it almost feels surreal to be at this point. Once you actually hit it, that actually just begins the journey because actually even just maintaining that continued investment.
Tim: Right, it’s not a mile stone. Now, you gotta own it, you gotta keep going and you gotta maintain that. And it’s also, I’m sure, it goes into a lot more detail because if like people talk a lot about like getting that gender diversity also in like in the engining team, in management roles, in board seats and all that stuff. So, it’s kind of a never ending quest, but you’re right, like very few companies like reach that and experience it. And statistics also I think indicate that.
Sarah: Yeah, so I think like the main reason that we’re sort of banging the drum at all is actually because it took so much work from the whole team that for them really it’s this huge accomplishment and huge announcement and honestly, I mean I don’t think that I really personally did it myself. Or, it wasn’t sort of some grand leadership move. It was really like the hard work and I think caring about it, and all the little things that every single person, I mean all 100 of us have kinda done.
Tim: Everything has to work, right? I mean, it’s like you have to be behind it, like the board has to be behind it, and people recruiting has to kind of follow. And then, you have to kind of get the pipeline, get everything kind of lining up that way. So, yeah maybe we can just kinda sit and kinda talk. But, I’m kind of surprised, I guess, by, oh we can do this. By how difficult it is and so do you feel like, as many reasons why you can push for that kind of objective and kind of 50%, but do you feel like it’s worth it, I guess? How would you explain it to people, like why do this? ‘Cause it seemed like such a big goal and it does require resources, so why do that push for diversity?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think for us we probably have it a lot easier than a lot of other technology companies because based on the industry that we work in, which is of course hiring and recruitment for the people that we sell to and support and on board, you know recruiters, hiring managers, really like companies that are thinking about how they should be growing, how they should be scaling. It actually makes good business sense for us to care about the same issues that are just challenging our industry. So, I think that we’re fortunate and then I think it makes a lot of sense to care about diversity because our audience, our customers care about diversity. But, I think kind of like a start up founder, as just sort of somebody who still has to lead my team I think it really matters because the people that come to work at your company they actually are expecting more and more from the businesses and organizations they work for because how hard you work at your company is kind of, it makes up a huge part of your identity. And, I think that people actually want to see, they want to see the ethics of their businesses shine through. They wanna actually see the company’s, start ups, that they put so much work into they actually want to see those companies meet the standards and the bar that they kind of want corporations to sort of hold themselves too. I mean, we’re sort of a generation that grew up amidst, I’d say, corporate collapse. I remember being in middle school, or something and hearing about all the Enrons and all the subsequent kind of failures. And, I think people really want the start ups to offer a different path.
Tim: Yeah, they want that kind of culture, right? To work within their own ideals, to drive for something bigger. Is that what you’re saying in a way, that there’s many kind of work places you can choose to work for that offer you maybe like a great challenge if that’s what you’re going for or a salary or situation, benefits. But, people now in our generation they seem to look for also a culture and a drive right, that goes beyond just like making money and providing those things.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean I think put really simply what makes a start up employee care more, stay later, work harder, it’s meaning and the chance to have impact. And, I think both of those are really served not just by having a diverse work force but also having an inclusive culture. I mean, you’re going to have meaning if you can actually see the connection between how your business is run or the decisions that are made and sort of a moral true north. And, you’re going to feel like you have more impact if actually you’re at an organization where it’s not just one type of person or one style of speaking, or one particular I guess predominant way of working that excludes other types of impact.
Tim: Yeah, it’s broadens your horizon as a person spending eight, 10, 12 hours in an office a day, right? So, that makes a lot of sense. But, I don’t want to over shadow the first point as well that you’re making, if I understand correctly of like it just adds value to a have or work for it that represents like your user base, right? So, in a way if you think about it from a technical angle, for example, if I understand correctly what you’re saying is the same way that it would benefit you to have like, I don’t know, service engineers and front end engineers to kind of build like a full technology style that people use on the other side. It kind of makes sense to have like women and men and a bunch of different people kind of building your product if that’s your intended audience.
Sarah: Oh yeah, totally. I mean, I think actually there’s this huge, there’s so many ways to define diversity. And, of course, HR tends to have a lot of women in it so gender is one dimension, but I also think like we’ve had to do a lot of work here to build up an understanding for how a technology company, or a software company, how kind of all the people who are technical here actually consider this a whole kind of industry of people who consider themselves frankly non-technical. Who consider themselves, maybe like a service organization inside of their company, and that’s just so different from the profile of your typical engineer that kind of becomes an entrepreneur. And so actually, one thing that we found is really these sort of nebulous dimensions of how people can be different, they’re communication style, they’re work style, all that does also roll into how diversity can be a really powerful thing for basically doing business better. So, one thing that we introduced really early on at Lever, when we were basically like a team mostly of engineers. We have maybe like two designers, a couple gneralists.
Tim: [Tim] Right, early days, yeah.
Sarah: Yeah, the super early days. We were super focused on just shipping our MVP. We were really an R and D focused company. We started having all these customers. Customers to on board, customers to support, people we were talking to. And, we realized that what made up Lever was a lot more than just building a product. So, we went from this period of really just being kind of this one product team to actually realizing there are all sorts of different components to what it took for us to succeed. And, that led us to do this really great exercise as a team where we sort of took our test and we got our results back and you find out what color you are. And, your color really is about kind of defining your working style, that sort of thing. And, I remember when we first did the test everybody was blue ‘cause blue is soft of like the software engineer kind of color. And, I mean, we should actually walk if you want to see it. We actually like now, every single hire they take this test, they get the results back. It’s a big part of our on boarding process. And so now, we’ve been really like filling in the circle. And, you actually really find being able to have yellow, which is sort of being outgoing, being kind of like somebody who’s really a people person. Our sales team brought in all these yellows. We found that like actually being kind of a helper, a supporter, a coordinator. Yeah, I mean, this is sort of like kinda telling the story of what it takes to build a successful SAS company. It’s like we kind of had to build in all these different people with different strengths, different kind of dimensions. And really, when you look at this it’s not sliced on dimensions of gender, or sliced on dimensions of race. And so, one of the big insights that we found on our journey is defining diversity. It ends up being something where you have to talk about difference. You have to be able to have language and tool kits to talk about what makes people different from one another. How you define strengths and weaknesses, how you actually align resources towards work to be done. And, it’s really something where I think the conversation about diversity it almost like gets in the way sometimes of actually talking about the differences between people.
Tim: Yeah, completely agree. I feel like short of not caring about diversity and not having any kind of will to got there I feel like one of the first stumbling blocks I’ve seen personally is lack of ways to kind of digest the concept of it and to kind of discuss it and make progress on it, right?
Sarah: Exactly, I mean, the one thing that I think like it’s great that people care about diversity and tech nowadays. What I don’t want is for this to for this to lead to a sort of white washing of the conversation. I think that companies need more than ever the ability to talk about people and how human we are and how actually hard it is for a group of people to self-organize and work together. So, I mean, something that we found really at Lever is a huge part to making any progress, whether you’re talking about like literally hiring people, just like even being able to scale our teams or kind of the more nebulous stuff like what skills we’re really bringing to the table. And, what’s always been helpful is just talking about it without fear. Talking about being black at work, talking about being a woman in tech, and being able, I think, to I don’t know, like normalize that. I remember I used to do a lot of panels about being kind of a female CEO, being like a woman in tech, and I would go onstage and when you have like conversations about diversity people would be like almost afraid to name it.
Sarah: They’d be afraid to like say the trigger words.
Tim: Yeah people are always worried about like saying something wrong, like holding their opinion that they’re not supposed to have or we’re not supposed to voice. And, I think, we’re still in that stage where in start up land, at least the one’s I’ve seen it’s a really tricky thing, right? So, beyond kind of finding that language and overcoming that block, right, of being afraid to talk about it, what else have you seen that kind of helps in terms of like at least advancing the conversation and making kind of gains in driving more diversity, right, in the workplace.
Sarah: I mean, so I think step one is always gonna be talk about it because I mean like it actually does occur at that level. I think any diversity –
Tim: It does naturally yield stuff, I’ve seen, it’s very funny just talking about it usually drives, I don’t know, more awareness it seems to drive more results. Has that been your experience, too? Just talking about it seems to like yield some advancements?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean I think basically nothing you do down the road can mean anything unless it’s something that’s like actually an open, frequent discourse in the day to day. And, I think so, yeah, making it a topic of concern. And, of course, the best way to do that is top down but at Lever actually it happened bottoms up.
Sarah: You know, we were maybe ten people and we hired our kind of most tenured engineer actually, her name is Rachel. She came into the company having worked at a number of start ups where her experiences usually the only women, usually the only female software engineer, just led her to really want the next company that she joined to do it differently. When she tells the story today nobody believes her, but she was really scared the first time that she actually decided that our weekly team meetings should make this a topic she wanted to bring up. And, I remember that meeting, I remember that day where she sort of got up, she’d prepared all these slides just to sort of basically educate us about the issue of diversity. And this is, you know, back in 2013 when nobody was really talking about it. It was still sort of something a risk to be that person, to be the poster child of an issue and to actually talk about it at work. So, I mean, of course like it was a happy ending at Lever I think, but that risk that Rachel took snowballed into us caring about it from a really, really early stage. And, I really attribute us starting early, starting to care about it early, starting to talk about it early to all the things that happened later. So, making it a topic of concern led to us to start thinking about building an inclusive culture. And, diversity is often talked about on it’s own but I really think diversity and inclusion kind of like prepare. And, more than anything I actually think the inverse, inclusion first is really actually what’s gotten us success here at Lever.
Tim: It’s really hard to push, force people to be together. And, if you don’t have like, I guess, a welcoming environment like it’s the first problem you’re probably going to hit, right, in trying to to hire people are now reflective of your current culture, your current make up, right?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean I think it’s kinda like scaling any other kind of business. I mean, would you build up a huge sales team without marketing? Would you build up a huge design team without engineers? I think you sort of have to think about, of course, all the parts that contribute to the outcome, and scale things and in conjunction. So yes, building an inclusive culture it’s a huge thing that I mean even the largest organizations, the largest, most well funded diversity initiatives at big tech companies I mean they miss that part. And, this for us in the early days was simple things. One, paying attention to how we talked to each other. I think a lot’s been made out of is the “guys” something that is fair, and actually that wasn’t a big deal for our team, what was actually a bigger deal was that the opposite of guys seemed to be “girls”. And, as silly as that is like no women in tech identify as a girl. And, I mean obviously, like “throw like a girl”, “run like a girl”, this is a pejorative in kind of society so I mean, one stupid thing that we did really early, but I think was like a big signal to people was we officially decided that you’d refer to your female colleagues as women. It’s kind of awkward, I mean I don’t know if you’ve every tried to like change the way you casually–
Tim: We went through that in a company. It is tricky, right, because it’s so ingrained. Like language is so ingrained in each of us, right? Particularly, in another layer in our culture that, you know, I remember being in a company where everybody would say, “You guys” all the time and not think about it. And, that was actually in our case, something that was flagged as a problem by our own kind of company. And, it went through a lot of things for us to find out the words, like how do you have this plural you without saying guys. And, even if you don’t mean anything doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impact people on the other side in some way. So, yeah.
Sarah: So that’s a really, really small thing. I think the things that ended up being more important to do, when you talk about breaking down, building an inclusive culture it was how we ran meetings. Actually, just paying attention, looking at the status quo with like open eyes and asking ourselves is this how we wanna run efficient, effective meetings? Looking at how we made decisions. Was it the loudest person? Was it the person with the most data? Was it the person who’d inherit the consequences of whatever decision was made? We looked at–
Tim: ‘Cause, you know, to dive into that I guess the other thing if I’m, maybe I’m jumping to a conclusion, but is that different genders, or different people of a different race profile, or different tolerance for that, or different willingness to go loud, a different willingness to spend time like doing data research or whatever. So, if your culture kind of drives decisions that particular way you might be not as inclusive as you like of people of different backgrounds.
Sarah: Well, I mean, in some dimension like forget whether or not you’re being inclusive, like you may just be making the wrong decision.
Sarah: I think that if you have a dominant way of making decisions that’s cultural you’re probably not going to be conscious about whether or not you’re making a decision that’s effective. And, I think actually, a lot of building an inclusive culture it’s the goal is almost just to build a more effective business, and the byproduct is to be more self-aware, to be more kind of conscious of how. And then, as a result your probably being more inclusive because you’re not just letting the dominant knee jerk reaction kind of be the way.
Tim: You’re more aware right?
Sarah: I think it’s kind of the danger of all of the–
Tim: And, it’s good advice in general even if you’re not worried about diversity. You know, I’ve actually been in companies that just had no idea, or they were making decision. Like, they had some mental muddle, like I think that’s how we decide, but then in practice it’s not actually how decisions we’re being made.
Sarah: I mean, you share a lot of companies that are proud of the fact that they’re a sales lead company, or a product led company, or an engineering led company. And, I think all those are just code words actually for making the dominant discourse at your company one particular function, which has, of course, it’s stereotypes, or it’s baggage, or whatever it is, at the exclusion of others. And so actually, one of our values at Lever we call it cross-functional empathy, XFE for short. And, for us, that means like Lever will never be a company that’s dominated by one of our functions. That, as we evolve, as we grow, there’s always going to be one work that maybe needs to get lifted up by the others, or is the most critical, but frankly, it takes kind of everybody here to do it. And, that’s the connection. People ask me all the time why does diversity help you build a more successful business?
Sarah: And the answer is we’re not myopically focused on one function in the business. We’re actually, really, really aware that it’s gonna take sales, marketing, customer success, design, product management, engineering, recruiting, HR, leadership, management. It’s gonna take all of these components to succeed. And, I think as a business if you’re too quick to build your culture around one tent pole you’re actually basically omitting cultural focus on evolving all of these aspects of the business.
Tim: [Tim] Right.
Sarah: I think like culture became a really big topic for start ups, unsurprisingly 10, 20 years ago. And, I think now it’s just it’s just what you do. And, I think now we’re starting to see a more elevated discourse about culture, that I think diversity’s a big part of. Which is, okay, so we have this great powerful tool called culture, but are we actually still using the equivalent of paleolithic hand axe. What’s the next evolution of actually like engineering, manipulating, evolving culture towards specific ends. And, I think for a fast growing start up that’s going through a ton of evolutionary change you really need a culture that actually effortlessly helps evolve all parts of the business, and that’s where diversity and inclusion comes in.
Tim: Makes sense, and you know, this is kind of an interesting aside, but like since we’re on the topic of kind of culture and in a broad sense even, you know, how much do you feel like this is something that’s top down versus bottoms up or even I have this kind of suspicion in my head and I’m no domain expert at all so feel to free to rob me of this kind of misconception that the fastest and best way to impact culture that you’re recruiting is not just talking with the existing employees, but it’s like in hiring different people and kind of molding, kind are you expanding the company. Because, the only way to move, in at least my experience, is through like the people themselves. And so, what’s kind of been your experience being at the nexus of like again, like a lot of deep thinking about culture and molding that and also kind of being very involved in recruiting on multiple levels about the best way to kind of shape culture.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a lot of unexplored mechanisms, but I can talk about recruiting at great length. I’m super passionate about it, obviously. Like, we talk about it here on so many levels. Our product basically is the software that companies use to run their entire hiring process. And you know, something back in the early days, I mean I’m a designer by my background and so my early days at Lever was all about user research and converting that into this product that would become Lever ATS and Lever Nurture. For us really, what we saw with regards to recruiting at companies was that, I mean, you don’t obviously go to college majoring in recruiting. A lot of people who are thrown into helping with interviewing or thrown into being a manager, they’ve never actually received a lot of like formal training. And actually, it’s kind of the blind leading the blind because the talent landscape has changed so dramatically over the last even just like five years that a recruiter that’s been in the industry for 20 years hasn’t necessarily been equipped for today’s really intense competition for talent, for the competitive offers that are flying around in the tech industry, for being able to actually go out there and not just like hire against hyper-growth growth goals, but also I mean try to focus on diversity at the same time. It’s actually completely uncharted territory. And, what we found really like made a difference for people when they were really I guess trying to be intentional about how they were building their culture was to invest a lot more in making their hiring more collaborative. I think as a founder, I mean as a CEO you’ve got a million things flying around. You’ve probably gotten advice from blogs and you’re VCs and all sort of people telling you, “Like hiring’s really important, “you need to spend a lot of time on hiring.” But, I mean, I meet entrepreneurs every day for whom this is just still surprising. I think you’re looking for anything you can get off your plate, anything you can hand off to somebody else. And, I would say that people just have the exact opposite instincts when it comes to recruiting because your instincts tell you I need to hand this off, this isn’t the most important thing I need to be doing. I should just give this to a recruiter and they can run with it. And actually, the key to scaling culture whether you’re talking about going from 10 to 50 or whether you’re talking about going from 1,000 to 10,000. Across all of our customers the answer is make hiring more collaborative, have more people spend more of their time. Pull in your most senior time strapped people to focus on this. Pull in the people that actually you trust the most and open the doors. Make sure that people from day one when they kind of come and show up on your team that they’re also thinking about hiring, that you’re training new people to get involved whether that’s through interviewing or through referrals, whatever. The companies that we succeed in not just hitting their growth goals, actually finding the people but also scaling their culture and making a dent in diversity. They’re companies that instead of siloing recruiting into a function make it a part of the culture.
Tim: Right, it seems like that would achieve like so much in terms of driving awareness of like just the existence of culture and the importance to think about it and everything–
Sarah: Yeah, it poses a lot of questions. It’s like, “Oh, we’re going to interview someone “for culture fit, what does culture fit mean?”
Tim: What does even Oracle–
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And, I mean, like one funny thing that we decided to do in our small quest to help companies actually hire better, and hire better for diversity. You can’t actually have a reason in Lever when you mark someone as I’m not hiring this person you can’t actually have a disposition reason that is culture fit. Our team pushes back, our customer success team that it’s on boarding you will literally say, “You shouldn’t do that.” And, you should describe what it is that makes someone not a culture fit. And, I think small details like that whether it’s a company that’s actually asking themselves how are we hiring? Like, what is our interview process? What are the things that make somebody a great fit here? To systemically, what are the reasons that show up in a drop down menu when you’re trying to disqualify someone? I think that that full spectrum is so critical for asking the questions that an early stage company needs to be asking. For asking the questions that a founder, or a CEO needs to be answering. I think like really when you talk about the cultural leadership how you hire. How you hire from 10 to 15 is the most defining thing that you’re going to do as a founder with regards to culture that you will ever do in the entire scope of your career. So, yeah, I mean I think like recruiting can be a huge multiplier and not because it solves anything, but because it actually points to the questions that you need to be able to answer.
The Startup Tapes chronicle the highs & lows of building a startup, through candid, immersive interviews with founders, operators & advisors. Tim Anglade, an Executive-in-Residence at Scale Venture Partners and formerly with Realm, Apigee, and Cloudant leads the project with the goal to de-mystify the process through which startups emerge, grow & succeed. His unfiltered interviews transcribe the conversations we often hear in the boardroom, amongst our portfolio community and with entrepreneurs and partners we engage with every day.
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