Beth Scheer, Katie Hughes, and Prateek Alsi provide tangible techniques to promote diversity at startups, discuss how to establish recruiting processes that will help you scale, and highlight the traits that distinguish a remarkable Head of Talent.
Key Insights and Questions
Talent Partners play a big role pushing the diversity needle forward in tech. I’d love to learn about your firm’s take on diversity. What you are doing to make a difference?
Katie: One of the really interesting learnings is that diversity tends to fly in the face of cultural fit. If a company gets to a certain point and they haven’t incorporated diversity it will feel unnatural. Companies need to make diversity a reality as soon as possible. If you are five male engineers, you need to think about bringing in a woman.
Another challenge is that most companies hire through referrals and their own network during the early days. If you have two male co-founders, chances are they’re reaching out to 75% other men. It’s not always true because there are a lot of people who make a big effort to diversify their network. We need to make a conscious effort to ask for diversity. Don’t be afraid to say we really want a woman, a person of color, or someone from an underrepresented background in tech. Write about diversity in your job description and that you are working to create an environment that is open and hospitable to all walks of life. Those things seem like lip service but they go a long way. All of this can be done early without investing too much time.
Prateek: We all need to have the diversity conversation. At General Catalyst, we specifically check that there is a diverse pool of candidates on every executive search we sit on. It’s about repetition. You have be relentless about moving forward with diversity and hold people accountable to it. We also make sure there is diversity of thought at the board level. It has to trickle down from the top.
The third area is on the investment side. Over the last three years, we have invested in a number of incredible women founders like Liz Wessel at WayUp, Jessica Alba at The Honest Company, and Tyler Haney at Outdoor Voices. We are very cognizant and try to lead by example at every opportunity.
Rough Draft Ventures, General Catalyst's student-focused program, backs founders at the university level. In addition to having diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, our student team that makes recommendations on which founders to back, represents diversity in gender. We also have a diverse group of folks running the companies from the time they get started. We also invest in and sponsor women in product initiatives, particularly in upcoming domains like machine learning. We want to make sure that candidates are in the pipeline when the time comes.
How do you recommend founders meet people outside of their networks?
Beth: One of the challenges at the seed stage is that you need to hire fast and furiously. People want to hire within their comfort zones. They do that by networking within their own community. Hiring from your personal network is one of the biggest barriers to having a diverse and inclusive workforce. This is why companies get to 10 people and everyone looks the same and went to the same school. It’s not always visible diversity. You can have a company where everyone comes from the same way of thinking. That is equally dangerous.
When our companies are very early stage and under 10 people, I work with them to source candidates outside of their network. There are countless organizations that target different niches where you can post applications for groups like women re-entering the workforce or veterans. There is a great organization called VetTech Track. They look at the top 5% of people coming out of the military who have managed very large teams. They may not have experience outside of the army but they have managed thousands of people. They are great candidates for operations roles or managers. Every time we onboard a new company, we have our founders post a job on these sites to see who they meet. It is much harder to change things later. You can’t start thinking about diversity when you are 90 people.
Katie: It’s also important to leverage your investors. We are all actively trying to diversify our networks and want to lend them to our companies. Blatantly ask for what you’re looking for. We can filter our networks to find you the best candidate. Another is around university recruiting and building out a bench of junior talent. You can target specific interest groups on campus, different schools, or geographies. You can’t do that when you are sourcing out of other technology companies.
What should teams look for in a great Head of Talent? What makes one really special?
Prateek: It is particularly important to look at stage for this role. A fantastic Head of Talent is very different at the seed stage than they are at Series B. We’ve done a little bit of math to figure out that 22 - 25 employees is a great time to bring in a Head of Talent. Companies who did produced better returns than ones who waited longer.
Talent leaders need to be very flexible as within the natures of startups. Being execution driven is really important on the leadership side. They need to be able to move fast. On the personal side, high integrity is crucial for the nature of this work. Most importantly, they need to be a strategic partner to the CEO.
Katie: Someone who can push back on the CEO when needed and provide alternative paths of growing the company. Bandwidth is also really important. We can all be proactive when we aren’t forced to be reactive. The companies I have seen succeed in this area bring on their Head of Talent and quickly allow them to build out small but mighty teams. Hiring someone in a single role and expecting them to manage outside vendors, pipeline, establish and maintain processes, incorporate feedback, and sometimes take on HR in the early stages, is too much. They are going to be playing whack a mole to scale your team. Unlike Sales, it’s hard for companies to say there is demonstrable ROI to scale up a recruiting function from an early stage; An under resourced Head of Talent is an individual contributor until they can build a team.
There is a lot of pressure for startups to hire quickly. How do you work with talent leaders to take their time and not succumb to the pressure?
Beth: We look for a strategic business partner for this reason. Someone who has been in places where they’ve had experiences pushing back against the CEO or leadership team. If a CEO or founder is pushing on somebody to fill roles quickly and they are cowering and putting pressure on their team, I jump into to say ‘It’s about quality not quantity. You can’t build your company on volume.’
Prateek: It’s important to manage and align expectations on what it means and requires to fill roles with the entire executive team. A good Director of Talent can do that and has the support of their CEO to be successful.
Katie: Creating a process and infrastructure that allows you to move quickly on things that are rinse and repeat is really helpful. Make sure you have a buttoned up interview process with consistent ways of measuring that allows you to move fast. Compensation packages make sure you don’t get tripped up every time you are making an offer. You can be firm about how high you can go with each person you are bringing on. We encourage companies to think about compensation early, not just for parity and so they don’t have to renegotiate in the future, but so they can hire and execute on offers faster. It is also useful to create KPIs for your hiring managers so you don’t put all of the pressure on your Head of Talent.
Prateek: Unifying your entire team around recruiting so it doesn’t fall on your talent team is critical to moving fast. Recruiting is not the talent team’s responsibility. It is everybody in the organization’s responsibility. The sooner companies realize that the more successful they are.