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How Your Startup Can Implement Effective Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practices

Phyllis Reagin

Phyllis Reagin

Founder and CEO at At The Coach’s Table
Phyllis Reagin is the former Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion with Warner Bros. Entertainment and the founder and CEO of At The Coach’s Table. She’s a doctoral trained behaviorist and seasoned Leadership Coach who, for over nine years, has guided thousands of leadership transformations.
Phyllis Reagin

Much of the dialogue about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) plans in the media has been focused on established businesses that frankly have the ability to reengineer current strategies, integrate DEI communication into current communication plans, and leverage their organization’s leadership to focus and drive initiatives.

Startups and entrepreneurial businesses, however, are most likely starting from scratch with developing DEI plans. This has many advantages. These businesses have the flexibility of creating a culture without having to necessarily dismantle deeply rooted practices. Startups and entrepreneurial businesses are in the practice of asking “What if?” which is the exact mentality needed to think about how DEI can “live” in the company.


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Startups and entrepreneurs can create and implement effective diversity, equality and inclusion practices by addressing these areas:

First, evaluate your current talent recruitment practices

It’s more than just deciding that you want to hire with diversity in mind. You need to establish recruitment strategies. Now is the time to consider what can happen in the short-term to begin mitigating any issues and then develop long-term goals for driving focused DEI recruitment strategies. Commit to recruiting deep and wide (not just entry-level and manager-level positions, but also senior leadership roles).

Next, examine the informal and unstated structure of advancement practices

Having a diversity and inclusion strategy in place is not enough. A serious evaluation is needed for how you are providing equitable opportunities for advancement (along with pay increases) within your company.

How are you preparing, supporting and promoting diverse employees? Evaluate how your company is enabling all employees access to major stakeholders, promotors, mentors, coaches and career advancement opportunities. It is not about hiring diverse talent and then not addressing the subtle but difficult terrain of advancement.

Revisiting and rewriting your values

Do your company’s values speak to its belief of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Step back and think about whether your employees can identify how the company lives its values. Do these values speak to what leaders are now saying is important about having a company that supports diversity, equity and inclusion? If not, what values need to change or be added? Consider how leaders and all employees addressed can reflect these values.

Establish a forceful communication plan

You need a DEI communication plan, not a haphazard attempt to discuss it. This communication plan needs to incorporate the prominent issues you want your employees to know about your efforts, status updates and any challenges being noted. It needs to be communicated across multiple channels (team meetings, company-wide meetings, one-on-ones, HR communications, etc.).

Take a pulse frequently

Check in to see how your DEI efforts are working. Create multiple opportunities and channels for your employees to communicate what they are experiencing, seeing and hearing. Not everyone will feel psychologically safe with one specific feedback channel, so allow them a choice. Establish feedback opportunities via one-on-ones, HR or anonymously. The goal is acquiring real-time, honest and unfiltered information.

Be brave and let go of individuals who do not support your DEI efforts

Companies may be focusing their attention on pushing DEI strategies out, but if things are not changing, then it is time to address what is blocking it. Who is a blocker and needs to exit? No amount of good intentions will make DEI a success if you have employees who are unsupportive or unwilling to make it a priority.

Step into leading with empathy, compassion and deepened awareness

It’s vital to have leaders in place who are interested in learning how to lead diverse teams. Not everyone, however well-intentioned, will know how to lead with the empathy and compassion that is needed right now.

Diverse employees need to know that their company’s leadership is being responsive to them during the social unrest and crises. Make sure your team knows you are open to new approaches, ready to create a culture of respect for diversity, and open to hearing, supporting and valuing different voices, thoughts, perspectives and solutions.


Related: A Statement on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion from StartupNation

Here are ways to lead and support your diverse employees that demonstrates your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and that also conveys your compassion and empathy:

Be present

Your diverse employees want you to be “in” this moment. That looks like actively listening, being empathetic and compassionate, and being flexible and responsive with how you can provide support. This is not the time to give your point of view, ask questions for your clarification, or to release your personal guilt.

No shortcuts

Real learning is needed for change. Do not use shortcuts by asking Black employees to explain the tenets of racism to you. This only increases their burden. The responsibility to explore and expand your own knowledge requires you to be responsible for your own learning.

Wait and listen

Your diverse employees want solutions, but they do not want a haphazard approach to a systemic issue. Let them know you are in this for the long-haul. Gather information, have clarifying conversations and brainstorm solutions. This is what is needed to create real change.

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable

To support your diverse team, you need to be uncomfortable. This means examining your own biases, challenging colleagues to behave differently, pushing against a culture that may not be representing or respecting diversity, and settling in with the idea that change will be disruptive and difficult, but is ultimately the right and only way to be.


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Walk your talk

Oftentimes, diverse employees still feel that their voices and contributions are not valued the same as others at their company. These employees need leaders who support a culture and policies that promote equity. They need leaders to challenge the status quo and ones who understand that even if they are not experiencing certain challenges at their company that this may does not mean it others’ experiences.

Create new team norms

Leaders need to collaborate with their diverse teams to realign or create norms about how to communicate, support each other, manage conflict, and address any other challenges.

Leaders need to also create psychological safety on their teams and to promote a culture of trust and openness. Leaders can help their teams with promoting the principle that diversity is a value that can be demonstrated by diverse people, diverse opinions and diverse solutions.

Startups and entrepreneurial businesses have the opportunity to develop news ways of being and doing with greater ease and flexibility than larger or more established companies. They can be open, curious, flexible and readied for change, while asking “What if?” and then being brave and bold enough to pivot and evolve.

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