Tech Cocktail: How to increase diversity in startups

Last week we attended Tech Cocktail’s Chicago mixer where Rishi Shah, founder and CEO of Context Media and Melissa Pierce, the founder of Chicago Woman Developers, shared why they are advocates of diversity in the workplace and how we can work together to increase it.

Despite people frequently talking about startups like they’re an army—a cohesive, tightknit group where everyone is the same—Shah understands that the best startups are diverse. To Shah, having diversity means being open-minded, different and adaptive. “Diversity is always a good thing, you get more perspectives and different talent pools,” he said.

At Context Media they hire with diversity in mind. They also make sure that potential employees understand they are not just part of a department; they are part of a team. “We try to make sure that they understand they are one team from the beginning. The way they sit also reflects that – you work with an interdisciplinary team, sitting right next to who you work with. It’s an uber-collaborative culture,” Shah said.

He says, as CEO it is his responsibility to keep this diverse team cohesive, comfortable and motivated. “As a founder and a leader you have to spark that energy and stir the pot. You take on the role of being the host of the party and once a party gets fun it stays fun,” said Shah.

To ensure that the workplace stays fun he recommends hiring people who are open to change and capable of embracing a vision because “your company is not yours – your company is everybody who works for it. They equally own it in terms of culture,” said Shah.

Pierce is also a big proponent of diversity. A woman in tech who started a meet up for woman programmers without even knowing how to program, Pierce has long been an advocate for increasing diversity in the world of startups. After realizing that people didn’t want to talk to the IT department within their company about improving their technical skills (a sign of bad corporate culture), she started having meet-ups where woman could learn to code together.

“Having more diversity means you avoid group think, it means you have a variety of perspectives,” said Ri Liu, organizer of Chicago Woman Developers who works closely with Pierce. The Chicago Woman Developers Meet-up has become a comfortable, supportive environment for more than 500 women who work in tech.