Solutions for the Silicon Valley Diversity Issue

Newest products from the hotbed of technological invention, San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, aren’t the only headline-makers these days. More and more is talked about the low representation of women and minorities at companies like Google, where unconscious bias heralds as one obstacle for entry.

As the executive level also traditionally tends to be male-dominated, there is a Silicon Valley company that’s going against the tide. Donna Wells is the CEO of Mindflash, a cloud-based platform for employee and customer training with clients like Apple, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. Former CMO of Mint.com, a finance service, Wells has experienced some of the present issues in the industry. Both the executive and employee levels have impressive diversity numbers. Moving forward at her current company, she focuses on forming practical solutions that have tangible results for present and future of the diversity and inclusion in technology.

Diversity Executive spoke with Wells about focusing on diverse outcomes that synthesize with better business results. Below are edited excerpts from the interview. 

Tech startups and the Silicon Valley are known for low numbers of women and minorities. What makes Mindflash different?

Some of the Valley’s top tech companies have gone public this year with data confirming what we've all observed here for many years: discouragingly low percentages of female and minority employees, particularly in leadership roles. The scarcity of women and minorities in start-ups and especially in the Venture Capital community had already been well documented for some time. I believe, however, that the situation is very different in the few women-led tech start-ups I’m familiar with — including my own. I think we're showing that gender and racial balance is achievable in Silicon Valley. Donna Wells, CEO of Mindflash

At Mindflash, our difference starts with our board and investors. They were willing to bring in a very non-traditional CEO. I don't think you can overestimate the signal that sends to the rest of the organization. In addition, we had some great success in recruiting women and minorities early on, and those early wins only accelerate our ability to attract and retain an awesome, diverse team.

What are some ways the diversity at Mindflash has been achieved?

I lead an executive team that is 50 percent female and 50 percent minority. And Mindflash’s newest executive – our VP of Engineering, Shobana Radhakrishnan — is a woman as well as a minority. While it's clear that long-term solutions are needed to address the tech industry’s diversity gap, we’ve implemented a few tactics which have made a real impact immediately.

  • Start from the top. For example, appointing female board members makes it easier to attract female executives.And having more female execs makes it easier to attract great female employees. When job candidates walk in the office for an interview, they see people that look like themselves. I believe that sends a strong, visual signal to high potential talent that this may be, at last, a tech company where they can truly excel.
  • Insert more flexibility into your culture.Our liberal work-from-home policies have allowed Mindflash to cast a broader talent net well beyond Silicon Valley.  This has given us a better shot of hiring and retaining the best person for the job — be they a woman or a minority. Half of my team is Silicon Valley-based, half is remote. Forty percent of my HQ-based women telecommute one or more days a week. Nearly 40 percent of my female employees work from home full-time. 
  • Make a solid attempt at work-life balance.While this isn’t always possible, it can be done. We employ maybe too many productivity tech tools (Yammer, Skype, Asana, GoToMeeting, Sococo, Hall, etc.) and implement practices like "no meetings after 11 a.m." to make the best use of our people’s time, and resist a culture requiring “face time.” Word gets around and that attracts more top talent, male or female.
  • Strive for a fact-based, meritocracy culture. Being an extreme Agile software company helps us assess, recognize and reward people more objectively. The transparency that the Agile process requires serves to identify who’s contributing the most to the organization and removes a lot of perceptual bias.

How did this impressive diversity make a difference in the workplace?

I have worked in a broad spectrum of environments — from companies of virtually all white males under the age of 35 on one end to Mindflash. From that broad experience, I see two key benefits of diversity in the workplace today. First, if you’re not limiting yourself to hiring only people that look like you, you gain full access to the wonderfully wide and deep U.S. talent pool. This is a key competitive advantage, especially in today’s employment landscape. Second, you benefit from more diverse discussion and perspectives internally and from having employees who are more representative of our prospects and customers. 

When it comes to training employees, how does diversity help?

The fundamental objective of training is changing human behavior. Positive, persistent behavioral change only happens in a culture of openness, communication and feedback.  Diversity is a strong signal of exactly that culture. So, in my experience, diversity lends credibility to the training message and increases the probability of its success.

A lot is talked about “unconscious bias.” Do you have any ways to battle or minimize it?

Unconscious bias absolutely exists in all of us; there’s extensive scientific research on this. So we should all admit this fact to ourselves, not be shy about calling ourselves and others out on this and, in doing so, build awareness and drive change. I think the shareholder backlash against Urban Outfitters, Twitter and Facebook having zero female board members, for instance, has driven change in those and similar organizations. 

Once acknowledged this innate bias, it's time for action. My current, favorite example of an organization completely re-inventing its approach to inspiring and assessing women is the Harvard Business School. Back in 2009, HBS started what was effectively a social experiment to help close the gender divide in the school. By making professors more conscious of giving opportunity to the few women in the class and by equipping these women with the skills they needed to succeed, they created a dramatic impact: Female students’ average grades and presence in the top of the graduating class skyrocketed.

I'd like to see the debate in Silicon Valley shift from one of assigning blame to one of surfacing solutions. I've mentioned several tactics I've seen work here, but I know there are hundreds of others … some even unique, perhaps, to certain industries and geographies. I think most managers are well-intended and would welcome new ideas. After all, as the percentage of Americans who are well-educated and ambitious and women/minorities/LGBTQ/etc. inexorably increases so should our commitment to making the change that will allow them to tap into their greatest potential. It's both a moral and an economic imperative.