What The Government Can Teach Startups About Hiring For Diversity

Sherika Ekpo isn’t phased by the challenges tech faces with diversity and inclusion. These issues are not unique for someone whose everyday includes 238 years of our country’s history.

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Ekpo is the Director of People and Diversity at the United States Digital Service (USDS), a government team tasked with integrating tech into the notoriously stodgy and formal U.S. government. Nicknamed the “government startup”, they told Crunchbase News that 60 percent of its leadership team identifies as female, and roughly 25 percent of their leadership team is a minority. Approximately 27 percent of its staff, which is comprised of around 170 employees, is a minority.

It’s quite an image: a government agency, operating during the Trump administration, that has to hire talent willing to take a pay cut and move across the country, is doing better at hiring diverse candidates than many tech startups.

And for those running said startups, Ekpo has some advice: keep it “old school” and do the work.

That means going behind the careers page and meeting candidates in person, going to events that are hosted and attended by those that have been historically ignored, and asking to tap into networks.

“Once you get people in the door, you have to create communities for them to stay.” —Sherika Ekpo

For USDS that means Slack groups, events that aren’t just happy hours, and community health surveys.

USDS isn’t immune from diversity issues, however. Ekpo explained that while the numbers are great, “if you dissect the space, we are lacking in representation of women and people of color in the engineering (team).” To expose these gaps, she says they’re open about diversity statistics. First, they share to a small group of internal audiences, next to the entire organization, and finally more openly to the general public.

Some important context here is that scaling, a pressure startups face nonstop, is a mountain that USDS doesn’t have to face. This is to the relief of Matt Cutts USDS’s administrator and the former head of spam at Google, who admitted that while scaling is exciting, growing pains are real.

“If you hire the wrong people, they can do a lot of damage, burn bridges, and turn people off of a specific approach for 5 to 10 years,” Cutts told us last month.

The organization hovers around 170-190 employees and plans to stay that way. Plus, by design, there’s a fast turnaround in new hires (most employees stay for about 16 to 19 months).

Pivoting to a tech company that is under pressure to expand, take Jellyvision, a benefits communications platform that says a hybrid of both technology and “old school” relationships works.

The Chicago company has grown from 65 to 400 employees in the past five years, and it maintains a 50-50 split in terms of gender diversity, from entry-level employees to the C-suite. The company still struggles with diversity in race: it doesn’t have any people of color in leadership roles in the C-suite currently, said Hibben Rothschild, an HR manager at the company.

As the company grows it’s added technology into the equation: Jellyvision is switching its applicant tracking system to help automate the identity enactment process. This started from an informal effort by Jellyvision’s hiring managers who were already using blind hiring to bring on new employees.

Formalizing these initiatives, according to Rothschild, should “help everyone continue to push [diversity] forward, but quickly.”

But what if you’re a big bay area tech company and have tens of thousands of people? Along with creative initiatives, flashy budgets, these companies could probably use the advice of people doing hiring right, especially under the rigorous standards of government agencies.

Ekpo was recently plucked from USDS to help lead diversity efforts at Google, where she says she’ll bring her perspective on making products that represent and cater to the American people. First up on her to-do list? Be open about diversity and inclusion statistics, both internally and externally. She has the startup experience to prove it works.

Editor’s Note: Sherika Ekpo’s title was modified to match her official title at USDS.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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