Guest Post

Diversity, equity and inclusion tips for small companies

HR departments might make diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives easier, but SMBs can still develop diversity in-house and throughout the supply chain with these tips.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

Diversity is happening everywhere, but organizations must make a conscious effort to implement objective hiring criteria and avoid affinity bias within their workforce. In this video, Sobel explores how to implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives with Jennifer Brown, author of Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways to Build a More Inclusive World. Sobel and Brown discuss what to do when your identity is overrepresented in your field, how to diversify the supply chain when technical specifications are a priority, and how small companies can create a role to take responsibility of DEI initiatives.

Transcript follows below. Minor edits have been made for brevity and clarity.

Brown discusses her book as a primer to talk about diversity

Dave Sobel: A conversation with Jennifer Brown, whose new book, Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways to Build a More Inclusive World hit bookshelves on November 9. How to take these ideas and make them work for small companies. This is a bonus episode of the Business of Tech.

Jennifer, thanks for joining me. Congratulations on your latest book.

Jennifer Brown: Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. I'm proud of it.

Sobel: Tell me a little bit about the audience you were thinking about when you put it together because it reads as a description of different ideas and 12 obvious places, but who were you thinking about as the reader when you put it together?

Brown: Am I allowed to say anybody? DEI -- diversity, equity and inclusion -- has become so fraught, complex, lots of feelings, lots of agree, disagree going on. This is literally like, let's pick our heads up and look around in the different domains that touch our lives, schools, which is education, government, storytelling, media, entertainment, fashion and retail, technology.

It was so fun to take the summit that we did with 200 speakers and distill it into thematic chapters, where we are able to tell stories that will just surprise you and delight you and show us all that diversity's happening everywhere. It's a fact. It's actually something that's leading to tons of exciting developments and to innovation, to new kinds of companies and to social impact.

It's fundamentally a very optimistic book and very accessible. And I hope it gets into the hands of anybody who is like, 'What is this diversity thing? What do I need to know about it?' before you go to the leadership conversation about what it is, which is really my specialty. It's a primer.

Sobel: That was the way I took it. I read the book and what I was left with was a lot of like, well, okay, these really are cool ideas of getting things started.

How can small companies address diversity?

Sobel: I want to follow up on a couple of them because I said, 'Oh, okay, I like this idea, but I want to try and make it a little bit more implementable.' For example, you've got a whole section talking about hiring and as I read through it, I was struck with this really makes a lot of sense when I have an HR department and a big process, but what about when you're small? What about when HR is the two or three leaders of the company also do HR and maybe they work with an outsourcer and they do the hiring and the leaders interview everybody -- how do they make this idea around hiring more tangible to them?

Brown: Thinking outside the box with hiring is such a tenet of inclusive organizations, and it's so important for us that our biases don't get in the way of our decisions and who makes it through each gate of the hiring process for example. So just some basics.

I am a company of the size you are describing. We try to have multiple eyes and multiple reviewers of different identities if we can. We also try to develop objective criteria that we all agree on, but understand that we have an added agenda of we need to make sure our company, as it grows, we encourage all diversity in the candidate pools that we look at.

We balance who the candidate is and what the candidate knows how to do. There are technical skills, but then there's all these other things we used to call soft skills. Soft is not a bad word. Let's call it something else or let's redefine that word because empathy, transparency, emotional intelligence, the ability to resonate with customers, patience, resilience -- these things we look for, they can live in any package.

We get a lot of eyes, we agree to some criteria, we prioritize the demographic makeup that we want on our team because every decision matters. What you build today will become a standard. And then as you grow, it will make it easier or harder to attract more diversity to your organization.

If we continue to hire who we're comfortable with -- which is called affinity bias -- who succeeded in a role in the past, or who went to the same school that we did, or whatever criteria reassure us, I think the challenge is to say to ourselves, I want to maybe think outside the box here because I need that new problem solving. I need a different lens. I actually need someone to bring a different set of filters to my business than I or somebody that has the same identity, schooling, background, experience, employers that I have had. We're going to have the same blind spots. That is the rationale for this. It's not a moral exercise, although some of us believe that it is. It doesn't need to be. It can be an exercise around innovation and creativity and getting what I call that creative abrasion that makes companies great.

Also, in the customer service business, this stuff is super important. The technical and the personal are intertwined in the creative problem solving and everything like that. I would say really think about your hiring processes. Get feedback from candidates about how did it feel to go through our process. Did we ever create an experience that didn't feel inclusive? I would investigate that because often we can't see our own biases and filters in action. We're incapable of noticing that. And if somebody tells you the truth, that's such a gift because then you can take that and say, 'Well, how do we want to do this differently the next time?'

How can you build diversity when your identity is white male and straight?

Sobel: I keep talking about the fact that I like selling to as many people as I can, and I need to understand them in order to do a good job of that. You mentioned identity and you've got a whole section about embracing identity. I wanted to ask, this is one of those questions that I want to come at it from the good perspective, what does that mean when your identity is white male and straight? Because I'm describing myself, I'm describing a lot of my audience. There's a positive and a negative way of embracing that identity. What's the guidance to leverage embrace identity when your identity is white male and straight to make that a positive embrace?

Brown: Yeah, and what you're saying is your identity's overrepresented in your field, right? And you've told me a little bit about it. And that's true actually in a lot of fields, especially at the leadership level. Some of you who are small business owners may also be reflecting, 'Wow, it's very diverse actually in the lower level talent, but as we get to leadership, it loses that.' And that's very common in large organizations too. You're not alone. It's a persistent challenge.

I would say the white straight male leader has a huge opportunity to practice inclusion, to value different kinds of diversity. Also, that leader -- who's to say that leader isn't diverse in invisible ways. There are so many things under our waterline, so to speak, if we're like icebergs. There's 90% that you can't see. A lot of us are accustomed to not raising those things or bringing those things because maybe we think they don't matter or we're ashamed of them or we think, 'well, that's not diversity.'

But I believe everybody has some level of a diversity story. Everybody understands what exclusion feels like. We can come from a place of empathy and relating to that in that way. Somebody's diverse or not diverse is such a false descriptor. I'm LGBTQ, but I can walk through the world and not have anybody know that because of the way that I present my gender and behavior. It's an interesting thing to reveal that. And then to remember and remind myself that that person sitting across from me has so much that I don't know that I'm not able to perceive.

That's a way to describe diversity differently that's more inclusive of all of us, even those you don't expect. The allyship that those of us who've traditionally had perhaps more access to leadership roles, the opportunity we have to activate our voice is enormous. I walk through the world and am safer in this skin. I'm mindful of that every day. That's a source for me of empathy and understanding for what somebody else has achieved, what headwinds might have faced that person in terms of accomplishing what they've accomplished.

I think being able to challenge my own self and my own biases about what a leader or a manager looks like. And then thinking about customers and letting that drive us too to say, 'my job, I might be a part of a certain group, but my job as a leader is to build an organization composed of as many different identities and that will relate to my customers, that will innovate for the company, that represent the future truly.'

We have a big role to play, but we can get very set on our identity in that sense, in a negative sense and say how limited I am. I don't really think of my limitations. I do talk about the biases of privilege and things that I'm not going to understand. But as a leader, I know that I can exercise my voice and there are certain access points that I have. There are certain things that I can make happen, maybe more easily because I have the permission to do that. That's a huge opportunity to take a leadership role with inclusion and really champion talent. As you all grow your companies like I've been doing for almost 20 years, I have just had my eyes opened to so many amazing people that now work for us that bring things that I could never bring. I could never replicate that. If I hired everybody that looked like me, I'd be in an echo chamber and we would have huge blind spots for problem solving and innovation that would really hurt my business.

It's an imperative. If we feel like we don't have anything to contribute, we're wrong. But we need to figure out a different way into our contribution and being that ally, standing up for mentoring [and] challenging ourselves. This is the work those of us need to do who have not had to cope with this on a day-to-day basis as we walk through the world in our bodies. I think it's cool. It's super challenging, but that's why you sign up to lead.

Sobel: I always quote, 'in mysteries, there's margin.' Hard problems are the ones we're solving.

Brown: Oh, I love that saying. I'm going to steal that.

Sobel: Please do. Because if it was easy, everyone would do it and it would be commoditized. I like hard problems because I make money off of solving hard problems.

Brown: Ooh, and hard problems require diversity of thought and the creative abrasion that happens when we disagree, but then we come to a 'one plus one equals three' unexpectedly. That's the power of diversity unleashed. I just want to define, diversity is the who, but inclusion is how. The inclusion is how do I ensure that we get the most out of all diverse identities on the team. So the piece of the how is important, not just lining up 'representation,' but what do you do with that dynamic? How do you encourage that creative abrasion and the pull through? The potential of that and the results from that is really where the art of how to manage it comes into play. And that's what the book is. My previous book is very much about that.

How does a tech company diversify its supply chain?

Sobel: I love the references to the 15% pledge. For those that didn't know, it's a U.S. nonprofit encouraging retailers to pledge at least 15% of their shelf space to black-owned businesses. And what I was struck with was I almost didn't know how to get started when I looked at it from a tech perspective.

For example, if I'm a small IT provider, my job is to go out and find solutions. I'm generally looking at a long list of technical specifications for those products that come through my distribution chain. I have to do all the research on that where literally the creative team behind it isn't necessarily one of the criteria that I would be looking for at all. I'm literally just looking at a technical specification. Am I trying to apply an idea to the wrong area or am I looking at it wrong? How do you take ideas like this and translate it to that technical world?

Brown: That's such a great question. If you're buying from or you're procuring what you need from very few players and there's a lack of diversity amongst those players because they're the big titans or whatever or they're your go-to people, the concept of supplier diversity is very powerful.

Even small companies can make different procurement choices around even little things, where you may say to yourself, I've been working with the supplier forever and I'm looking at all my suppliers and they all look this way, which is probably what you're doing right now listening to this. Think, wow, there is not a single female-owned parts manufacturer that I contract with or for office space or for HR. We buy a lot of things when you're running small companies and you're building them. Going through the discipline as companies to look at all the ways we spend money and who we spend the money with and do we have alternatives and can we make different choices, to your point about the products on the shelves, I believe that's actually good organizational hygiene. It is the way that economically you can make a difference. I love it because it's not so performative. We talk a lot about performative allyship. Oh, we'll say the right things and post the black square and whatever. But when you diversify your spend strategically and you start to mix it up, it's an extremely powerful economic impact that you can have. And I'm certified as woman-owned and LGBT-owned. In my work with large corporations, they seek us out through certain databases that exist and they give us the opportunity to bid on a request for proposal that might have just gone to the incumbent.

We get a chance to shine and to show our innovation and creativity and our unique character because when you were talking about the margins earlier, the companies that grow up on the margins are super creative. We're the ones that are trying to get in there and differentiate ourselves. We work harder. We work differently. And the thinking is with supplier diversity, we bring innovation to whoever hires us.

This is again, not just an exercise, but it's an invitation to a new relationship and a new collaboration, and you never know where that could go. Beyond the impact of spend, it's also an opportunity for partnerships to grow and take your business to a place that you might not be able to predict because we are our ecosystems. As small businesses, we rely on that web design company, that PR firm. We have choices. And the discipline then becomes, 'So wait a second, we're evaluating three firms. They're all led by and owned by white men. Let's think about how can we broaden this and make our process more inclusive?' If this is a goal to diversify that ecosystem, let's add that to our filters and our categories that we're evaluating. All things being equal or roughly similar, what's going to give something a leg up or somebody a leg up? I would argue these are all opportunities that really matter.

Take a hard look at that. That's a whole really cool area called supplier diversity that's really big for the corporate world. They have something called the Billion Dollar Roundtable where some of the biggest companies in the world spend billions with diverse suppliers. And they come together, and they compare and they hold each other accountable and they say, 'How are you increasing your numbers? How are you year over year getting better?' If the big ones are doing it, when we're small companies, we should say, 'I can do that too. We can do that.'

How do you incorporate building diversity into a role?

Sobel: Do you think that this is a role? Your book recommends every company should have a chief diversity officer. For a small company, we know that oftentimes those are more roles. If someone's thinking about taking that on as a role, but not a full-time role because that's what small companies do. They wear lots of hats. But we understand the idea of roles because as we grow, we want to make sure that particular role gets handled by a person. What are the criteria you'd advise somebody small to think about? Well, I'm going to make a chief diversity officer role because I want to think about it, but it's a shared responsibility for a person. What are the things they should be thinking about that person doing?

Brown: Yeah, what a great question. I do think you can be a small company and have even a little steering committee. Depending on how big you are, you could have three or four people even, so it's not just one person, but it is shared. It is as we call 'side of the desk.' But you'll find, if you've got Millennial and Gen Z talent in your organization, they're super into this topic. I mean, this is probably not news. They want to roll up their sleeves and talk about this topic because they're passionate about it. And they want to work at a place where they're seen and heard and valued and where they feel an alignment of values. And inclusion is one of the top values for Generation Z, if I'm not mistaken, literally in the top five. They want that out of an employer. They want that to be talked about.

Whether it's a person, or a fractional part of a person, or fractional of several people, but it's a passion -- you don't need to call it chief diversity officer, that wouldn't be appropriate -- but think about a steering committee model. Think about a working group, a task force. Think about a champion, an advocate and an ombudsperson, somebody who knows something about the topic. Ideally, they've seen it happen in other organizations, because what makes us smart about this work is it's not something you can put in a book. It's really what you've seen other companies do that really works. And then have this group look through things like job descriptions; where are we marketing for talent; what is our interview process like we talked about earlier; what is our brand saying or not saying; are we silent on issues that are important to our current and future workforce that we're trying to attract; what is the customer feedback about the representatives that we're putting in front of them. And you can really activate a person or a small group to really gather this and then be thoughtful about it and say so let's make some quick strategic plan that we're working the steps, we meet regularly. There is an accountability there, for sure. Believe me, I'm a founder and I want folks to get fired up about stuff and hold us accountable to be better. And I know that that doesn't come without risk. There is a balance of the invitation to engage in these conversations with some boundaries and with some role clarity and all that fun stuff too.

If you keep your head buried in the sand though instead and you're not doing anything, I really think that's not wise because the world is changing. We have to change with it. We have to change ahead of it. We have to change ahead of our future talent. They're coming in and we're probably not prepared, especially small companies. We bootstrap these in our image basically.

If you're a founder and you're listening to this, chances are you built it in your own image because that's who you knew. That was the easiest people to invite and the people you trusted and were comfortable with and the customers that were attracted to you maybe because they felt an affinity to you too. Now, all of a sudden, you're in the white water of change where customers are changing, talent is changing, the conversation's changing. I just don't want people to be left behind. I want them to begin to build the muscle now.

You've got a great resource inside your workforce, no doubt. I mean, if you're a five-person company, 10-person company, 20, 30, you can begin to put these committee structures in place that are volunteer only. And if you get to 50, 60, 70 people, you might consider having an HR person, hybrid DEI, who's looking at people management with a diversity and inclusion lens on it and advising in a more formal capacity who has some certifications and things like that.

If you work with an HR firm, make sure they know their way around DEI. Hold them accountable to know that because I find where I sit, it's like I don't need enough HR people who are competent with this for small businesses. I watch that space, that small business ecosystem or PR firms or whatever. Pick partners that you can learn from, that are really on the cutting edge of some of this stuff because that's one of the greatest ways to learn is to be guided. You don't want to be guiding your partners. You want your partners to be bringing best practices to you and saying, 'Well, why don't we have this? And why don't we have that? And why don't we do this? And let's introduce this process.' And I also, let me just say, book clubs: so great for small businesses, really good. All of my books are fun to read as a small group. We provide discussion questions. And I think it's very neutral and people can get so many different things out of the text. And it's just a wonderful place to have a constructive conversation and get the engine warmed up and really actually awaken people's interest and commitment in this. Just the fact that you have something like that going on is going to engage people and send a message to people that this topic is important to this firm. That is a retention technique, especially with this young generation.

Sobel: Yeah, and I think you've answered, I always question my audience, why do we care? And I think you've done a good job of answering those are the reasons why we care.

About the author
Dave Sobel is host of the podcast 
The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade and has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LOGICnow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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