Want to Fuel Innovation? Model Diversity

At the core of the entrepreneurial soul is a desire to break the rules, change the game, and bring new ideas to life despite every person who told you it was impossible.

(Or maybe even to spite those people. No judgment.)

While other kids casually sold lemonade for pocket change, your lemonade stand appeared at the exact moment on weekend afternoons when your neighbors had just finished mowing the lawn, and the sun was at its hottest.

Maybe you sold handmade potholders to your relatives, spent your free time taking things apart so you could learn how to put them back together, or made your Winnie-the-Pooh boss of your stuffed animals.

You were inquisitive. You were intrepid. You were an innovator.

And it wasn’t just you – at the very same time, there were kids of every race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and economic background with their own creative ideas, re-imagining our future.

One of the biggest opportunities entrepreneurs today have is to use the power of diversity to spark innovation.

So how do you do that?

You can start by looking at some of the reasons you got out of the traditional corporate grind, and make sure your own business doesn’t replicate what you vowed to leave behind forever.

As entrepreneurs, we understand the value of time and flexibility.

Entrepreneurs understand that the most inspired ideas can’t always be assigned a timeline, and that stepping away might be the best way to solve the problem that’s right in front of them.

When we design our own work environment, it’s important to understand the different ways flexibility and time matter to people.

For example:

  • People with disabilities or chronic illness may need a flexible schedule designed around times when they feel their best – and a support structure during flare-ups.
  • Women still take on the majority of responsibility for raising children and being caregivers, and stark family leave policies mean setting up a battle of career advancement vs. taking care of family. That’s a battle where no one wins.
  • Artists may offer invaluable creative insight for your product or campaign, but may also have different needs when it comes to their work environment – or even their schedule.

It’s easy to get into a cycle of working all the time as a business owner, but take a moment to ask yourself:

  • Do your company policies reflect the freedom and flexibility that inspired you to do your own thing?
  • If you have employees, do you have a family leave policy that’s family-friendly for moms, dads, and caregivers?
  • If you work with freelancers, do you treat them like employees without benefits and expect them to be available at all hours, or do you set clear project deadlines and milestones that fit both of your schedules?

For example, everyone here at MeetEdgar works remotely. There’s no company headquarters – you can work in the middle of a redwood forest or dangling upside-down in a sloth sanctuary for all we care.

(So long as there’s wifi.)

But being able to plug into work from anywhere doesn’t mean you’re expected to be plugged in all the time – so we work set hours, and when you’re off, you’re off.

(“I’m going to need you to go ahead and come in Saturday” isn’t in our vocabulary.)

When you create a work environment with flexibility that values work/life balance, and the novel concept that you can and should have a life outside your job, you open the doors to a more diverse workforce.

Entrepreneurs also understand that to fully live up to our potential, we have to get past the limitations perpetuated by society – or even by ourselves.

Institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia traditionally underestimate potential, and use arbitrary measures of privilege to suppress talent.

“She’s too ambitious.”

“He hasn’t paid his dues.”

“Her lifestyle doesn’t fit our company culture.”

In the worst cases, harassment, retaliation, and bullying make it hard for people to even function – let alone do their jobs to the best of their ability.

So why allow biases into the workplace – or the hiring process?

In addition to destroying people’s self-esteem and making it impossible for them to get ahead, this behavior is short-sighted from a business perspective.

The advertising business, for example, still suffers from a tiny percentage of female creative directors – which probably isn’t all that surprising, if you’ve ever seen an ad.

But here’s some good news: you have the power to fight back against institutional cluelessness and scoop up some of the world’s best talent at the same time.

For us, it’s meant thinking very carefully about our hiring process, and redefining culture fit to be more inclusive.

For you, it might mean looking not just as what someone does, but how they do it.

When you look at how someone learns, takes feedback, and communicates, you can get beyond the resume, and see talent and potential.

To widen your circle, start by diversifying your social media.

As an entrepreneur, you’re already equipped with the skills you need to cast a wider net when you’re hiring – specifically, researching and investigating.

(Because face it: owning a business means you do a LOT of research.)

You’re already tuned into your social channels for the latest trends, technology and strategic advice.

When you widen your lens to also tune into the perspectives and talents of a diverse group of people, your circle grows. It’s that simple.

Unlike interacting with your customers on social, though, you don’t even need to jump into these conversations – instead, you can take a step back and just listen to stories and experiences that broaden your understanding.

Deliberately seeking out and listening to the expertise and experiences of people whose backgrounds differ from your own enriches your perspective, your team, and ultimately, your business!

True innovators build bridges

Innovation is a matter of doing things differently – and you can only do so much when the only perspective you’re working with is your own.

When you cultivate a work environment that invites participation from people with different perspectives, though, and you combine their talents and skills with your own, you open new doors for yourself and your business!

Have any resources to share to help others model diversity in the workplace?

Know of any companies that are really getting it right?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

    • Great points! As a diversity & inclusion consultant, I always remind people that diversity isn’t just about “them,” it’s about ourselves as well. So, understanding other perspectives is important, but we also need to understand ourselves and how we’re seeing the world. What do we value, and how do we behave around those values? Only then can we start to understand our biases and how they affect our perspective of the world.

      Also, “diversity” isn’t only about differences. It’s about commonalities as well. The differences lead to innovation, and the commonalities help us build relationships. How often might we avoid people who we think are different from us, to find out that we actually have a lot more in common than we thought. When we find those commonalities, we can build trust. Only after we have trust can we have open and honest discussions about the differences

      • Tom VanBuren

        Great points, Susan – thanks for sharing your perspective!