In her speech at Female Tech Heroes at High Tech Campus earlier this year, HighTechXL cofounder Anique Soetermeer stressed how crucial a diverse team is for the success of any startup, highlighting her most effective approaches to transforming any team into a high-performance and truly diverse one.
Team at the core of success of any startup
At HighTechXL, we truly believe that anyone who has an idea and wants to improve the lives of others, deserves a chance to become an entrepreneur,” Soetermeer said as she opened her speech.
Openness to diversity is mirrored in the HTXL team itself: 28 people from 13 nationalities, of which 55 percent are non-Dutch and 45 percent Dutch, with a male-female ratio of 60/40.
“The only sustainable differentiator between your company and your competitors is your team. Everything can and will be copied. But a team can’t be copied.”
Besides, everything in a startup revolves around the team, according to Soetermeer.
Who is responsible if a startup runs out of cash? The team.
Who is responsible if a startup develops a product with no market need? The
“I daresay 100 percent of startup failure is directly linked to the team.”
Soetermeer enumerated eight elements necessary to build a successful high-performance startup team:
• sense of purpose
• open communication
• trust and mutual respect
• shared leadership
• continuous learning
• flexibility and adaptability
• effective working procedures
“The more diverse you are, the harder it is to agree on all the other seven characteristics. But if you do, the reward is big, because you will outperform any homogenous team anytime,” Soetermeer said.
Diversity should be hot for any startup
Soetermeer explained diversity has been a hot topic in the business world for decades: “I want to state six reasons why diversity should be hot.”
Diversity increases profitability:
Research (McKinsey, 2018) shows gender diversity increases innovation revenues by 21% and ethnic diversity by 33%.
Diversity prevents group think:
Group think is a psychological phenomenon which happens to homogenous teams … they tend to bond so tightly together that it’s not possible to have a different opinion anymore.
Diversity is the key to winning the war for talent:
“Baby boomers are leaving their jobs and there is less talent coming in. So we simply can’t afford anymore not to take in more women … but also other, different profiles in our organizations.”
Diversity helps you better understand your customer needs:
In today’s global world, startups face a bigger diversity of clients. If they want to better understand these clients, they should better mirror them.
“If you want to create tech for everyone, everyone should be involved.”
Google speech recognition software is 70 percent more accurate with male speech than with female (Linguistics University of Washington, 2016), whereas Amazon’s facial recognition technology has difficulty recognizing dark-skinned people (MIT Research, 2019). If you want to create tech everyone will use, you need to create with everyone.
Diversity is the right thing to do:
We should want diversity because it’s the right thing to do. Everyone deserves a fair chance of living and growth. It’s in the United Nationals Sustainable Development Goals.”
Barriers to team diversity
Unfortunately, companies don’t harness the full potential of diversity as a business asset. Soetermeer gave an example with Deloitte research examining 85 Dutch companies listed on the stock exchange: only 19 percent of all their boards of directors and supervisory boards seats are held by women, while 18 of these 85 companies have no women at board level at all.
Three major reasons why it is so difficult for corporates – but also startups – to harness diversity:
The buddy system: People tend to like working with people who are equal and similar to them, and this extends to the recruitment of new talent.
Solution: “We do a casting event with our whole team, or as many as can join. We do 10 minutes of speed dating with everyone. We rank and rate afterwards. We look at this data and only if we all agree and there is no real substantial reason why we shouldn’t be hiring this guy or girl, they get the job. That’s how you make sure you hire the right people.”
Diversity can be overwhelming: There is gender diversity, age diversity, cultural diversity, background diversity, personality diversity, religious diversity, thinking style, sexual orientation. And this is only the start. “How are you going to make sense out of this?” Soetermeer asked.
Solution: “We use the Facet5 tool in all our teams in the accelerator program to get them in an understanding framework: How do I think and how do the rest in the team think? What are we good at and what are we not so good at? Figure out the differences and embrace them.”
Unconscious bias: Everyone has unconscious bias because we are human. “Guys are better in math and girls should spend time at home with their kids. We do this on automatic pilot,” she said.
Solution: Use a team canvas, similar to a business canvas and equally important. Figure out everyone’s own personal purpose, what the team strengths and weaknesses are, what the roles are, and how the team is going to work together.
“Create an open environment. Let’s call it psychological safety.”
Soetermeer referred to Google Project Aristotle, which conducted research on more than 180 teams and found out that the ultimate key to a successful high-performance team is psychological safety.
“The key to make diversity work is to create an open mindset and genuine interest in the other person; find commonalities; create a safe environment to understand each other; and embrace your differences because it is going to take you further.”