Diverse and inclusive culture – from day one

Most startups in the early stages of growth rarely contact us. Focused mostly on finding the right product-market fit, filling in general recruitment needs in such a competitive landscape or simply staying afloat, they don’t have “building a diverse culture” high on their list of priorities. At least not at that stage. These focus points usually (if ever) come later. So in this sense, Appjobs is definitely an exception for us. I am pleased to have talked to Alok Alström, CEO of Appjobs about the story behind their product, what it means to focus on diversity right from the start and about empowering their employees to do so.

Before we dive into the topic of diversity, could you tell me in a few words about Appjobs? 

We started Appjobs because we wanted to help build a better future for gig-workers. We do it through a suite of services that helps them work better through the different gig-apps that are out there. The reason why the welfare of gig-workers, and the topic of work in the future, is close to my heart is because I grew up in an immigrant community with a lot of unemployment and insecurity. I got to see first-hand how work is not only a source of sustenance but also a source of self-esteem and by that a fundamental pillar for a stable and prosperous society. And I don’t think it's a coincidence that my co-founder Bertan is also an immigrant as he has gotten to experience the same things first-hand as many immigrants do. 

At the moment you have about 40 employees, so you can say that you are still at the beginning, especially compared to other companies we work with. So what makes you brood over the themes of inclusiveness and diversity so early in your business-building process?

I think that in Poland as well as in the world, Swedes are perceived as tolerant and progressive. Maybe that's part of it? But seriously, we noticed that during the recruitment for the Lead UX / UI position for the Unveel product, we did not have a sufficient number of female candidates in our pipeline. Our CV pile clearly lacked diversity, even though the field of UX/UI design itself has a strong representation of women. That was a yellow flag for us. We started to ask ourselves is there anything in our communication or the way we operate that might be discouraging for half of the talent pool? We knew we wanted to build a strong team from the beginning, and for us fostering a diverse and inclusive culture was indispensable to make this plan work.

What benefits do you think diversity brings, that you are already focusing on it at this stage of company development?

Firstly, we want to avoid having echo chambers, where the same views and beliefs are just repeated and echoed across homogenous teams. We believe that best decisions come from introducing different viewpoints, experiences, and ideas. It’s hard to have those in homogenous groups coming from the same backgrounds.

Broadening the talent pool also improves the chances to access the most talented people out there. Moreover, from our perspective, even a small step and investment in the right direction now can have a huge impact on the culture of our company in the future. And this is something we want to get right from day one. Once a certain culture is set it’s very difficult to change it later on.

Why do you think that other startups do not focus on this problem early on unlike larger companies or corporations?

I'm not sure. Maybe it’s simply the case of lack of awareness? To the outside world I might not look like a typical Swede myself (laugh), so maybe given my background I come across the topic of diversity and inclusion more often than others.

My guess would be that big corporations, probably due to the scale of their recruitment needs, are facing more pressure to be attractive to the largest number of potential candidates and can also afford to spend more resources on doing so. Despite being a small company, at least for now, we made a conscious decision and effort to find the time and resources to push our organization in this direction right now, even if we could ignore it without hurting our growth.

Do you have any advice for people starting in IT on which organization to choose in the beginning? Startups or corporations?

It seems to me that larger organizations spend more time onboarding and have more resources to help, but on the other hand in startups, there is much more autonomy and influence on the organization and its culture.

Startups can be a great place to grow for people seeking ownership, flexibility and high-paced environments. At the same time, this speed of delivery which is very important for a startup might not be to everyone's liking.

At the start of one's career, I would probably advise joining a larger organization to learn the basics. But with more professional development and greater skills, I think the option of working in smaller organizations with more ownership and opportunities to influence how things are done would be more tempting for me.

Regardless of the size of the organization, I would pay attention to whether companies are at least aware of the challenges faced by employees in relation to the problems of inclusiveness or diversity. Not enough companies think about it in my opinion. 

What do you do at Appjobs to empower your employees?

We try to avoid symbolic actions which are often hollow and instead focus on the fundamentals. 

We are transparent in our policies and decision making processes and evolve them in a way were everyone can contribute. This should lead to egalitarian policies that are inclusive and predictable.

For example, as Appjobs have a clear employment policy and we are thorough about making sure we don’t have any gender pay gaps. Not having too wide salary range in our job offers definitely helps with that as well.

Moreover, we have clear policies around all paid leaves, including parental leave, regardless of the form of employment. Our managers encourage people to use their time off to clear their minds, and we are open to untypical requests like three months' paid leave.

And now, we try to reach out to the groups that we believe proactively aren't represented enough in Appjobs and try to rethink how we can become a better place to work for them. I’m confident that cooperation with Dare IT on this matter is another step in the right direction of increased diversity and inclusion in our company.

What would you tell other founders that say they can’t afford to think about diversity at this stage of business development?

The best investment for a startup is to build a world-class team. Having an inclusive culture in which as many people as possible feel that they can perform and feel satisfied isn't just morally right – it's also a wise business decision.

Start by building awareness with people around you, which is free. Then ask challenging questions about this topic to your managers and other leaders. You will be surprised by how significant impact these small actions can bring over time.