Building a better BlueChilli: Diversity and Culture

by Alan Jones on the 1st of July 2017
Author’s note: WordPress only provides for one author on a blog post, and it uses the last author to edit the story when it determines who to credit. But truthfully, a chunk of the credit for this blog post and all of the credit for the cool interactive infographic at the end of the article  goes to my coworker and good friend, the remarkable Chanie Hyde.  – Alan

 

We have a rule at BlueChilli: if you really need something done, make it somebody’s job. When you’re accountable for something, you are more likely to get it done, more likely to measure the results of your work, more likely to communicate the success of your work and more likely to make sure your work carries on after you move up or out.

That’s why, even though there’s less than 50 people in our organisation, we have a Head of Culture and a Head of Diversity and Impact.

We have people in these roles because (a) we needed to understand and strengthen the great organisational culture that we had been lucky enough to accidentally initiate; and (b) we believed we could be a more successful business with a more diverse team collaborating together.

Our accidentally diverse team

At the beginning, trying to find qualified people to do the kind of specialist work we needed in engineering, design, product management, sales, marketing and advisory roles meant we had to be pragmatic about the who of who we were hiring and focus instead on the what they were bringing, in terms of skills and experience. So in the early days, our team was diverse almost by accident more than by design.

We had no time to encourage them to conform to any stereotypes of who we thought they should be, outside of what it was we needed them to do. We preserved who they really were and encouraged most of them to bring their true selves to work by not giving any explicit guidance (or implicit suggestion) that they should be anybody else. Nor did we surround them with a monoculture of one kind of coworker or another. They just were already diverse.

We got positive feedback from corporate clients, investors and startup founders — they told us one of the things they loved about working with BlueChilli was our diversity, and how they worked together so productively and creatively. That must have taken a lot of planning.

Errr no, not really. It just kind of worked out that way. And we liked it as much as they did. Coming to work felt more like being in a real community this way, because real communities are diverse.

But we couldn’t take it for granted. Could we bottle that lightning? Could we replicate it in multiple teams and locations? Could we improve upon it?

Our culture vulture flamingo

Claudia Barriga-Larriviere Head of Culture at BlueChilli

We needed somebody in charge of culture, who could own the job of studying, documenting and cultivating those values and processes. Those people don’t grow on trees, but the right person came along in Claudia Barriga-Larriviere, an experienced tech startup industry leader who’d helped develop the culture at startup incubator Pollenizer and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Under Claudia’s direction we’ve learned that true diversity is a key element of building an organisational culture capable of scaling rapidly, working efficiently and solving challenging problems. Research states that more-diverse teams outperform less-diverse teams, are ‘smarter’ and are far more objective.

Claudia is just one example of a BlueChilli employee. She’s a leader, she’s a woman and she wasn’t born in Australia. In the tech industry, the data on females in leadership and executive positions is grim. More on how we’re flipping those stats on their head later.

Our diversity diva champion

Nicola Hazell Head of Diversity and Impact at BlueChilli

As well as bottling and mass-producing the essence of our early culture, we knew it was important to make it somebody’s job to create a more diverse community amongst the tech startup founders in BlueChilli’s portfolio.

That challenge was accepted by Nicola Hazell, who had been championing the cause of female entrepreneurship and representation in leadership at the Foundation for Young Australians, National Media Manager for Mission Australia and Senior Media Advisor for the Queensland government.

The impact of diverse thinking can’t just come from within, it needed to be a part of how we do business and build startups. Some of Nicola’s extraordinary work with our founders makes for compelling viewing in our SheStarts documentary series.

What kind of diversity is your priority?

It’s hard — perhaps impossible — for a small team with limited resources to achieve change on multiple measures all at once. So with Claudia and Nicola’s help we decided to make gender diversity, in terms of female representation, our highest priority (since roughly half the population identify as female) and ethnic diversity our secondary priority for now. More about what our other diversity parameters are later.

Where did we begin?

Lean startup methodology teaches us that before we try to change anything, we must first measure. In October 2016 we began by measuring our gender diversity across our team, which was (in a binary sense) 33% female, 67% male. In the tech industry more broadly it’s generally 18-25% female. How quickly could we get our gender diversity closer to 50/50 and what could we do to accelerate that?

This is what we tried that worked:

This is not a selection problem, it’s a pipeline problem

If you can’t see people like yourself in leadership roles in an organisation, you’re unlikely to seek a career in that company. You might take a job but you’re less likely to try for advancement, instead you’re more likely to move on. So we focused more on recruiting and promoting women to leadership roles. Now we have women in exactly half of our fourteen leadership roles, and 60% of our team leads are women.

Our recruitment marketing and ALL our content matters

We audited the language and images on the BlueChilli website, blog and social content to bring women to the fore and to show people with ethnic and cultural diversity working together.

We changed the language in our job ads, emphasising benefits rather than perks. No more “ninjas” and “masters” no more “smashing, crushing, killing it”. None of our competitors needs to lose in order for BlueChilli to win. Instead we worked to create a BlueChilli which is a place where you can ‘choose your own adventure’.

We learned that women often feel they need to satisfy 100% of the requirements for the role, whereas men feel they need to satisfy 65% of the requirements and can fake the rest. So we dialled-down the compulsory and the preferred requirements for all roles to encourage more applications from women.

We now use active verbs, questions and open phrases, like “can you work cooperatively in a large team with limited time and resources?” rather than “must have minimum five years’ prior experience in startups.”

Great benefits are great

We instituted an annual Awesome Day policy, birthday leave, unlimited sick leave, flexible working environment, flexible working hours. We stopped trying to get everyone to participate in all-hands recreational and social activities all the time. We added more diverse activities and made them all entirely optional.

We got outside experts to help

We brought in external advisors to provide unconscious bias and empathy training for all our employees. We began offering free, confidential external counselling to employees so they can find help for the problems they’re facing at work and at home from a trained professional, not just their team lead. The subject matter and the outcomes of the counselling sessions are confidential and not shared with the company so everyone can feel safe to seek help, be open and work on really making progress.

We made our internal values external

Inclusiveness and equality comes from treating all members of society as equals and that can’t begin and end at the front door of our Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane offices.

We don’t have a marketing budget so we can’t pay to advertise. Social and website content, media coverage and speaking at conferences and events is all the tools we have when it comes to marketing. Our team are our marketing.

The temptation is to say ‘yes’ to every invitation to speak, but that’s a problem if those speaking opportunities are at events without a good gender diversity.

So we work with event organisers to help them improve the gender diversity of their event program whenever we can. We’re prepared to dial the motivation up all the way from pointing out it may be an issue, to suggesting alternative speakers and panellists who aren’t all male, and if necessary, we will respectfully decline to participate or ‘panel hack’ by working around the organiser to secretly switch a woman in place of a man.

Silo-busting measures

We’re no longer a handful of people. when we have an all-hands meeting it’s very apparent there are now 45 of us.

The teams within the company could, if left unattended, become silos. A product silo, A sales silo. A marketing silo.

No way, not if we can help it!

Each month our Culture team randomly assign each employee another employee to get to know, in a program we call Crew Roulette. Your mission is to meet and spend at least an hour together in GOOTB (Get Out Of The Building) mode. At each Friday afternoon’s weekly BC Talks session, two people stand up and do a short talk about what they’ve learned about each other from their Crew Roulette time together.

At each Friday’s BC Talk, employees are encouraged to present a 5-10 minute talk on a topic of their choosing, but it has to be something they care about, something they’d like us to know about them, something to teach the rest of the team about. Sometimes it’s coding, sometimes it’s politics, sometimes it’s history or sociology or pop culture or cooking. But we all learn that it’s OK to bring your whole self to work at BlueChilli, and we’re all here to learn about each other.

What next?

We’ve made good progress on gender diversity and ethnic diversity and we will soon be in a position to look at what should be our next priorities. Some of the areas we could look at include:

  • Diversity of age — like most tech startup businesses, we don’t have a lot of people younger than 25 or older than 40
  • Diversity of ability — again, like most tech startup businesses, we don’t have any employees with significant disabilities (even though we’re working on BanjoMaps, a startup addressing indoor navigation for vision-impaired customers on a smartphone)
  • Diversity of thought – political/social opinion
  • Diversity of rewards – fewer all-hands social events. Some people don’t like to do what you like to do. Some people don’t drink. Some people don’t like pizza or foosball.
  • Diversity of adversity – divorces, death, moving house, buying a house, having a child

What about you?

We have a long way to go, but if you’d like our help to understand more about some of the measures we’ve introduced, or our advice on how to implement something similar in your own organisation, please get in touch via email, facebook or twitter!.

Without further ado, our diversity stats!