Seattle Startup Tests Ways to Attract Under-Represented Applicants

If actions speak louder than words, Seattle startup Glowforge is becoming a leading voice on the tech industry’s diversity problem—and potential ways to address it.

The company, which is building a consumer-grade laser cutter, announced this week a $5,000 bounty “for referrals that lead to us hiring under-represented minorities.” It also published the terms of its insurance plans so that transgender job applicants and others with complicated health insurance needs can find out whether they would be covered, without having to ask, and, in doing so, disclose something about themselves they’d rather keep private.

Glowforge CEO Dan Shapiro candidly explains why the company is taking this approach:

“We believe it’s critical to our business that the team at Glowforge reflect the diversity of people we are working to serve,” he writes in a blog post. “We believe that with a diverse team, we’re going to better understand the needs of our customers and produce better products. What’s more, after reading current research (like this McKinsey study), we’ve come to believe that we can make better decisions in all areas of our business if our company is diverse.

“We have a particular challenge in that our founding execs are all white men,” Shapiro continues. “That narrows our perspectives and our recruiting networks. While we’re fortunate to have a steady stream of amazing resumes from people who want to help us, far too few of them represent the full diversity of the customers we want to delight with our products. We’re especially lacking in diverse engineering applicants, which puts blinders on the team building the product that is our livelihood.”

Shapiro

Shapiro

The diversity bounty stems from a rather simple realization: “If we want something, we should pay for it.”

Tech companies have offered recruiting bounties for several years, at least, as they battle each other and deep-pocketed corporations for software developers and other sought-after professionals. In 2011, marketing software makers HubSpot, in Boston, and Moz, in Seattle, began offering bounties for software engineers: $10,000 at the former, and $12,000 at the latterA startup in South Africa is building its entire business on providing a bounty and referral service to other employers.

But this is the first example I’ve seen of a bounty focused specifically on recruiting diverse candidates: women, minorities, and disabled people—groups that are under-represented in the industry.

Glowforge is relying on its applicants to self-identify as women, Hispanic or Latino, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, or disabled—under-represented minority groups identified in National Science Foundation research on the topic.

The issue has come to prominence in recent years as outside critics and the tech industry itself have called out the lack of diversity in tech, and the cultural and structural factors that have perpetuated it.

This is one of several efforts locally to actively pursue a workforce that better reflects the end users of technology—which is to say, everyone.

Other examples include the University of Washington’s push to create a more welcoming culture for women pursuing computer science; the Ada Developers Academy, a coding school for women; angel investor Jonathan Sposato’s pledge to invest only in startups with at least one woman among the founders; and the Portland tech diversity pledge.

“Our industry is maturing,” Shapiro says, responding by e-mail to questions from Xconomy. “Literally, in the sense that we have more second-time, third-time, and more entrepreneurs, and metaphorically, in the sense that startups have become a part of the national awareness as a crucial sector of the economy. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until I saw multiple examples of sexism and discrimination firsthand that I realized how pervasive the problem was. I, personally, had to do some growing up before I could see the plight of others in this industry. I think that may be true in a larger context as well.”

Shapiro says he consulted with Kieran Snyder, founder and CEO of Textio Talent, a Seattle company that analyzes the text of job listings as an employer writes them, pointing out things like corporate clichés and biased language that could turn-off would-be applicants. “We’re one of the first customers,” he says.

He also says he talked with Seattle-area women founders and CEOs including Liz Pearce of Liquid Planner and Kristen Hamilton of Koru “about what they’ve done to make their companies welcoming places.” Others he credits for influencing Glowforge’s decision include former MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton, an investor and advisory board member, and the Foundry Group’s Brad Feld, who led Glowforge’s recent $9 million funding round and is on the board of directors at the National Center for Women and Information Technology. (That’s the organization that just recognized the UW’s computer science program for significantly boosting the share of degrees awarded to women.)

Glowforge announced the bounty this week. Last week, it took another step ahead of the pack in terms of inclusivity, publishing summaries of its insurance plans and surfacing additional relevant information that was “only burried in the fine print of the actual documents” on fertility treatments (covered for treating an underlying condition, but not in-vitro fertilization); bariatric surgery (covered for medical need); and gender reassignment surgery/transgender-related care (covered for medical need).

“It’s not just transgender men and women who face this challenge,” Shapiro writes in a blog post. “If you’re facing chronic illness, bariatric surgery, or mental health issues, you need to know if your job will cover your needs. The fine print on a health insurance plan could turn your dream job into a financial catastrophe. In some parts of the country, even benefits we here in Seattle take for granted (like the coverage of contraception) are at the whims of the plan or employer.

“It’s not fair to force candidates to disclose these deeply personal matters in the course of a job interview.”

Shapiro says prior to the bounty, Glowforge had 10 employees, three of whom were women—but none in positions directly related to making the company’s product. Only about 12 percent of Glowforge’s applicants were women. The company says it’s harder to estimate how many applications it received from people in other under-represented groups.

So is any of this working? The company has about a half-dozen current openings for roles including mechanical engineer and software development manager. Shapiro says, “we’ve had some really tremendous diverse candidates reach out to us. I don’t know yet if they were referred (we don’t ask that until after we extend a job offer), but a few mentioned that company culture was important, and that the [diversity bounty] program was in line with the values they were looking for.”

 

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