Moving past early stage: What it means to retain 50% women at your tech startup

ashwini asokan
6 min readJan 12, 2018

2 years ago I published “How we got to 50% women at my startup”. Much of my focus in the first 2 years of company building was on getting the foundation right. I wrote this first piece when I was focused on broadening the hiring funnel and creating the foundation for a diverse environment. Today, our team is 2X what it was in 2015 and we’ve grown our operations and teams across San Francisco, New York, London, Bangalore & Chennai.

Growing the right kind of diverse organization in the early days of a startup is challenging. But I’ve realized that retaining that parity and investing in career growth and retention of the diverse team, is even harder. My focus with team building and gender parity since I wrote that first article has increasingly been around growth, morale and retention.

Here’s a list of things that I’ve been working on in 2017 and some of my goals for 2018, in an effort to get more women to stay, to grow and to continue to break boundaries within the tech community.

  • Saying No to ‘look-alike’ candidates as you grow: I’ve confirmed my hypothesis from a few years back that the more women you have, the more women apply. (Didn’t need a goddamned experiment or a hypothesis, really, but in case you ask) At 60+ we’re still 50% women at my company. But it doesn’t get easy. You still have to actively say No to the candidate who looks, behaves and thinks exactly like the way the previous hire did, despite the need to hire someone quickly. You’ll always need to hire someone quickly. And it’s deceptively easy to convince yourself that in the early days of the company, you need an ‘assembly line’ to move and grow at the pace, required of you as a high growth startup. Pass on the discipline and guidelines of keeping the ‘no-homogeneity’ rules to all your managers. I’ve slipped myself, many times, only to have managers diligently point out that I oversaw this. When you have a team that imbibes the guidelines and truly believes in it, you’ll get each other’s back when you slip with unconscious bias.
  • Growing an intern program: This past year we’ve learnt that investing in internship programs gives us the highest results on diversity. Our internship program is not just for graduate and undergraduate students. It’s for people looking to make a career in AI, for women coming back to work, for young graduates who are looking to change fields, for finding ways to bring women into disciplines where there aren’t many. The program gives us an ability to evaluate them, and eases them into the high stress, high growth environment that our A.I startup is. Today, we have interns who are women across teams that were lagging behind in diversity. Our intern to full-time conversion rate is almost 100% at this point.
  • Investing in making your female employees ‘visible’: In one of my 1:1 sessions with a team member this past year, I was told: “My biggest worry is that I will be invisible to most of the team and be at a corner somewhere in this company”. Visibility and performance of gender diversity is as important as the act of hiring and making your company more diverse. In most companies, men have the privilege of sticking around long after work hours, being visible and accessible. And like any smoke-break, it becomes an important space where opportunities are discovered and growth happens. Investing in the visibility of the women in your company, means giving them products and projects to own, giving them leadership & managerial positions or growing them to that point over the years. Ownership of projects and visible accountability helps them manage their growth, their team and become the go-to person for something, removing the dependency on the ‘smoke-break’ spaces. Creating opportunities for the women in your team to speak at conferences, publish papers and more is just as important. Visibility can be performed in many different ways. Thinking carefully about what it means to each person in the team and how it can allow for voices, otherwise unheard, to find their own and grow their relevance to the company, is crucial.
  • Creating equal & safe spaces: A ruthless focus on mansplaining employees is the only way you create spaces where women can speak up. That means actively stopping someone who’s interrupting a woman on the team, asking the women diligently in each meeting for their thoughts and letting them know it’s safe to speak, cutting out sarcasm-mockery or any similar style of lashing out or bullying. There will always be new team members who won’t get the code but will learn, when this is performed the right way consistently across the company and at meetings.
  • Investing in personal growth: For all of 2017, we had a head of Data Science manager who invested extensively in growing the skills and abilities of the women in her team. The same is true of our product team too. It’s fabulous what something like that can do for a company, and for the women in it. It amplifies efforts across the board, demonstrating what growth can be like for women who join your team. It demonstrates to others on team what being diverse entails and continues to keep the parity as the company grows and goes through tough times. When personal growth in skills goes hand-in-hand with the visibility & ownership discussed above, the results can be amazing. You produce groups of motivated, high performing people who help grow the company exponentially. To kick off 2018, I’ve asked all my employees (and specifically the women in my team) what they want to be / do / achieve, going into 2019. Answers could range from: “I want to be someone who doesn’t work all nights on deadlines this year and find time for myself” to “I want to become the go-to person for all data infrastructure” to “I’d like to get back into coding and find a fit in engineering while I do QA”. Make a plan to invest in the women in your team, and watch your company grow in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise, in the long run. ‘Going long’ is the only way it can be done.
  • Observing life stages and creating right support systems: We’ve had a lot of weddings this past year. We’ve had a lot more people with children join the company, both men and women. We’ve also had someone go on maternity leave. We now have a nursery with a nanny. Watching the women in your company go through different life stages, means creating the right support systems to retain them and support them. Unfortunately for us, many of the women that got married last year, will move. We decided to grow our team in Bangalore as a result, retaining them and investing in their growth. We’ve created interdependencies in the work of the women moving to Bangalore, most of whom are leading entire products for the company. As each of these individuals grow over the coming years, it creates an opportunity for us to build teams around these women, nurturing and creating leadership from within the company and culture, than only depending on external hires or blaming the lack of women in management positions in the hiring pipeline.
  • Establishing a sexual harassment policy: This past year, we had a lawyer do a sexual harassment training for all our employees. We now a committee and have discussions as and when issues come up. Has your company done training and established policies that you routinely talk about with the team? Now’s a great time to start.

In 2017, I’ve learnt that there’s so much more to do, so much distance to cover when it comes to gender diversity. I’ve learnt that it’s not easy to keep a company diverse in the early days and expect it to stay that way as the company grows. I’ve learnt that being an Machine Vision AI startup doesn’t stop us from continuing to hold on to the 50% ratio as we continue to grow, as long as we work on it. I’ve learnt that there are many mistakes you make through this process. But more importantly, I’ve learnt that if we don’t keep at it, we won’t go half the way we could, despite all the flaws and falls in the process.

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ashwini asokan

Founder CEO Mad Street Den, an AI and Automation startup. Musings on life, growth, AI, SaaS, Startups, Design.