DEI for the Startup Community 2: Culture from the Ground Up, with Jackie Ferguson

How can you build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture from the ground up?  The Diversity Movement’s Head of Content Jackie Ferguson discusses hiring practices, resume review, and when culture veers in the wrong direction.

JOIN THE DEI FOR STARTUPS WEBINAR, presented by The Diversity Movement, with Donald Thompson, Shelley Willingham, and Lister Delgado.  And please donate any amount to the Thurgood Marshall College Scholarship Fund.


Shelley Willingham:  Welcome to Winning with Diversity, a podcast to help you be the diversity champion in your business. This is episode 2 of our series on Diversity in the Startup Community, where we discuss how founders and investors can think about DEI when they’re just starting out, why it’s so important, and actionable steps you can take right away to set your company on the path to success.

I’m your host, Shelley Willingham, VP of Business Strategy at The Diversity Movement, and with me today is the co-founder and Head of Content at The Diversity Movement, and host of the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast, Jackie Ferguson.  Hi Jackie!

Jackie Ferguson:  Thank you for having me. 

Shelley Willingham: I’m excited to talk to you. You know, last week we talked to Don. And I think what’s so exciting about having these conversations with you all is that we are in the middle of a startup, right? We’re doing this as we’re trying to teach people how to do it, we’ve done it. And so it’s not like we’ve read about it in a book and we’re trying to tell you what we read.

We’re living this. And so that makes it even better to be able to have these conversations. So,  we’re going to talk about culture culture today. Be in culture, people talk about culture. Culture. Culture is such a buzz word. So let’s start by helping our audience understand why culture is so important.

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah, absolutely. So culture is important because as you think about your recruiting, you want to recruit the best and the brightest, right. Who doesn’t right. It moves the needle for your business. And so in order to recruit the best and brightest who are continually becoming more and more diverse, right?

Our society is becoming more diverse. So those top candidates are becoming more diverse. You have to understand how to entice them to your organization, with the kind of culture that they’re looking for which is a culture where they feel valued and welcomed and safe. Right. So you have to think about it from the recruiting standpoint.

The second thing Shelley is you need to think about turnover. So if you think about your, the profitability of your business and the viability of your business, especially as a startup turnover is not only a problem it can be devastating  to your organization.   You know, for the average company  turnover can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for larger companies, hundreds of thousand dollars a year.

But if you’re losing someone that need a key employee in a startup that can devastate your organization. And then you want to think about brand reputation. So you want the right culture because you want to have a good brand reputation  that again goes into your recruiting, right? When you think about innovation, so if you have a culture of diversity and inclusion, those cultures, generate 19% more revenue through innovation. So. Yeah. And that is a lot for any organization, 19%. If you think about it within the frame of your own organization, if you’re a startup leader, what can 19% more revenue do? You know, that’s new lines of business, that’s new product research.

That’s, you know, the opportunity to hire that next game changer sometimes. So we create that foundational culture to where you can recruit the best you keep them employees that you hire, you know, your brand reputation as high you’re, more innovative and then productivity as the final thing. Companies that are able to leverage DEI well and have a culture of inclusion are more productive.

And there, I think the statistic is 13% more productive, which averages out to know, it’s like an, you get an extra eight hours per week. 

Shelley Willingham: Wow.

Jackie Ferguson:  Which is significant, like from the same employees, right? And the same, the same paychecks, much more productivity where you don’t have to hire that extra person.

You just create the right culture. And, you know, you get so much through having the right culture. It’s so important. And that’s why it’s such a buzz word because people are realizing how important a positive and productive culture can be. 

Shelley Willingham: Yeah. And those numbers you dropped are significant.

So I’m all about the data. I’m always like, bring me the data, not the drama. So you dropped the data. So when we’re thinking about startups and especially peak founders that have, it’s just them, right. It’s just them starting. So how early, you know, what did they do in that early stage? And thinking about the culture when it’s just them, how do they start to create that?

Jackie Ferguson: So it’s never too early to think about your culture and to lay the foundation for your culture. So you want to think about your values and you want to think about the values of your organization. What are those be intentional about that really sit down and think about what those are, write them down, determine what those are.

And then what matters when you think about people, the people that you want working with you how do you want your employees to feel. So you have to think about all of those things. When you think about your culture and be intentional about what kind of culture you want to build and then start messaging that, start communicating that, start sharing that with the people that you value, whether they be your board of advisors or your mentor. Share that so that they can also share back best practices and how to make that come to fruition. Once you start bringing on new people. 

Shelley Willingham: Awesome. So when you think about, you know, companies that you maybe aspire to be like, or aspire to have a culture, like at what point do you go from that aspirational culture to real organizational culture?

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. So really that’s, as soon as you hire your first employee, that is not vested with your organization. That’s an entirely different experience than those folks that, you know, are your friends, are your classmates right. That you’re doing business with are part of the organization that believe in your mission, the first employee that you hire, that’s not vested with your organization.

That’s where your real culture starts. And you know, our employees talk to their friends, to their colleagues about their experience. And if you don’t think your employees are doing that, they absolutely are, but they can really be your best advocates too, because you know, they’re gonna perpetuate the positivity of your brand and your intentions.

And so, yeah, your culture starts in that first employee. That’s not vested with you.

Shelley Willingham:  Awesome. So when you’re again, just getting started and you have one or two or three employees, how do you infuse diversity, equity and inclusion in your space? 

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. So you have to do two things. One, you have to make it a part of the way you work.

So you have to think about inclusive language. You know, how are you speaking? Are you speaking in a way that makes your employees feel valued, feel seen, feel respected and feel safe. You want to mitigate bias in your hiring practices as well. And the way we do that there, you know, it starts in the job description.

You know, when you’re building a culture where you prioritize diversity, you don’t want to be overly prescriptive in your job description because statistics show that white men apply to jobs that they feel 60% qualified for, whereas women and culturally diverse candidates need to feel 90% qualified. So you need to leave off a lot of those, nice to haves and really stick to the core of the job.

And then, you know, you have to think about bias and resume review. Right? Think about name bias. You have to think about location bias. You have to think about school bias, right. To the positive or the negative. And then, you know, as you began to interview, especially when you’re a startup. You can’t do it by yourself.

We all have these unconscious biases. Right? And so in order to mitigate that, you need to bring in people that you trust that are diverse to help you vet these candidates and determine who’s going to fit the best in that role. And I always say, make sure that you have diversity in those. Candidates that are being really seriously considered and then pick the best one from that.

You know, don’t hire someone simply because they represent, you know, some aspect of diversity, make sure the diversity is across that line and the candidates that you’re considering and then choose your best candidate. And then onboarding is, Important as well. So you have to think about your culture with onboarding and making sure that you’ve got the right people to mentor, to make people feel welcome.

And then the second thing I would say, Shelley is you know, you have to infuse DEI as your culture as part of the way you build your organization. So if you’re thinking about your network, make sure that you’re expanding your network so that you have diverse voices in your network. Right? A lot of times especially as startup leaders, you know, our friends and our peers and our family are the people that we go to for advice. And that can be great, but you also need those diverse voices that are going to think differently than you do. You know, if you went to an Ivy league school, you know who’s that scrappy school of hard knocks friend that give you that other perspective.

So you need to think about that. And then who’s on your board of advisors. So in expanding your network, make sure that your advisory board is diverse and that you’re able to hear different perspectives to help you, you know, push DEI forward in the culture that you’re building.

Shelley Willingham:  I love that all great tips.

And I think about, you know, we’re growing so fast and I had a recent job description that I had you review. Yes. You went through and pointed out. Okay, Shelley, we need to make some adjustments here. So no, very, very helpful. And I love what you said about the board. So, you know, there’s some legislation now around the securities exchange commission talking about having to disclose diversity within your boards to even be on the NASDAQ and even the administration hasn’t passed yet, venture capital firms are saying to their portfolio companies, Hey, if you’re not leveraging DEI, That’s a problem where you need to be, to be a part of this portfolio. So this conversation for startups is so important. So thanks for all the good nuggets you’re dropping for us. But let me ask you this. So, you know, you’re a founder, I started companies and it’s hard.

And so we’re juggling a hundred jobs at one time. How do we ensure that we are making sure that DEI is a priority. How do we do that? 

Jackie Ferguson: So Shelley you know, it’s hard, you know, when, when you’re a start-up founder, you’re wearing every hat in the business and you know, both of us know that the thing that you have to remember is why this is important, how it benefits you from a revenue perspective, how it benefits you from a productivity and profitability perspective.

You know, if we talked about a few statistics earlier, but profitable businesses get funding. Right. And so if you’re able to create a culture where you’re able to leverage the productivity of the employees that you do have, your profitability goes up, profitable businesses, get funding, and then you want to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion to create more sustainable business, right? Again, as our culture and our society gets more and more diverse, right? You’ve got to understand how to lead culturally diverse people understand how to promote them, understand how to market to them. And that’s just going to be necessary for a sustainable business.

So if we think about, you know, these startups, these are our babies, right. And we want our babies to grow and thrive. And, you know,  we certainly don’t want them to go the way of, you know, Blockbuster and Coke, where they had it figured out and, you know, incomes the disruptor. And I know with blockbuster specifically, they laughed Netflix out of the room.

Shelley Willingham: And now who’s laughing. 

Jackie Ferguson: They said, you know, no, no, no, no, no. Like these, these Friday night you know, video store nights are never going away. Right.  And Shelley, you and I are the same age. So we spend our Friday nights in the video store. Right. Right.

But you know, they, they did not understand that society was changing. And so, and you don’t want that, you know, again, your startup is your baby. You want it to grow and thrive. And , you know, because our world and our society is changing you’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to have DEI as part of your culture and infused within your culture in order to be successful and sustainable.

Shelley Willingham: So I mentioned that job description that you took a look at for me. Right. And so, you know, and we’re in this work, we do DEI everyday, but still, there was some things in that description that you pointed out to me. So as founders, when you’re making those first hires, those pivotal hires, how do we manage our own biases?

To ensure that we’re doing the right thing. 

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. You know, so the number one thing that I would say with managing your own biases to slow down and be intentional. So you want to ask yourself some questions, you know, am I making an automatic judgment about this person? Right. Is this person triggering something in my background?

Or does this person remind me of someone, you know, certainly you know, I’ve had friends go by the wayside or bad boyfriends in the past. And I see someone that reminds me of them and automatically I’m like, Hmm. But you know, we want to make sure that you’re not bringing your assumptions to the table with no information.

 And so one of the ways to do that again is just to slow down and think about. What’s what is coming to mind, you know, what your automatic your first impression is right. People think about first impression. First impressions can, can be negative. Yeah. Right. And they don’t benefit your culture.

So you want to think about that. And then again, you want to bring people into the room that can make sure that your biases are not interfering with making right decisions for your business. And then again, just to say, you know, job descriptions, you’ve got to look at that resume bias. You’ve got to look at that.

Your interview team, you cannot be the only one in the room making that decision, especially if you want diverse candidates, you know, in that first round of hires because you yourself may not have levels of diversity that are, you know, outward and physical, but if you’re intentional about who’s in the room with you, then those diverse candidates will see that you’re prioritizing DEI, even though you’re an organization of one or two or three by who you’re intentionally having in the room.

And then you also want to make sure Shelley that you’re providing support for your only employee. Right? I’ve certainly been an only, and I’m sure you have as well. Yes. You know, where we have to think about intersectionality being black, being women.  We’ve been the only one in the room and you know, we want to make sure that we’re providing support as start-up leaders for those onlys in the room, and whether that’s yeah us specifically, or someone in our network that can help mentor them and be an ear and you know, a helping hand to help that person navigate you know, new waters and  new cultures. That’s important. So it’s important as you think about, you know, your first key hires making right decisions and not making them in a siloed way, but making sure that you’ve got good voices in the room to help you make those decisions. 

Shelley Willingham: Oh, excellent point. So I feel like you’ve given us a great foundation on how to do it, even if it’s just one, right? So let’s say we’ve done it got a few employees. How do we know when the culture might be going left when it’s getting low, toxic or negative?

Jackie Ferguson: Well, there are a couple of things that you want to look out for. One, are you surrounded by yes people. So one of the things that is great about our culture at the diversity movement is we’re continually challenging each other to make sure that, and not in a negative way, but in a way where we’re asking questions to make sure that we’re vetting our ideas and thinking all the way around them.

You know, we all have had ideas and good ideas. But you want to make sure that you’re thinking about, you know, what are the pitfalls, what are the risks? You know, how could this not work? And then in answering those questions, you safeguard against them. And then you’ve got a better idea and a stronger path forward.

The next thing is you know, not having clear job descriptions, right? So people not understanding what they’re responsible for, and that is especially gets muddy in a startup culture because everybody’s kind of responsible for everything you need to know what your primary responsibility is. And then what you’re helping out with around the edges, but it’s very easy to, again, especially in a startup culture, get off track and you’re working on wrong things at the wrong time, and then you’re not working towards those goals.

And then the second thing is, or the third thing rather is  over time all the time. So you, you lose productivity after a certain point, you know, as startup leaders and you know, when we’re in a startup culture, we’re pushing hard, we’re working hard a lot, but we’ve got to prioritize self care. We’ve got to prioritize that downtime.

Because otherwise we lose productivity, we lose creativity. And we don’t want to do that. So overtime is fine over time all the time, not fine. And then the final thing Shelley, I would say is that there’s no tolerance for failure. That’s certainly a problem. You know, we want to try fail, adjust. There’s a quote, if you’re not allowed to fail, you’re not really allowed to succeed. And that’s so true because especially with startups, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have the prescription to success. Right. And so if our employees and  our, you know, our first key hires are not allowed to try things you can’t succeed that way. You know, you’ve gotta be able to take some risks and figure it  you know, even with our organization, you know we’re still writing the book on it, you know,  and that’s part of the fun, but, you know, it can be stressful for people who are new to that kind of environment, but you just want to continue to provide support, but give people a chance to try things, to challenge themselves.

And you know, you’d be surprised what you can accomplish and what new ideas come out of that.

Shelley Willingham:  So what if someone doesn’t have the benefit of listening to your podcast and it’s already toxic, they didn’t hear what you said. They get not toxic. How can you redirect? 

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah, so for my perspective, I think candid conversations are what’s not working is the first thing. If you’ve got a small organization that should not be hard to do, really sit people down and say, you know, I see things going left here. You know,  what are we doing wrong and how can we fix it? And really listen. You know, one of the things about active listening is people are not good at it, right?

It’s a practice. A lot of times people are listening with the intention of responding or defending themselves instead of really understanding another person’s perspective. But those candid conversations are super important and then get outside support, you know, call in those advisors, especially those diverse advisors that you have  and help them write the ship with you.

It’s so much easier to do it when you’ve got a small culture of, you know, five, 10, 20 employees. Then when you’re a larger organization of a hundred employees, it’s a lot more difficult to create a fix a toxic culture. 

Shelley Willingham: That’s a great point, you know, growing. From five to 10 to 20. And even though startup this startup life, everybody’s not bad to start up life.

It is hard, but it is so rewarding and it is a lot of fun. So how do you preserve that startup culture as you’re getting larger? 

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. So when you think about startup culture, you know, you think about creative problem solving, you think about open communication, you think about a flat hierarchy, so all as you grow, you want to always keep a culture of the best idea wins, right?

Keep that door open because you never know where a good idea is coming from. It might come from the CEO and my compliment intern. That’s right. You want to make sure that you know, all the great ideas are not coming from your gen X employees, right? Gen Z is coming into the workplace and they’ve got ideas and they are different in that they are really cause based and they care about aligning their values with the organizations they want to work with. And so they’ve got ideas. They want to contribute. They’ve got good perspectives on how, you know, trends and how that society is changing. So you want to make sure that you have a culture of best idea wins.

And you want to make sure that you’re presenting employees with an opportunity for stretch projects. You know, let them, let them expand, let them grow, let them try new things. And then finally, as a startup leader, your second line of, of leaders is so important because they’re the ones that are driving your culture.

Right? So while you’re, you know, talking to investors and talking to the board and you know, thinking about strategic goals, who’s dealing with your day to day employees it’s that second line. So make sure that they are strong make sure that they understand the culture that you want to continue to perpetuate because they’re the ones that are driving it day to day.

So if you have an a, you know, a best idea when it’s culture as a startup leader, but your second line is, is not listening to those interns, those new employees you know you’ve got a problem there, so you to keep that startup culture, you need to make sure your second line,  is aligned with you.

Shelley Willingham: That’s great. We’ve talked about a lot. This has been fun.  But let’s about all the things we talked about if someone’s listening today and they’re like, okay, this is great. What is the first thing that I, what are three things I can do after I stopped listening to this podcast to kind of move in the direction of creating the type of culture that I want my startup to have.

What are the three things you would recommend? 

Jackie Ferguson: Shelley, so I would say the first thing is to educate yourself on DEI specifically. So if you think about inclusive language, you know, the Diversity Movement has a course that you can take or white paper that you can download to understand how to use inclusive language in the workplace to make sure that people that you’re working with and interacting with feel seen feel valued, feel welcome and that starts with your language and that’s something that you can yourself make a change in. The next thing we talked about earlier was unconscious bias. So make sure that you’re managing your bias and then understanding DEI basics. So one educate yourself. The second is be intentional about the culture that you want to build. If you’re not intentional, you’ll end up with a culture that you have not yourself designed. So you want to be intentional and make sure you’re reiterating that message with each hire. And then finally talk to people in your network about their best practices and have them share their learnings, have them share their missteps with you.

Many of them have been where you are, so, you know, get those lessons from the people that have done it, messed it up, right. And learn from that so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes. So those are my three tips, Shelley. 

Shelley Willingham: Awesome 

love it sounds great. So I’m so excited. We got a chance to talk again.

Jackie Ferguson:  I’m enjoying listening to you know, I enjoy the first one. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series, so I’m super excited.

Shelley Willingham: Before we get going, I want everyone listening to know that we will be holding a special webinar, DEI for the startup community on Thursday June 3rd at 12:00 Eastern Time, and we want YOU to attend. The signup link is in the show notes, and here’s the deal: you can sign up to attend this webinar by donating any amount to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. And if you want to sponsor this event, contact us at (email?). I’m so excited for this, and I hope to see you there.


Alright, thanks for listening, everyone. We’ll be back again soon but until then, be sure to visit for more podcasts, articles, and educational content.


This episode was edited and produced by Earfluence.


I’m Shelley Willingham, and we’ll see you next time on Winning with Diversity.

Full Episode Transcript

Winning with Diversity is brought to you by The Diversity Movement, hosted by VP of Business Strategy Shelley Willingham, and is a production of Earfluence.

Amplify Your Expertise
About the Author
At Earfluence, we are proud to produce this podcast. We believe in sharing amazing stories, providing knowledge to the world, and celebrating diverse voices. Through podcasting, our clients are amplifying their expertise, expanding their networks, building a content engine, and growing their influence. If you're interested in podcasting, we'd love to hear from you! Schedule your free 15 minute podcast consult today.