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Tech startup, Innovation And Team Diversity, Our Journey

Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization. Mahatma Gandhi

Diversity is at the very core of life on the planet. Look around you, how many species of trees do you see, how many different plants, animals, languages, cultures, music, cars, buildings, restaurants, clothes and… PEOPLE? Our whole ecosystem and its stability is built on diversity. Why are we now questioning the importance and value of diversity in business?

PocketConfidant AI is the startup building the first virtual coach assisted by Artificial Intelligence, accessible 24/7 on chat interfaces and designed to empower people at scale and at minimum cost. Enabled through an intelligent self-coaching dialogue system, PocketConfidant is the trusted friend and confidante, the virtual coach who asks questions that help you become more aware of what is going on, step back, identify resources and opportunities that are available to you, formulate your goal and move forward.

Today, the PocketConfidant AI team has six members; three men and three women, seven nationalities, ages 27 to 62. Together, the team members wish to communicate their vision and experiences around diversity. We are currently reading articles referencing the low numbers of women working in tech companies, the difficulty entrepreneurs have to create diversity in their startups, founders questioning whether diversity really does impact the bottom line or not; and we see reputable programs such as Techstars accelerator developing a diversity initiative to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in their cohorts… And if we dig a little more, we see that groups of Female Tech Leaders are working to solve Silicon Valley’s diversity problem… WOW! Here is a question we might ask: is this a local issue – Silicon Valley based – or a pervasive issue across the tech startup world irrespective of location?

As PocketConfidant AI is starting its journey in France, let’s have a quick look at what’s happening in France regarding “diversity”. France also seems challenged by the question of diversity, and both public and private institutions are responding. In 2015, French Law formulated a new labor code saying “no one may be subjected to sexism, defined as any act related to the sex of a person, the purpose or effect of which is to damage his/her dignity, to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”. Additionally, in 2016, France Stratégie conducted the very first study highlighting how lack of diversity is resulting in the loss of billions of euros, and, even if the Principles of the 1946 Constitution were designed to support citizens’ rights, it seems that France faces the same issues as many other nations.

If you want to read further on diversity, look at the article written by Ekaterina Walter published in Forbes.com, citing several research studies that show the importance of diversity in the workplace:

  • A Forbes study has identified workforce diversity and inclusion as a key driver of internal innovation and business growth.
  • Lu Hong and Scott Page showed that groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem-solvers.
  • According to McKinsey, companies with diverse executive boards enjoy significantly higher earnings and returns on equity.
  • According to Harvard Business School, multicultural networks promote creativity.

These articles and discussions provoked our thinking and we, the PocketConfidant AI team, wanted to share our thoughts on how we are approaching and addressing diversity.

Is it hard to create diversity in startups?

Olivier Malafronte, Founder CEO: “Courtney Williams’s experience illustrates challenges in many different areas of the system, and even if I’m not in the same situation, I can tell my own story. I grew up as an only child, travelled with my parents when I was a kid and later on alone for internships and startup businesses. I naturally developed a personal orientation and a need to look for diversity around me. Actually, one of my dreams was to create a team of different nationalities and cultures, but to be honest, I did not even think about it when building startups. Why? Because building a startup is already a hard job, and if you start counting the number of nationalities you have in your team, you may end up not building your startup, and focusing on things that are not related to the core priorities (testing hypothesis, talking with customers, finding teammates fast) and delaying your value proposition to your clients. Time is a crucial asset, it makes you focus on very specific tasks before you can even think about how you should hire a diverse team. You do more with less. So basically, you need to move forward with the opportunities presented, so you can give priority to diversity when you have choice and if you have choice. When starting to look for co-founders in early 2015, as it happened, the only qualified choices I had were among non-native French people. In my case, I just focused on listening to the people I met to discover the unique skills and experiences they had to offer. It was fun, rewarding, enriching and efficient as a year later I ended up working with a team of five people; three women, two other men, seven nationalities. I think the only thing I did right was to listen, seek to understand what kind of people they were and how they would integrate with the team. The result is that hiring diversity was easy, even natural and my dream came true. You may say “it’s luck”, but who knows… Perhaps my intention and desire to have diversity around me facilitated the job…”

Too few women

Isla Reddin, Co-Founder, Director of Strategic Partnerships: “As a woman entrepreneur I am especially interested in several studies that demonstrate the fact that when women investors are working with women startups the statistics for success are the same as for male startups. This is very encouraging and will hopefully begin to even the playing field for women entrepreneurs in the tech industry, encouraging women to take their innovative ideas into the marketplace. I hope that the group Women in Technology and their initiative Project Include work with the education establishment to create a comprehensive message at the K-12 level to find solutions to this huge disparity. Here we are discussing the value of diversity and I would like to highlight a side of diversity that doesn’t get much press but is part of the challenge we face, not just in business but in society in general. Embracing diversity requires work! The biggest diversity we have is in our heads; no two brains are the same… Our thinking, perceptions, motivations, the way we learn, our strengths and non-strengths, emotional intelligence, etc. are all different. In my years working in the K-16 system I was passionate about helping every student I could reach understand the unique way in which they learned; why school was very difficult for certain students and seemingly easy for others. I worked to help both teachers and students understand and value the learning diversity they had in the classroom, accommodate it, celebrate it and create and innovate as a result of embracing its potential. It was not always easy for either students or teachers, as working in this way requires a mindset of tolerance and curiosity. However, if we do not help our children understand how to embrace diversity and differences, and experience first-hand how it can enrich our lives, the benefits it brings to our learning, working and social environments, we will have adults seeking to create workplaces where homogeneity is valued, women and minorities are excluded and creativity and innovation suffer along with the bottom line of the organization (on which all employees depend). Diversity is a strength for a team and an organization, but it also requires a commitment to valuing it as a strength. If we dismiss it, devalue or undervalue it, and as a result devalue those who are different from us… We have a big problem.”

It’s about building the best team possible

Nikita Lukianets, Co-founder, CTO: “Working in a startup requires us to build a team very carefully and deliberately; what do I consider important in bringing together individuals who can become a successful team? To be honest I have never thought in terms of diversity as it relates to gender or ethnicity. Maybe my own experience of living, studying and working in different countries and with different languages informs my perspective. For me what’s important is the life experience that individuals bring to the team: how do they think, what action do they take and what is their response to specific situations. How do these behaviors enrich the team? Although we can obviously assume that growing up in different countries and cultures brings diversity, there is also a lot we have in common and share: professional interests, level of education, expectations and goals of our participation in a certain project. We need good communicators, people whose personal vision is well aligned with the company vision, empowered to act autonomously and confidant in their abilities. Selecting people based on gender or ethnic diversity does not imply success. It is the action taken with the ingredients we have — that is the differentiator. What is critical for a startup environment, when the competition is so dynamic and fast, is the ability to act and adapt very quickly. This is where diversity plays an essential role. When it is being fostered to constantly nudge and encourage people towards flexibility, to think and build dynamically on each other’s ideas. Startups live in an environment where errors are part of development and happen because of the action, speed and creative impulse of the team. Courage is an important character trait – and universal. I do, however, agree that we need to do more to encourage women to be able to take more senior roles and not be forced to choose between family and career. Until recently I always worked in a predominately male environment. As I am finishing up my PhD I am working in a biology lab where women are the majority until it comes to research positions, and the more senior the researcher the more likely he will be a man. The system does not accommodate the reality of life for a woman with a family at this level. It is my hope that with technology and the possibility of more remote working opportunities this will change.”

Values and vision

Jyoti Mishra, Machine Learning & Natural Language Engineer: “At times it seems like there are not many other women around to share technical discussions, but women are certainly catching up. Indian society has traditionally been very conservative with regard to educating women, but happily, survey data show a more than 200 % rise in women engineers since 2001. Also, considering the fact that women’s access to education was restricted until the 1990s, these figures prove that if given a chance and unbiased environment to grow, women can be as good as men. I have a very personal experience regarding the same. One of my uncles runs a coaching institute for Mathematics for Undergraduate and Graduate students. I remember that as a kid, we were excited to see female students turning up for classes, as it was very rare. I remember not more that 0.5% of his students were females. This was during the early 1990s. However, now women represent more than 50% of the intake on average. That is a whopping increase in the number of females taking up Mathematics for their Undergraduate Degree. So, I can definitely say that given some time and the right environment, women will be represented in technology in ever-greater numbers. When I joined PocketConfidant, I was the third woman on board with a team of five. The team has people from different countries working cohesively. That was an indicator of a positive, diversified and unbiased environment for me to develop my skills, continue to learn and gain experience, irrespective of gender. The innovation space of the startup is in a field that interests me deeply on a personal level. When I discovered PocketConfidant I was able to align myself with their core values and vision. I feel great to have the chance to utilize my technical skills developing a smart and innovative product which I hope will touch the lives of many in a positive manner.”

It is enriching

Bilge Aksu, Machine Learning Engineer: “I have always loved math and science. From the age of 13 I attended a school in Turkey that specialized in science education and was always encouraged by my family and teachers to pursue these subjects. In this school the ratio of girls to boys was 1-5 and when I went to university to study electrical engineering that ratio remained the same. I am not sure if the reason so few girls take this path is because there is a general thinking in society that girls are not interested in math or technology, or are not good at it, but there is little encouragement in Turkey to pursue this academic route. I consider myself very lucky to have been supported to follow my talents and interests. Having finished my studies in Turkey I went to France and attended the Ecole Polytechnique of Paris, assuming that France, a “First World” country and economy would have more women in my field. To my surprise there were, in fact, fewer. I was the only woman in many of my classes. This situation continued when later I worked as a research assistant at Cambridge University in England. Why is this so, what are the prevailing “thinking, constraints” in place? I recently read an interesting article in the Guardian Newspaper which may help explain some of this phenomenon. “Researchers find software repository GitHub approved code written by women at a higher rate than code written by men, but only if the gender was not disclosed”. GitHub is one of the largest open-source software communities in the world. With women making up only about 11% of all software engineers and sexism well documented in the industry, researchers expected to find that coders would be prejudiced against code written by women. However, that was not the case: Women’s work was more likely to be accepted than men’s, unless “their gender is identifiable”, in which case the acceptance rate was worse than men’s. Hmmm… interesting, right? Diversity is important; it enriches me. Diversity brings me different opinions, different ways of looking at the same problem, help with things that I can’t figure out on my own.”

After all we are all the same

Radu Cojocaru, Front-End Engineer: “Coming from a background of diverse cultures in South East Romania, I have been fortunate enough to have diversity as a positive driving force behind a lot of collaborations. I have experienced diversity as a positive byproduct on a team because there is a certain charm to seeing people from diverse cultures, with different beliefs and different experiences in their lives work together towards achieving an objective.I was pleasantly surprised to see that a desire to learn more about the differences of the people around you create a common desire to learn more about different cultures. It’s often a reason why in Romania individuals who ‘get to know the World’ are considered wiser, smarter and are generally more “well-regarded”. Fortunately, in my experience, the situations where diversity has been the cause of issues and problems in a team have been minimal. People who were unwilling to collaborate in an environment with increased diversity have voluntarily removed themselves or have been limited in their commitment towards the goal.There are few things more powerful in the world than seeing a group of individuals work to fulfill an objective, regardless of differentiating factors such as ethnicity, race, beliefs, sexual orientation or other factors. It’s inspiring to see your peers strive towards achieving the same goal. I believe the modern world is better off by having the means to bring people closer together. This way, we can only see that no matter what you choose to believe in, no matter your background, we are, after all, the same.”

So, in the end, why is diversity such a big deal and a big topic? It seems that some teams naturally manage to create and develop diversity with ease and success, so why isn’t it possible everywhere? Is diversity a “mindset”, a culture, a way at looking at life, a way of thinking and approaching the differences that make us human? Is it a bi-product of our own upbringing and experience? For us, at this time in our journey, we see our team’s diversity as a vehicle of empowerment and personal growth. It is a motivator to be creative, never complacent, and to stretch through the challenges to learn how to continue to be strong and inspired. What do you think about diversity? No matter your story, background, origin, experiences, age, way of life, if you have some ideas, links or opinions on the topic, leave a comment or contact us privately to share your thoughts.

From left to right: Olivier (French), Radu (Romanian), Nikita (Ukrainian), Isla (Irish-American), Jyoti (Indian), Bilge (Turkish). Photo taken in Nice, France, February 19th 2017.

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Olivier Malafronte

Founder @PocketConfidant AI, Certified Coach, Masters in Business, lived and worked in 5 countries. Passionate entrepreneur, focus on global issues with a will to contribute and improve our world. "Keep going".