How soona built an 81% diverse team while hiring 50+ people in 2 years

Written in collaboration with Liz Giorgi, Co-Founder + CEO @ soona (@lizgiorgi)

Over the 2020 summer, Kokopelli Capital surveyed our portfolio, asking our founders how they felt about their company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While we’re proud of the diversity amongst our portfolio, this survey showed that we, like most of the startup world, have a long way to go. The survey showed that our founders are working to educate themselves on DEI issues and implementing DEI policies, but largely needed help cutting through the noise.

Hidden amongst the replies was one outlier — soona. Liz Giorgi, soona Co-Founder and CEO, had noted that 81% of her company comes from a diverse demographic. What’s more, she offered confident policies as to how soona achieved this.

“We’re a unique company in that white-males are the minority.” –Liz Giorgi, Co-Founder + CEO, soona

Members of the soona team, featuring Co-Founders Liz Giogi (top left) and Hayley Anderson (bottom right).

Founded by Liz Giorgi and Hayley Andeson, in just two years soona has opened three locations, built a Shopify app, and achieved 400% growth in 2020.

soona’s outstanding growth is an outlier. soona’s 81% diverse team is, frankly, an outlier too.

soona is proving how diversity in hiring is not a social justice obligation, but a real advantage.

As a fund, we’re constantly looking for ways to support multiple companies at once. Knowing full well of their successful growth, we were elated to see soona’s response hidden amongst our summer DEI survey.

If we (three white guys for the record) can help our companies find the same hiring advantage as soona and address our startup community’s inequities, that’s a win-win. So we asked Liz just how they do it…

“Success building a diverse company starts with a mindset shift. Don’t do it because you feel pressure to be better. Do it because it will make your company objectively better.”

soona’s Top Tips for Hiring a Diverse Team

First off, company leaders must make one key mental shift to achieve diversity:

Put in the work before you need to hire.

  1. Get clear on your local community: Understand the diverse makeup of the community you exist within.
  • Use Census Data as your guide: You can enter your city on the Census website and get key demographic data. The resources are available here: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/BZA110218
  • Followup: Is geography holding you back from who you want to attract? It’s en vogue now, but from the beginning, we have co-located our teams to ensure we have a diverse team. It’s worth reviewing whether a multi-location company may lead you to a better, less-homogenous candidate pool. Ask this question early and often.

2. Set Realistic Goals to start.

  • The candidate pool is your baseline: You will not hire a diverse team if you don’t have a diverse pool. Create standards for what your pool should look like to put yourself at a high likelihood of success.
  • Don’t be resume obsessed: Too many companies hire based on checklists and resumes. Think about whether you have a hiring culture of checklists or if you are willing to change up your point of view. This is especially true when you are considering non-technical hires.
  • Get clear on your company’s goals: If you’re just starting out, your goals will be more relevant to the system you would like to create and how you aim to hold yourself accountable. This could be a 30% diverse team by year 2, or it could be a min. 50% female team. In contrast, for established teams, your goals should be based on where you’re at right now. What diverse demographics are underrepresented on your team? Or amongst your C-suite? Above all, make sure your goals are attainable and relevant to your company and your local community.

3. “Rainbow attracts Rainbow.”

Do you represent your company as a place that is welcoming to the types of candidates you want to attract? How you portray your company matters.

  • When it came time to raise money from VCs,soona created the “Candor Clause.” This is a powerful signal, particularly to female candidates in a male-dominated industry, that soona’s culture protects employees from gender discrimination. Not to mention the legal accountability it adds to such behavior.

4. Broaden Your Circle.

  • Assess your leadership networks: How often do you interact with people who don’t look like you? Are there meetups or online events happening within the diverse communities you aim to hire from? Have you attended? Do you go to rooms where you are the only white person? The only man? These kinds of experiences can help leadership contextualize the experience of diverse candidates.
  • Use COVID to your advantage: This is even easier to change in a post-COVID world, where we’re all part of the same remote community.

Throughout my own career, I have actively sought out founders who were building different things in different ways from different backgrounds. It makes me better. Tweet at someone you don’t know today but admire. That is the first and easiest step toward building your network. — Liz

Do Not:

  • Expect diverse candidates to find you. It’s on you to seek them out.
  • Simply invite diverse groups to your events. You are responsible for the bridge-building. Go to their events first.
  • Show up just once. This shows your commitment to hiring is not a real, enduring commitment.

DO:

  • Offer to help before you make asks of any group or leader you are working with.
  • Set goals for your organization that are tangible.
  • Share your census demographic data with your hiring managers so they know what their candidate pool should look like.

The hiring policies that have created a kick-ass, 81% diverse team at soona

No Resume-Based Hiring.

If diverse candidates are statistically less likely to get jobs they’re qualified for, looking at a static document of past jobs only validates the biases that created inequity in the first place.

Employees making hires are responsible for digging deeper into the candidate pool to find the nuggets of information and experiences that tell the stories of their candidate pool beyond resumes. Does the candidate have any notable hobbies, certifications, or groups that may map to the role you’re hiring for?

At soona, we ask all candidates to submit relevant ancillary context information to help paint an accurate picture of the person. This includes:

  1. Cover Letter
  2. Any professional portfolio accounts
  3. Work samples
  4. Personal project they wish to share

Standardized Compensation

Each role has a pay and equity range, determined before the candidate search. This preempts biases in compensation and ensures that once someone joins the company, the compensation is the same across hires.

No one at soona can hire for a role unless:

  1. They have a candidate pool that is within 15% of the demographics in our communities
  • For example, since 50% of America is female — we expect that at least 35% of the pool is women (50% — 15% = 35%)

2. They interview at least one:

  • Female Candidate
  • BIPOC Candidate

Simple as that.

In order to help their employees find diverse candidates, soona recommends

The Invisible Network — an anonymous job matching platform that provides double-opt-in intros between companies and candidates. This creates the candidate connection before biases inadvertently disqualify candidates.

Recruiters to help source for roles of at least Manager or above. We require proof from the recruiter that at least 20% of their network is diverse.

The Resources for Hiring List — soona maintains an internal database of diverse candidate groups for their home cities (so far) of Denver, Minneapolis, and Austin, as well as a few more regional and national ones. When a team member needs to make a hire, they check these lists and make sure to post where appropriate.

Here is a template worksheet to track your hiring processes and create your own list of groups. (A sample Denver list is included as an example)

Finally, make a bold stand. If these three resources do not work, anyone responsible for hiring at soona has permission to pay for whatever you need to achieve the appropriate candidate pool.

Quarter after quarter, Kokopelli’s portfolio companies relay to us one key area for support: hiring. By the end of 2021, soona is planning to have 100 employees with no intentions of slowing down.

We hope this helps our companies, and many more, find soona’s hiring advantage.

Not to mention, it is the right thing to do.

>>>>RESOURCE: Hiring Diverse Talent Worksheet

Thank you to Liz Giorgi (@lizgiorgi) for contributing to this piece, helping shape the hiring worksheet resource, and sharing soona’s hiring practices for the rest of us to learn from.

Hear more from Liz by following her blog, Storypreneurship.

Greater Colorado Venture Fund | Startup Colorado | Kokopelli Capital … Small Towns + Big Ideas @jam_finney