Do diverse teams make for innovative teams? Does diversity promote disruption?
This was the question posed at Innovate UK conference hosted in Manchester, 2-3 November. Organisers of the two-day event invited some of the brightest inventors and investors to talk about tech start-ups, and how to turn big ideas into profts.
New Civil Engineer sought out some of the (few) women in the crowd to get their views.
Engineer and entrepreneur Elspeth Finch was 24 in 2000 when she co-founded Intelligent Space, a pedestrian behaviour modelling company. The company was later acquired by Atkins, where she became head of innovation.
Now, aged 40, Finch heads another start-up – Indigo& – an online growth centre and mentoring service for start-ups and SMEs.
But back in 2000, she led Intelligent Space with a male co-founder, and pair found their business growing into a 50/50 male/female enterprise without much effort.
“I think one of the things we did was have an inclusive culture from the outset, all the way through,” says Finch.
While a lot of the business’ diversity came easily, there were testing moments.
“One time, interviewing a candidate, every time I asked him a question he would answer to [co-founder] Jake. I asked him another question and he answered to Jake. And a third time. He didn’t get the job.
“I think it was useful to have a dynamic like that as it allows you to weed out unconscious bias before it even reaches your firm.”
Finch says her age was also a factor, even in the tech start-ups world where young whiz-kids in their 20s are the norm.
“I looked like a teenager at 24. So they’d often think I was the PA when they come in and meet me, especially as I was quite friendly and would offer them coffee.
“And they were actually quite embarrassed when they realised I was the owner of the firm.”
Also in attendance at the Innovate UK conference was Angel Academe North network manager Gaynor Dykes, who helps female investors to back tech start-ups, stipulating that there must be at least one woman on the start-up’s founding team.
“One of the feedbacks we get from investors is the reason that they don’t invest with a particular company is a lack of confidence in the management team,” says Dykes. “If we can get managers with wider experience, more diversity, then hopefully more investment will happen.”
Angel Academe is finding its feet in the North after becoming successfully established in London for about three years. Dykes says that despite controlling 47% of the UK’s net wealth, women account for only 14% of Angel Academe investors – less than one in seven.
Gyana Ltd chief executive and Innovate UK Women in Innovation ambassador Joyeeta Das can relate. Her experience of founding a tech start-up in her late teens in India was not a good one.
“Ten years ago it wasn’t very common for a woman of 18 or 19 to be building a company – it might be a little better these days.
“I couldn’t recruit enough diversity. Women would go to work for bigger, safer companies at the encouragement of friends and family. They would say ‘I really want to be a part of this, but it’s not for me’.”
The result was that Das had a staff of only men, primarily from one ethnic group.
It quickly became an echo chamber for the same type of people that had the same thoughts.
Gyana chief executive Joyeeta Das
“It quickly became an echo chamber for the same type of people that had the same thoughts, and they would try and solve every problem in the same way, supporting each other each time. So not much innovation,” says Joyeeta.
The company degraded within a few years, became non-profitable and Joyeeta had little say in the matter.
“I ended up leaving the company, losing my intellectual property, everything. But in a few years they failed as well.”
Das went on to gain an MBA at Oxford and built many more successful start-ups, including Gyana, which provides a live city visualisation using aerial imagery, “big data” and artificial intelligence.
The advice she gives other leaders is to think about diversity as early as possible. “Because it will flow on and determine how the makeup of your company ends up.”
But how does one change mindsets in a company with a pre-existing culture? “Academics talk about intrinsic diversity and acquired diversity – the acquired bit comes from just listening, being around different people, being open minded,” says Das.
“There’s this exercise you can do: if you’re talking to a woman, either above or below you professionally, replace their face with that of a male buddy you have – would you have spoken the same way?”
As executive director of Research Councils UK, Hilary Reynolds, works to enhance the overall impact of the UK’s research, training, and innovation effort.
With a global view, she stresses that it’s not only a personal issue, or even merely a social issue, but “an economic issue on a global scale”.
“We have looked at participation in the workplace of women. We’ve found that if all countries in a region improved to the level of the best country in that region, we could increase GDP by $12trillion – that’s about the size of UK, Germany and Japan put together.”
Often it’s a personal experience people need, to permanently change their minds about something.
Research Councils UK executive director Hilary Reynolds
Reynolds says there is also research which shows minorities perform better in diverse businesses.
“Minorities in businesses that have more than 15% of people in their own group of representation are much more engaged, more empowered; they stay longer and are less combative.”
“But it’s a very long term project, to change mindsets. And often it’s a personal experience people need, to permanently change their minds about something.”
Diversity and dissent
“We all feel comfortable around the people we know, love and grew up with. So being honest about the fact we feel uncomfortable about diversity is important,” says Reynolds.
“As a leader, you have to build an enterprise where you recognise that diversity is uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.”
Cisco Systems’ UK and Ireland chair Phil Smith says it was “bleeding obvious” during his time as CEO of Cisco for over 20 years that if the population is 50/50 male/female, and his workforce was majority male, then the company was missing out on opportunities.
Those further down below us, they hadn’t believed it yet, experienced it yet.
Cisco UK and Ireland chair Phil Smith
Smith relates an experience where he ran a survey across their UK and Ireland business, asking staff about dissent: “Can you express your opinion openly without fear of retribution?”
“And the score was terrible – something like 40% said they couldn’t.” All sorts of initiatives were launched, he says. And the survey was taken again the following year.
“And the score was exactly the same, and I was devastated,” says Smith.
“But all that means, is that this stuff takes time. I and managers below me had started to talk about it – but those further down below us, they hadn’t believed it yet, experienced it yet.”