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GC Magazine

INTERVIEW: GENIUS

Brooklyn-based tech and music startup Genius is aiming to overcome the stereotype of technology startups being bastions of white male geekiness, with a hiring and retention policy focused on diversity and inclusion.







genius logo

‘We looked around one day
and realized we were essentially a
bunch of white guys from Yale.’

In May 2016, over dinner with Genius general counsel Ben Gross, the subject of the GC Diversity and Inclusion Report arose. Gross was very enthusiastic. ‘You should see what we’re trying to do at Genius. It’s early days but we really want this to be part of who we are. We looked around one day and realized we were essentially a bunch of white guys from Yale and we wanted to change that.’ Intrigued, GC paid a visit to Genius HQ in Gowanus, Brooklyn a few months later. An obvious manifestation of the way the company is thinking is its completely gender-neutral communal bathrooms – no North Carolina bathroom bill issues here!

Along with Gross, Eddie Washington, one of two co-heads of talent and recruitment, and Nat Guevara, the head of communications, were front and center when GC visited. ‘We want our office to reflect all the people who know and love Genius. We want the people on the inside to match that external profile,’ explains Guevara.

A fundamental difference with many startups and indeed many companies, Washington explains, is that ‘we have to be pretty aggressive with outbound recruiting. It’s a different approach to wanting to focus on diversity from an inwards perspective. Part of what I am doing is searching proactively for people and then speaking on panels and other outward engagement to drum up interest with diverse candidates.’

Genius is one of the more popular startups, in part because of its mixed focus combining tech, music and culture. But its increasingly outbound focus onto building a diverse office has also helped.

Gross addresses the fact that too many startups take a more passive approach of, ‘“Here are the resumes that showed up”. But we’ve never been that kind of company. Because it’s a fun company, we get a lot of inbound approaches but we’re often looking for something more.’ Nat Guevara adds that, ‘It’s not necessarily about finding the best resumes. We value grit and passion. That’s why we hire from within our own community, such as those folks who are annotating on the site every day and proposing bug fixes.’

Diversity is therefore fundamental to the company’s success partly because it has such a diverse user group. Genius reaches over 70 million people every month across all of its channels – the website, Genius.com, as well as its mobile apps, videos, and social media. The great majority of that audience is between the ages of 14 and 34, with users from all backgrounds. The site is particularly popular with young people of color. Through its content – which includes collaborations with artists ranging from Common and Eminem, to Selena Gomez and Tove Lo – Genius is working to expand that audience even further.

collage of photos of staff from Genius tech music startup

Starting as it did as Rap Genius in 2009, the company rebranded to Genius in 2014, in part to reflect the diversity of users and content they wanted to provide. One of the site’s most popular streams recently has been focusing on the musical Hamilton, prompting the director and writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to come and annotate its lyrics.

Central to the mission of Genius is a belief that in tech, diversity is fundamental; the more skill sets you can approach a problem with, the better, due to the constantly changing, esoteric nature of the industry. But, Washington explains, an issue with tech companies is that ‘people are also scared of tech because they assume you can’t join unless you know how to code. It can be alienating; it is still a new phenomenon, so people don’t see there are still sales and recruiting and design components. We need folks who know how to operate and work in the multifaceted world Genius operates in, combining Silicon Valley technology with media and live events. While a number of our hires originate from tech companies like Google, many of our content and editorial folks come from music publications.’

But how easy is it to find diverse candidates with this particular blend of skills and why aren’t more tech companies able to do it? ‘It’s a lot easier than you think,’ says Washington. ‘The perception it is harder because of the lack of people is a cop-out excuse. I think recruiters are often under pressure and then fall back on experience, their laurels and patterns in terms of finding the same kind of people. It really needs to be a case of fighting against your unconscious bias. So I’ll stop hitting up Harvard and go to normal tech or music meet-ups, just to grow my pipeline.’

This mission to make Genius truly reflective of its user community is fundamental to the company. Community is in fact central to the whole ethos as a crowdsourced entity, which they look to reflect at all levels of the business. In common with other tech companies like Google, who did this from its early days, every Friday, Genius has an all-hands presentation – which they refer to internally as ‘mound’ – where employees present to the whole company on what they have been working on and the issues subsequently raised. Guevara tells us that recruitment is also part of that discussion. ‘Eddie will present the job of the week and talk about open roles at Genius, to let our people know about available positions we’re hiring for. We’ve often found that referrals work better than cold applications. It’s a spirit of, “We’re diverse. A diverse team can continue to build a diverse team, so tell your friends about the roles we have here.”’

Guevara goes on to explain that in exchange for successful referrals, employees get an exciting bonus with a twist. ‘Half of the bonus is for you and half goes towards something you can do for the company to positively impact its culture – examples include everything from buying more plants for the office space to taking yourself and your entire team to a Beyoncé concert.’ This all goes towards building the sense of collegiality and a feeling that everyone owns the company, not just the founders.

Genius Co-Founder Ilan Zechory says why inclusion really matters and companies need to step up

It is not far off from the truth that it was white guys and girls from Yale and other schools like it. As you grow you inevitably reach for what you know – your own networks of people. The tendency then is to find people who talk, look and grew up like you. We did look around fairly early on and said, ‘We have ten people here and nine are white.’ That doesn’t feel right for any company that’s trying to accomplish anything because of the lack of different perspectives; certainly not for a music, technology and media company but especially for one whose roots were in rap. We’re pleased to be swimming against the tide in regards to the inertia that certainly can be seen in much of the tech sector.

In my role as founder, what is key is talking about this; people are often afraid to talk about the problem because they are afraid of making mistakes and saying the wrong thing. But you have to be ready to say the wrong thing to tackle the issue. I think a lot of founders and business leaders would like to do more for diversity but are afraid.

We have a company culture which is very open and transparent. In a fundamental way, we make this explicit in the recruiting process. We say we are willing to work extra hard and take longer in order to find stronger, more diverse candidates. What we don’t sanction is just the most efficient way of recruiting to fill roles as quickly as possible because then you get the status quo and end up with a company that is mono-cultural.

At a company level, I do have the power to do something. My biggest piece of advice to people in bigger companies is to talk about it in a way that is not manufactured, that is spontaneous and real-time. Enforce the values of inclusion in your recruiting system. Teach people that it is OK to get outcomes that sacrifice one type of outcome for another. For example, if it takes longer to fill a role we’re going to take that hit for the better value.

Every company is trying to say they value diversity, it’s in company policies, etc. But beyond that you have to step out into discomfort and have a dialogue – and that’s where it gets scary. That’s where you lead by example and say, ‘It’s OK, we can bring this out of the fear zone into the open.’ Certainly it’s easier for a small- to medium-sized company like ours. But what’s also key is using your role as a company in a systemic way. I certainly don’t think Genius is going to save the world, but if a company has a voice and a platform you should be using it.

A recurring theme throughout the discussions at Genius is the idea of grit. Washington explains that, for them, grit is more about intangibles than academic achievements. ‘Where my role can often be focused is researching potential candidates on the web and pulling some of that grit, those less tangible achievements, out of their social presence. For example, if you look at tech people, do they have passion for their craft? Do they go to conferences? Do they volunteer? Do they use social networks? Are they thought leaders? Really, it’s looking for them doing things outside of the day to day that speak to their curiosity and capabilities.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Guevara, who shares the unconventional, yet impressive path of one of Genius’s mobile specialists, ‘Lisa, our Android developer – who worked at the New York Times and Google before coming to Genius – built a Fifty Shades of Grey generator, just for fun, and it went viral. When we see that kind of creative spirit and passion, just because, we want to harness it and rally support around it.’

Wandering around the office at Genius, they do truly seem to be walking the talk: gender diversity is high, as is ethnic diversity. Beyond that, it’s just as pleasing to see people of all ages joining the more stereotypical youthful techies.

Perhaps, one of the key lessons from Genius is that diversity really needs to be front and center in company culture. They’ve proved that size doesn’t need to be an obstacle. Diversity is universal and, as a startup, they have been able to really make that the case.

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