Olga Mack, CEO, ClearSlide

ClearSlide general counsel Olga Mack has trailblazed a path from Ukraine to Silicon Valley. A strong advocate for diversity and inclusion – particularly for women in senior business roles – she sat down with GC to share her experience working with startups and small businesses to help diversity take root.

In startups and small private companies, promoting diversity doesn’t require a formal policy or structure. Diversity initiatives can take inspiration from the fluid, exciting and out-of-the-box thinking prevalent in these types of companies.

Regardless of the approach, making diversity a part of its core mission and values directly impacts a company’s bottom line by creating happier employees, attracting a broader client base, and promoting its brand more effectively.

Diversity means something different at every company, and it’s important to align this mission with the company goals, mission, employee needs and resources – which are often more finite at smaller companies. That said, the key to increasing and promoting diversity is to think about it often and with intention, regardless of company size. There isn’t a company out there that wouldn’t benefit from the multiple benefits of creating an environment in which diversity thrives.

A major area where diversity comes into play is in recruiting and hiring. Diversity is particularly valuable in an environment where recruiting is competitive and can make a tangible difference in both attracting and retaining talent. The bulk of my experiences lie in Silicon Valley, where there is serious competition in every department and at every level. In this type of landscape, companies can’t bury their heads in the sand and must face this issue head on. Undoubtedly, certain departments, such as engineering, seem to have a harder time with diversity. However, more evolved companies are recognizing that it’s simply not enough to say ‘this is hard’. They are looking into more creative ways of diversifying their workforce across the board and see this challenge as an important opportunity to gain business advantage and do the right thing socially.

When you talk about startups and smaller companies in San Francisco and across Silicon Valley, there are plenty of unique opportunities to recruit diverse talent. Historically, certain geographic areas such as San Francisco’s Mid-Market area or certain parts of Oakland were seen as lower socioeconomic areas. Recently, tech startups have been drawn to these areas. Although this trend has had its share of controversy and has caused a fear of gentrification, many of these companies are taking the opportunity to give back to the new communities they choose to call home.

Some of these companies have been both creative and proactive in working with community organizers, churches, and local government to ensure that their hiring reflects the area in which they operate. That has three primary benefits in my eyes:

    1. You’re hiring a local workforce and becoming integrated in the community where you do business.
    2. As you grow economically, you bring others along on the journey, both in terms of economic opportunities and job training.
    3. You’re increasing the diversity of thought and representation within your business, which is a key way of creating real-world impact.

Beyond hiring, however, there is also the matter of managing diversity in the existing workforce, and within the overall company culture. In smaller companies, general counsel can impact diversity and overall inclusion in a more immediate and pronounced way than in larger, more established businesses. Often, general counsel wear more hats, are closer to an operational role, and play a strategic adviser role. We connect with many more people at a company than a large corporation’s general counsel. We are the person with their hand on the pulse of the organization and community. We are uniquely positioned to take a proactive approach towards steering the business in positive directions ethically, socially, and economically.

In my experience, sometimes it can be the smallest things that make the biggest difference. For example, if you think about the US business calendar, it has the default holidays: Christmas, Presidents’ Day, and Thanksgiving. But if you look at who you have in your workforce, their personal holiday calendar can look quite different. Smart companies will embrace that beyond merely allowing their employees to take floating holidays of choice.

At ClearSlide, we have celebrated Diwali for the past few years, partially because we have a large representation of Hindu Americans at our company. For us, it means we have a great time, beautiful dresses, excellent food, and an educational component about the history and personal significance of the tradition to our employees. Many employees shared what Diwali means to them and their families. From this experience, I feel like I understand my colleagues, what is important to them, and their culture a little better.

It is also helpful to be mindful and intentional about company-sponsored social events to make sure that they are inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Otherwise, it is very easy to inadvertently exclude some of your employees. For example, your company may want to go on a bike ride as part of a team-building exercise. If several employees are Sikhs who wear religious headpieces, it may be challenging for them to wear bike helmets and participate in the company-sponsored event. So, though well-intentioned, the company might have inadvertently excluded some of its employees.

Another important opportunity for inclusion is catering at company events. It is helpful to be mindful of religious dietary restrictions when planning menus. Whether it’s providing a vegetarian option or choosing to serve halal or kosher meat, having a variety of options will ensure that employees don’t have to awkwardly explain why they’re not eating.

With so many potential ways to increase diversity, it may be overwhelming to consider a starting point. It’s easy to get caught up in theory and hedging around the idea of the ‘right’ diversity efforts. In my experience, a relatively straightforward way of thinking about diversity and setting a company on the right track is to form a board or committee, sponsored by an executive (such as a general counsel), encompassing a range of employees of all levels across the company, to actively look at these issues. Bringing in employees from every level of the business can offer the company a first-hand look into what’s being done well, how it can increase inclusivity and sense of belonging, areas with potential diversity issues, and solutions how to do it all better. This is a relatively inexpensive step any company can take, and one that can make a real difference in sustaining morale and retaining staff.

For me, the key is to get started and make inroads. As long as your intention is good, taking initiative and starting somewhere is more important than theoretically considering the benefits of diversity and ways to achieve it. Whether it’s a full-fledged, formal, and structured diversity policy with specific and measurable goals or an ad-hoc informal group to discuss the company’s specific diversity and inclusion issues, the most important point is just to do something and start.

Once that step is taken, you can measure success and impact, formalize, pivot and innovate around it as needed. It doesn’t have to take a lot or be costly. You just need to align a good intention with some actions and be intentional about it to reap the significant social and business benefits. Whatever step is right for your company now, the positivity it will bring to your employees, to the company, and to society as a whole, will definitely make it well worth taking.

So, don’t wait to start a formal program. Don’t wait for a greater budget, bigger company, more inspiring leadership, better market conditions, or anything else. Don’t wait for anything because inclusion is a social responsibility and bottom-line issue that cannot wait. Do something intentional today and every day to make the workplace more inclusive, comfortable, and tolerant.