A Diverse Workforce Can Ensure Business Success. Here’s How to Build One.

|Bethany Coates on behalf of IVP

A Diverse Workforce Can Ensure Business Success

Bethany Coates is founder and CEO of BreakLine Education and a former assistant dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

There are plenty of moral, ethical and humanist reasons to create diverse workforces that incorporate a variety of races, genders, ages, physical abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds. But there are also profound business reasons to think about diversity and inclusion as important levers for continued growth and enduring market success.

Many of us have experienced homogenous organizations that prioritize an arbitrary “in crowd” informed by demographics. It’s corrosive, and can instill fear in everyone that someday they could be the ones who no longer fit in.

In contrast, diverse workplaces – which reflect the composition of the country in which they operate – can offer the opposite team experience and are closely correlated with better business performance: faster revenue growth, higher profitability and stronger employee engagement. As an entrepreneur and founder, building a diverse team should therefore be part of your plan to do everything you can to drive those better outcomes, and fulfill your fiduciary responsibilities to your company’s stakeholders.

Diverse teams also bring a wider range of perspectives to the table that directly enable creative problem-solving and opportunity creation. At BreakLine Education, for example, we help outstanding people from under-selected backgrounds — veterans, women, people of color and people with disabilities — accelerate into their next careers, particularly in tech. Our primary responsibility is to enable members of our community to land their dream roles with our partners.

I will give you a specific example of how having a diverse team ourselves enabled us to continue getting after this mission, even in an industry beset by hundreds of thousands of layoffs over the last year: Our head of sales is an Air Force veteran tasked with building new partnerships to expand the employment footprint available to our candidates. Despite the broader macroeconomic environment, he identified a new opportunity for us in a growing subsector— defense technology. Given his military experience, focusing on deftech was an obvious move to him. He called his shot well before I saw it, and our deftech practice is expanding quickly. That’s just one of many powerful examples of the business value of diversity that we see every single day.

The June 2023 Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action within higher education admissions decisions creates an additional opportunity for the private sector to play more of a leading role in this area. With colleges and universities likely unable to graduate as many promising young people from diverse backgrounds for employers, it becomes even more incumbent upon corporate America to ensure our teams represent the society we live in and to find and recognize excellence through less familiar channels.

This jumpGuide will provide strategies for creating and retaining a diverse workforce that gives your company its best chance for lasting market leadership.

First, get into the right frame of mind.

A constellation of five negative organizational dynamics tend to amplify one another and frequently get in the way of hiring diverse talent. In my experience working closely with our 200 partner companies, I’ve seen that while a business may not exhibit all five, it’s likely to struggle with at least three. Addressing these will enable you to recruit diverse teams.

  • The loss mindset: This common, knee-jerk reaction is born of the problematic assumption that hiring someone from a diverse background means giving up other important qualities – excellence, expertise, ramp-up time, your own sense of comfort. This can lead recruiters to question whether the trade-off is worth it. The truth is, you can get everything you want when hiring a diverse team if you focus on a small number of critical things (more on that later).

    • Remedy: I have heard many startup teams rationalize a delay in hiring employees from an array of backgrounds by saying things like “At this stage, we’re just focusing on getting the best people.” If this thought comes to mind for you, it may be a sign you are buying into the false dichotomy of diversity vs. excellence. One way to check your thinking: Read some of the studies showing how tightly correlated high performance and diversity are, including reports from McKinsey and Deloitte.
  • The sideshow: This occurs when management pays lip service to diversity, but the behavior shows otherwise. Senior management isn’t focused on it as a primary objective; For example, bonuses that don’t reflect diversification and feedback (implicit or explicit) makes it clear diversity is viewed as separate from the core business. Recruiters conclude that diversity is not where the real action is, and not where they should be spending their time.

    • Remedy: Inject rigor, intensity and commitment by employing the same kinds of goal setting, tracking and incentives for diversity that you use in other major business areas. Establish a clear baseline of where you are, choose the key goals that matter to you and the metrics to measure progress, and report them out on a regular basis alongside every other business goal. Hold people accountable in evaluations, promotions, raises and equity refreshes—all the way up to CEO.

The streetlight effect: We see this when hiring managers tend to favor candidates from a small, highly visible group of prestigious institutions or brands, which automatically and artificially restricts the pool of potential candidates.

  • Remedy: Instead of relying on an elite pedigree as a stand-in for performance, seek out concrete evidence of actual performance, in both past work and lived experiences.
    • Look for spikes, like early promotions or consistently exceeding quota.
    • Look for indications of overcoming adversity—immigrants, for instance, first-generation citizens or first-generation college graduates. The skill sets people gain in transcending difficulty can be invaluable in the workplace.
    • In interviews, create space for examples drawn from lived experience. For example: ask about a forging experience. “How did you get through it, what did you learn and what do you bring from that into the workplace?”

The premature exit: In this example, hiring managers and top leadership try once or twice to bring in diverse talent, fail and then give up, falling back on myths – like a lack of a talent pipeline – as a rationale. This is sometimes a fear-based reaction to the perceived risk of being “canceled,” or labeled sexist, racist or otherwise phobic if the hire doesn’t pan out.

  • Remedy: Start with accessible, evergreen roles that you fill multiple times a year – like individual software engineers or sales development representatives – rather than a difficult-to-fill, higher pressure position that comes open once a year at best, like an SVP of software engineering. Lowering the stakes distributes that sense of risk and gives you more opportunities to try different approaches, problem-solve and build upon what you’ve learned along the way.

The dreaded red tape: Hiring teams often establish their talent funnels for only one type of career pathway and design an efficient recruiting machine around it. When they consider talent from other areas, though, they may add friction points – extra approvals, more steps in the interview process, additional references. As Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter, said to me (in a different context), “The coward’s way of saying, ‘No,’ is, ‘Go ask those 50 People.”

  • Remedy: Start small, run quick recruiting experiments with a tiger team – like two people – with a pre-approved budget and the power to say “Yes.” Give yourself enough time to see what works and what doesn’t. And then double down on what’s working, and consider increasing the budget to the extent that you’re seeing a return of value back to the organization. As you build that muscle and insight, you’ll get a positive feedback loop that increases confidence in the team and its decision-making rigor.

Invest early, the smart way

If you’re a venture-backed startup, there’s no excuse for saying, “I can’t focus on diversity right now, I’ll do it later.” Waiting only creates wider gaps. When you’re a 10,000-person company, instead of a 10-person startup, it becomes that much harder to close the deltas.

  • Make diversity part of the core of your business, baked into recruiting, operations, product, marketing and sales, rather than a separate initiative that sits alone. Ideally, you’d build diverse teams behind each of your major business lines – people who are committed to what your company is doing and have the professional chops and personal experiences to help you see around corners in a way that you can’t. That gives you 360-degree visibility into your market, your customers and how best to serve them.

  • Leverage your internal teammates who identify with the communities you’re trying to reach and use story as a way in. Candidates need to be able to see themselves in an organization. Hearing stories of progress, performance and success from people like them is the most effective means. Otherwise, it may be harder for them to believe that they can succeed there.

    • Invite teammates to help build the narrative the company is constructing for outreach to underselected communities. For your colleagues, that could mean participating in interview panels or sharing their stories in podcasts, blog posts, recruiting videos or brand marketing materials.
    • Make clear that participation is voluntary, or consider providing spot bonuses for those who participate, and be mindful not to overburden those who sign up.
  • If you don’t already have that diversity built in, borrow it: Draw upon your customers, vendors, investors, community stakeholders and thought leaders in your space.

    • Do an internal authenticity check. Make sure you’re willing to invest time and resources in diversity, establish metrics to track it, observe them over time and course-correct to ensure you’re hitting your goals before asking someone else to lend their assistance and credibility.
    • Then, start by getting the word out: Look for ways to collaborate with your network on public-facing media, including talks on company podcasts and thought-leadership articles and posts.
  • Partner for expertise. If you’re an all-white company — or an all-male company, or an all whatever company — and you’re trying to close diversity gaps there should be no shame in taking part of your investment and applying it to a partnership which requires measurable outcomes — at least until you can build internal capabilities. There are firms in every functional area that specialize in reaching specific groups, including women and minority-owned firms.

  • Be assiduous in your communications and follow-up. There’s often a trust deficit among candidates from diverse backgrounds, stemming in part from the fact that our companies are not diverse, and in part from lived experiences. Diverse candidates may question if they’re really wanted by the organization. In the absence of good, timely information, they also may draw conclusions – incorrect, perhaps, but likely to be negative – about what that means. Keep appointments; treat interviews as conversations, not interrogations; be present in them and not distracted by other activities; and follow up in a reasonable amount of time.

    • One of our partner organizations almost lost an excellent candidate who is now killing it in her job because the recruiters kept brushing off her questions. They were trying to extract information without offering what mattered to her in return.
    • Another company didn’t get to hire one of our alums because the recruiter, who was panting on an uphill bike ride during a screening call, couldn’t see how the alum’s experience would apply to a position doing precisely the same kind of work in a different field.
  • Don’t invest in things that have been proven not to work – there’s just no return. There is no evidence that sponsoring a conference, running a workshop or requiring bias training has ever worked. In fact, some research shows that requiring diversity training can lead to a backlash and lower representation.

  • Create a culture of openness around discussing diversity-related issues. As leaders we should work really hard to make sure we’re surfacing and ventilating the most important topics occupying our teammates’ hearts and minds, including interpersonal miscues.

    • A classic example: a white man is praised in a meeting for saying what a colleague of another background already said.
    • Silence doesn’t mean everything is OK – just because someone hasn’t proactively shared an issue doesn’t mean they’re not thinking and feeling it. It behooves you to know and understand what’s going on, so ask.
    • You can be gentle, curious and collaborative. In your weekly all-hands meetings or one-on-ones you might try:
      • “Hey, what’s going on that we haven’t had a chance to digest together?”
      • “I’d love to know how you’re doing, what you’re thinking about – where can I be helpful to you?”
      • “I saw the news today and thought of you right away. How are you doing? How can I help? Is there anything that matters to you that we missed this week?”

Take the time to pick the best talent

  • Make no concessions on professional excellence. Insist on a measurable track record.

    • Hire with rigor and confidence, not out of fear — as happened with the rushed corporate diversity efforts during the societal soul-searching that followed the killing of George Floyd.
    • That sense of panicked urgency hasn’t gone away: a hiring manager recently asked me if they should show up at a diversity event with three offers and hand them out. That approach is not just a waste of time. It reinforces the problem: If a person fails because they were not equipped to thrive in the role, the company fires them and then tells themselves, “See, this just doesn’t work.” Hiring is expensive and time-consuming, and you want to get it right for the long term.
    • Understand that excellence is transferable. People who are outstanding at one thing tend to excel at other things as well. They have the drive, the determination and the insistence on meeting a standard that they carry with them from one pursuit to another.
    • Train yourself to recognize value in non-traditional or seemingly unrelated experiences. For instance, we’ve seen strong patterns with military intelligence officers becoming outstanding at customer success, and infantry officers becoming amazing in sales. But few hiring managers for those positions would even think to seek such people out.
  • Look for a gritty growth mindset. When someone is the first or the only or one of the first few, they often have achieved through practiced resilience. Think about it: Building companies is really hard. We’re going to fail many times before and after we succeed. So we want someone who can fall flat on their face, bounce back up and try again. That grit and resilience is often an attribute of folks from diverse backgrounds — and a professional asset for anyone who wants to deliver impact.

  • Value a humanist perspective. We’re all familiar with extraordinary people who are beastly in the workplace. Their toxicity often outweighs whatever they’re contributing. Instead, hire someone who’s a great collaborator, an ethical person who wants to win alongside their colleagues. It’s what our veterans would call a force multiplier — the collegial individual who can enable groups of people to accomplish great things together.

  • Hire remotely whenever possible. It’s actually quite complicated for many of your employees to commute to the HQ every day. Casting a broader geographical net and allowing people to contribute from where they live is one of the most powerful levers we have in hiring diverse teams.

Build a culture for diverse talent to thrive in the long run

Our research suggests outstanding diverse candidates are strongly motivated by three factors: the opportunity to learn and grow; a sense of mission and purpose; and a supportive company culture. Those are the kinds of values that will help attract and retain them.

  • At startups and growth-stage companies, it’s fairly common that everybody is trying to fill shoes that feel too big. So, if the ability to learn and progress in your business is there, talk about that all day long. For instance, one of our alums, Ricardo Anciola, was drawn to a sales position at Attentive, an e-commerce mobile marketing company, because the Attentive team communicated very transparently how he could advance from sales rep to leader, explaining the wickets to get through, how to do it and how the company would invest in his learning to get there.

  • In a survey we conducted last year of our 2,500 BreakLine Education alums, one put it this way: “I want purpose with a capital P. I want to know that what I’m investing my time in, my energy, my personal brand, my professional reputation, that it matters to me in some way.” If your company doesn’t have an obvious mission that resonates at a social level, create it at the team level, where members are there for each other, giving more meaning to the work.

  • Create a culture of unconditional support.

    • Conditional support is the sense that someone has your back only as long as you behave, dress, speak, act and perform in a certain, prescribed way. It can be extremely limiting and corrosive. And it’s often felt most deeply by whoever is not in the “in” crowd, which often means people from diverse backgrounds.

    • Unconditional support sends the opposite message: “Go as big as you can as your authentic self and I’m going to be right behind you the whole way. You can count on me -- for air cover, for social support, to be there for you.”

    • Unconditional support is a contract, fulfilled through performance. The message is: “I know over the long term you’re going to deliver to this organization. You are an excellent performer, so I’m not going to tell you how to show up.” That kind of support establishes trust, which is the coin of the realm when it comes to building super-durable, high-performing teams. Personal example:

    • Fifteen years ago, my husband and I lost our first child when I was almost nine months pregnant. I took two months off work afterward. The first day back, my colleague, the venture capitalist and entrepreneur Andy Rachleff, came to see me and asked how I was. I told him that if I talked about it, I’d start crying. And he said, “I’m going to cry with you.” He did not have a solution and did not need one. Just coming alongside me and saying, “I’m going to be with you on your worst day,” was enough.

    • A valuable insight from one of my BreakLine colleagues about not staying in the box: Our senior customer success manager, Mack Gladney, is a Black woman originally from Detroit, while I’m white and from rural Vermont. I was telling her about some criticism someone lobbed at me and she said, “Bethany, if you don’t have any haters are you really poppin’?” That was perfectly authentic for Mack, and because we don’t have the type of organization where she feels she has to mimic me in order to succeed, she can express herself fully, with all her wisdom, wit and humor, rather than wasting energy on concealing herself.

How much of our emotional and psychological energy do we spend every day on churn cycles to make ourselves acceptable and fit ourselves into the boxes and lanes our workplaces prescribe? If we can remove that emotional and psychological burden, all that energy can go toward solving problems, delivering results, and building the business. It’s worth investing in the durability of your relationships because then we can free each other to drive forward as fast as humanly possible.

And in the end, isn’t that the whole point — and value — of diversity in a dynamic, growth-stage company?


  • Make diversity central to your business.
  • Eliminate friction points in recruiting.
  • Partner for expertise, and use storytelling in outreach with the communities you’re seeking to include.
  • Require a track record of excellence, but understand that it’s transferable from unconventional and lived experience.
  • Offer unconditional support in the workplace to unlock team members’ fullest potential.