The Grassroots DEI Organizer Playbook

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Note: We use “DEI” as shorthand for Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging.

Written by Claire Veuthey and Stoddard Meigs, part of the Grassroots Diversity Advocates group. This is Chapter 4 of a larger playbook that is still a work in progress. Here are Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3. We welcome feedback, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Please send them to cveuthey@gmail.com and stoddard.meigs@gmail.com.

Introduction

Chapter 1 of our Playbook distinguishes Bottom-Up and Top-Down approaches to getting started. Chapter 2 provides lots of examples of events you can organize to further DEI discussion within your company. Chapter 3 looks at both Grassroots and Corporate initiatives within the company. This chapter considers where else your company has an impact, and suggests ways to leverage its impact for DEI. Chapter 5 reviews the mostly quantitative metrics you may want to collect.

a) D&I with suppliers

In the early stages, most venture-backed startups aren’t usually big spenders on anything other than payroll. Nonetheless, their spending isn’t inconsequential. Being mindful about where the company’s dollars are spent — and the process by which those suppliers are chosen — can build good habits and awareness for the scale-up stage.

  • Consider additional criteria when selecting suppliers

Price/cost are probably not the only factors in your startup’s selection of suppliers. Convenience, speed, and other factors are also likely to come into play. If your company — or at least the person making buying decisions — wants to leverage the company’s buying dollars for DEI, they can do some research to source goods and services from companies run by people who identify as BIPOC, women, LGBTQIA+, immigrants, or other marginalized identities.

Examples of where you can redirect your startup’s spend for DEI:

  • Goods: printing, swag for conferences, customer/ employee gifts, office furniture and decorations, meals, drinks, and snacks
  • Services: scheduling (Calendly), virtual assistants, (Virtual Gurus), digital marketing, PR, and design.
  • Share decision-making power

Consider sourcing ideas for suppliers from your employees — someone might suggest a local business to cater lunch instead, which might make for a delicious and more equitable alternative to a national chain. This also helps to disperse the added effort of researching diverse alternatives to easy, common choices. Be careful not to burden employees with this work if it’s not part of their jobs, but give them the option to make suggestions.

Case Study: Radical Health

As a community-based business, Radical Health wants to spend its dollars in its community. Radical spends locally, and has put a lot of effort into procuring from businesses owned by other BIPOC and/or undocumented people. For example, when ordering food for the team, the company will prefer to order from a local bakery rather than a national chain.

b) Diversity on the cap table and board of directors

It’s known by now that Venture Capital has a lot of progress to make in terms of being diverse and inclusive as an industry. According to the 2021 VC Human Capital Survey, women make up 45% of VC employees but just 16% of partners. Similarly, non-white folks are just 29% of the VC workforce and 22% of investment partners.

Source: VC Human Capital Survey 2020
Source: VC Human Capital Survey 2020

Founders can seek out funders with certain characteristics and experiences. Some founders from communities underrepresented in tech and in VC want their community to be able to invest in their venture, and take steps to ensure this. Below are three examples of founders who intentionally sought out investors typically underrepresented on VC-funded startups’ cap tables.

Case study: AKidsBookAbout

Jelani Memory, founder & CEO: “We specifically opened an angel round of investment looking to add people of color to our cap table. This round included both accredited and unaccredited investors. Including unaccredited investors is highly unusual and is actually frowned upon in startup and venture circles. We knew that often people of color would be writing their first check and possibly wouldn’t qualify as an accredited investor. We also sought out more female investors. Our round stayed open for 10 months so as to find a diverse group of investors.”

Case Study, Topknot

Topknot wrote a Medium piece about its pre-seed raise in December 2020. The company managed to put together a remarkably diverse set of investors.

“It was critical to us that women — and in particular Black women — were a part of the early financial fabric, and ultimately the success, of our company.

Half of our angel investments are from women by both headcount and dollars. Notably, nearly a quarter of our angel investors by headcount are Black women and they represent 31% of commitments in dollars. Of our angels, 44% are BIPOC and they represent 38% of dollars invested. We see similar diversity in our funds — all have BIPOC in senior leadership, and two of five have Black general partners.

We want to say unequivocally that none of this is an accident. We were thoughtful about from whom we took intros, how we talked about our work, and who got an extra nudge via email when the distractions of this fall sunk in. Every little bit mattered.”

Source: Announcing Topknot’s raise

Claire Shorall, cofounder and CEO at Topknot, shed some light on her fundraising process. including how she reached out to encourage investors she was particularly keen on:

“Two of the funds I was most excited about, though, we[re] getting left behind. So I did a bold thing and emailed them, said the round was happening, and that I wanted them in. People talk about creating FOMO, but this wasn’t my intention. I think the sincerity of my message resonated. Both came in, and I am thrilled. I know it’s hard to balance the ‘silent no’ with the ‘still interested, but distracted and could be a yes’, but what I’ve learned is it’s worth reaching out, especially if conditions have changed.”

Source: Lessons from raising a pre-seed round we’re proud of

Case Study, Radical Health

Founder Ivelyse Andino is from the Bronx. She didn’t have the option to raise funds from friends & family. The company has incorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation, since it doesn’t want to compete with community-based nonprofits that seek out grant funding.

When we spoke in 2020, Ivelyse was the only one on the cap table and was thinking about bringing in external capital for the first time. Ivelyse wanted her grandma, her community, to be able to invest in her business; she wants Radical Health to be community-owned. She was planning on raising on Republic, a crowdinvesting platform which allows anyone to invest in startups. She also appreciates that Republic has visible Latinx operators and owners.

A related topic is the diversity of your board members. If your company is VC-backed, your board will typically be composed of founders and investors. The company can also decide to bring on independent board members, and ensure that DEI criteria are part of the selection and recruitment process of board directors. TheBoardList can provide a great source of candidates if you want to ensure a diversity of perspectives. Many startups have Advisory Boards before they have formal boards of directors, and can use this group (as well as Board Observer roles) as a testing ground from which to recruit board members as they mature and require more formal corporate governance arrangements.

Resources:

c) Diversity among your clients and users

Understanding your user is one of the basic tenets of good product design. This can be hard to do if your startup’s team doesn’t share any lived experiences with your target users. To make matters more complicated, in some business models, the user and the client/payer are not the same. This can lead to misaligned incentives that can result in poor DEI impacts.

Your situation may vary depending on your startup’s product, industry, business model, geographic footprint, etc, so we don’t think we can provide good generalized guidance here.

Case Study: Candlelit Health

Candlelit Health’s solution is focused on culturally relevant mental health support for pre- and postpartum African-American women, who are disproportionately insured by Medicaid. In 2020, Candlelit ran a pilot with a hospital in rural Indiana. This hospital had been collecting patient data and was able to see the racial disparities of health outcomes. “This client understood the value of a culturally-relevant solution, and wasn’t solely focused on reducing the costs of care,” said Lauren Elliott, founder and CEO.

Case Study: Stride Health

Stride Health helps gig workers save time and money on insurance and taxes. Stride was looking for user feedback. None of the company’s employees had gig workers experience, so Stride organized a meeting with some users. One of them, an Uber driver, was particularly enthusiastic about the kind of changes he wanted to see in the product. Stride ended up hiring him, so the company could leverage his lived experience to improve its product for its core user base.

d) Product impact

Understanding the impacts of your startups’ product(s) — and not just its users and clients– can shed new light on your company’s DEI consequences.

Similar to the product & services section, we consider that the variety of situations here defies straightforward advice. If you have a case study or recommendation to share that we can add to this playbook, please get in touch!

Case study: Candlelit Health

According to founder and CEO Lauren Elliott, many mental health solutions focus on the access barrier, but don’t seek to solve the insurance/payment part, which is a big barrier for users. Candlelit’s ambition is to provide a virtual, end-to-end mental health clinic for African-American women. Lauren is particularly focused on building a comprehensive process; she believes that owning more than one part of the process will help her avoid the systemic racism that is present in much of the rest of the healthcare system.

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Principal @ Rizoma Ventures. ESG & impact advisor, investor, and operator.

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Claire Veuthey

Claire Veuthey

Principal @ Rizoma Ventures. ESG & impact advisor, investor, and operator.

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