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When Ciara Trinidad left her post as Lever’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, the numbers made her understandably proud: The startup’s team of 125 people was 59% women, 39% men, and 2% gender nonconforming. Even the sales team — historically a male-dominated group — had a 50/50 gender split. “The product team was at about 40% white; the majority was a mix of every other government-issued race or ethnicity,” she says.

At a time when tech knows diversity and inclusion is crucial, but can’t seem to get there, it’s a remarkable achievement for the company’s first D&I leader. So can she pin that success to her advanced degree in human resources management? A long resume of previous positions in this field? Nope, that D&I leadership role was her first. In fact, when she began at Lever as employee #12, she was a Customer Success Manager. Before that, she held a variety of roles at Apple — from Specialist to In-Store Trainer to Lead Genius. Today, she’s not only Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at Blend, but has advised companies like HotelTonight and Lob.com on their D&I strategies.

In this exclusive interview, Trinidad shares how she got the job done with two secret weapons: empathy and data. She explains how to build a dashboard to surface your hiring numbers, and why a culture of data underpins a culture of inclusion. And she notes that, when it comes to building your D&I team, project-management chops and a passion for doing the work are the only bona fides you really need.

WHY DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION FOR YOU?

To really be successful in building your strongest, most diverse team, you first need to believe in why you’re doing it. And Trinidad knows firsthand that the benefits are numerous.

“One thing that's really interesting about helping to build a company that is so diverse — and so visibly diverse — is this idea that you create a really safe environment right off the bat,” she says. “I’m multiracial. I’m also queer. And I’m also a woman. I tend to be an outlier in most environments. So I know that when you’re part of a team with such an even spread as far as diversity, you find yourself more comfortable expressing things you might not express otherwise.”

Leaders are increasingly savvy to the fact that a diverse workforce also boosts the bottom line. The reasons why touch every aspect of your business. “When you build a culture where people can be their authentic selves, they're going to bring their best work, their best ideas and their best people to your company,” says Trinidad. “That comfort turns into action — and becomes a competitive advantage. People see that they don’t have to look outside of your organization to tap into their full potential.”

That’s particularly valuable when it comes to retaining a millennial workforce. “Statistics show that the average millennial switches jobs every 18 months,” says Trinidad. “My god, a number of us were in college for four years. We're talking about less time than it takes to get an associate’s degree. And people are getting up and leaving. The real reason behind that is typically that they don’t have a sense of belonging, and they're not satisfied with their growth path.”

Building an inclusive culture takes research, thought, and even a willingness to be uncomfortable. Too often, though, companies settle for lip service, stating goals first and asking questions later — or not at all. “People will say, ‘We really want to increase our number of women.’ And my question to them is always ‘Great, why? Why is that so important to you? What do you believe that women are going to bring to your organization that you don't already have?’ And they have no idea,” says Trinidad. “Or worse, they just latch on to lingo, like ‘diverse candidates.’ But if they stopped to think about it, they’d stop saying it. Because they’d realize that 'diverse candidates' is not a thing. There's no such thing as a ''diverse candidate,' because that's assuming that any two people are the same people.”

If you’re simply saying what you think you should with D&I, your initiatives are set up to fail.

Without that intentional inquiry upfront, here’s what happens: companies proudly announce that diversity is their top priority. When pressed for the details of their family leave policy or research on their employee’s top concerns, though, they come up empty. “I’ve seen it time and time again,” says Trinidad. “To me, the biggest mistake you can make is starting to talk at events and write blogs about these things before you’ve actually done anything.”

Not only is that antithetical to real cultural progress, it’s a big liability when it comes to hiring the very candidates you’re ostensibly looking for. “That’s a red flag to people like me. If you start by saying, ‘Diversity and inclusion is really important, but there aren't a lot of resources within our organization,’ I'm immediately going to question your integrity and why you’re telling me about D&I at all,” says Trinidad. “It doesn't matter how sexy of a brand you have or your latest valuation. If you tell me that you're something you're not, I'm not going to stick around.”

A culture of inclusivity is all about authenticity, so start with how you approach this vital topic. Settle in, shed your assumptions, and determine where you can effect real change. The first step? Become an avid consumer of your organization’s hiring data.

SURFACE THE STORIES YOUR NUMBERS TELL

“I rely really heavily on data,” says Trinidad. “Diversity professionals might read that and roll their eyes, because we’ve all been working on data. But it's more than just using the data behind the scenes. It’s about presenting the data to every party that has a stake in the game.” To that end, she starts by creating a dashboard that consolidates the data in the clearest, most digestible way, then she gets that information in front of the stakeholders who need to see it.

At Lever, Trinidad started with the sales org, which, when she started in her D&I role, was 80% white. “Let’s be candid: Tech sales being white is an age-old issue. It's a problem that most organizations share, and that's just how it's been for a very long time,” she says. “A lot of people are looking to figure out how exactly to fix it. Well, step one is understanding that your biases exist.”

Fixing this problem wasn’t a matter of telling recruiters what they were doing wrong. It meant looping them into the conversation, combining their expertise with the story bubbling up in the data. Together, Trinidad and the recruiters began building the narrative of why the numbers looked the way they did.

“We sat down together and looked at each department within the sales organization. We also talked about how those hires looked over time. I showed them the dashboard that said, ‘In Q3, these are the numbers. We made this many hires. Of those hires, this is how many were white. Let’s talk about why.’ By showing people managers their diversity dashboards, they feel like they are a part of something. And then they’re able to ask really specific questions to start solving problems.”

Discussion gives muscles to data — especially around D&I. Without it, a dashboard is a depository. A dialogue becomes a monologue, which eventually becomes silence.

Develop Your Dashboard

Your diversity dashboard is a product, so build it like a program manager. First, ask yourself: what is the problem this tool needs to solve? “Great Diversity and Inclusion leaders are actually really strong program managers and listeners,” says Trinidad. “These are people who get to the core of a challenge. My problem was that I could see and feel what we needed to focus on. But I didn't have a concrete story to tell that explained why. So for me, building a dashboard was all about understanding how Lever grew and the patterns and trends that we saw in our growth over time.”

Next, educate yourself on where your organization’s data is stored. “Data sources are important. Number one is your HRIS [Human Resources Information System]. It's literally your mother lode. If you don't have an HRIS right now, that's fine. If that’s the case, chances are you keep employee information in a spreadsheet,” says Trinidad. “But know where it is. Does all the data live in my HRIS systems? Does it live in my applicant tracking system? Is there a lot quantitative data sitting in the software that I use for performance reviews?” To answer these questions and get to the bottom of it, Trinidad partnered with Lever’s HR Operations Specialist, who walked her through how and where Lever’s data was collected.

From there, you’ll need to determine which data points are relevant to the questions you’re investigating. “On my first attempt, I had all the data from our HRIS exported, which — spoiler alert — is a really big mistake. There's so much of it. And there are fields that you literally have no need for,” says Trinidad. So for take two, she pared things down. “I just needed gender, birth date, parental status, race. I needed veteran status and disability status. And then I needed tenure and department. Those are the eight fields I needed to build a dashboard that could give me a meaningful narrative.”

Then there are fields that you don’t need. “This is a really long list, so take note: name. Just name. Name is the only field to exclude because you don’t want to associate any of the information with an individual person. It’ll look like — and can lead to — discrimination, and you can get sued,” says Trinidad. “If you export data and there’s a name included, just trash that pull right away, redact the name and export again. You don't want to work with any dataset that has 'name' explicitly, because you don't want to be in a situation where you get audited and you're looking at diversity in a data set with names it.

“Name” field aside, Trinidad winnowed the list of fields down by working with other D&I leaders as well as Lever’s Director of Recruiting and VP of People. This approach helped her extract just the categories that would be important to Lever — and its future. Once you find and organize the right data, it’s time to manipulate it to understand the story it tells. You may need to play around with various queries to discover which are most revealing. Here are a few ways Trinidad cut the data that was valuable:

How can one unveil these insights? Choose your tool for comfort over firepower. Making hiring data easily searchable empowers you to look at your numbers in revealing new ways, like drilling down to subsets of teams or specific backgrounds over time. “How you crunch the numbers is far less important than what you’re crunching,” says Trinidad. “Use whatever software feels most comfortable. I’m a fan of Excel, but others may prefer Google Sheets or even Docs. When you choose, give careful thought to how you visualize your data, as that will determine how quickly and comfortably your colleagues can engage with it. I use Tableau, but Excel can go a long way in making data digestible with charts and graphs.”

Share Your Dashboard

D&I leaders won’t always be able to interpret what the data is saying on their own, though. Lever’s Director of Recruiting stepped in and helped Trinidad understand the narrative behind many hiring stories. Because while your dashboard is a crucial tool, reviewing it with the relevant stakeholders is what makes it invaluable.

To formalize those conversations, Trinidad established a monthly meeting with hiring managers and their recruiters, as well as the Director of Recruiting and the VP of People. “Those check-ins are designed to be mutually beneficial. I learn what’s happening on the front line, and those who manage hiring everyday get updates on our D&I efforts as we hire across the company,” says Trinidad. “It helps recruiters feel like I’m working with them, not working against them. I’m not looking at them to solve all the problems, but really working alongside them to monitor each of their hires.”

By and large, when Trinidad meets with colleagues, she receives the same two questions, especially when the data shows a bias toward one group. Here is how she answers them:

Following those meetings, leave the team with a takeaway that they can review — and even return to. “Send them a snapshot of the meeting via email, with a screenshot of the dashboard that you went over and specific talking points in bullets,” says Trinidad. “Just don’t make email communication your primary vehicle for reviewing this data. There’s gold to be mined in the in-person conversation.”

That being said, part of instilling a culture of problem-solving is fostering a culture of data-mindedness. Make these numbers accessible, and encourage anyone involved in hiring to dig in. Trinidad even has dreams of spinning up a server dedicated to sharing diversity dashboards internally. However you do it, the goal is to get the whole team identifying — and solving — these problems.

“I knew that these efforts were taking hold when other company leaders started asking 'the whys.' When they would say, ‘Hey, I saw this and I think that this is interesting. What do you think?’” says Trinidad. “The swap to where they're asking you questions instead of you asking them questions is a fantastic indicator that things are really sticky.”

CREATE A CULTURE OF OPENNESS

As with any change management, you want those in a leadership role to feel a sense of ownership — that is also true of your diversity goals. First, they may need to admit that this is all new and unfamiliar. “At one point during my time at Lever, one of our employees admitted to me that he did not know a lot about this,” says Trinidad. “That felt like a huge stride, because it's really hard — in tech and especially in a startup — to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing. Especially when it comes to something as sensitive as diversity and inclusion.”

When you get that kind of candor, embrace it, and meet it with education. As you broaden the team working toward your diversity goals, you’ll also affect a crucial culture shift. Fully realizing this culture shift means encouraging that same candor from everyone on your team. “Once people saw that they could be comfortable saying, ‘Well, we're currently 6% black,’ and that wasn’t something that we whisper — once leaders understood what it meant to talk about that in a way that felt safe to them — I knew this shift had traction,” says Trinidad.

For many people, diversity and inclusion is very private. Part of my job is to show them that these aren’t things that have to be discussed behind closed doors. That becomes a signal that they can speak about their stories openly and authentically.

Often, the most important thing a D&I leader can do is describe their role and how they can help, then simply make themselves available. “I explain the ways in which I can help, and then let people come to me. Here’s what I say: ‘I’m happy to connect about your goals and help you think through where you want to go next. First, I need to understand your intention. Why is this important to you? It’s ok if you’re not sure why just yet, but we need to start there. We need to start with intention,’” says Trinidad. “That creates, I think, an instant feeling of safety. I’m not targeting you; I'm really looking to better understand your story and help in whichever way I can.”

Remember, though, that a feeling of safety is not irrevocable; it must be maintained. Creating a culture of openness around D&I also means taking the time to get everyone on board when you take action — a lesson that Trinidad learned the hard way.

“Right when I started, we tried to implement gender neutral bathrooms. And it did not go well. In retrospect, I didn’t solicit input from enough people,” says Trinidad. “I had several voices in my ear, but not necessarily the voice of the collective. So, we didn't have an issue because people didn't want folks to be able to use the restroom wherever they needed to. It came down to people feeling like a decision was made without them having the opportunity to weigh in.”

From that painful misstep, Trinidad gained a crucial insight: to successfully implement any D&I initiative, you have to start with the why. “Why is it so important? Who do I think this is going to help? Then the last thing is, how do I bring people along with me? How do I make sure that everybody understands this is what we're doing, and why?” says Trinidad. “The next step is to share them out, tell everyone why we’re doing this. Tell everyone what is means and how it will impact the business. Mostly, talk through how this will help to cultivate a culture of inclusion. People want to help, they want to be more accepting, they need to understand why.”

BUILD OUT YOUR D&I TEAM

By now, you may be convinced of the value — to your bottom line and your team’s culture — of prioritizing diversity. But particularly if you’re in the early days, it’s often unrealistic to dedicate headcount to D&I. Trinidad’s advice? Start wherever you can. This isn’t an all-or-nothing pursuit.

“If your company doesn’t have D&I expertise just yet, that's completely okay. But you do have to start with understanding what matters to your employees and what matters to you.” That might be as simple as defining success, at this stage, as making people feel heard. “Fantastic, that’s a stride in itself,” says Trinidad. “Let’s talk about what success looks like when it comes to people being heard.”

When you do begin to dedicate employees to D&I, there are two primary ways you can go: hiring an expert or shifting the responsibilities of existing staff. If you’re considering the former, just be aware that you might be priced out. The reality is that there simply aren’t a lot of seasoned D&I professionals out there. “They could meet in a restaurant for happy hour. That's how small that group is,” says Trinidad. “In a field changing as fast as this one, it doesn’t take long for the right person to catch up. Frankly, what is phenomenal right now might not work six months from now.”

Grooming a D&I Lead Internally

To Trinidad, experience is often less important than having enthusiasm and drive to do the work. As an organization, that can mean nurturing a groundswell. “At Lever, D&I initiatives were started by a task force — being a member of that taskforce gave me fantastic insight into how build inclusive cultures. Its members included folks in recruiting, engineering, sales and marketing. It was everyone. A lot of the foundation of the work I’ve done has come from that task force and the people in it,” says Trinidad. “If Lever hadn’t given me the opportunity to work on D&I despite not having formal experience in it, I wouldn't be where I am right now. It's completely okay to find someone who's passionate about D&I, and also has a programmatic mind to run these initiatives, and let them try it. That’s a type of diversity, and it’s a way you can change the way you’re thinking about your organization,” says Trinidad.

Just go in with a clear head and realistic expectations. You won’t get everything right at the outset. “In my first year in this role, I made some huge mistakes,” says Trinidad. “And the thing that helped me come back from those mistakes was knowing that I had the support of my team. I was doing this for the first time. It's okay to screw it up.”

Few startups have the resources to dedicate a full position to D&I, and that’s okay, too. “Let's say that you have an organization of fifteen, and three people are really passionate about getting this work done,” says Trinidad. “If each of them make it even 10% of their job, that’s 30% of a full-time person thinking about these problems. That's more than zero, and that's completely okay.”

But Trinidad is emphatic about one thing: pay them for that work. Not doing so is one of the most common mistakes she sees startups making, and it’s a culture killer. Either make D&I work a formal part of the interested party’s portfolio, or compensate them for their additional work. That doesn’t have to mean a salary change; it can be as simple as a bonus.

“If you don't have the ability to hire someone full time into that job, that’s fine. But show the people doing this work that it’s valued. There's nothing more debilitating than knowing that there are several tech organizations right now who have people doing this work on a voluntary basis,” says Trinidad. “They do not pay them for the strides that they're making. It will literally destroy your culture if your employees feel like your D&I initiatives have been built on their backs.”

When it comes to building a homegrown D&I team, there’s just one person who should be off limits: your HR leader. “If you conflate human resources and diversity and inclusion, you immediately set up a conflict of interest. My longstanding joke on this is ‘It's HR's job to protect the company. It's your D&I person's job to protect the people,’" says Trinidad. “That’s not to say that they’ll always be at odds — no doubt, HR and D&I will often need to collaborate. But their respective responsibilities are too incompatible to be combined. HR may be focused on areas such as compensation, benefits and recruiting. D&I is thinking about the things you’re bringing into the organization from home, the cultural appropriation you’ve had to deal with, the fact that you’re a single mother.”

HR is responsible for protecting the employees of a company as employees. Your D&I person is there to protect them as individuals: as people, as their authentic selves.

Hiring a D&I Professional

When it comes time to look outside your org to fill these roles, be aware of your biases here, too. In Trinidad’s experience, strong D&I leaders might not fit the profile you think. “They aren't always your activists. They aren't always the loudest voices in the room. They're people who can think critically and build really fantastic programs,” she says. “Because like all other programs, diversity initiatives are about setting goals, meeting deadlines, and, most importantly, understanding what success looks like and how to achieve it.”

Trinidad has two favorite questions to suss out whether a candidate has the right mix of project management skills and interpersonal maturity to handle this sensitive work:

Along the way, assess each candidate for approachability, too; alongside a critical mind and program management chops, that’s the D&I leader’s most valuable asset. “You can't have a diversity and inclusion professional who isn't approachable to your employees, because then they are never going to raise things that they want to work on, or build trust with this individual.”

BRINGING IT TOGETHER

To really be successful in building your strongest, most diverse team, you first need to believe in why you’re doing it. The key there is having a personal — not pat — answer to why you want a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Become an avid consumer of your organization’s hiring data. That will not only require scheduled check-ins with your head of recruiting and hiring managers, but also developing your own dashboard to track hiring data. Export it from existing systems and pare down the number of fields you’re tracking to a handful at a time. Whatever tool you use, select for ease of use versus firepower. It’s as important that others can access and understand the data as it is that you can. That’s just one step in creating and maintaining a culture of openness — one where it’s okay for leadership and teams alike to talk about what needs to be improved. Finally, build out your D&I team, whether that’s bringing on a seasoned professional or grooming someone from within your organization. If the latter, rest assured, it can work. It’s where Trinidad started and she grew to define and drive change in her organization.

“For a long time, I think, people assumed D&I professionals were only social justice captains. And sometimes, especially for allies, that's not approachable. That feels intimidating and scary, because they don't feel — and I'll use specific language — woke enough. Anyone you entrust with this sensitive role needs to be wildly empathetic. They have to be willing to look beyond their own experience to say, ‘I understand that there are many sides of the different identities that need a seat at the table,’” says Trinidad. “One of those identities might be somebody who doesn't know a lot about diversity and inclusion. And that's okay, too. Don't make it a secret club. Don’t create the impression that if you're woke, you can talk to me about it. Build a company that says, ‘If you don't know anything, awesome. If you know everything, chances are you don't. But let's talk. Let's hash it out.’”

Photography courtesy of Ciara Trinidad.

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