When Huda Idrees founded Dot Health, a health technology startup in Toronto, she had a radical thought: what if her new company's culture didn't have to suck?

In an industry where women and people of colour are often underrepresented, a company's first hires typically reflect its founding team — so mostly white, and mostly male. But Idrees's startup is a striking example of what can happen when the opposite is true.

“If I'm leading the company, I can set the tone for it,” said Idrees, who was previously the chief product officer at the finance startup Wealthsimple. “And it does happen top-down.”

A common refrain among those who have spoken to CBC News about diversity and inclusion in Canada's tech community in recent months is that there is no single trick that can help a company diversify the gender or race of its hires, or make its workforce more inclusive.

‘I really would love to build a company, that's a tech company, that's mostly women.'– Huda Idrees, founder and CEO of Dot Health

But one theme in particular that has come up repeatedly is that, if anything is going to change, it has to start at the top — with those who are funding, founding, managing and mentoring Canada's current and future tech companies.

“If we had valued this from the get-go, I don't think that we would be in the mess that we're in,” said Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of Tech Girls Canada, an organization that advocates for better representation of women in STEM fields, in an interview with CBC News in June.

She believes that if investors counted diversity and inclusion efforts as one of their metrics for a company's success, change “would start happening tomorrow.”

At Dot Health, Idrees says she's fortunate enough to have investors and a board of directors who understand this, and importantly, are supportive of the inclusive company she wants to build.

“I really would love to build a company, that's a tech company, that's mostly women,” says Idrees, whose six hires have all been women so far. “I think the opposite happens all the time.” 

Building better accelerators

Across the industry, advocates for diversity and inclusion are working toward solutions in different ways. One group, the Toronto-based Innovate Inclusion, has turned its attention to the early stage support structures for entrepreneurs — the technology accelerators and incubators where many founders get their start.

Co-founders Jessica Yamoah and Sarah Juma have spent the past few months interviewing Indigenous, Latino, African and Caribbean entrepreneurs in Canada — communities that don't typically have the same access to mentors, funding, and business-building programs as other groups.

The pair want to understand the challenges that entrepreneurs from these underrepresented communities face and how Innovate Inclusion can partner with incubators and accelerators — which provide support programs for things like mentorship, training and financing — to help a more diverse group of entrepreneurs succeed.

“This is where all the innovative technology is coming from,” says Yamoah. “And if the people who are creating what's next aren't reflective of the communities that they're creating for, then certain communities — underrepresented communities — get left behind.”

They plan to release a report containing their results in the fall, and hope to work with politicians in Ottawa — where much of the funding for accelerators and incubators comes from — on implementing their recommendations into future policies and plans. 

The funnel — and beyond

For some already established companies, making changes to their hiring practices — the so-called top of the funnel — has yielded encouraging results. Storytelling tech company Wattpad told CBC News it was able to increase the percentage of women on its 39-person engineering team from 10 per cent in early 2016 to 25 per cent this year — in part, by rewriting job descriptions to use more inclusive language and widening their recruitment pool. They now ensure at least one woman and person of colour are interviewed for each role.

At the lending tech startup Borrowell, co-founders Andrew Graham and Eva Wong set a goal to have gender parity across the company, but admit they still have a ways to go.

“I think I sort of felt like, well now that I'm one of the co-founders and I'm in the position of being a hiring manager, it would be really easy,” says Wong. In the past year, they've increased the number of women overall from 20 per cent to 40 per cent, with women now accounting for 60 per cent of Graham's direct reports.

And at Shopify, talent acquisition director Anna Lambert, who has helped grow the company from 150 employees to over 2,000, says they've received anecdotal feedback that revamping their job descriptions has already made a marked difference — “just that small line that says ‘Hey, you might not have the exact experience we've placed here, but it's still OK to apply.'”

“We've definitely had people say they would not have applied had that not been there,” says Lambert. “That's been really great to see.”

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The Biomedical Zone is a physician-led, hospital-based health technology incubator in downtown Toronto. Their supportive, dynamic environment allows entrepreneurs to engage with like-minded innovators, while accessing dedicated clinical expertise and entrepreneurial resources from their partnerships with Ryerson University, the DMZ, Ryerson Futures Inc., and St. Michael’s Hospital. The Biomedical Zone offers the resources needed to accelerate product development from early prototype stages to commercialization. Their aim is to create scalable, sustainable healthcare solutions with global reach.