How to Create Diversity Within Your Online Business

Many times over the last two years, I have been pulled aside at a conference or received a DM from a white friend who wants to know how to attract people of color to their business. Typically, their business has served 90% white people (most of those people being men) for years and they are starting to feel a little embarrassed about it. Maybe it’s starting to affect their bottom line or maybe they’ve seen a fellow entrepreneur get publicly dragged over this issue and they don’t want to be next. Or perhaps they truly care about their business becoming a safe space for the people of color in their industry to be served.

Regardless of the reason for the many inquiries I’ve received, it’s clear to me that diversity has become a pressing issue for white entrepreneurs who are just beginning to “wake up white” as public discussions of white supremacy and white privilege become more prevalent. It’s also become a pressing issue for people of color, who are beginning to realize how exhausting and damaging it can be to participate in conferences, masterminds, Facebook Groups and other communities that have almost no one that looks like them. We are starting to ask ourselves, “why the hell am I paying for this experience where I am always the only?” and “where are the diverse spaces that I can invest my dollars and be a part of a community where my needs are represented and met?”

Now before we dive into this topic I want to be clear that I am not a diversity expert or consultant. I am just a business owner who has tried to intentionally build a business that serves a diverse population because it matters to me. I am also a biracial woman who was raised by a white mother and Black father, so diversity has always been on the forefront of my mind—I grew up with it staring me in the face every day.

Other kids always wanted to know whether I was adopted because they couldn’t understand why I was always with a red-haired, green-eyed white woman. I grew up seeing the significant differences between how my white family and Black family lived their lives and I didn’t know why their lives were so different until I was older and came to understand what white privilege is. I also went to law school and practiced law for 7 years, so I was a member of a profession dominated by white males and, as a Black woman, it was made clear to me on a regular basis that I was not welcome nor respected.

All that to say, it is from this context and experience that I will share my advice on how to create a diverse online business.

One last note: I mostly focus on racial and gender diversity in this article, however, diversity refers to all identities including, but not limited to, class, sexual orientation, religion, and abilities.

What is Diversity?

First let’s define diversity. According to Merriam-Webster diversity is “the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.”

Scientist Dr. Anna Powers put it this way: “diversity boils down to curiosity  — it is the antithesis of boredom.”

Therefore, if your company is made up of almost exclusively white employees, white vendors and white clients, your company is not diverse and is, therefore, at a disadvantage which I will discuss further below. And, according to Dr. Powers, your company is also boring.

Now, you may be thinking, “yes, my company is mostly white but that’s just who happens to buy my stuff and apply for my job openings.” And you are wrong. Diversity and a lack thereof do not happen by chance, both happen by intention.

When you market your retreats and every person in the pictures is a white woman with blonde hair (true story from an actual business I encountered recently), you are intentionally marketing exclusively to white women. And it’s not just the pictures, right? It’s likely pervasive in what’s included in your offer, your copy, your company policies, etc. The pictures are just a visible representation of what’s happening in your business.

The same is true when hiring. When hiring for a position on your team, you may find that almost all of your qualified candidates are white and so you are just stuck having to hire another white person, right? Wrong. The issue is in how your job description was crafted (do people of color feel welcome?), where you posted that job description (did any people of color even see it?) and when potential candidates look on your website and social channels what do they see? If it’s nothing but white people, guess what, they may not bother applying (and why should they when it’s very likely that you are going to hire a white person anyway).

So if your business is not diverse it’s not something that happened by accident or happenstance, it’s by design and you are the designer. In other words, yes it’s your fault. But the good news is that if it’s your fault then you also have the power to change it.

I also want to be clear that being a person of color doesn’t mean that you will automatically have a diverse business. I know people of color business owners whose team and client roster are 90% white. So creating a diverse and inclusive business is not something just white people need to learn how to do, we all need to be aware of the kinds of organizations we are building.

What Does a Diverse Business Look Like?

If we’re going to build diverse businesses then we should talk about what a diverse business looks like. We need to know what we’re shooting for if we ever hope to reach the goal. Here’s a definition from the Diversity Is An Asset website run by Desiree Adaway, Ericka Hines and Jessica Fish:

“A business that prioritizes inclusion and equity cares about diverse perspectives and experiences and ensures that everyone across all identities (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc.) is welcomed, respected, supported and valued.” — Diversity Is An Asset

Imagine you owned a business where:

  • Your team is made up of members of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.
  • Your vendors who provide supplies, software, contracted skills, etc. to your business are made up of members of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.  
  • Your clients include people of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.
  • The speakers at your events include people of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.
  • The authors of the books you quote are people of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.
  • The coaches that you hire to help you develop as a CEO are people of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.
  • The photos on your website, FB ads and Instagram feed include people of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, classes and religions which accurately reflect the population your business is meant to serve.

You get the point. This is what ideal diversity in business looks like to me. I feel all warm and fuzzy and feel a tectonic shift happening in the world just thinking about it.

Diversity is absolutely not about optics; it’s not about having people of color, or women or LGBTQ folks as decoration so you can check the “we’re diverse” box and keep it moving. It’s about having a diverse group of people permeating every level of your business. That means the decisions that are being made in your organization involve a diverse group of people with diverse ideas and perspectives. This does much more for you then check a box, it is a massive asset to your company.

How Diversity Makes You More Money

Let’s talk about why you should care about diversity. I want you to care about diversity because your business is in a position to create opportunities, so wouldn’t it be amazing if you chose to equitably create those opportunities rather than choosing your safe go-to (a straight white cis man, or in some cases,  a straight white cis woman) every time?

It would. But I’m a realist and understand that all humans are always asking themselves: what’s in it for me? So let me tell ya:

Better decision-making & creative ideas. In 2018, professors at Harvard Business Review studied the performance of VC-backed companies where the investor and entrepreneur were of the same background (in most cases, white and male) versus when the investor and entrepreneur were of different ethnic backgrounds. They found that shared ethnicity reduced an investment’s comparative success rate by approximately 30%. That means that diverse collaborators were significantly more likely to build a successful business. Why would a CEO of a young company with an investor/advisor of a different background be more successful than a homogenous entrepreneur-investor team? Because thriving in a highly uncertain competitive environment requires creative thinking, and the diverse collaborators were better equipped to think creatively. When you have diversity on your team, you have a diverse group of cultures, perspectives and experiences to draw from to come up with innovative solutions to the problems your business is facing. That creative thinking translates into dollars.

Greater market share. We’ve all seen recent examples of companies in the online business world being taken to task for making an offensive mistake that alienated a part of their customer base and showed a lack of cultural sensitivity. Examples that come to mind include Danielle LaPorte and the offensive imagery she used during a launch, ConvertKit changing their name to a Sanskrit word (and then, appropriately, changing it back) and Digital Marketer and their homogenous white male speaker line up for their conference, Traffic & Conversion (their speaker lineup is noticeably more diverse this year). Whether or not you’ve been called out, these examples remind us that your customers are taking note of how diverse and inclusive your business is or isn’t and they are making buying decisions based on that criteria. Through social media, your customers are demanding that you speak to them and serve them in ways that resonate with them culturally and experientially. If you do, you will see an increase in market share as more members of historically marginalized communities feel seen and heard by your business.

More money. There have been countless studies done by a variety of sources including McKinsey, Nielsen, Catalyst, Harvard and Deloitte and they all found that diverse organizations outperform their peers by every measure. For example, a McKinsey study found that ethnically and culturally diverse companies were 43% more likely to see above-average profits. A study at Deloitte found that “inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80% in team-based assessments.” A study by Catalyst found that “companies with more women on the board statistically outperform their peers over a long period of time.” The results are in, folks. Diversity equals increased profits, not just for global organizations but for small online-based businesses like ours as well.

What NOT to Do When It Comes to Diversity

Now that we understand what diversity is, what successful diversity looks like and how it makes you money, I’d like to share how to create diversity for your online business. Perhaps the easiest way to show you what to do is to point exactly what not to do. So let’s begin there.

Mistake #1: Do not engage in vanity diversity. Vanity diversity is when you make a public declaration about the importance of diversity to your business and slap it on your website and think you did something. Typically this kind of “diversity effort” makes the business owner feel better and impresses his or her unwoke friends but is really lazy and does nothing to actually foster diversity within their community. I recently saw a diversity statement on the website of an all women mastermind community (yes, the same one with only blondes in their photos) that is the perfect example of vanity diversity. The statement asked diverse women to apply and for any suggestions on improving their lack of diversity. *insert dramatic eyeroll* Don’t slap a statement on your website asking women of color to apply to your program (or worse, make suggestions) because, not only is that vanity diversity, but there is the fatal flaw to your plan, anyway: no woman of color is coming to your website. If she does somehow find her way onto your site, she is likely to quickly leave because everything in your copy and imagery says ‘whites only.’

Mistake #2: Do not expect members of diverse communities to come running because you put out a call. If your company has had 90% white male employees, 90% white male clients and 90% white male vendors and speakers, don’t expect us to come running because you add a statement to your website saying “diverse candidates invited to apply” or even because you offer us comped tickets to your event. Your sudden change of heart does not change the history of your company—which is that you’ve been doing a great job of attracting white men and an abysmal job of attracting anyone else. In other words, you’re going to have to put some serious effort into attracting a more diverse community, and we’re not going to hand you an award for doing something you should have been doing from the start.  

Mistake #3: Do not engage in tokenism. If I see an event with 12 white male speakers and one of them is Black, I am incredibly unimpressed—and that is tokenism. If they have 8 women speakers who are all white except one Black woman and one Asian woman (Traffic & Conversion, I’m looking at you) that is also tokenism. You wouldn’t know it from the lineup of most conferences, but it’s actually possible (and very good for business) to have more than one or two non-white people speaking at your event. In fact, you could really blow our minds by having 50% of your speakers be people of color and 50% of your speakers be women as well. In fact, hire a minimum of three Black women to speak at your next event (like ConvertKit did at their first Craft & Commerce conference), and you’ll let everyone know you are serious about diversity.

Mistake #4: Do not ask your Black friends to do the work. First of all, I’m glad you have a Black friend (there are plenty of entrepreneurs who don’t, which I will address further below). However, it is not your one Black friend’s job to provide you with introductions to diverse speakers, clients or candidates. If you are going to ask your person of color friend to help you out, at least give them some criteria to go off of. Don’t ask them for any brown or female speaker they can recommend. There aren’t so few brown or female speakers that they’ve only got three names for you. There are a plethora of brilliant speakers, potential team members and potential clients out there of diverse backgrounds, so please come with some specifics about who you are looking for other than “brown.”

How to Make Your Business More Diverse

Now that we’re all on the same page as to why making business more diverse is absolutely necessary  here are the steps to building a more diverse business.

Step 1: Prioritize it. As an online entrepreneur you may feel that you have many competing priorities and diversity hasn’t made it to the top of the list, as yet. It’s on your radar, but maybe you’re thinking that you can just wait on this and address it once your company has gotten bigger. This lack of foresight is a mistake. According to Paul Gompers, a professor at Harvard Business School, “it is far easier to build a diverse organization from the ground up than to diversify a large, complex, homogeneous machine.” In other words, if you don’t diversify now than you’ll likely diversify never. Put creating a more diverse and inclusive environment on to your list of business goals for 2019, and then decide what metrics you’ll use to measure your success towards this goal.

Step 2: Hire a diversity consultant or take a course. If you’re struggling to create a diverse and inclusive business, hire someone whose job it is to advise you on ways to make your business diverse and inclusive. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s amazing how few entrepreneurs pursue this option. Put your time and money where your mouth is. Here are a few options for courses, books and experts you can invest in to help you (investments start as low as $130 so it’s totally affordable for even brand new entrepreneurs):

Experts: Ericka Hines, Desiree Adaway, Rachel Cargle, Andréa Johnson, Paula Edgar Griffith

Courses: Diversity Is An Asset, Coaching as Activism

Books: This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jenkins; Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: The Sunday Times Bestseller, Renni Eddo-Lodge; White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson

Step 3: Announce it. Let your team, clients and greater community know that diversity and inclusion is a top priority for your business and share exactly what you plan to do to create a diverse and inclusive environment. By making this announcement, you are putting yourself in a position to be held accountable, which means that you’ll be forced to back up that statement up with bonafide action. Note: If you make this statement and do not make any real progress, you’ll likely be called out for committing Mistake #1 (see the What NOT to Do When It Comes to Diversity section above).

Step 4: Cultivate a diverse network in your personal life. I am so thrilled to have real life friends who include Black women, white women, Hispanic women, Indian women, Asian women, Black gay men, a transman and people from countless different countries, classes, religious backgrounds and political affiliations. Studies have found that friendships with homosexual individuals were effective in reducing sexual prejudice, and white participants’ friendships with Latinos or African-Americans reduced their implicit biases toward those groups. So start expanding the diversity within your personal network by attending events where you know there will be a mostly diverse audience, follow diverse experts on social media (and begin conversations with them), ask diverse colleagues if you can take them to lunch (and not to pick their brain), go to dinner in a diverse neighborhood, and set up playdates with the non-white kids at your child’s school. If you want to create diversity within your organization, you will have to go out and meet a diverse group of humans, somewhere in the world beyond the borders you’ve built up.   

Step 5: Change your hiring process. What better way to have a diverse and inclusive business than to ensure it is being run by a diverse and inclusive team? Imagine a diverse team that is involved in the daily decision-making that happens in your business. A diversity consultant can help with changing your hiring process, but a few steps that you can shift in your hiring process right away include: adding a diversity and inclusion statement to your job descriptions, posting your open jobs on hiring websites geared towards people of color and other diverse audiences (such as with career offices at Historically Black Colleges), including a person of color on your hiring team who is involved in making decisions on which candidates move on to the next step, and requiring everyone on your team involved in hiring to learn about unconscious bias.

Step 6: Speak directly to diverse clients in your marketing. Create content that includes the experience of marginalized communities.  In order to bring more diverse people into your sphere, you must do the work to create an environment in which they will feel seen, heard and included. If your regular content (including blog posts, social media posts, podcast episodes and videos) speaks only to the experiences of the white members of your audience then this will continue to exclude diverse members of your community. One way to do this is to invite women, people of color, LGBTQ folks and other diverse audiences to share their stories on your platform (this also means that you will have to do the work to make sure they are protected from the vitriol of racist, sexist, homophobic and other bias members of your community).

Step 7: Focus on the Holy Grail of diversity. Alright, now this is the thing that I’m going to say that I know will make some people want to come for me, but you know what? Come for me. There are levels of diversity, and these levels are based on mainstream acceptance and the inverse levels of privilege. When the only diverse speaker at your conference is an Asian man, that is ‘diversity light.’ Black women are the Holy Grail of diversity.

“The most disrespected woman in America, is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the Black woman.” – Malcolm X.

Invite Black women—who are the most underrepresented and treated the most poorly within the workforce and without—into your community, and you will send a signal to most other marginalized communities that they, too, are welcome. There are many recent examples of Black women taking the lead in creating revolutionary change in our country (for example, it was Black women that prevented Roy Moore from being elected Senator in Alabama and it was Black women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement). Create an environment in your business where Black women can thrive. Not only because you are likely to benefit from their irrefutable ability to create revolutionary change—or even because they will add immense value to your business and community (lucky you)—but because diversity is not optional.

It’s time for all of us to take responsibility for the communities we are creating with our businesses. We must all ask ourselves, “is my business contributing to the progression of our society, or is my business contributing to the regression of our society?”

If you’re not growing you’re dying. Likewise, if your business is not becoming more diverse, it is becoming less relevant. Celebrate diversity and intentionally foster it in your personal life and your business, and you’ll not only stay relevant but you’ll also watch your impact and profits grow.


PS: Want to be a part of a diverse coaching community for business owners? Join the waitlist for The Club and you'll be the first to hear when we open registration again. 

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