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Amsterdam pioneers inclusion in tech 🚀

Amsterdam pioneers inclusion in tech 🚀

Not yet. But it could soon be. #InclusionAmsterdam is a research project which envisions Amsterdam spearheading inclusion in tech by making it a core value of its startup ecosystem development. Scroll down to the cookie if you want the summary. Here’s what’s up now in Amsterdam and why this vision matters:

Current Position of the City Amsterdam in Tech

Here’s a summary of some information about Amsterdam’s tech scene you can find on the internet.

  • Trailing other European Capitals Amsterdam is ranked 19th according to the Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2017 (GSER 2017), lagging behind other European cities like London, Berlin , Paris, and Stockholm. Here, Amsterdam scores the lowest on talent, which refers to the “access, cost, and quality of talent” (GSER, 2017, p. 34)¹ for its approximately 2,300-3,500 tech startups in the city² .
“Local startups could generally use improved access to Talent and Funding. The ecosystem can be bullish about its future, considering that its key issues are possible to solve.”³ (GSER 2017)
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Figure 22 in Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2017

  • European Tech Headquarters International tech companies, such as Atlassian, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Optimizely, Tesla, and Uber have their European headquarters in Amsterdam.
  • Homegrown Tech Talent Amsterdam is home to local tech companies, such as WeTransferHomerunGemaltoTreatwellUndevelopedCatawikiAdyenBookingPyramid Analytics, and TomTom.
  • Favourable Tax Code The Dutch government has put a favourable tax code into place to attract foreign entrepreneurs, which aims to support small and medium-sized enterprises.
  • Startup Visa This visa initiative enables foreign entrepreneurs with innovative products to get a residence permit and to set up their base in the Netherlands. The main requirement is that the entrepreneur has a business mentor, or facilitator who can vouch for them.
  • Current Inclusion Initiatives There are some initiatives which revolve around inclusion of refugee talent, and the development of digital skills in primary school education: HackYourFuture Refugee Code School, Refugee incubatorMaakplaats021 Free courses to develop digital skills for kids across different Amsterdam neighbourhoods, MakersUniteCoding for Amsterdam Coding for primary school students.

These are some of the factors which frame the current situation of diversity and inclusion in the Amsterdam tech scene which you can find here and there on the internet.

But in the end it’s all about peoplepeoplepeople, and their experiences of the systemic structures and factors which affect their lives.

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(Image Source: digiday.com)

What do the people of the Amsterdam tech scene think/see/feel?

InclusionAmsterdam went on to chat with people in the Amsterdam tech sector to find out what’s not immediately apparent through an online search. People were incredibly open to chat. The interviewees so far were community managers, diversity officers, operation managers, coding instructors, sociologists, startup founders, business connectors, partnership managers, recruiters, activists, digital inclusion specialists, and innovation strategists.

Here’s what we learned from them.

Inclusive Discussion

Plenty of publications exist from consultancies like McKinsey, as well as academic publications on diversity in the workplace, and specifically tech. But, how accessible is this discussion to the wider public? Who really gets a seat at the table to discuss these issues? Who is not in the room?

“The question is, how to make the discussion around inclusion accessible to the broader public to make it truly inclusive?” Digital Inclusion Specialist

Whilst once could argue that the discussion around inclusion should have an academic, or data driven base, inclusion starts with acting inclusive from the start. (Self-critical note here: Who of the non-English speaking residents of Amsterdam will ever read this article if it’s only available in English?) Future initiatives need to take accessibility into account through their choices of language, communication channels, and the actual physical spaces used for events.

Lead by Example

Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords gladly overused by companies, and institutions of all sizes and kinds. They should be part of your company culture in 2018, right? It would be bad for your image otherwise?

Too bad that words which are not followed by actions can lead to disappointing experiences for employees who expected otherwise. This is a new kind of greenwashing. “We care about inclusion.” “We don’t discriminate.” “We cultivate an inclusive and diverse work culture.”

Turning awareness of benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace into actionable tasks takes effort, and a self-critical eye. It needs to be prioritised.

“If other things have priority, a culture change take a long time. You need people to stand up and take the lead for continuity.” Social Impact Consultant

Leadership and management have a key role in this prioritisation. When ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are merely sprinkles added to an already baked cookie, there is little you can change about the taste, or the recipe. It is the responsibility of the leadership to lead by example, showing, that change is both wanted and prioritised.

Knowledge and awareness do not always translate into actionable tasks. Do the managers put the theory, the mission, vision, do they put all those elements into practice? Are they at the helm to lead their organisation to become inclusive?” Social Work Consultant

Silent Majority (…not a Nixon reference)

In larger recruiting companies in the Netherlands, there seems to be a silent majority of recruiters which gladly abide to racist demands of clients, despite there being a legal code which is meant to prevent such discriminatory acts.

“There’d be companies asking that they don’t want any ‘tropical names’… my team fought against that but we got pushback from our managers. At some point, you start working in a way, knowing that if a client doesn’t want something, it’ll be difficult to have that fight.” Recruiter

There’s been quite the scandal about this in the past month. More information here in Dutch: Volkskrant article

What the scandal shows is that recruiters are obvious gate keepers which can either enable people, or do quite the opposite.

“What do you do with the knowledge about others? Do you oppress people, or do you emancipate them?” Social Work Consultant

There’s a great challenge posed here. How can the power structures in larger recruiting companies be transformed so that they empower potential employees instead of perpetuating latent discrimination?

Fear of Political Blunders

Diversity is a deeply political issue. People are scared to fuck up. There is no universal consensus on what constitutes diversity, and a push for a culture change can be perceived as threatening by some. Change can be scary, especially if you are part of the problem.

People are scared of the word diversity. I realised that small incremental changes are more effective.” Community Manager

There are some internal initiatives at companies which progress slowly here and there. For the most part, the people we contacted were open to share their experiences related to diversity and inclusion within their company, or institution. However, some larger tech companies were reluctant to share information as that could make them, and their capital vulnerable to public scrutiny. We need to talk though. Diversity and inclusion needs to be discusses in an open and safe environment, instead of a polished-up statement on a company’s website.

Unconscious Bias

Often enough, people do not seem to be aware of the factors that can throw some people off the path. Some of these factors can be more apparent, for example, the lack of accessibility, resources, and support. Some other factors might not be as obvious if people are not affected themselves. Your opportunities are dependent on your performance and skills, right? Meritocracy is a powerful concept yet not an everyday reality.

“There no need to be inclusive. There’s so much money in the startup sector, that hiring is focussed on level of expertise.” Startup Business Connector

That’s easily said by a white cis straight male in tech. Your privilege can hinder you to see those who’ve fallen off the path along the way. It takes conscious reflection upon one’s own biases and privileges to realise in which ways existing power structures do not offer equal opportunities to all, and how actionable steps can be taken to transform these power structures to create opportunities for people.

Unconscious bias training necessitates that you are well prepared and create the adequate environment for it. (More info here.)

Losing Out On Talent

It’s seemingly human to prefer the company of those one can relate to, one can understand. The Amsterdam startup ecosystem ranks low in terms of talent. Aaaargh, FOMO? What if you miss out on talent because you are afraid of discomfort, or confrontation?

“They’re weeding out all the people that make them feel uncomfortable in the hiring process. The crazy cool ones, the smart ones. The irony is that these people later get brought in anyway as external consultants because their perspectives are needed to innovate.” Innovation Strategist

Just hire people is easily said. What does a recruiter, or founder need to be open to more inclusive hiring practices? Awareness is a good starting point. In theory, the legal structures of the Netherlands do not allow for discrimination of any kind. Effectively people with a variation of intersectional profiles get thrown off the path in all kinds of ways.

“People of a different ethnic background often don’t even bother to apply, because they know that the odds are stacked so highly against them. The biggest challenge would be to create an ecosystem where the odds are equal. But there is this big white people castle with a giant bridge. There’s a way in but you probably have to try a million different ways to get in.” Innovation Strategist

Privilege often comes at a cost of blindness to the struggle of those who do not enjoy the privilege. It becomes a “Let them eat cake” situation. “You are starving? You don’t have bread? I eat cake every day. Just go and eat cake.”

A society might have political and legal structures in place which allow for equal opportunities. In theory. It takes conscious reflection on your own privileges to see who got thrown off the path behind you. When you’re looking for talent, that reflection might also help you to understand there’s a seemingly small pool of talent which does not reflect the potential of an ecosystem and its people. There’s a huge untapped potential. Untapped because of peoples’ assumptions. (More on privilege here, and here.)

But, hey. To assume makes an ass out of u and me.

“Startup founders need to find the right people. It’s simple, if you only consider a small pool of people, you lose out on talent. Minority kids always have had the odds stacked against them, they bring the hustle skills, and valuable life experiences.” Innovation Strategist

Lack of Representation

“I can see myself working there.” When you look at a startup’s website and there are five white guys, and a pingpong table, how likely are you to apply? Seeing people you can identify with can shape your impression of whether you’ll fit in.

“It’s a vicious circle of a lack of representation. Not many women are in tech because they do not see other women there.” Blockchain Consultant

Gender is often taken as the initial measure of diversity, however, there is much more to diversity, for example, race, disability status, sexual orientation, family status, immigration status, religious background, language proficiency, age, educational attainment, college attended, and criminal background. (Metrics taken from Project Include. More info here.)

When you look at the iamsterdam website, you can find a list of key players in the startup ecosystem.

Can you imagine yourself here? Who’s not in the picture?

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“Who is who in the ecosystem” on iamsterdam.com

Knowledge Gaps

We’re not schooled on how to reach a different crowd. We consider us to be an open platform, but we can do an extra effort to reach out, for sure.” Community Manager

How can you change your ways if you do not know better. There’s a clear lack of information, workshops, and discussions in the Amsterdam startup ecosystem regarding diversity and inclusion. It’s more of a fringe topic that pops up annually around the time of the gay pride parade. There’s much more to explore and understand than just gender and sexuality.

The people in the ecosystem need workshops and information to turn awareness into action for their community outreach, hiring practices, and diversity management.

Social Narrative

Startups have plenty of shit to worry about. Fundraising. Trying not to fail. Failing. Learning. Why bother with yet another thing to stress about?

Startups only care if it adds to the results for the company.” Design Entrepreneur

These “results” are often measured in terms of financial output, or business performance. Or, let’s call it by what it really means: profit.

Inclusion is often too ‘social’ of a story. The question is how economically relevant is it? Often it’s part of the corporate social responsibility, but it doesn’t work because it’s just window dressing. ” Startup Business Connector

The human factor of providing solutions for people is not as quantifiable as profit is. Why are you creating solutions? This question very much relates to the values at the core of your startup, or company. What values are at the core of your company?

Do you churn out stuff for profit, or do you aim to step into action to meet needs and add value as well?

Why assume that we need diversity and inclusion?

Adding value to society is not at the centre of every startup’s culture. Let’s be realistic. It’s not everyone’s priority but is it their responsibility?

This question leads to a whole political philosophy discussion on responsibilities, rights, and duties within a society. Going forward: How do you want the society of the future to look like? To be explicit about this article’s bias, the argument made here is based on the premise that access to opportunities and resources are wasted if they are used for the sole purpose of monetary gains without contributing to society, aka being an asshole.

Benefits of diverse and inclusive teams

Stuff is always a reflection of the people who made it, and the same goes for technology. Technology is never neutral. Everything that ever was created is inscribed with assumptions, values, and politics of those who created them. News flash: everything is a social construct. People shape how things go, and just as products require conscious engineering, so does a startup’s culture. This means that diverse and inclusive teams need to be managed well in order for prevent the whole effort to backfire.

But, you mentioned benefits?

Better Products A diverse team is a great antidote for the mere replication of the same viewpoints and experiences. Consequently, imagine diversity and inclusion can be compared to the checks and balances of a workplace. It can reduce the likelihood that discriminatory biases get inscribed products, and helps to deconstruct assumptions, as different viewpoint can help to contest their veracity. More so, society does not just consist of white straight cis men in their 20s. A startup culture which champions diversity and inclusion as a core value, can help to create products which help to address the needs of a diverse society. Why? A diverse team is more likely to be able to empathise with a the problems and needs of a diverse society.

Happier Employees Diversity and inclusion can contribute to an accepting, fruitful, and open work environment. Again, given that it’s managed well. Such a work culture is then more likely to attract diverse talent. It’s simple. A larger pool of talent will flock towards a startup if they expect to feel appreciated, valued, and understood there. It’s important that the work culture facilitates openness to enable everyone to learn from each other, and to create and innovate not just for the privileged few. Such an environment gives purpose and creates a fruitful learning environment which motivates employees.

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This cookie isn’t baked yet.

Why are these insights relevant for Amsterdam in 2018? Here’s simplified overview of what those insights were again, in case you just scrolled down to get the good stuff.

  • Trailing other European Capitals Amsterdam startup ecosystem lags behind in terms of talent in comparison to other European cities
  • Lead by Example Diversity and inclusion initiatives only work when leadership is on board, and acts inclusive
  • Silent Majority Discriminatory hiring practices continue to disable diverse talent from accessing the job market if recruiters at large recruiting companies lack the backbone to go against managerial orders to obey.
  • Fear of Political Blunders People are scared to fuck up, and diversity and inclusion are still vague, or undefined concepts to many. That makes it hard to move forward with certainty.
  • Unconscious Bias In theory we all have the same opportunities, effectively the reality looks very different for many people who get thrown off the path because other people make all kinds of assumptions about them.
  • Losing out on Talent The math is simple. If you only consider a small talent pool, you are less likely to get the talent you need to innovate. Awareness of your own privileges can help to revise how you approach your talent acquisition, and hiring practices.
  • Knowledge Gaps There are plenty of people who simple do not know how to revise their talent acquisition, hiring practices, and their community outreach. They need supporting learning environments for them to step into action.
  • Social Narrative Some say if it doesn’t add to profit and takes time, why bother? You should bother because diversity and inclusion helps you to meet needs, and add value to more people’s lives. That’s why.
  • Better Products A diverse team can empathise better with a diverse society, and can create products that are relevant for greater society, and less likely to be inscribed with the biases and assumptions of a privileged few.
  • Happier Employees You feel at home so you’ll love to come to work and make cool stuff.

Cookie? Yes, the cookie isn’t baked yet. Amsterdam’s startup ecosystem is not matured yet, which offers a great opportunity to consciously shape a diverse and inclusive startup ecosystem. Other matured ecosystems now run into trouble trying to contest power structures and inequalities which have already become part of their workings. Let’s consciously shape the future to prevent trying to counter inequalities when they’ve already become ingrained in the system.

Okay. How do we get there?

There are several steps to get to this ideal of a diverse and inclusive startup ecosystem.

  • Benchmark 2018 is the year to benchmark the levels of diversity and inclusion, in order to be able to track progress in the coming years. No need to reinvent the wheel. There are already initiatives like Project Include which have devised metrics to help capture diversity, and Culture Amp to survey inclusion.
  • Startup Vision Diversity and inclusion have to become central values for the further development of the Amsterdam startup ecosystem. There needs to be a common ground on where Amsterdam as an ecosystem is headed in order to make these values actionable, rather than just window dressing.
  • Inclusion Lab Capturing the situation in data, and creating a solid foundation for action is an important start but then it’s time to step into action and simply do. The Inclusion Lab will be a space where locally relevant diversity and inclusion solutions get developed, whilst leading by example on inclusion. It’ll be a safe ground to learn, experiment, and further strengthen the confidence of people within the ecosystem to step into action.

What’s still needed?

  • Funding
  • Partnerships (local tech hubs, municipality, educational institutes)
  • People to make shit happen.

Let’s bake a cookie.

Saskia H. Herrmann