What’s the Secret to Building a Successful Startup? Diversity.

Embracing diversity is crucial for building any healthy business, but especially for startups who aim to disrupt the market through innovation
— Anne-Maree Englund

When I started working at IDE Group, something didn’t seem quite right – it wasn’t like other engineering companies I’d worked for before. Was it the open plan studio? The hand-drawn industrial designs covering the walls? It took me a few days to put my finger on it. Finally I realised what it was – there were a lot of women! Almost twenty years after graduating as a Systems Engineer I’d become used to working in male-dominated environments and too often being the only woman in the room. And though of course I’d had many wonderful male colleagues over the years, it was a delight to finally see a few more women in the mix. 

Engineering has always been a male dominated profession. According to Engineers Australia, the proportion of women in the engineering labour force in 2011 was 11.8%. Impressively, IDE is bucking that trend, with 23% of product designers being female. In a pool of 31 product developers that’s 7 women, which may not sound like a lot, but it can make a huge difference. 

Diversity fosters innovation and helps protect teams from group think decay 

It can be hard to speak up when you’re in a minority, but sometimes having just one other woman in the room can give you the confidence to voice an opposing opinion when you might not have before. This is particularly important for startups trying to create novel solutions to consider because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that groupthink leads to poor design. 

A 2016 report* by EY on gender diversity also suggested that a lack of diversity can stifle innovation, 

“Disruption demands innovation. But history is littered with examples where a lack of diversity of thought and experience has constrained decision-making and curbed innovation. Businesses need diversity to survive and thrive.” 

Embracing diversity is crucial for building any healthy business, but especially for startups who aim to disrupt the market through innovation.  

Diversity can lead to faster and better design results

Diversity is even more important for startups and companies like IDE operating in the medical technology space. Since the market for medical devices is highly regulated, products not only need to be commercially successful, but also safe and effective. Imagine a meeting where a design review or risk analysis is being conducted for a medical device. The greater the diversity of the team, the more the design will be challenged. More risks will be identified and mitigated earlier on in the process, and the design for the resulting product will be safer and more robust. 

Challenging designs goes beyond safety however. What about usability? Do you really want a team composed entirely of male engineers to design a medical device that is specifically for women? Chances are they won’t design a product that works well for women. The makeup of any design team should be at least as diverse as the product user group. Diversity goes beyond gender of course, and a truly diverse team will include members from a wide range of backgrounds.

Startups must make a deliberate decision to diversify to reap the rewards

A larger company will always stand a better chance of having a diverse workforce through the sheer numbers of employees it takes on. A smaller company has to make a deliberate decision to seek out diverse team members if it wants to innovate and thrive. IDE’s Managing Director, George Sidis says that diversity is entirely relevant for innovation. “Building a diverse team is a must-have for any organisation wanting to create solutions that can make a significant difference.” 

There are many reasons why gender diversity is important. Board directors and investors know that companies with more women on their boards make more money; for them, diversity has economic benefits. For customers and consumers, it’s about innovation and having access to great products. For me however, gender diversity is also about creating a space for women who love technology to have a stimulating and challenging career where they can really make a difference. 

Join the discussion over at IDE Connect.

*EY, 2016 Navigating disruption without gender diversity? Think again.