Can I pay to have quarters delivered to my door on laundry day? How do I find someone in this very bar who might be willing to have sex with me? How can I get home from a raucous night on the town if there are no taxis nearby? Which restaurants deliver pizza at 3 a.m.?
These were among the motivating questions behind several well-known tech start-ups in recent years. They are also, not coincidentally, the kinds of questions one might expect to occur to the mostly young, single, college-educated, metropolis-dwelling men who founded them.
But what about problems primarily affecting demographics other than those that dominate at tech firms? Surely there are opportunities for addressing (and monetizing) the needs and wants of soccer moms, rural Southerners, seniors, African Americans, Hispanics and others likely to be underrepresented among the ranks of tech entrepreneurs and engineers. Who is going to tap these markets?
Of course, nothing says that engineers and innovators can’t solve problems affecting populations that don’t look like them. But such problems, and their solutions, probably aren’t going to be top of mind.
This potential for market blind spots, and not do-gooder-ness, is the real reason companies need to start investing in workforce diversity.
Most of the scolding typically heard about low diversity numbers in Silicon Valley (and in finance) focuses on corporate responsibility: Companies need to start being more inclusive because inclusiveness is inherently good. We demand diversity for diversity’s sake, profitability be damned. Now, when public corporations appoint women to their boards, their stock prices usually fall, likely because “female board appointments are taken as a signal that the firm is motivated by social performance goals, to the detriment of pure profit maximization,” according to a paper by Isabelle Solal and Kaisa Snellman of the INSEAD business school.
This is backward. Having a more eclectic workforce, and thus a greater range of perspectives, is actually a very promising way to make money. Prioritizing diversity is not just compatible with maximizing profits; it may be the key to doing so.
Multiple studies have documented the connection between leveraging different kinds of talent — placing more women in leadership roles, for example — and better corporate performance. This research can be a bit abstract though.
So, here are some concrete examples showing how having a more heterogeneous workforce helped make a company money — either by identifying new problems or by solving existing ones in more innovative ways.
Take Pigeonly, which helps prison inmates make calls and receive photos more easily. Co-founder and chief executive Frederick Hutson identified this business opportunity while he himself was incarcerated. This is not exactly the life experience of your typical Stanford/MIT/Harvard computer-science grad — and, as a result, this is not exactly the kind of start-up idea such a grad would be likely to conjure up.
Having different perspectives on hand can add value in subtler ways, too.
At Redfin, an online real estate company, having married women on a team helped produce the site’s popular “shared search” feature, which allows spouses, agents and others to sift through properties together. “That may not have come to pass if we had only had the single male demographic so dominant in tech,” Bridget Frey, Redfin’s chief technology officer, told me, explaining that it was helpful to have staffers who had themselves gone house-hunting with a spouse or partner before. “Maybe we would have thought of it eventually, but we might not have prioritized it.”
At IDEO, a design and consulting firm, Boston-based partner Michael Hendrix was recently working on a client project involving do-it-yourself home-security systems. His colleagues researched the product’s competition on Amazon, where they themselves buy pretty much everything. A Southerner who knows his way around a big box store, Hendrix steered them to look instead at the products on the shelves at Wal-Mart — where their target consumers were more likely to comparison shop.
At SurveyMonkey, recruiting workers from around the globe has likewise helped the company customize payment options to make them more attractive to various markets. SurveyMonkey tweaked the billing options for Germany, for example, when someone pointed out that German customers don’t like using credit cards.
“Payments, billing, that sort of thing can seem fairly mundane, but we have a really broad user base, and a really broad set of use cases,” said Selina Tobaccowala, SurveyMonkey’s president and chief technology officer.
Tobaccowala’s team must be predisposed to consider all those scenarios, or else SurveyMonkey is, quite literally, leaving money on the table. The same could be said for other companies that mistakenly view diversity efforts as mere charity projects.