Reflections on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Savas

An array of multicolored shapes with the letters D, E, and I arranged among them.

I feel very fortunate over the last year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, to work in technology, where unlike other industries, our business operations weren’t drastically altered or entirely shuttered, the heartbreaking reality for many. Even with our good fortune, the global havoc it wreaked injected uncertainty and trepidation into what had the makings of a year of substantial growth that was instead a light year for active recruiting. We are certainly still in the throes of the pandemic as the Delta variant continues to surge. However, despite some setbacks, most Americans are now vaccinated, and society has learned how to better grapple with the pandemic. As a result, this spring brought renewed optimism, and with it, the budgets to follow. We’re actively recruiting across a handful of roles and expect to sustain our hiring pace for some time. Bringing in new people naturally means team makeup and dynamics are slated to change, which has served as a good time to reflect and be thankful for the amazing people who call Savas their work home while maintaining excitement to add teammates who will shape us in the years to come.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion, commonly written as “DEI'', refers to workforce policies/concepts that have been topics of focus for some time in organizations of all kinds across the U.S. (and abroad). DEI has garnered additional focus in recent years due to influential social justice movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, to name two. DEI efforts, traditionally relegated exclusively to the HR department, have steadily risen to the fore across many organizations. Most workers (80%, according to a CNBC poll) want their company to prioritize DEI. The slaying of George Floyd in May of 2020 and the decades-delayed delivery of (many would argue insufficient) justice to Harvey Weinstein in February 2020 were watershed moments that galvanized a substantial portion of the populace to engage more deeply in issues around race and gender disparities. People crave(d) change, and naturally, the institutions they know intimately, spend a good portion of their waking hours at, and have influence within, are natural places to start to call to account on how they’ll do their part to progress towards justice on these issues. Race and gender, although familiar and visual, are just two aspects of diversity to consider across a spectrum perhaps best articulated by federally protected classes from discrimination (race, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, familial status, disability, veteran status, genetic information). So, in 2021, lest they risk becoming out of touch and irrelevant, each organization has been forced to evaluate if/how it prioritizes DEI and what it’s doing to promote a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce. Make no mistake; this is not a phase. We need to pay attention to the trends of the younger workforce; millennials and younger generations care deeply about the purpose of their work,

We see a growing need for companies to define their purpose and demonstrate how they give back to society.

Franziska Alesso-Bendisch, Ph. D.

Well Work Solutions, Founder

and DEI issues are at the core of many social justice issues, so the emphasis will remain a steadfast priority until we’ve societally addressed the power discrepancies we see across the protected classes. Good.

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How Savas has Historically Viewed the Goals of DEI

DEI has been a focus for Savas since essentially the beginning when our small, burgeoning team developed our mission and values together over a few workshops in early 2016. A few people have shared that we were ahead of the curve for a small, young organization. I recently talked to a friend who left a high-paying senior role at a publicly-traded company founded in the 60s without a mission, vision, or values clearly articulated, citing the lack of purpose as a primary reason for her departure.

From the outset, the first value we listed at Savas was “Diversity.” We have since changed all of our values to be more action-oriented, updating “diversity” to “include” while adding “laugh” shortly after that because we think that’s important too (and it encourages people to appreciate my jokes – even the rare misses). We want to send a clear signal to existing and future team members that all are welcome and encouraged to apply here. We always value new and fresh perspectives. Once someone has joined the team at Savas, regardless of their position, tenure, or seniority, we make it a habit on the first day to tell them that they’ve arrived at a dynamic place that is constantly re-evaluating itself, always a work-in-progress. If they see something they think can be done better, please tell us. We’re proud of what we’ve built but are humble enough to know it’ll never be perfect, and we listen to all voices within. We invest in those who invest in us, and we will always need to adapt to the changing world.

Recent Conversations

A few team members have expressed their desire to see Savas become a more diverse workplace, as discussions around adding team members have been commonplace over the past few months. They want to know how we’re prioritizing DEI in our hiring practices. Though I had a good sense of where people were coming from, I asked all of the team members directly why DEI was important to them. The two themes that surfaced from the team were:

  1. Diversity is good for our company. Our team as a whole would be better with more diverse perspectives,
  2. Individuals from underrepresented groups deserve the opportunities they have been historically held back from.

I agree with both of these things. I believe the data prove that diverse backgrounds can strengthen groups via improved creativity, problem-solving, employee engagement, and company reputation, positively impacting company performance. It’s exciting to see our team grow and, along with it, the diversity of perspectives. Though my team does contribute frequently, my ideas win the day unchanged more often than I would like. I look forward to them being improved by others' perspectives more and more over time.

The worst kind of group for an organization that wants to be innovative and creative is one in which everyone is alike and gets along too well.

When I take the rare moment to stop and be appreciative, I’m always impressed with the skills and experiences the brilliant people at Savas possess. However, one area we talk about regularly, and there will probably always be room for improvement, is delivering direct, constructive feedback. To be fair, as humans, we’re terrible at providing honest, constructive feedback to people we care about — by default, we defer to white lies or silence. There’s lots of research on this presented in one of my favorite books about self-awareness: Insight. Having learned this, I strive to provide feedback when I think it’ll benefit the other person, even if it may be uncomfortable for either of us. It’s something I think a lot about and discuss in my personal and professional life. I look at it as holding myself accountable for those I care about, but it’s often not easy.

Sidebar: this may not be a perfect example, but it happened while I was writing this, so it feels relevant and a good articulation of the sentiment behind sharing vs. withholding. For the last few weeks, my mail carrier has not been taking back mail I left out on a clothespin attached to the box, and it was frustrating me since I never had an issue with it in the past, and I understood it to be a norm they expect. When moments ago they dropped off the mail, I correctly speculated that they committed this egregious transgression again. As I was running out to get their attention, they had gotten far away, so as kindly as I could, I yelled out, “Excuse me!” They came back, and I noticed they were older than my previous delivery person. I mentioned to them that I leave letters out on the clothespin for them to take. While not directly responding to my issue, they shared with me that it’s hard on their back to bend down and handle my mail and that I’m just one person in a long route. My mailbox has been on the ground for the past two years. The conversation helped me realize (a relatively obvious thing) that bending down to deal with my mail is not ideal. Given the frustration we were both experiencing, it wasn’t the warmest and fuzziest exchange either, but we left with a better understanding of each other, and with that understanding, I made some changes:

And that's the point.

To be clear, within Savas, the aim is not an aggressive, conflict-oriented approach that can skew traditionally masculine and have the unintended consequence of silencing people who may otherwise contribute in a more welcoming environment. We signal this sentiment in our job descriptions:

We are honest, yet respectful; this is not a cut-throat environment, but rather a supportive one.

We aim to promote a culture of psychological safety (often cited from a Google study as an essential ingredient for effective teams) and an interest and investment to make each other better. We all absolutely need feedback to improve ourselves, as another weakness we humans have is we are not very self-aware.

Ultimately, most people want their company to be better and stronger, so improving the diversity of perspectives in a safe environment is rather uncontroversial, though some of the pathways there can be uncomfortable. Returning to the second point the team brought up, providing an opportunity to underrepresented people is an idea that I’ve adapted my perspective on over time.

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An Evolved Perspective on Hiring for Diversity

At times in the past, we intentionally sought people we felt would help contribute some facet of diversity to our team, and in doing so, on occasion, prioritized their diversity over a more objective evaluation of role fit. Anyone who has been involved in hiring long enough knows well that you’re not doing the new team member, the rest of the team, or the company any favors by hiring someone into a role if they cannot perform. Doing this weakens business results, team morale, and often the person is keenly aware and anxious about their underperformance. While I think there is definitely a need to provide career development for people from underrepresented groups who aren’t ready for a fast-paced, full-time role in our industry, I think that is best handled through nonprofit organizations who focus their mission on this work like MentorNC or myFutureNC; we simply must hire people who are great at their jobs to remain competitive. My previous view where I felt I was doing a favor was misguided. To excel is one of our core values, and we cannot compromise on it for a long-term fit for the team.

Attempting to minimize bias

We’ve learned that rather than pursuing an aspect of diversity in the early stages with applicants, we’re better off trying to reduce our biases in the sourcing and evaluation processes. At a fundamental level, to have a diverse team, we need a diverse pool of applicants from which to hire. If we can craft job descriptions and interview experiences that are inclusive to all people, and get our listings in front of diverse audiences, we will have done what we can to encourage (or at a minimum, not discourage) a diverse pool of candidates to apply for roles at Savas. Though we actively try to be cognizant of them, we know that we’re all biased in many ways, and it’s not realistic to think we can eliminate those biases. Therefore, paying attention not to inadvertently screen out underrepresented groups (non-white and non-male identifying, to name two in our industry) is critical. Some of the ways we do this is to:

  • Use encouraging, inclusive language. Using masculine-coded words like “aggressive” or “assertive” for example, may have the unintended consequence of turning off female applicants. There are many tools to evaluate the language you use in job descriptions to test for biases.
  • Only include qualifications that are necessary and relevant. We have historically crafted positions not to be rigid about specific previous experience or education path. An oft-quoted HP study showed that men would apply for a job they feel 60% qualified for while women expect to need to meet 100% of the qualifications. Language matters. For example, we have not historically mandated computer science degrees, which are 80% male and heavily favor whites and Asians in the U.S. for our engineering roles. Many of our non-male developers did not go to school for computer science. Some transitioned careers, while others went to code schools that catered to career transitions and candidacies from underrepresented backgrounds.
  • Use the same process for all applicants, which may seem obvious, but standardizing our hiring practices' methodology has helped eliminate the “I like them because they like biking too.” In my first two jobs out of college, I was able to relate to the white males interviewing me in ways that were not indicative of my (of course stellar) performance in the roles I would later be offered. Our evaluation process is standardized and as-objective-as-possible, scoring each candidate across clearly articulated success outcomes for the position and cultural competencies. We believe this drastically limits our affinity for someone because they went to the same school, are from the same place, or like the same sports team, and keeps us focused on who would best succeed in the role.

We’re aiming to encourage diverse candidates, drastically reduce bias from the evaluation process, and then hire the best fit for the role through these approaches.

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Our Diversity Statistics

Like most things in my life, I have never been satisfied (which is something I’m working on… sort of… but there’s always room for improvement, isn’t there?) with our performance in the diversity of our applicant pool and team. I was surprised to see that we have been more diverse than I previously thought, though we are on par with technology industry averages. Technology workers skew white, Asian, and male, while the U.S. population is ~60% white and about half male.

Again, sex and race are only two dimensions but are visual aspects of diversity and are data points that are commonly collected.

At times, I’m proud that a majority of our development team and PM team has been female, and for a few of those who’ve moved on, they continue to work in tech leadership roles at other impressive organizations. I view that as a success, though we would have loved to keep them longer. However, as I’m writing this, our current team certainly doesn’t look like the melting pot appellation we proudly identify with as U.S. citizens, especially in some of the more visible regards, like sex, race, and age.

Equity and Inclusion at Present

Leadership and executive roles tend to skew whiter and male in tech compared to lower-level roles, and we mirror that at Savas. For example, our three highest seniority roles and company owners are all white males. Recently, we’ve promoted three very deserving white men to new leadership roles. Given our aspirations for growth over time, I would love to see us improve the diversity of our leadership roles, as I know that signals a more equitable environment for newcomers to see an opportunity for long-term growth as well.

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What We Want the Future to Look Like

We believe that DEI is good for our business, so it will always be a priority. The only actual cost to hiring and maintaining a diverse staff is putting in extra effort on the front end to find underrepresented candidates. A strength of mine is taking experiences from the past and applying lessons learned to make the future a better place. A weakness: celebrating successes, as those are always in the past. Staying true to form, here are some goals we’ve set to improve DEI further:

  • Get better plugged into resources that are pipelines for non-traditional applicants. If you have any recommendations, please share them!
  • Continue to eliminate bias further. LinkedIn has some tools we’re exploring to remove names and photos from profiles, which serves a similar purpose to the blind auditions the major U.S. symphonies incorporated to bridge the chasm of gender representation in the 70s. I learned of this through That’s What She Said, a book recommended by an applicant who, incidentally, went through a career transition from the restaurant industry and who discussed bias and imposter syndrome (experienced more by women, though we should be thoughtful about the language around it) with me during her interview. I enjoyed the book, and although we didn’t work together, we have kept in touch years later, and she has referred other applicants to Savas. Sidenote: where blind auditions were effective to address the gender gap, others advocate that this “person blindness” may be counterproductive to racial equality in hiring for symphonies.
  • Establish how we can report on DEI to hold ourselves accountable with our new HR manager.

Genuine Challenges of a Diverse Workforce — What Diversity Really Means

Setting aside one of our historical low points, the Civil War, we live in one of the most highly polarized times in U.S. history. We’re still not far removed from a highly contentious presidential campaign, and the pandemic has served to further divide us with things like mask-wearing and vaccination often used as political tools. Although sensationalized and divisive content driving profitability is associated with a more recent evolution in traditional and social media, where we are today, at least on a political spectrum, has steadily become more divided for the last 50 years. The reality is Americans have strong, often opposing beliefs about many things, and I think it’s a good exercise for us to ask ourselves if we can productively work with and respect those who hold those opposing views.

At our office, there was a lot of discussion about the now-infamous Basecamp meltdown — which got a lot of attention within the tech community from such a small company; it clearly resonated with many. The scope of the issues and outcomes are too broad to unpack, but one of the themes I took away was the grey boundaries around creating or permitting space to discuss societal issues within the workplace. My view of the crux of the schism that resulted in ⅓ of the company resigning was that employees broadly thought leadership didn’t share perspective on some issues around race. At a tense all-hands-on meeting that predated the resignations by mere hours, Ryan Singer, one of the original four employees, a company leader, expressed he disagreed with characterizations of white supremacy and racism in their workplace and societally, which seemed to be a minority view. Although he appeared to speak respectfully according to this account, his viewpoints were very triggering for what I assume was a majority of the other employees. The co-founders didn’t disavow his perspective on the spot but instead thanked him for sharing. That seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back for the ⅓ of the company that would leave within days.

I admit, as a leader, these are not easy situations to navigate. I chose not to weigh in (and wasn’t asked) on the discussions my team was having over Slack as things were unfolding for Basecamp. The truth is you can’t suppress people’s opinions from cropping up in a highly collaborative work environment like ours, even if you wanted to. Moreover, you’re dealing with humans. To borrow a couple of quotes from one of my favorite modern philosophers Alain de Botton that speaks to our diversity and generally the challenge of having healthy, reciprocal relationships:

  • “We tend to believe that true love means accepting the whole of us. It doesn’t. No one should accept the whole of us; we’re appalling! … You really want the whole of you accepted? No, that’s not love. The full articulation of who we are is not something we should do in front of anyone we care about.”
  • "You’re not easy to live with, and the reason is, you are a homo sapien, and therefore you’re not easy to live with; no one is."

These quotations are from a talk he gave at Google referencing an article he wrote in the New York Times titled “Why You’ll Marry The Wrong Person.” The lecture deals with romantic relationships, though much of the sentiment of how complex, weird, broken, and hard to live with we all are translates well to the workplace. As Allain presents, it’s hard for two people who proactively choose each other (in most modern circumstances) to share perspectives and respect their differences. It’s harder in a work setting with more varied views with people who don’t choose each other. We’re all strange and have lots of conflicting ideas. Things like religion and political affiliation, I’m comfortable saying there should not be internal debate about their merits and shortcomings. Still, there’s plenty of tangential territory where it’s not as clear whether it’s appropriate or not. It’s murky.

So crafting safe spaces within the workplace to discuss hot-button social issues is highly likely to induce some disagreement and should be done carefully. We are far from experts on this and would love any guidance from those who have implemented good policies. Ultimately, being inclusive is to be able to listen to and respect those with which you disagree. That’s very hard for us to do on issues we feel strongly about, but it is the authentic articulation of diversity and inclusion.

We have leaned on our values to frame conversations on several occasions over the past year, as the team has grown and the viewpoints have diversified. This is good; this is how it should be. People are comfortable enough to express how they feel about a broad array of topics, and when that steps out of line with the company values into territory that’s not inclusive or respectful, we address it. We take our values seriously, and living into them is recognizing that we’re all human. I know I don’t always take care with every line of communication to be respectful, empathetic in the way the best version of me would. Yet, I strive to create a space where any team member would feel comfortable holding me to the same standard I have for them.

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The Long Game

We have a fantastic team of really sharp, creative, dedicated people at Savas. We need excellent people to achieve our mission and vision, and there’s no way around that. I have no doubts that innate abilities are equally distributed across all people. Yet, someone’s abilities today have a great deal to do with the experiences and opportunities afforded them early in life. Access to financial resources and education (highly influenced by the former) are a couple of the most significant factors that can impact the ability to earn a good living. This naturally favors historically advantaged groups, where race, for example, is highly correlated to wealth. Raj Chetty is one of the forefront researchers on how the circumstances of our early years at home and in school have a tremendous impact on our employability and upward mobility in our professional years. I highly recommend the Hidden Brain podcast Zip Code Destiny for an introduction. A few interesting findings from their research: soft skills taught in kindergarten have a more considerable impact on future earnings than hard skills, it’s more important that your neighborhood has a high rate of two-parent families than your household, the chance for upward mobility is 4X better in Salt Lake City than Charlotte, NC, the average Black man in a specific tract in Watts, CA earns an average salary of $7,000 in his 30s and has a 45% chance of being incarcerated!

For many, the root of their desire for DEI in the workplace is the hope that despite whatever group(s) we belong to, we each ought to have equal access to the American Dream. As I think about what Savas’s impact can be, I believe that we should take the lens of trying to optimize our positive impact irrespective of the how – which is a utilitarian perspective, popularized by another Singer, Peter this time. Check out another excellent Hidden Brain podcast - When the Ends Justify the Means for an introduction to utilitarianism. With this framing, the core question becomes, how can Savas best support equal access to the American Dream to those historically held back from it. I think that’s the right question to ask.

Given that we need to hire excellent people, and as mentioned, today’s excellence is predicated on yesterday’s access, it’s likely the exception and not the norm that we could provide an underrepresented candidate an opportunity they would not otherwise have to earn a similar salary at another organization. We will do so whenever the opportunity presents itself, and will certainly continue to prioritize diverse perspectives in hiring in the more common scenario of competitive applicants. What could prove a more meaningful application of resources would be to support the development of low-income, low-wealth people who often don't have the requisite resources in their youth to gain access to the experiences they would need to work at a place like Savas by adulthood. Though it’s easy for me to say, I’m a firm believer that money doesn’t buy happiness after a certain level of income that ensures basic security (~$75,000, though not everyone agrees). Still, shockingly, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, most Americans live below this income level, and moving to that earning potential can open doors for people, their families, and their communities. Organizations like Code the Dream do a great job of seeking to provide this boost for technology jobs, and there are many others out there as well. One idea provided by a recent applicant, who happened to be a white woman working in a majority people-of-color workplace in Philadelphia, was to institute an internship that they promoted at HBCUs to get future team members into their employee pipeline more proactively. Friends of ours at Viget have run a successful internship for many years and anecdotally know they’ve focused on diversity over the past couple of years.

I’m unsure what contributing in this way will look like for Savas going forward, and we have to be mindful of how we are best equipped to make an impact and where we can leverage our spheres of influence. One could make a utilitarian argument that we may best spend our resources doing what we do well and funding other organizations that may be better equipped to help directly provide access to resources earlier in life. Creating impact in this way is Savas's embodiment of self-actualization, which will be fueled by our growth and is what gets me most excited about our future. More on that soon.

To be clear, continuing to steward DEI within our workplace is not in contention with contributing in other ways, and there are no simple answers here. Still, we feel it’s worth being strategic with our resources which will always have some constraints.

So we’re going to continue to prioritize DEI within our organization and advocate within our industry and more broadly.

Please Help Us!

If you’re reading, and you care, and you think there are things we should consider on a DEI/people front, please write to us at [email protected]. We are always open to ideas and feedback on how better to get in front of underrepresented candidates. And if you’re interested in working with us, check out our careers page, and we’ll work with you to figure out how to maximize your positive impact with our time together.