When Huda Idrees founded Dot Health, a health technology startup in Toronto, she had a radical thought: what if her new company's culture didn't have to suck?

In an industry where women and people of colour are often underrepresented, a company's first hires typically reflect its founding team — so mostly white, and mostly male. But Idrees's startup is a striking example of what can happen when the opposite is true.

"If I'm leading the company, I can set the tone for it," said Idrees, who was previously the chief product officer at the finance startup Wealthsimple. "And it does happen top-down."

A common refrain among those who have spoken to CBC News about diversity and inclusion in Canada's tech community in recent months is that there is no single trick that can help a company diversify the gender or race of its hires, or make its workforce more inclusive.

'I really would love to build a company, that's a tech company, that's mostly women.' - Huda Idrees, founder and CEO of Dot Health

But one theme in particular that has come up repeatedly is that, if anything is going to change, it has to start at the top — with those who are funding, founding, managing and mentoring Canada's current and future tech companies.

"If we had valued this from the get-go, I don't think that we would be in the mess that we're in," said Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of Tech Girls Canada, an organization that advocates for better representation of women in STEM fields, in an interview with CBC News in June.

She believes that if investors counted diversity and inclusion efforts as one of their metrics for a company's success, change "would start happening tomorrow."

At Dot Health, Idrees says she's fortunate enough to have investors and a board of directors who understand this, and importantly, are supportive of the inclusive company she wants to build.

"I really would love to build a company, that's a tech company, that's mostly women," says Idrees, whose six hires have all been women so far. "I think the opposite happens all the time." 

Building better accelerators

Across the industry, advocates for diversity and inclusion are working toward solutions in different ways. One group, the Toronto-based Innovate Inclusion, has turned its attention to the early stage support structures for entrepreneurs — the technology accelerators and incubators where many founders get their start.

Co-founders Jessica Yamoah and Sarah Juma have spent the past few months interviewing Indigenous, Latino, African and Caribbean entrepreneurs in Canada — communities that don't typically have the same access to mentors, funding, and business-building programs as other groups.

The pair want to understand the challenges that entrepreneurs from these underrepresented communities face and how Innovate Inclusion can partner with incubators and accelerators — which provide support programs for things like mentorship, training and financing — to help a more diverse group of entrepreneurs succeed.

Jessica Yamoah

Unhappy with the lack of diversity she saw in the tech world, Jessica Yamoah, pictured, and Sarah Juma decided to launch an advocacy group for entrepreneurs of colour called Innovate Inclusion. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

"This is where all the innovative technology is coming from," says Yamoah. "And if the people who are creating what's next aren't reflective of the communities that they're creating for, then certain communities — underrepresented communities — get left behind."

They plan to release a report containing their results in the fall, and hope to work with politicians in Ottawa — where much of the funding for accelerators and incubators comes from — on implementing their recommendations into future policies and plans. 

The funnel — and beyond

For some already established companies, making changes to their hiring practices — the so-called top of the funnel — has yielded encouraging results. Storytelling tech company Wattpad told CBC News it was able to increase the percentage of women on its 39-person engineering team from 10 per cent in early 2016 to 25 per cent this year — in part, by rewriting job descriptions to use more inclusive language and widening their recruitment pool. They now ensure at least one woman and person of colour are interviewed for each role.

At the lending tech startup Borrowell, co-founders Andrew Graham and Eva Wong set a goal to have gender parity across the company, but admit they still have a ways to go.

"I think I sort of felt like, well now that I'm one of the co-founders and I'm in the position of being a hiring manager, it would be really easy," says Wong. In the past year, they've increased the number of women overall from 20 per cent to 40 per cent, with women now accounting for 60 per cent of Graham's direct reports.

Sofa Box

A Shopify employee works in the company's Toronto office. The company previously told CBC News it is still collecting and analyzing its diversity data. (Paula Wilson/Shopify)

And at Shopify, talent acquisition director Anna Lambert, who has helped grow the company from 150 employees to over 2,000, says they've received anecdotal feedback that revamping their job descriptions has already made a marked difference — "just that small line that says 'Hey, you might not have the exact experience we've placed here, but it's still OK to apply.'"

"We've definitely had people say they would not have applied had that not been there," says Lambert. "That's been really great to see."

'Holding yourself accountable'

However, experts caution that these sorts of efforts work best when they're part of a wider diversity and inclusion strategies — and not merely an attempt to try and hire a problem away.

In the spring, Muzaffar and gender justice consultant Steph Guthrie co-authored a diversity guidebook for startups called Change Together. The pair worked with a Toronto software developer called The Working Group over the course of a year to identify a range of strategies — including improved hiring practices, but also more open communication between leadership and employees about diversity efforts and goals, and self-reflection on the concepts of privilege and oppression — and published the results publicly, warts and all.

"Since then, their pipeline has changed. Everybody who comes in mentions that report," says Muzaffar. "So I do know that if you do go ahead and do this work and do it in a way where you're very clear that it's a work in progress, and you're holding yourself accountable, I think that it's a beacon to people to whom this matters — which should honestly be everybody, but specific people on the margins it matters more to."

Getting leaders on board

But for these efforts to have any success, experts say they have to be driven and supported by those at the top. 

Former tech industry executives Melissa and Johnathan Nightingale launched a consultancy called Raw Signal to help build better bosses and improve leadership at tech companies. Often they say they're called when there's a problem or a challenge a leader doesn't understand or know how to solve. One of those things is diversity.

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Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is a frequently cited example of how a company's culture is greatly influenced by the behaviour of those in charge. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

"A lot of the time, they're trying to figure out how to make a problem go away," says Johnathan Nightingale. He says it's a red flag when senior leaders say they don't pay attention to diversity and inclusion, but say they have someone who does. "There are parts of your business where that kind of delegation works. This isn't one of them."

"Just because you have a general counsel on staff doesn't mean that no one else should care about what the law is," Melissa Nightingale says. "And we laugh about it because that's ridiculous. But somehow on diversity and inclusion we say, "Oh we've hired a D&I [diversity and inclusion] person and therefore we're covered."

Rather, one of the things that they tell leaders is that diversity and inclusion efforts can't merely be someone else's job, but important to a company's entire leadership and management structure. The idea is that if this sort of thinking is embedded across those who lead the company, those values will trickle down — the same way toxic behaviour at companies such as Uber can trickle down, too.

Idrees, the founder of Dot Health, agrees. "Until the CEO is focused on making this a priority, it's not going to change," she says. "And they can't pay lip service to it, which is what most of them do."