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How to diversify your network now

We know that diversity and networking are crucial to business success. Here’s why combining the two will benefit your perspective — and your bottom line.

Who you know has a significant impact on how you succeed. This makes networking a necessary job skill for everyone — from hiring managers and job seekers to founders and leadership. A 2017 LinkedIn study revealed that 70 percent of new hires came through the candidate having a personal connection to the company. But what happens when those connections are made within a small, homogenous circle?

To make real progress on diversity in the workplace, executives and HR teams need to widen the hiring pool, which requires a willingness to foster new relationships. Take an honest look at your connections and resources for talent before you post a job opening or discuss hiring practices. Have you become comfortable in your lane, with people who look, think and experience life like you do? It can be illuminating and sometimes uncomfortable to see where your blind spots are, but we all have them. Expanding your perception is work well worth doing, and it requires effort, time and commitment.

Where to start

What does diversifying your network actually mean? It means broadening your perspective by actively seeking out opportunities to collaborate with people who are different from you. It crosses all lines, including ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability and background. “People are often biased to choose people who make them comfortable, not those who might expand their thinking, transform their business or drive innovation,” says Daneal Charney, executive in residence at Momentum at MaRS, a federally-funded program designed to support executives at high-growth tech companies. She recommends starting with your area of expertise: use LinkedIn to make connections, and seek out non-profits, conferences and mentorship programs that support minority groups in your field. For example, the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN) recently launched Obsidi, a global social network for Black tech professionals and allies specifically created to bring people together to create opportunities. “People join companies where they’re going to feel a sense of belonging,” says Charney. That sense of belonging is an important part of a company’s reputation.

Consider the audience

When deciding on ways to expand your network, think about why, says Serena Nguyen, executive director of the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR). Before you reach out to a group, educate yourself on their diverse perspective. What can you both bring to the table? The effort will be noted. “You want to make sure that people feel like there’s an authenticity to the expansion of your network,” Nguyen says. “They’re going to look to your leaders and other people in the organization to see if diversity and inclusion is really a core part of what you do.”

Diversity drives innovation

Research has shown that companies that prioritize diversity in hiring practices reap the rewards. “Companies with diverse leadership see higher innovation revenue than those that don’t,” says Nguyen. “There’s also the human connection that you create with a diverse team. There’s a stickiness with retention, loyalty and trust.” Having a diverse staff fosters innovation through varied thinking; it also widens your audience reach and appeal. If your business goals are global, or there are markets you must play in to be successful, seeking candidates from these regions or those who speak the language will improve your chances significantly. “Companies that are open to global remote talent often have a better chance of attracting diverse candidates,” adds Charney.

Include diversity from the ground up

Loopio, a Toronto startup that develops and provides RFP response software, launched in 2015. Diversity, equity and inclusion has been woven into its business from the beginning. It’s not called out as one person’s department, but woven into every aspect, says Alexis MacDonald, vice president of people. The company runs an annual diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) review to hear from staff, as well as works with BPTN and QueerTech to enrich its hiring pool and set representation benchmarks. Doing the work to diversify your network benefits more than your business. It enriches work life overall. “It goes beyond professional development,” says MacDonald. “Connect with people and learn from them — that’s easy to do whether you have five employees or 500.”

Implement bias-free hiring practices

Removing the opportunity for bias — even unconscious — levels the playing field for all types of candidates. “You need to have a bias-free interview process,” says Charney. “Diversifying your hiring does take work, so if you’re not fully bought into [doing it right], then it’s not going to work.” Seek new sources of talent when recruiting. “Prioritize job fairs that serve underrepresented communities,” says MacDonald. “The vast majority of our recruiting event dollars goes to events where we know there’s going to be underrepresented folks in tech.” Then it comes down to good HR practices, she says. That looks like having a structured interview process and then putting every applicant through that same process.

Set diversity goals

Setting and tracking your progress will help keep everyone accountable and let employees know your intent. “We set representation goals last year as part of our annual objectives,” says MacDonald. Loopio surpassed its 2021 goal. With plans to hire up to 100 new employees in 2022, she says, “We’ll be setting the same kind of goals this year.” And if examining your network and your business has left you feeling exposed, don’t worry. “It’s not meant to be punitive. You’re not meant to feel guilty about not hitting your target,” says Nguyen. “The target not only allows companies to strive for something, but it also helps them figure out how to do it more effectively.”

Include DEI thinking in every aspect of the employee experience

DEI should be a building block to any business. Once you’ve hired the best talent, you need systems in place to support them so they want to stay. “There has to be DEI thinking in hiring, performance reviews or salary increase,” says MacDonald. “Every aspect of the employee experience has to be considered.” Being transparent and intentional will build a stronger sense of community, and when people feel supported, they’re free to dream. “The space of psychological safety that you create allows them to bring very unique ideas,” says Nguyen. “And those really influential voices start to reshape how we think about diversity, equity and inclusion in what will be our future economy.”

On average, MaRS-supported ventures generate more revenue and create more jobs than the rest of the economy. We call this the “unfair MaRS advantage” — see how we make it happen.

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