Aiming for the Stars: Talking with Techstars' VP of Talent, Sabrina Kelly
Sabrina Kelly was kind enough to share her perspectives and approach to diversity and inclusion in her role as VP of Talent at Techstars. Founded in 2006, Techstars’ first Accelerator Program took place in Boulder, Colorado in 2007. Today, Techstars is a world-renowned accelerator with presence across the globe.
Kelly was previously the Director of Talent and Culture at CustomMade Ventures in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as NY Technology Consultant with Winter Wyman.
Kelly has been with Techstars for over 5 years and her experience spans various roles within the organization, including Director of People Operations, VP of People Operations in Berlin, Germany, and Boulder, Colorado, before becoming VP of Talent.
Below, Kelly shares her tips regarding:
The importance of diversity and inclusion efforts (both big and small) for workplace culture
Some of Techstars’ specific practices to create a more inclusive workplace, including being mindful of remote employees
How Techstars leads other companies towards diversity and inclusion efforts in their own organizations
The importance of diverse pipelines and how Techstars is tapping into them
Please tell us a little about yourself and your role.
I am now VP of People Operations at TechStars. Early on, I was doing agency recruiting in the Boston and New York startup scene. I always had an interest and familiarity with tech because I minored in IT. In Boston, I joined a startup that grew really quickly - I was employee 15 and we grew to about 70 over the course of just a couple of years. I had another role which began with recruiting but I also took on the roles of employee development and HR because no one was doing it at that early stage of growth.
When I began at Techstars, we were thirty employees in 2014, and are now at about 250. We are still a relatively small organization but we have presence in over twenty countries! We are really distributed across the globe and this has presented us with not only different challenges, but amazing opportunities as well.
In terms of people operations, it is currently a team of 7 and I think of it as 4 different components. We have HR operations (which deals with compliance, payroll, benefits, and compensation), recruiting, the business partner function, and finally, learning and development.
Diversity and Inclusion = Better Business
“It is about how all aspects of your business truly benefit; there is a very real value that comes out of having diverse voices at the table.”
Why is diversity and inclusion so important for Techstars?
Diversity and inclusion is a huge priority for us because we feel we need to walk the walk and really embody what we value for the rest of the network. One of the best things about working for Techstars is the fact that you have this incredible impact on entrepreneurs all over the world. Through its growth across twenty countries, we have embarked a journey of learning a lot about diversity and inclusion in a non-traditional sense. When people think about diversity and inclusion, they might think about initiatives or a checklist, but for us, for our business to even function diversity and inclusion has to inform all of our work. It’s part of our day-to-day consciousness, or we would not be able to do what we do.
In line with that, we feel it is very important to start with ourselves so that we can work with other companies and teach them about it as well. We want to be able to demonstrate how to grow a highly functioning business and how diversity and inclusion is such a significant part of that. We want to show that it is not just a ‘do good to feel good’ fluffy effort or something to simply check-off a list of accomplishments. It is about how all aspects of your business truly benefit; there is a very real value that comes out of having diverse voices at the table.
Diversity and Inclusion Practices and Remote Employees
“It’s a continual process but it is all premised on being open, willing to learn, and being understanding of other perspectives. ”
What are some specific things Techstars has done to promote diversity and inclusion?
We really try to focus on inclusion. We have employees from so many different countries and cultures that are part of Techstars, and with that, we have learned so much.
Early on, we found we were a very US-centric culture which in part as due to the fact that 70% of our work is in that part of the world, creating a pull in that direction. As Techstars continues to expand and grow into Europe and APAC, we have had a lot more exposure to different practices, understandings, and voices.
I myself lived in Berlin for a time and through that I learned a lot about what it was like to be an employee outside of the US, working in a different time zone and thought a lot about how we could be more inclusive of others working remotely. It’s a continual process but it is all premised on being open, willing to learn, and being understanding of other perspectives.
Specifically, these are some of the things we have done at Techstars in more detail:
Overall, we really try to be thoughtful in our language and think about how we are impacting others in the way we are communicating.
All of our meetings have optional attendance and are recorded so that people in different time zones aren’t having to attend meetings at very inconvenient times. We also hold 25% of our company meetings at a time that is more accomodating of those in a different time zone. We have the presenter(s) of company meetings sit in a different room so that there isn’t chatter that others are missing out on.
Facilitating Effective Managers
We encourage all of our managers to read The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures By Erin Meyer, as well as about unconscious bias to have a better understanding on how to give feedback, and how feedback is taken.
Deconstructing US-Centric Perspectives
We care a lot about self-inquiry, reflection, and self-understanding at Techstars when it comes to management, and how we work and how others work. We have thought a lot about how others may understand these same things and have done our best to be accommodating and understanding.
Diversifying Talent Networks and Internal Efforts
“We work to remain cognizant of the difficulty of navigating this tech landscape as a member of an underrepresented group and what we can do about that.”
These are some great practices! What does Techstars do to support its portfolio companies when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
We try to make efforts both big and small. For example, our Code of Conduct is hugely important to us. We are aware that Techstars employees are not just interacting with other Techstars employees everyday - they are actively influencing how companies are being started. We have been very purposeful about the importance of the Code of Conduct with managing directors and program managers. The Code of Conduct has helped to structure programs more consciously and we make efforts to recruit diverse directors and program managers.
We have used a critical lens to consider various issues relating to diversity and inclusion, including what type of experience we really need and what skills or qualifications are placing emphasis on. We work to remain cognizant of the difficulty of navigating this tech landscape as a member of an underrepresented group and what we can do about that. That shift in thinking helped double the amount of female managing directors we had, which is a step in the right direction.
We also have the Say Something Channel. We felt that there needs to be a way that people can come forward and let us know when or if incidents occur. For instance, someone might say “X incident happened and it made me a little uncomfortable.” With that being said, it does not have to rise to the level of trying to ‘get someone in trouble.’ Instead, we see these as teachable moments that are coming out of the channel. It creates the opportunity to learn something, to become more mindful, and create a dialogue. It helps create a sense of understanding. We might elaborate that although it wasn't intended, that this was the result for this individual, so let’s talk about it and how we can do better.
Broader Influence on the Tech Ecosystem
“We are ensuring our accelerators and our network are not coming from the same tech hubs, and we hope that this is contributing to changing the landscape of tech overall.”
What are you doing to create a more inclusive tech ecosystem as a whole?
Strategically, there’s a lot we try to keep in mind at all times. Some things we do are:
Recruit diverse companies and founders into our programs
One of the things that I’m very passionate about in my role is that I want to create a highly-functional talent network, and with that comes consideration of how we vet and build effective diverse pipelines. With this, its making sure that we not only have high calibre referred in-talent but we have partnerships so we can bring in even more talent from diverse pools. For example, right now we have some really incredible partnerships, including with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. With that and others, we have that direct connection right from the start.
Beyond taking various steps and implementing initiatives, we analyze what we have done and put it to numbers. So, what does our pipeline look like? Are we getting better? Are we really improving? Are we building more diverse pipelines? What is the effect of going to different events? What is the data behind it and and how can we influence it? This has been such an important component for us.
Pushing for change on a broader scale
We try really hard not to have a managing director or Techstars employee on a panel that is all white men. Many of our managing directors get invited to panels but upon closer inspection realize the panels are not diverse or inclusive. They opt out and say that they will not participate unless there is a woman or person of colour on the panel. This might seem small-scale when it is occurring here and there, but when it is the mentality of all of our directors who are pushing for diversity and inclusion and withholding their involvement until it actually happens, the effort goes a long way. We also try to make sure we are speaking at events which are acknowledging diverse talent and welcoming new networks rather than the same traditional ones over and over again.
Supporting entrepreneurship all around the world
We have been trying to help to foster entrepreneurship in places where it may not be the typical path. We are ensuring our accelerators and our network are not coming from the same tech hubs, and we hope that this is contributing to changing the landscape of tech overall. One example that comes to mind is the work of Ahmad Sufian Bayram, one of our Regional Managers. He has written books on the topic: Entrepreneurship In Conflict Zones, and Entrepreneurship in Exile. He does a lot of work with Syrians who immigrate to places like Berlin. He is just one of many examples of some the amazing people we have on our community team who are so dedicated to bringing entrepreneurship support where it is needed. The stories that come out of it are so uplifting and inspiring.
Are there any other organizations or people that you want to shout out for the good work they are doing in the tech industry?
Yes! I would like to shout out the following:
I’d also like to mention that we specifically work with the Kapor Center and have included some of its core tenets as part of our Code of Conduct. It has also influenced Techstars further to embrace its values. We ask all of our founders to commit to trying and considering them.
Change doesn't happen overnight, but I think as part of the process of being accepted into something like Techstars or an accelerator, or even just being part of the network, if you know what we stand for and care about, it sets a tone that has potential to make a lasting impact.