Diversity & Inclusion in Startups with Semra Çelebi, Iffat Rose Gill & Dieuwke van Buren – Starting to Scale Ep.4

Diversity and inclusion are two of the biggest topics circulating in businesses and startups, but it's not an easy discussion to have. Luckily, we've got some amazing guests lined up for this episode to help. Will sat down with three influential women that are making an impact on the Amsterdam startup scene and beyond.

Semra Çelebi works at StartupAmsterdam as the Female Entrepreneurship & Women in Tech Lead, and she also coaches women to meet their business and life goals through her own company Female Works.

Semra was instrumental in creating We-Rise, a female hub that collaborates with organisations around Amsterdam to drive diversity and inclusion, where Dieuwke van Buren is Project Coordinator.

We were lucky enough to also speak with Iffat Rose Gill, Founder & CEO of The Code to Change, a nonprofit that mentors women to gain technology skills to address gender diversity in the tech industry.

There's plenty of wisdom to pick up on for women and men alike, as all three of our guests have many years of experience dealing with the subject of diversity and inclusion. Enjoy the podcast! 

It’s available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, OR you can read through the episode below.

Semra, tell us about your background, and what you do with StartupAmsterdam.

Semra: I'm from Amsterdam and I’ve been working for the City of Amsterdam for almost 13 years. The longest period was at the Department of Diversity and inclusion as a Policy Advisor. Then I made the switch to Economic Affairs for the City of Amsterdam, where I've been for almost two years as the Project Lead for Female Entrepreneurship and Women in Technology.

I'm basically responsible for creating a conducive system and ecosystem for women to thrive, to get more women into tech on the one hand, and also to stimulate more women to take steps into building innovative startups so that we have more equality in that space.

Dieuwke, what’s your background and what do you do for work now?

Dieuwke: I worked for 7 years to build the startup hub B. Amsterdam, and that was a roller coaster – it was really fun to build something out of nothing. After 7 years I wanted to do something with all of my experience in entrepreneurship and women in tech. That's why I decided to join We-Rise, a programme that empowers women in tech and entrepreneurship. We want to work with startups, governments and corporations to help to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion. So, we work very closely with Semra which we're really happy about. We've already done a couple of programmes about coding and data engineering, and we just started a pre-accelerator with 10 future female entrepreneurs, so it's really getting started right now.

Iffat, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you know Semra and Dieuwke.

Iffat: I'm the founder of The Code to Change, an organisation working to reskill and upskill women, so that we can move the needle on the number of women in the tech sector. I've been working on the topic itself for more than 20 years, being a women’s rights activist, and I've worked on the topic globally. However, I've been working in the Netherlands ecosystem for the last 7 years, together with stakeholders from both the private and public sector, so that we can make the ecosystem more inclusive. That's what we do in a nutshell. We're working with We-Rise and Dieuwke and Semra to train more women in emergent technology like AI and machine learning.

Having worked as a women’s rights activist for so long, have you seen a change in the last 20 years?

Iffat: I worked internationally, starting my work in Pakistan, and what I noticed was that when we were starting out, we still had to work on the raising awareness part. Like, these are our rights, and this is what needs to be worked on. Now, women today are more aware. They were always powerful, I believe, but now they're more vocal about the space that they want or the goals that they want to reach. That is a huge change that I’ve seen during my journey, that they know this is their right and they're fighting to make their place both in the workplace and in society, which is promising. We're still not where we need to be but we're moving forward, and that's very positive and hopeful for people like me.

Have you seen specific changes in equality in Amsterdam?

Dieuwke: I agree with Iffat, the awareness has changed, but only for a certain number of women. So, I see early adopters that know that it's important, but a lot of young women still say ‘no, tech is not for me’ because they don't know what tech is about. Like, that you can help to solve the waiting lists of hospitals with those skills. And that's a fair point, like, everyone wants to work at Instagram, but no one wants to work in tech. And I think we need to make women who are already working in tech visible, to let them know more about what you would do if you worked in tech. In the end, tech is the future, so everyone is going to work in tech, but they are not aware of that yet. I think schools and universities, and even the high schools and primary schools are still a bit behind. It's good that we are joining forces and we are like really on it, but to have a greater impact we need to collaborate more.

Semra, could you touch on the work that StartupAmsterdam is doing to raise awareness at the moment?

Semra: What we saw was that there's a lack of diverse talent at corporates or even SMEs who work with tech, but they’re not actually trying to change it. That's where we saw that the government should play a big role and that's why we started to grow this programme. But when I started this project, it was just a small budget, and we needed to create a bigger impact in the city. And I did my best to find more resources to build a female hub so that we could join forces, because it was very scattered. There were different organisations doing the same things or almost the same things, but for the same goal. We wanted to combine them so that they could create more impact, and also to make it easier to get bigger companies on our side as well. Sometimes, the government needs to take the first steps.I’ve been working on this topic for around 20 years as well. On the one hand, you can be really sad about it, which I was at a certain point in my life, like, ‘oh my god, this is never going to change’. But on the other hand, I have two little daughters now, and if we don't do it, then we won't create the world that we want for our children for the next generations.

How did you manage to bring those people and organisations together?

Semra: We're definitely still working on it, but as a governmental programme it's easy to gain access to them. Most of the time we have helped them, if they came to Amsterdam from other countries for example. And now we can ask the question. “How is your diversity and inclusion of employment in your company? We have this project, let's do it together.” So, in a way, as a government, we have built credit. Also, because we already supported a lot of organisations through subsidies or events or classes etc., we already have that relationship. It's easier for us from that position to tell them about our idea, that we need to work together in order to create more impact. It was a challenge, but in the end, I think it worked out for the best. It’s still a work in progress, especially with corporates, but I am very hopeful for it.

How has bringing these organisations together helped?

Iffat: The short answer would be by going around a lot of red tape, but kudos to people like Semra who actually pushed for this so that we don't just become brand ambassadors giving lip service, but we actually take action. It was a long journey to get here. When I started working in Amsterdam back in 2014-15, I remember very well going to speak to public officials and bureaucrats, and this whole thing falling on deaf ears. They had no clue about what I was talking about, why it is so important that we look at the digital sector as the key provider for jobs. It is estimated that about 90% of jobs are going to require some sort of digital skills, which also means that the bulk of the employment opportunities are provided by the tech sector.

We don't have exact numbers of women in tech from the Netherlands – there's still a debate around it – but it's low. It took us years and years of work to get bureaucrats to understand it, together with organisations who were working on it. There aren’t too many who were actually making noise about why we need to focus on the economic empowerment of women, why we need to address the gender pay gap so that we can achieve gender equality in a shorter time. According to the World Economic Forum, it's going to take 135 years to achieve gender equality, and the pandemic has added 36 more years to that. So, it's alarming.

However, both the national government and local governments have a focus on it – I can see it. That part is promising, but we're still figuring it out as activists, as organisations, as a government, as the ecosystem, also the corporate sector. However, now they do want to do the right thing and they are finally getting ready to take action. A lot of the time there is the intention, but the actual steps they take may not match the results that they're trying to achieve. But I still think this is positive because we're at least finally doing something about it.

How has the pandemic affected diversity and inclusion in Amsterdam?

Dieuwke: Maybe it's due to the pandemic that women are noticing that they are in this kind of role, because when I started working, I always thought if I work hard, I will get there, and that’s fine. But now I'm having two young kids and I see the roles and the patterns that you really need to fight to not get set back. If my husband leaves his work because our son is sick or something, then his boss will say “why can’t your wife go?” so I think it's more about awareness and acting on it.

Women are seeing statistics and are becoming aware of it and thinking that we need to fight for it because otherwise it's never going to be better than this. Of course you also have women that think it’s fine, it’s okay. Only 20-30% of women think we need to work on it. Even in Amsterdam, and I think we are a little bit further than the rest of the Netherlands in this way, you see that women don’t always have each other's back. That’s something I have seen through building We-Rise, everyone is doing it in a different way, but please support each other. Like when you're on stage, just promote other women. We really have to work on that visibility together and have each other's back. It’s definitely a culture thing for women. I experience it a lot.

Why don’t women always support each other?

Iffat: This is a very important observation that we also saw in the ecosystem. Instead of trying to collaborate, this element of competition comes in. I never blame the women for it. Honestly, I think this phenomenon comes from the mindset of scarcity. So, we feel that the resources that exist for this purpose are really scarce. If we could help them think from the mindset of abundance, and promote this culture of collaborating and supporting each other, I think it could really help. But it’s really deeply embedded in the patriarchal systems that we're all inheriting from centuries ago, which kind of pits women or female-led initiatives against each other. We need to find a way to solve that.

Dieuwke: It's about having a bigger table. Like, if you have a board of six, there's not only one spot for one woman. I think that's important to say, that there's more space than just one organisation or only one woman.

There are 180 nationalities in Amsterdam and all genders and ages. It's a very diverse culture but it's not necessarily inclusive, is it?

Semra: I think there's a lot of discrepancy and what people think the words mean. Yes, we have diversity in Amsterdam, but it doesn't mean that we are all very inclusive. If there's inclusion, then being different is completely okay. You feel accepted and you feel that you belong. What we see in practice is that in boardrooms, for example, when a woman steps in or somebody of another colour steps in, companies claim to be inclusive because they accepted somebody who's different. But then, that person needs to adapt to the rules of the group. When I say rules I mean unspoken rules, the norms and values. You need to act like the majority, and the moment that you have to act like the majority, the whole inclusion is gone.

What we see is that a lot of companies say that they are very diverse and inclusive. Yes, they are diverse, but they're not inclusive at all, because a lot of people from another background or other genders don't feel like they belong, that they're not seen and heard. That's a very important aspect. If we don't change that narrative, then you won't get any equality in the end, and the equity will be the same as it is right now. So, the feeling of scarcity is not that weird. It's very normal that marginalised groups feel that scarcity and act upon it, because the numbers are there. It’s still a fact that there's only one female or one person with another background in certain positions.

How can people be more inclusive?

Semra: As an example, at our office at the City of Amsterdam, when I worked at the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, it was really fun because it was one of the most diverse teams that I've ever worked in. Everybody was from a different background, gender, etc, everything. So, I worked in that environment, and I am from a different background as well, and I saw this guy in a meeting in the coworking space and he was combing his beard. I was like “What the hell is this guy doing? This is not normal. He shouldn’t be doing that in the office.” So, I had a judgement about that. That's the tricky part of the whole discussion. How much is he supposed to be himself in a meeting? What are the rules about having a meeting? According to whom, you know?

On the other hand, we live in a Dutch individualised society, where it's very normal that big business deals or projects are decided during the Friday afternoon drinks. If you have a Muslim background and you don't drink alcohol, for example, then most of the times you don't go to these drinks, or you might not realise that this is the case. I saw that with my colleagues, they didn't know that this is Dutch culture, and we had to talk about it. Then maybe we can organise different kinds of gatherings instead of just the Friday afternoon drinks in order for everyone to feel welcome.

Is it possible to make companies more inclusive?

Dieuwke: Yes, I think it’s possible, but everyone needs to be involved. So, it’s not just the person in the minority who has to speak up, but it's a team effort. Also, probably effort from the CEO, who will say, “we're going to handle this, and I won't tolerate any other non-inclusive behaviour”. I think that's the most important thing because now what you hear a lot is “oh, no, I don't have anything to do with D&I”. I think D&I has to be in your DNA. I think everyone needs to work on it, and not just one individual. I think that's the most important thing.

Iffat: I agree with Dieuwke on that. The burden of solving the problem shouldn’t just fall on the person in the minority. When we started our Women in Tech community for our bootcamps, we would get a lot of these stories from women in tech who were like, the only female in the engineering team, and the manager would come to them and say “You’re a woman. Tell us how to solve this.” Imagine the immense pressure that it puts on that one person who is there to do their daily job, not to solve the company’s issue with diversity and inclusion. They would come to us and ask us how to navigate it. I think that like Dieuwke said, it has to come from the top.

Companies need to define what exactly they consider as the company culture. Diversity and inclusion need to be included into those values, and then it must trickle down to every single level, especially when they’re recruiting, because that’s where a lot of problems exist. It’s known in the industry that companies will just brush aside different looking CVs, whether it’s gender or different ethnicities. They simply don’t consider them because of the stereotypes. Companies need to do a thorough analysis of what their company is doing wrong and why they are not attracting the diverse talent that they are so inclined to hire. Often, they have no policies in place to actually make it more welcoming. If you go and interview their current employees from underrepresented backgrounds, you will hear the realities of what goes on in the company. That’s something they need to look into first before they start thinking of strategies to improve it.

Are anonymous CVs a good idea to combat those initial judgements?

Iffat: Definitely. Some companies have been trying it and it has worked really well for them because they are hiring on the skill and talent rather than their background. However, it doesn’t just stop there. Once this person ends up in the company, is the employer or the other employees ready to make them welcome? A lot of the time, we hear that if women get hired on their talent, they get comments like “oh, you must be a diversity hire” and things like that. They still don’t feel like they belong there. That creates a toxic environment for them, and it stops their growth, because they won’t be considered for promotion ­– their career journey will be affected. It’s a multi-layered problem, and companies really need to look at all of the processes so that they can really put their money where their mouth is.

Should there be more money spent on learning and development related to diversity and inclusion?

Dieuwke: Yes, but also do the opposite. Get women on stage, make them visible, help their personal branding. You see a lot of in-company bias training, but it’s already biased beforehand. I think it’s good to bring in different groups or teams to create a safe environment, because often teams already have a culture. It’s the same as when I was in high school, you already have your spot in there and you want to keep your position. So, it’s important to have it throughout the company but also from outside the company. Real stories and real experiences from people who are experienced on it will give something for people to think about. Rather than just thinking it’s something they have to do; they need to feel it. So, I think it’s important to attract programmes from other organisations and bring teams together to do these sorts of programmes.

It's a culture thing too, because tech groups are very homogenous. It’s all a bit nerdy and everyone has their own projects outside. So, if you’re being interviewed and they ask if you have side projects and you say you like hanging out with friends and going to the cinema, you’re no longer qualified enough because you’re not techy enough. That’s something that the tech industry needs to work on. Like flexible contracts where you don’t work 48 hours a week. You shouldn’t need this massive passion or hobby in tech. It’s okay if you just want to work in tech and not have to do a whole coding bootcamp on the weekend because you have other things to do. That’s a transformation that the tech world needs to make.

Is the Amsterdam government doing enough to incentivise companies to hire diversely?

Semra: I don’t think so, we’re still at the start. The USA does it better than we do. They’re stricter, for example, some projects need at least one member from a marginalised group. I hope that the system will change in a way that more people can be more authentically themselves, and I think it starts with yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world. The moment I wasn’t scared of losing my job – because that’s the underlying thing – I started to open my mouth, and really be my authentic self. And what I saw then was that I was more accepted than I thought I would be. I try to tell that to young people when I get the chance.

Have you experienced feeling excluded yourself?

Semra: There were plenty of moments when I worked for the City of Amsterdam when I didn’t feel like I belonged. Believe me, I am someone from a Muslim background who drinks alcohol and knows the drill. I did everything to be accepted but there were still interviews where my different background was thrown in my face. The judgement that I made for myself then was “Okay, Semra. Are you walking away now or are you going to step up and try to make the change?” The latter is the best choice, because you’re not just making the decision for yourself or your own ego. That’s the most important thing.

Does change have to come from the top of the company?

Semra: I don’t believe that it is the CEO level that needs to change. I think you’ll find that most people there agree. It’s the middle management that is the real challenge. My husband is a recruiter, and I hear the discussions and debates that he has with managers that don’t want to hire certain people because they think that person doesn’t fit the team culture. It has everything to do with exclusion and discrimination. I’m not saying that these people are bad people. They just like to see people who look like them and think like them. It’s very human. We need to accept and embrace that it’s human, instead of feeling attacked that we are racist or whatever, then we can start making steps towards that change.

What advice would you give to underrepresented young people to not be scared of speaking up?

Semra: Most importantly, to stay true to yourself, and trust that that is enough.

Dieuwke: You have to listen to other people. For a long time, I didn’t see the problem because I was not facing it, maybe because my background is Dutch. Look into your environment and listen to people and the experience they have.

Iffat: Similar to Semra, stay true to yourself. I was the first woman in my family to get a university degree. Starting my own organisation, I had no role models to look up to for problem solving. If you’re thinking of doing something which is out of the ordinary and off the beaten path, just go for it and make sure that you find a mentor. Do what you’re passionate about.

Dieuwke: There are some amazing female founders. Look for someone you can relate to and be a role model to someone else if you can. You can’t be what you can’t see, so visibility is key.

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Will Aldred

6th January