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Diversity and Intention Setting with Hayley Sudbury

Arin V., EA , MBA
Arin is an Enrolled Agent (EA), authorized to represent taxpayers in front of the IRS, and holds a BA and MBA (Management) degree from California State University, Northridge.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are three key aspects of the workplace that any business has to keep in mind in order to flourish but are often brushed aside. Starting this week, our podcast will kick off a 3-part series on the numerous aspects of diversity and the significance of culture in a company.
In this episode of Start-Up Nation, Arin Vahanian speaks with special guest Hayley Sudbury about the importance of diversity in company culture and how being deliberate about inclusion from the start can lead to better sales.
To listen to the podcast, click play below:

Arin Vahanian:  Thank you so much for joining us for another edition of Polo Tax’s Start-Up Nation. Today, I’m very, very pleased to announce our guest, Haley Sudbury, of Werkin. Today, we’re going to be talking about something that’s become increasingly important in recent years, and that’s diversity and inclusivity, but especially when it comes to startups. So Hayley, I’d really like to thank you for joining today. I’m very excited about today’s topic, and I think to start off, if you would be so kind so as to tell us a little bit about yourself. Also about Werkin and also how you came to be such a force in the scene especially on something like diversity and inclusivity, which I just mentioned have become so important in recent years?

Hayley Sudbury: Sure. Well, look, thank you for having me, Arin. It’s great to be here. So I guess a little bit of background on me and I believe why this stuff is so important. It’s quite a personal story, really. I am ex-finance. And, you know, as I was on my career journey and trajectory, I reached a bit of a crossroads and I was an executive looking around at my peer group and also the leaders who are above me. And firstly, I really struggled to be able to point to another woman like aspirationally what was kind of that next role and who was it in the organization I was working for? And then secondly, which was kind of the compounding moment for me, is I couldn’t point to any women who were firstly, there’s no woman, but actually there was certainly no gay woman. And I was at a point of actually truly accepting who I was as a person and and also thinking about how do I navigate this next step in my career as someone who’d done remarkably well as heterosexual? And now being quite clear about actually I was not so straight and this was definitely a little bit of a moment of conflict for me. And I really felt that for me to go on to the next part of my personal journey and career journey, whatever that was to be, it was about actually leaving that organization and finding another path.

Hayley Sudbury: And I do think at the time, not being able to see that version of myself actually did play a role. You know, as someone who had capacity was very motivated, but you know, there wasn’t a version of myself. And I think wherever you work in life and work is such a big part of the day, you have to feel like there’s firstly freedom to be really who you are. And something that helps that tremendously is not being the only one and having a community and I guess a normalization around that all being completely OK. And so for me, that was really at the heart of kind of, I guess, my personal journey: why is this important? On the professional side with Werkin and building that out as a technology company and why diversity and inclusion is certainly important there is, you know, as we built Werkin, I reflected a lot on what my career journey had been and I thought about it a lot. Well, actually, if I had been able to point to that version of myself, I probably would have stayed. I probably would have progressed inside the organization. I know at the point I left, they certainly didn’t want me to leave, but actually I would have been more likely to stay. And so with building Werkin, it was very much around, how do we help all individuals feel like they could be their best version of themselves? How do we help leaders and managers better support that journey so that people do feel heard and supported and do want to stay? And that really kind of took us to a place of looking at really mentoring and career sponsorship, and that was the starting point for the business, essentially in helping companies put in place mentoring and career development programs that firstly looked at underrepresented groups, but also looked at the career journey for everyone as well and keeping the talent that you want to keep. And so really, that is how Werkin was born.

Hayley Sudbury: We launched the company in 2016. It grew from a very personal experience, and now we hope to help companies be the best version of themselves by having a really authentic understanding of what that means ourselves – as individuals inside work and that’s kind of led us to build the technology platform that we have support mentoring and career development programs, but also things like business bootcamps, too. So it’s things like people development that actually also grows your business because we know that actually at the end of the day, it is essentially about needing to run a business that can support everyone as well. And we’ve looked a lot at those financial metrics and making sure they actually are very strongly linked to who works for you, who stays, and who helps you grow that business. And I think that’s probably where we’re quite different as well, because we’re not putting our head in the sand and saying: Hey, it’s not balanced, not fair & diverse. We’re saying, actually, we know that when you’re more diverse, it actually you make more money. I mean, I’m not going to go into any stats about that on this call. All of those business cases have been done, so we know that that’s actually the case. If we can better link things like diversity, inclusion to business growth as a business owner as an executive, you’re going to also have that data to show how those things are working hand in hand for you.

Arin Vahanian: Exactly. And I think you just made a great point there. If you’re able to tie that back to, hey, look, we can show you how this literally improves the bottom line. I think it’d be pretty hard to argue against that, right? I think the biggest critique in any of the movements that have come up in recent years that, oh, how can you prove this is going to help the company’s bottom line? Well, actually, we can, right? And what’s great, Hayley is, they talk about this all the time in a startup and they always say, solve the problem that maybe you yourself have, right? And so why I love this story is because you saw a need and you helped meet it, right? That’s one of the most important things that – we keep reading about startups that are successful and versus those that aren’t and the ones that are successful are really able to meet a need. But a lot of times the founders themselves have something they want to solve, right? That’s been your experience, I imagine.

Hayley Sudbury: Look, without a doubt, I think, you know, living and breathing that pain point and then thinking about how you build a solution to actually address that pain point. It certainly helps. I still think you need to go on a journey as a founder when you are working through product market fit as well. But having the authentic experience, I think, allows you to think about a solution that hopefully is going to really meet people where they are and also allow you to create that change.

Arin Vahanian: For sure, and obviously, inclusivity, diversity, these are terms that are that have been used a lot recently. Besides the fact that it can help a company succeed better and improve the company’s bottom line, what’s another reason, maybe why this is so important? Why is diversity not just another buzzword like to you? What are maybe some other aspects of it that are so important that are maybe not related to the financial metrics?

Hayley Sudbury: Well, I think, you know. Depending on what business you’re in, if we think about this purely from a business perspective, it’s really important to have a diverse representation of society working in a business so that you actually have diverse understanding of even your customers. The best organizations really leverage their people’s knowledge to better understand the end customer rather than treating kind of all of the customer activity as a completely removed foreign experience. It’s outside of the organization. You know, the reality is, particularly when you’re a small organization, you’re a start up, your people are your first focus groups. Now, if you have people that aren’t firstly even reflective, you know, we talked about my pain point in the journey I went on. It doesn’t even even matter what industry around – what you’re building, if you don’t have people that are a good representation of customers who are experiencing that pain point that you want to solve with your amazing product, you’re probably not going to be as successful as someone who is. And that’s just that’s a fact, because it’s very hard to without an understanding of kind of your customer and your customer is, you know, many types of different individuals with many different lived experiences. I mean, I think the best example here is when Apple Watch first came out, they didn’t have any capability in there to track women’s menstruation, which is obviously a big part of women’s health, right? You have this amazing thing called a period every month that makes you fertile. You could have babies and populate the world. This is like fairly big women being 50 percent of the population – you’d call that an epic fail. Now that was later addressed.

Hayley Sudbury: But the reality is that was completely missed and completely blindsided for understanding how maybe women would think about using technology. And I mean, I think the great thing now is we’re seeing lots of new startups pop up around understanding women’s health, specific A.I., you know, not to mention that, you know, pharmaceutical trials were predominantly conducted on men aged 25 to 55 because they’re more stable in terms of not having things like a period each month. And so, you know, we we have to make sure whatever we’re doing in society reflects the society that is actually a member of that society. You know, for me, this is like basic stuff to the future of humanity. Yes, I’ve given you that Apple Watch example, but you know, that’s a big technology conglomerate who completely missed the mark in terms of, you know, health and women’s health and something so basic which changes, you know, fitness levels, how you feel, mood each month. And so every business, when they think about designing for their end customer needs to think about how are they best designing for the customer, it’s probably going to be if you can tap into some lived experiences that are shared with your customer. And really, for me, if you look at the pure commercial kind of story around why this makes sense, it’s that. You’re building something, you’re selling something to a customer. And if your people and your organization don’t understand your customer, you’re probably not going to exist in the next couple of years.

Arin Vahanian: Wow, that’s just such a great example about the Apple Watch. Thanks for sharing that and you’re so right. Obviously that was a fail on Apple’s part, but do you think that maybe start startups because they’re smaller because there may be more nimble for lack of a better term, do you think that they may be able to better meet the need of some more segmented markets as opposed to a large, publicly traded company? When we talk about startups, that’s one of the advantages of startups, right? Ideally, they’re able to move faster. Maybe. I hate to use the term, but maybe think more outside the box. What’s been your experience working with startups that really approach diversity more proactively? So we just talked about meeting customer needs, but do you find that maybe they’re better able to navigate these, these sort of pitfalls that befall larger firms?

Hayley Sudbury:  It’s an interesting one, because I think, you know, as a start up is growing, I mean, something you aim to do when you’re a start up and you’re building into a scale up is you have to nail your niche and you’re thinking about how you do that. And yes, I think as a smaller company, you can respond faster. But I don’t think we should let big companies off the hook who are well funded and resourced to not get this stuff right either because I think it tells you a story, right? Authentically around does a big company truly care about this stuff or not? The knock on impact is actually customers start to actually look at smaller challenges / competitors that are coming up because actually their needs are being met. So that’s really where I see that story playing out, if you like. It’s missing the mark and customers voting with their dollars and that being a really exciting area for start ups to capitalize, whether it’s diversity or just a niche that a particular customer segment needs and is interested in and there’s clearly demand for or there’s uproar and rage about. There’s nothing like, riding the rage wave to change and that being a really wonderful thing that I think start ups are a well positioned to capitalize on as well.

Hayley Sudbury: But when it comes to kind of getting diversity right, I mean, that has to come with some really clear intention setting from the beginning because, you know, in life, unless we kind of set intentions, stuff doesn’t happen anyway. You know, if you don’t have intentions, you get caught in the flow of life and life kind of just happens to you rather than for you. And it’s exactly the same in business if you don’t take the time to really, I guess, draw a line in the sand and say, this is what we are moving towards as a company and we do have a very clear mission and understanding of who we are and what we represent. And as a part of that, we think it’s really important to have a range of individuals who will be joining the business as we grow. And the reality, businesses of all sizes need to be doing that, but actually, because things move so fast in the beginning with start ups and you’re racing, you’re thinking about funding and you just trying to fill a role, you can forget to set some of this stuff in place because it’s just like everyone’s hustling for developers and everyone’s under pressure and everyone’s competing against the big tech companies to try and get developers at lower rates who buy into your mission. But the reality is having a really clear mission and having great values that actually there’s a real passion about is always going to give you the edge to a bigger company because usually as a startup founder, you’re doing something because you’ve experienced that pain point, you’re passionate about creating the change. And people can feel that energy and they want to be part of that.

Hayley Sudbury: And that’s very different to being interviewed by someone who’s a cog in a very large machine and trying to like hype you up about a big package and role. That is going to create a very comfortable life for you. But are you really going to make that positive impact in the world that you kind of set out to do? Probably not. That’s the honest truth. You know, I think start ups offer something very unique. But if you’re really clear about that mission, you’re also really clear about the things that you need to achieve that mission and the types of people you’re going to actually have to grow and be part of that team. You can really start off on a very strong foot. You’re going to start with a couple of people, you know, you’re not going to be as fully diverse organization on day one because there could be two male founders. And that’s OK. But where do you go from there? You know, where do you go? And unless you have that clear intention, you know, the really fantastic mission that gets you out of bed every morning. Those two things together mean you’re going to have a really simple and clear foundation to grow something.

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Arin Vahanian: Indeed, yes, thanks for sharing that and related to that, something that’s been on my mind. What would you say, Hayley, are some of the biggest mistakes that startups make, especially when approaching hiring and diversity. What have you seen from your experience and what are some of the biggest mistakes startups make in this area?

Hayley Sudbury: Well, what I call the mistakes, the mistakes and learnings, I guess. I mean, it comes back to the intention piece. I’ve seen a lot of startups grow fast and not have a chance to really take the time to set some of these goals from the outset. And then they’re scrambling. The worst case of it is you’re scrambling and this is not a start up. This is a scale up and you’re pre-IPO. And the journalists come digging around your culture, who works for you, they’re looking for those stories, and we all know that actually, IPOs are based on sentiment hopefully the positive story is not the PR crisis. So that’s really the high risk area, right, that you carry on life’s grand. You’ve got funding the idea’s there, you’re growing at pace, you’re not thinking about culture, you’re not being intentional about kind of the breadth of people who work for you. And you’re hitting a major milestone from a market perspective. And the journalists come digging and there’s not great stories to support the sort of leader you are, the culture you have.

Hayley Sudbury: And not only is that bad from maybe a future IPO perspective, but it’s really bad from just a customer perspective because customers don’t want to buy from businesses that have, you know, some serious bad juju when it comes to this stuff. We’re really seeing the knock on effect now from customers interrogating who’s on your board? Who’s your leadership team? What sort of people do you hire? How do you treat them? And there is movements around this that actually galvanize, you know, customers together in a way they’ve not been galvanized before. We’re in the era of social media, employee activism, consumer activism, and it has huge impacts on business. And really the biggest mistake is just not getting some of this stuff set into the foundations when you start. And the mistake is not thinking it’s going to bite you when you’re mature enough and the revenues are there, isn’t it great? But actually you have some, some skeletons in the closet and some data and some numbers that don’t really stack up when people start looking at pictures on your website around who the team is and who the board is.

Arin Vahanian:  That is such a really great point, thanks for bringing that up. So it is, I guess, so important to be proactive about culture and diversity just right from the start. Just foundationally, you mentioned the word foundation. So it looks like what you’re saying, Hayley, is that startups need to also put a lot of focus and attention on what sort of culture they’re building, how they’re approaching diversity right from the start. Not just the product. Not just, oh, we’re meeting sales numbers, but also baked into that right from the start is what sort of company are we building from a personal perspective, right? Is my understanding right?

Hayley Sudbury: Absolutely. And I mean, at the end of the day, you’re building something you also want to be part of as a founder. So you know what sort of business environment do you want to step into each day or phone into or zoom into? What do you want to be part of? What feels good? And getting these things right creates much more of a feel good culture for you to be a good and authentic leader, a real and vulnerable leader to when you don’t get this stuff right? Be able to get in front of it and acknowledge, Hey, we’ve got some gaps here. That’s also more important than waiting till it’s way too late and actually ask for help as well. Like, I think no one expects anyone in business established or starting out to have all the answers. You know, you have to reach into other networks and other places to seek guidance and counsel from people who’ve been there and done it or can give you a kick. You know that “Hey, that is not great” or, you know, a bit of positive feedback “Hey, that is good”. So you know, it’s about being able to, I think, reach out as a leader and get also the support that you need. And it’s available in lots of different ways, too. It’s certainly not about going to the most expensive consultancies in the world to do this. It’s about looking for those authentic organizations who can help you build that too. But your intention might simply to be I’m going to reach out to one person who seems to know what they’re doing when it comes to culture and inclusion. And that might be your starting point as an outcome of listening to this podcast today, and from my perspective, that is an awesome outcome. If that’s the one thing you take away and you’re going to pick up the phone or ping an email even to me. You know, I think that that is action and that is progress.

Arin Vahanian: That’s just so perfect. I laugh because that leads me straight to my next question, actually. What would be your best recommendations, Hayley, for startups, especially around hiring and the culture right from the start, especially as it concerns diversity?

Hayley Sudbury: Well, I think, like I mentioned, it is about having an outward in approach to this. So no one expects you to have all the answers, but looking for those experts who are doing this stuff well and authentically. Not just sort of the lip service stuff that the some clear, tangible actions and plans that are suitable for your organization, that you as a leader and business builder can take and make real. The other recommendation I always give too and this really depends on the size of the organization. It’s something we do with a lot of companies – big and small – is we’ll have them put in place, like reverse mentoring programs where the mentors will actually be people from the various lived experience. They might be your black employees, they might be women, they might be LGBTQ+ community, and they become mentors for, say, your senior leaders and decision makers so that you can create some empathy and understanding. So looking at ways that show that you value diversity in a very real way and can help the career of these individuals, as well as, you know, building empathy and understanding of your leaders for different lived experiences. That’s one of the things we often look at as an immediate thing you could do as an organization to create some change internally, which is a little bit more than, say, hiring, because the reality is if you’re hiring diverse people and they get in your organization, they don’t feel comfortable and it doesn’t feel real, then they’re not going to stay anyway, right? So you need to look at how do you create some of these, you know, very real environments that everyone’s part of and people are really part of that change and progress and this tends to be a great way to do it.

Hayley Sudbury: And then really just coming back to the hiring, there’s lots of great things you can do like, you know, there’s lots of tools out there for blind CV hiring where you can choose, but certain aspects are taken away. So you don’t know gender, maybe you don’t know school from a social mobility perspective, and that starts to build a bit of a different maybe list of candidates than what you would typically see. And then also having the intention, you know, it’s things like, well, actually for every role, we want to make sure that, you know, for every ten roles that are presented, 50 percent are women, you know, 30 percent of minorities, 10 percent are LGBT. And those sorts of requirements, I mean, you can decide that as an organization, big or small, you can work with recruiters to say this is what we’re looking for because recruiters again, are salespeople too. And if that is, your ask, that is what they’re going to go and look for and they’re going to work maybe a bit harder than the easy how things might look to tap into maybe some of their networks, they’re going to go into different places to find that list of candidates for you. If you’re actually saying it’s not just about this one role, I’m hiring for this role, but I want to make sure you present me with, you know, 5 to 10 candidates. Again, this would depend on the size of the organization and the sort of role. And this is the mix of the candidate list I’m expecting to see.

Arin Vahanian: That’s OK. Those are a lot of good points there, Hayley, thank you so much and especially I would urge everyone who’s listening to this call to look into the reverse mentoring. I find that fascinating. And again, the more we learn about all of this, then the more we learn about ways to improve our company’s culture and ultimately the performance. And as much as I’ve enjoyed this discussion. Haley, unfortunately, it looks like we have to wrap up. And so I wonder if you can leave our audience with some parting words or if there’s anything else that’s on your mind that that you wanted to share with us today?

Hayley Sudbury: Really, I think intention setting has been kind of the main theme here and making sure you get this stuff right as a leader, which is really important in terms of the culture that you want to create when it comes to people development. You know, you should absolutely be thinking about it in terms of business growth. And when you do, you’ll see that, you know, the diversity inclusion piece is just strongly part of that. It’s clearly the bit that makes you more money as well when you get it right. We have lots of great resources available too on our site and, you know, feel free to have a look there and get a little more information on things like reverse mentoring and how to put a program in place or get in touch. You know, we’re happy to help in that way. But I just encourage you to start and you don’t have to have all the answers. Reach out to one person who maybe knows a little bit more than you do and think about it in terms of, you know, what is the company, what is the future that you want to create as a business leader? And this stuff is really at the heart of it.

Arin Vahanian: Thank you so much. Wow, that’s just great advice. I totally agree. Get started today. Do something a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow, right? And so again, I urge everyone to visit Hayley’s site, get Werkin. That’s And again, Hayley, thank you so much for joining us today. I had a great time today and thank you so much and we wish you all the best in your mission. And it was really great to have you today. Thank you so much.

Hayley Sudbury: Thanks for having me, Arin. It’s a pleasure.

Arin Vahanian: My pleasure.

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