Application processes—whether for jobs, funding, or other opportunities—are full of potential moments for bias to occur. In launching our venture studio, Ventures for Shared Prosperity, we knew that recruiting the right people to join our cohort as entrepreneurs was going to be crucial, and we saw a responsibility to create and conduct our application process in a way that encouraged people of all backgrounds—across race, age, ability, gender, and many other dimensions—to apply and feel welcome.
In our recruiting and outreach efforts, this started with expanding the very definition of who thinks of themselves as an entrepreneur. When we began recruiting in September 2020, we wanted to ensure that the application was open and accessible, with an emphasis on individuals with lived experience of our venture studio’s initial area of focus, reducing the costs of living in poverty. Why this emphasis on lived experience? Because we know that the context of poverty is complex, requiring intricate and challenging decisions and tradeoffs. We think those who have lived this reality are the real experts and will be the right leaders to identify and develop effective solutions, as they understand the nuance of poverty better than someone without that experience. It was crucial that people with direct experience with our focus area felt comfortable applying, even if they didn’t necessarily think of themselves as entrepreneurs yet.
We shared strategies for setting up our recruitment and application processes in an earlier post about this work. Now that we’ve successfully run the process and had time to take stock of what we’ve learned, we’re sharing more practical tips and insights gained from having used our behaviorally-informed recruitment practices to onboard a slate of extremely talented entrepreneurs. These insights can be put to work by any organization seeking to revamp recruitment processes with an eye toward reducing bias and recruiting for lived experience:
- Design for Scarcity: A long line of behavioral science research teaches us that when we experience a chronic lack of a resource—like time or money—it takes a toll on our abilities. People living with less resources are especially likely to experience chronic scarcity, and we wanted to design our application process to be as friendly as possible to applicants in this context. Thankfully, designing for scarcity is a core part of our work at ideas42, and we took the opportunity to weave our three principles for designing for scarcity into our application process:
- Build in time slack: Research shows that deadline extensions can help people do better work, but that not everyone feels comfortable asking. We planned for unexpected delays that our candidates might face so that it was easy to accommodate extensions. For example, in our case study round—a 3-4 hour, written activity completed by about 70 applicants—we knew that some candidates might need extra time. We built an extra three days into our review timeline and offered all candidates the opportunity to extend their deadline if needed. Because we planned for this at the outset, it was easy to accommodate deadline extensions.
- Cut participation costs by paying for time: We were concerned that applicants who might face the most time or money scarcity could drop off in our case study round in particular. To help create more flexibility, we reimbursed all applicants at this stage for their time with a $60 Visa gift card. We hoped that applicants might be able to use this gift card to “create time” in a busy schedule by ordering a meal or paying for childcare. Since the concept of “buying time” has been linked to greater levels of happiness and satisfaction, we hoped the use of gift cards would make it easier and more enjoyable for everyone to participate. Of course, doing this requires a budget, and it’s not something we can commit to for every recruitment process we run as an organization. But in this process, where we particularly wanted to cut the costs for applicants facing time and money scarcity, we think it was the right thing to do.
- Talk to applicants like clients: In a recruiting process, it’s easy to dash off impersonal emails to applicants or rely on stock language. We know that simple changes, like personalized encouragement, can reduce gender imbalances in job applications, and we embedded this kind of encouragement into our process wherever possible. Taking a moment to thank people for reaching out, acknowledging concerns they shared directly, and signing emails with our names were all small touches that we used to make people feel valued for their time and effort during a challenging process.
- Make Transparency a Push, Not a Pull: We know that when processes are more transparent, people feel better about the institutions behind them and the resulting outcomes. But will all applicants feel similarly comfortable reaching out and asking questions? In our process, we quickly realized that merely providing additional information when asked by a select number of individuals had the potential to produce inequitable outcomes. We wanted to make sure that transparent information about our process made its way to all applicants, so we found ways to broadcast the information to everyone rather than being responsive to a select few.
- Replace informational interviews with open forums: If your professional network is skewed, prioritizing individual conversations with people who reach out on their own volition can reinforce existing inequities. We created two open-to-the-public webinars for any applicant to meet us and ask questions. We held these outside of traditional business hours and posted recordings of these webinars to our website so that as many people as possible could view them. Doing this lowered the bar for applicants to meet our team and ask questions, and saved time for us by reducing the number of one-off conversations our team members had.
- Elevate questions to all applicants: Answering questions about a job posting is a great way to be transparent, but only answering individual questions over email means that there’s no guarantee everyone has access to that information. We invested in simple processes that pushed answers to common questions out to anyone who might benefit. We created a simple FAQ on the website and updated it regularly based on questions that we received over email. It was a quick way to ensure that helpful clarifications weren’t limited only to those who felt comfortable reaching out.
- Combat Your Own Bias: Our earlier blog post shared many tactics to reduce the effects of our own unconscious biases when reviewing applications. As we moved through entrepreneur selection, we found some additional ways to reduce the impact of our individual biases:
- Build a qualitative rubric: It’s easy to have a rubric for things that can be quantified like years or experience. But many of the traits that determine whether someone is a good fit for a particular role are more subjective and can be harder to define. Rather than leaving those qualitative traits vague, we built a specific and clear rubric with shared definitions and descriptors to help our team elucidate what we were looking for and weed out bias. For instance, rather than looking for “leadership”—a general description that is demonstrably prone to gender bias— we outlined specific markers of leadership, like having started a business, non-profit, or club that other people became involved in.
- Bring in an observer: Even the most clear and fair rubric is not useful if the recruiting team doesn’t use it. As we got to know applicants through interviews, we found it easy for our discussions to stray beyond our pre-specified rubric. To combat this, we brought in an outside member of the ideas42 People Operations team to sit in on our final deliberations. Because this observer was less familiar with individual candidates, they were able to ask fair probing questions and help our team follow through on our intentions for a fair process.
It took a lot of care to design our process well, and in the end, we found the results to be well worth it. We’re proud of the entrepreneurs we selected and the feedback we received from applicants. We were encouraged to hear that even people we didn’t select, “couldn’t be more motivated to continue [working on their] passions” and that others were thankful that the process gave them “the opportunity to express [themselves] and [their] plans to impact…lives.” Our approach yielded a cohort of incredibly strong entrepreneurs out of a large pool of extremely talented and competitive candidates. For us, this process led to an extraordinarily diverse set of entrepreneurs-in-residence, who are already using their lived experience to build companies that we hope will significantly reduce the excess costs of poverty in the U.S.
We also think these approaches are useful beyond just our own recruiting process and would love to apply, test, and scale them in other contexts. If you are interested in testing out any of these practices, we would love to hear about it (you can reach out to us at email@example.com). As we continue to recruit entrepreneurs to solve big, important challenges, we’re excited to expand on these practices to recruit even more diverse talent to Ventures for Shared Prosperity.