Recipe for success starts with diversity

For one Silicon Valley startup, the road to success begins with nontraditional leadership and hiring practices that prove diversity not only exists but can be a competitive edge.

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Credit: Corbis

A restaurant manager and a former cook don't fit the profile of the typical Silicon Valley IT startup employee. But they're just two of the most recent hires at Mindflash, a company that offers an online training platform for enterprises and is taking bold steps to exemplify how diversity can exist in the Valley.

Mindflash's CEO, Donna Wells, has a recipe for success that includes diversity as one of the main ingredients, starting at the top with visionary board members and venture capital investors.

Hunt where your competitors aren't looking

"For all the bad press about VCs lately, I have to be honest that the firm we work with gets a lot of the credit for being very willing to hire 'non-traditional' leadership. It's a no-brainer idea that's starting to gain traction; in the Valley, you're competing against all these other companies who aren't leaving the neighborhood, and that's just not sustainable. There's an awful lot of competition for the traditional white, male, 30- to 40-year-old candidates. But there's phenomenal talent, exciting talent out there who are racial and ethnic minorities, who are women, who are GLBTQ -- there's not much competition for that talent," Wells says.

Focus on soft skills

Another key for Mindflash is to recruit from this diverse pool with an emphasis on soft skills, and train for the technical know-how. The restaurant manager, the cook and another employee, a former professional cyclist, are just a few examples of this method, according to Wells.

"We've learned we can have great success, great outcomes by focusing on attitude and soft skills during the interview process. We look for passion, discipline, innovative thinking, problem-solving skills and teamwork, and then we know we can train for the rest of the tech skills we need. Skills can be taught; attitude and demeanor, communication, teamwork and negotiation -- those are much more endemic and harder to teach," Wells says.

Flexibility to do your job well

Flexibility is another important ingredient. Half of Mindflash's team works out of its Silicon Valley headquarters, while the other half works remotely from home offices as far away as Massachusetts and Arizona. Forty percent of headquarters-based women work from home one to two days a week, and another 40 percent of female employees work full-time from home offices.

"We want to give all employees, especially people with families, a great work-life balance. Everyone needs some flexibility to do their job well. I've learned over the years how easy it is for folks to spend their entire day in meetings and not accomplish any real work. That's detrimental to the business, and it lowers morale and retention for the very employees you're trying to retain. If they don't feel they're making a tangible difference every day, they'll get burnt out and they'll leave," Wells says.

Leverage technology whenever possible

That flexibility is gained through effective use of technology at Mindflash, which leverages productivity and collaboration tools such as Yammer, Skype, Asana, GoToMeeting, Sococo and Hall, which removes many of the geographic constraints the company could have faced.

"Because technology removed many of the location constraints, I can have great developer talent in Boston or Phoenix, wherever and it's like they're in the next room. We've been able to take advantage of that," says Wells.

Wells adds that the company's focus on flexibility makes the firm more inviting and attractive for tech talent, too, as does the incredible diversity statistics and unconventional approach to hiring.

Lead by example

"We make it a point to broadcast through our example that diversity is a core value of ours, and that helps drive recruiting of more diversity. Once you have someone else in the company who's female, who's from a racial or ethnic minority, who came up from a restaurant -- that sends a really strong signal to other potential employees and helps bring in even more diverse candidates," says Wells. "That impact cannot be underestimated. It shows you're willing to put your money where your mouth is."

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