Fern Mandelbaum

Posted in: Diversity and Inclusion


To Become More Diverse, Start Being More Inclusive

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To Become More Diverse, Start Being More Inclusive

An entrepreneur, coach, teacher, and investor, Fern Mandelbaum is a Stanford Business School lecturer that specializes in entrepreneurship and inclusion. She has worked with CEOs and companies including LinkedIn and RelateIQ on leadership, culture, and inclusiveness. Fern is the Managing Partner at Vista Venture Partners. We sat down with her for this exclusive interview on why inclusion drives diversity and how leaders and organizations can become more inclusive.


I teach a class at Stanford Business called “Entrepreneurship from Diverse Perspectives.” In it, I focus on all aspects of diversity, and why it’s important to businesses. But teaching the class is a small part of what I do; I consult companies and leaders on how to make their companies be better — and not just because they want to achieve some kumbaya moment — but because there are reams of data that tells us that diverse companies are more profitable and more innovative than those that are not.

When companies come to me saying that they want to make their organization more diverse, I ask them, “Why?” Because diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t help anyone.

Diverse companies are more profitable and more innovative than those that are not.

What we should really be striving for is a culture that isn’t just diverse, but inclusive of diverse points of view, backgrounds, and experiences. This is at the core of what I teach and coach leaders on.

So how do you become a more inclusive leader, and a more inclusive organization? I’m going to share four key factors that make an organization more inclusive, how we can check ourselves for unconscious biases, and how we can shape our hiring strategy to encourage diversity.

What makes an inclusive culture?

We need to understand each other’s differences, but respect each other the same. Click To Tweet

I strongly believe that inclusion drives diversity because even if we have the most diverse group in a room, if we’re only listening to a subset of people, it doesn’t really matter.

A lot of companies know that diversity is good for business, but plenty of people miss the mark on what it actually means in practice. Inclusion starts with:

  • Understanding that we’re all different. The best thing a manager can do is understand what each employee brings to the table, and what their unique needs are. We assume a lot about people, and we assume that they’re just like us. I urge leaders to ask questions, instead of making assumptions.
  • Treating everyone with the same respect. The more we understand individuals and what’s happening in their lives, the better off we’ll be. Sometimes when I interview men, they’ll start talking about women and they’ll say, “Is it ok to say we’re different?” I tell them, “Absolutely. We are clearly different.”  We need to understand each other’s differences, but respect each other the same. Respect is core to inclusion.
  • Acknowledging people’s personal situations — whatever they are. Everyone has their “baby” — maybe it’s a pottery class that demands they leave the office at 5 pm or an actual child at home. Who are we to judge? Understand that no one leaves their unique needs outside of the office and then acknowledge what they need to do as people, not just employees.
  • Helping people through times of transition. The best coaches and managers understand that we’re all very unique and it’s our job to figure out the best way to help them succeed. That includes supporting them through times of transition (an elderly parent needing care, for example), and being there for them through those times. We want our best employees to be great employees for the long term.

Checking for unconscious bias

We can all strive to be inclusive, and follow advice like the sort you’re reading in this article. Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, we’re victims of our own unconscious bias. Consider this: nearly 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6 feet tall. Now, do you know what percentage of the American population is men over 6 feet tall? Only 15%. Are tall men better leaders? There’s definitely no data that supports that.

When we’re trying to build an inclusive culture, we have to be super clear about what we are trying to hire, prior to the process.

When we’re trying to build an inclusive culture, we have to be super clear about what we are trying to hire, prior to the process. If two people have the same qualifications, we should factor in our commitment to bringing diverse perspectives to our team. But we shouldn’t hire someone just because they are from a different background.

If you think about it, colleges do this all the time. If we only wanted to enroll A students, who got a 2400 on their SAT, we could fill the class with them, and they could all be women. But we want diversity in our universities: we want athletes, musicians, scientists, people from every state and country, and so on. These factors aren’t the reason we admit them — they’re all equally qualified students.

So I challenge leaders and companies to ask themselves to take the same approach to hiring. We have to stop moving the goal post and be really clear in our job descriptions. And in all aspects of the hiring and promotion process, we have to build systems to eliminate or minimize the bias we have that, for the most part, is unintentional.

Committing to expanding our networks

Expanding your network isn’t just a “nice” thing to doClick To Tweet

Like hires like: it’s a fact and it’s easy to stick to what we’re familiar with. I often hear from companies that the problem isn’t that they don’t want to be inclusive and diverse; they chalk it up to a pipeline issue. What do I say to them? We have to expand our networks.

The more we really focus on reaching out to people beyond our comfortable connections (school, club, neighborhood), the more inclusive we’ll be.

It’s critical to build our relationships and connections. The more we really focus on reaching out to people beyond our comfortable connections (school, club, neighborhood), the more inclusive we’ll be. Expanding our networks takes time and commitment, but it is so worth the effort.

Next time someone asks you, “do you know a great person for x role?” spend an extra few minutes thinking beyond your initial reaction. I truly believe that companies can help people be better people. Expanding your network isn’t just a “nice” thing to do; it’s a way to enrich your work life and the lives of your teammates.

Original art by Theo Payne.

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