How To Grow The Number Of Top-Notch Women Engineers At Your Startup

Everyone in tech acknowledges that we need more women working in our startups. Studies show that organizations are stronger when they are diverse. In the four years since our firm launched the KPCB Fellows program – which identifies the best college-age talent, pairs them with one of our portfolio companies, and connects them to our network – the two of us researched and carried out several approaches to increase the number of female engineers in the program. This year, we will welcome our largest percentage of female engineering Fellows, all while holding to the highest standards of excellence.

Four approaches were key to increasing the volume and quality of applications we received from women and the acceptances of offers by female candidates with our portfolio companies. We are sharing these in hopes of inspiring others.

  1. Actively spread the word among women about your program. It’s easy to assume that talented and ambitious people of either gender will find and apply to your program. But we’ve found out that that’s just not the case. Many impressive female STEM students don’t apply because they don’t know of the program or don’t think of themselves as plausible candidates. We took several steps to change this. First, we significantly increased our outreach to female engineering groups on campuses around the country. Second, we asked our female alums in the program to discuss their experiences and to spread the word. Third, we connected with prominent female professors and engineering leaders, asking them to share information about the Fellows program with students. Finally, we sponsored groups that support talented female students, from Chime for Change toGirls Who Code. We learned that you must consistently focus on this kind of outreach to recruit talented female engineers.
  2. Give students role models. It’s not enough to say that your program is merit-based: You need to show talented female candidates that people who look like them not only can succeed, but have succeeded – and will work with you to succeed. Role models can make a program accessible rather than isolating. In our program, for example, all of our Fellows listen to Mary Meeker deliver her Internet Trends presentation. We already connect many of our female Fellows with female mentors and are developing new initiatives to do even more. When you highlight your program’s support for female candidates, you increase the number of talented women who can imagine themselves in your program – and as a result, the number of talented women who apply.
  3. Diversify your recruiting team – Push them to break out of their comfort zone. Even when we genuinely believe that we are searching for the best candidate for a position, we naturally gravitate toward candidates who remind us of ourselves. It’s one of the reasons why practices like the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for an open head coaching position, make so much sense: We absolutely need to actively counteract those unconscious biases that often prevent the best candidates from getting through the door. In our program, we learned that we could work with the companies to ensure that talented female candidates are not overlooked. We found, for example, that portfolio companies with a female recruiter or hiring manager were more likely to recruit female Fellows. In fact, out of 18 women in the program last year, 16 had a female point-of-contact at their portfolio company. So a diverse recruiting staff on the lookout for talented candidates who might otherwise slip through can make a big difference.
  4. Finally, start early – and be relentless. Progress takes time, but less than we may think. We hit our latest milestones within four years of launching the Fellows program, but only after hours, days, and weeks spent digging into the latest research, consulting with tech industry leaders, tracking metrics, and trying new approaches to recruit the most talented women into our program. And we’ll keep looking for new ways to find the best female engineers. Our partner Al Gore likes to quote an African proverb: “When you pray, move your feet.” As he explains, “Prayer without action, like optimism without engagement, is passive aggression towards the future.” It’s not enough to hope for better outcomes: Commit to the concrete steps to make progress happen.

Getting this right is important not only for women but for all of us. By building these specific, targeted, and measurable actions into your recruitment plan, you will demonstrate the kind of company you want to be – and attract the top-notch women who will help you succeed.