Claire McDonnell and Jennifer Kim on Building an Inclusive Company Culture

by Y Combinator4/20/2018

Claire McDonnell is cofounder and COO of True Link Financial (YC S13). True Link is a financial services firm that offers money management, investment, and insurance products, primarily for retirees.

Jennifer Kim is currently advising startups. Prior to that she was the Head of Employee Experience and Development at Lever. Lever makes recruiting software and they were part of the Summer 2012 batch.

Kat Manalac is a partner here at YC.

Here are the resources mentioned in this episode:
50+ Ideas for Cultivating D&I You Can Start Today (More from Jennifer here.)
Facebook’s open-sourced Managing Bias training
Kapor Capital’s Founders Commitment
First Round Review: People & Culture
Project Include


Google Play


Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Claire McDonnell, Jennifer Kim, and Kat Manalac. Claire is co-founder and COO of True Link Financial. True Link is a financial services firm that offers money management, investment and insurance products primarily for retirees. They were part of the summer 2013 batch. Jennifer is currently a startup advisor. Prior to that she was the Head of Employee Experience and Development at Lever. Lever makes recruiting software, and they were part of the summer 2012 batch. Kat, who you’ve probably heard on the podcast before, is a partner here at YC. All right, here we go.

Kat Manalac [00:40] – Okay, so we’ll just dive into this. I’ll start by saying I’ve heard many successful founders, founders of later stage companies like Dropbox, Airbnb say that one of the most important things that they spend their time on as founders and as CEOs is building and scaling good company culture. Culture is this really nebulous concept, so I wanted to discuss, why it makes sense to think about it at an early stage, and how to break this nebulous concept into more manageable kind of action items that early stage founders can put into place. Last year I had about 50 conversations with founders of early stage companies, and the people at those companies who are building culture and D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) initiatives. I wanted to introduce everyone here on the podcast to two of the people that I thought were the most thoughtful, and had done some incredible work in this space, so I’ll introduce you both. First, we have Claire McDonnell. She’s the founder of True Link, and True Link makes software. It’s tech enabled financial services for older adults. Claire, you’re at 35 employees now. One impressive thing is that they have a woman or person of color who is leading each of the teams there. True Link has made some incredible progress. Their customer base has grown about 20x over the last three years. I spent about an hour and an hour and a half talking to Claire’s team recently, and it was really clear to me about Claire, and her co-founder, Kai, were doing some very intentional thinking about culture and D&I at True Link,

Kat Manalac [02:24] – so thank you for joining us.

Claire McDonnell [02:25] – Thanks for having me, very happy to be here.

Kat Manalac [02:27] – Next, we have Jennifer Kim. Jennifer was one of the very first employees at Lever, a company that builds recruiting software. She built the D&I program at Lever. Lever is about 100 employees?

Jennifer Kim [02:43] – 150.

Kat Manalac [02:43] – Oh, about 150, and they’re at close to about 50/50 male/female split in terms of the employees, which isn’t easy, is not an easy feat in Silicon Valley. She is sort of one of my mentors in a lot of this. She’s authored a lot of incredible resources for startups and founders who are interested in learning about D&I and culture, and how to implement them at really early stage startups, so thank you for joining us.

Jennifer Kim [03:11] – Yeah, thanks for having me.

Kat Manalac [03:12] – Let’s just jump in. Why do you think there’s so much attention around culture nowadays in the press, among founders, in blog posts? People are talking more and more about culture than ever. I’ve always thought it’s been an important thing. In 1992, for example, there was a study by HBS, and the Kotter Institute that detailed the corporate cultures of 200 companies, and they showed how good culture affects everything from long-term economic performance, employment growth, revenue growth, and companies focused on culture outperformed by a huge amount. Why is this now being talked about more commonly?

Jennifer Kim [03:58] – Yeah, culture can be kind of tricky to talk about, right? You ask fish about water and the response is what’s water? Culture is very much how things are run. It’s everything around you. It’s how your team sees. It’s the lens for everything your team works through. What’s hard about culture, sometimes, is that we fall into these two traps. So often we’re talking about what’s really visible and tangible, or what’s really kind of extreme negatives. On the tangible front, you know, the common misconception is that, “Oh, you know, we have a great culture because of this ping-pong table, or happy hour,” which is great, but it’s actually a very, very small part of it. Your culture is all about how you hire, what kind of conversations, what’s the energy of the room, how do you make decisions who gets promoted, right? It’s not always so visible, so it can be a little bit tricky to talk about, and, therefore, hard to manage, and sometimes even hard to measure, but that doesn’t mean that’s not important. Then on the second end, if you’re watching the news these days there’s a lot of attention on Uber. How many articles have we all read about Uber? That’s a negative example, but, there are so many great companies out there really kind of quietly toiling away, working on culture being really intentional, but it wouldn’t be a very click-worthy headline. Employees are generally civil to each other, and pretty happy with what they have in terms of culture.

Jennifer Kim [05:23] – It’s really easy to get intimidated and like, “Oh, gosh, like what are we supposed to do there’s so much. We don’t want to be the next Uber,” but it’s just like any other skill, right? If you’re a founder, if you’re growing a team, you know, even if you started as say an engineer or hacker you’re probably having to get good at sales and marketing, and culture and being a culture leader is one of them.

Kat Manalac [05:46] – Yeah, so, Claire, a question for you. When did True Link start?

Claire McDonnell [05:50] – The company?

Kat Manalac [05:50] – Yes.

Claire McDonnell [05:52] – We started back in late 2012 early 2013.

Kat Manalac [05:56] – How has the conversation even internally at True Link changed about culture and D&I? Is it something you thought of since the very beginning, or has it increased as you’ve grown?

Claire McDonnell [06:08] – We’ve thought about culture from the very beginning, and especially about building an inclusive culture, but it seems like we think about it almost more every single day because we see the payoffs of having invested in it every single day. The lesson we’ve learned over this time, over the last five years now since we started back in 2013, late 2012, is that the way you build your culture is by small investments every single day. Rather than being a distraction from the business of running your company, and from the sort of constant existential threat that you’re under as a startup that investing in your culture actually insulates you against that threat. Being part of a team that trusts each other where everyone believes they’re being treated fairly, and they’re all in it together that’s actually how you survive not how you distract yourself from survival.

Kat Manalac [07:02] – I wanted to piggyback off what you were just saying about what are some of the benefits of intentionally focusing on your culture early on what are some of the things that you’ve both seen from your work?

Claire McDonnell [07:14] – Well, for me the privilege of being a founder, or an early employee is that you actually get to create a new little world, a new community, a new environment, so the benefit of creating that world in a way that doesn’t necessarily replicate the dysfunction of the world outside the office doors is that you get to be a part of it. I actually like going to work everyday. I feel respected and valued. I think most members of our team feel respected and valued, or we certainly try to make it that way, and that’s really great and really pleasant, actually.

Kat Manalac [07:49] – That was one of the things that struck me from talking to your team. They were all very … They were very mission driven. They said they felt respected. Every person I talked to could repeat to me what the mission of the company was, and what their role was in making that happen. It felt like a very unified team, and the thing that kept coming up over and over again was respect. They said that they focused on hiring people that respect each other, respect the elderly. Respect was something that came up multiple times in my conversations with everyone. I thought that was a really interesting thing. It’s like respect was like the major theme of the conversation.

Jennifer Kim [08:38] – For us related to that at Lever we’ve seen huge benefits in terms of both recruiting and retention. Recruiting, for example, we had one QA engineer who was hired because her friend was also interviewing for that role, and he was actually under qualified, he was great, but just a little bit under qualified was turned down, but he loved going through the process so much, and he kind of fell in love with a little bit of the Lever’s culture, so when he got turned down he actually told his friend, “Hey, you should apply,” and she had more experience, and she was fantastic, so it’s really going to be a competitive advantage, right? Imagine every person that comes across, you know, applying with their resume or you ever interview them they become an advocate for you like what a powerful recruiting force that can be. On the retention side, you know, for a long time at Lever we had such low attrition rates because people feel connected to the work and the people and feel proud of where they work like Claire just said. Our sales people, and engineers are all great they’re getting weekly recruiter reach outs, you know, promising them we’ll give you so much more equity, and here’s like how much more we can pay you. There’s always going to be a company trying to poach away your best employees, but, again, they stay because they want to because they feel connected to the culture. One engineer whose been there three years his name is Zyas, he told me once, “Technical problems,

Jennifer Kim [10:03] – the really cool ones will come and go. There will always be a new cool thing to work on,” but he stays because really finding that right team and environment that’s truly the rare thing in Silicon Valley.

Kat Manalac [10:16] – That’s absolutely correct is that in hiring the best people and retaining them. Culture is the biggest kind of, you know, tool that you have in the toolkit for that because there are so many companies recruiting is so hard. You’ve both been on that side of things, and to have, you know, people be connected to the team, and to the mission I think is a great piece of it.

Claire McDonnell [10:39] – That’s sort of the business case for an inclusive culture in addition to inclusive culture making a company a great place to be everyday. Fundamentally, especially, at early stages you have to create an environment where all your employees and your most valuable employees that have your institutional knowledge want to keep coming back to work everyday, want to ignore the emails from recruiters, and want to choose your company again everyday, and an inclusive culture where people are treated fairly is really the only way to make that happen.

Jennifer Kim [11:09] – For a long time culture was kind of seen as a luxury, right? We need to focus on growth first, and we’ll kind of like worry about that later when we’re much bigger or when it’s not my problem anymore, but that’s just not going to fly.

Kat Manalac [11:23] – And because there’s now so much attention on this even externally it’s popping up in founder’s minds much sooner than maybe it once was perhaps. These are really great examples of when you’re doing culture right these are some of the things, these are some of the benefits, these are some of the things that you do well, but as you were saying at the beginning of a startup’s life everyday is a fight for survival, so what happens if you don’t think about it until later what are some of the risks there?

Claire McDonnell [11:57] – Well here’s the thing to keep in mind. Even if you do think about it all the time as one of our team members told you some members of our team think about it obsessively you still make mistakes all the time, right? We think about this, we invest in this, and we’re really far from perfect, so as I’m thinking about all we’ve accomplished also running through my mind are all the mistakes and screw ups that we’ve made, right? And how I feel like the thing we’re proud of is how much we care and how we’re making progress everyday, but nobody’s perfect so if you’re not investing, and trying to not make mistakes you’re probably making even more of them.

Jennifer Kim [12:31] – Yeah, that’s a really good point because, especially for folks who haven’t thought a whole lot about culture or diversity and inclusion initiatives they might think like, “Well, like you know, that’s not my background, that’s not what I’m good it,” but it is such a critical part in that it’s not as hard as you think to get started. If you’re looking at for example, Airbnb, like, “Oh, my gosh, look at all the culture initiatives they have.” Well, they’re so much bigger than you, and they’ve been going at it for a long time, so really lowering the stakes, and kind of seeing it as a muscle to develop and practice. Yeah, it really helps to do it from the beginning so that you build good habits as an organization. The key to remember is that, yeah, no one is perfect. I don’t know if anyone’s born an amazing culture leader. As long as you are authentic with your intentions, and you’re open and you really bring in conversations, and approach it as a team activity no one person is in charge of culture you can really do a lot together.

Kat Manalac [13:39] – Let’s kind of dig into let’s get even more specific, and start digging a little bit into tactics because as we’re talking about how do we make this a muscle that we can sort of exercise and make stronger. From day one what are some of the things that you recommend founders do even when it’s just two people in a room?

Claire McDonnell [14:03] – For me, the Achilles’ heel of an inclusive culture is unchecked biases, so it’s letting all the cognitive biases in our head run rampart without checking them ourselves, or creating ways for our colleagues to check them. We’ve introduced a variety of small things that help us check ourselves and check each other that make a huge difference in culture, and are actually really easy to do.

Kat Manalac [14:28] – What are some examples?

Claire McDonnell [14:30] – Let’s just leave it at that. A big theme for checking biases for us is credit and blame. There’s as lot of research that shows that women and people of color get less credit for their accomplishments, and get blamed more or the things they screw up are remembered more. Okay, so what do you do about that? We do a few things culturally, so one thing is we … This is how I remember it. It’s not what we actually call it, but I think of it as no blame button, so in GitHub you can click a button that basically shows you where the sort of like offending code is that caused a problem, right? Which is actually an extremely useful feature, so no hate on the blame button, but we try not to have a cultural blame button. When there’s a mistake or a screw up what we collectively try to do, and anybody whose available tries to do, is solve the problem not focus on blaming someone for it then only once we’ve solved the problem, and put things in place to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again do we reflect about how that happened, and collectively working to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Otherwise, you can sort of fall into patterns of scapegoating and blaming people, and holding things against people really easily, and if you have that as a part of your culture it’s almost inevitable that some people are going to be targeted more than others.

Jennifer Kim [15:50] – That’s really great because like you said there’s all these patterns plus the more it happens less people will be able to take risks. Because they don’t want to be blamed, so it sounds like you’re really set up an environment where people can try things out, and you don’t have to have it all figured out, but you’re more likely to get big wins out of that too.

Claire McDonnell [16:10] – The other side of no blame button is actually making sure people get credit, and amplifying credit where it’s due. There’s a story that came out of the Obama White House that reminded me of kind of how we’ve approached this at True Link, imperfectly, but we try, which was, and correct me if I get the details wrong. In the first year of the Obama administration some of the women who worked there noticed that they and other women weren’t getting credit for their ideas in meetings, so they started using a great strategy amplification which is when Kat says something in a meeting instead of saying that’s a great idea I say, Kat’s idea to X is a great idea just to make sure that everyone hears that it was Kat who said it. We try to do things like that. We also try to make basically acknowledgements and shouting out to people for the good work that they do an important part of our culture in an ongoing way. It’s the most popular section of all company meetings where you have a big wide open period of time where people are basically telling people about the good work that other people have done. This is especially important across teams, right? People on the engineering team are hearing about the specific accomplishments of members of the marketing team, the support team and vice versa.

Kat Manalac [17:24] – One thing that I wanted to ask you specifically was when I talked to your team there was a sense that everyone felt really appreciated, so they said, “We’re building an environment where the Ops team is as respected and celebrated as the engineering team,” and when you talk to a lot of companies, especially in Silicon Valley there’s a sense that, you know, software engineering is the golden egg, everyone, is excited about the engineers, and Ops kind of gets left behind, so how do you do that how do you create a culture where all people feel as celebrated?

Claire McDonnell [17:59] – Well, it’s definitely an uphill battle in Silicon Valley so this particular issue was sort of a bee in my bonnet, and a bee in my co-founder Kai’s bonnet as well, and let me tell you why, and tell me if this sort of theory makes sense to you all. Prizing certain teams at companies, so it used to be sales teams, now it’s engineering teams, I think prizing certain teams is actually a coded way of prizing certain races and genders, so we all know that in most companies the majority of engineering team(s) are men, for example, and mad props to you if that’s not the case in your company, and you can just stop listening, but, so when you actually treat that class of employees differently than you treat everyone else, and I’m not talking about kind of keeping up with market compensation I’m talking about the way you talk to people, the perks people get, and the way leadership focuses on one team versus the other. When you treat teams differently in that way what you’re actually doing is perpetuating society wide biases about race, gender, ethnicity and things like that. Unless you’ve achieved perfect diversity, and your engineering team is a mirror of our society a balance of gender and race and ethnicity and age across teams that mirror each other, and that mirror society at large if you are prizing your engineering team over everyone else you are perpetuating biases, and discriminating against folks.

Kat Manalac [19:27] – Breaking that down a little bit, how do you make sure that the ops team, other teams don’t feel like they’re less important?

Claire McDonnell [19:35] – Here’s the tricky part is part of this is that we authentically believe that they are not less important, so we have 99% customer satisfaction ratings from our support team. We have the highest net promoter score I’ve ever seen in financial services. That’s not because of the engineering team, and our amazing products that’s because of all the teams of the company, and all the people, and the wonderful talented people who lead those teams, and who we’ve retained for multiple years because we value them. So, specifically, so we believe it that’s one thing, and I think, actually, it’s where founders looking in the mirror, and asking themselves do I believe this? Do I equally value all these teams? Do I see how they contribute to the company? Then once you answer that question for yourself it becomes easier in team meetings to talk about that, to acknowledge the different roles, or different team members. We also do sort of trainings, and sessions at our team retreats to help people understand the contributions of other teams. At our last retreat we did a Growth Marketing 101, and a Financial Advising 101, so people could really understand tactically what those teams do, and how technical and complex and challenging it is. We also do what we call ride-alongs with our support team, so engineers and other team members actually sit with the support team, and listen to them engaging with folks. After two hours of sitting with a member of our support team you cannot help but be awed and respected by what they do.

Claire McDonnell [21:06] – Another thing we do is when people join the company we make sure they have coffees and lunches with people from all different teams of the company, so that people really get to know each other, and kind of have human relationships, and respect each other as humans in addition to their roles at the company, so those are some of the things.

Jennifer Kim [21:21] – We do some similar things too with both onboarding and kind of ongoing so that cross-functional exposure can be so important. For example, people used to come in to Lever as new hires saying, “Oh, you know, I’ve heard such great things about the product it’s really awesome it must sell itself, right?” As part of our onboarding we actually have every new hire every onboarding class watch what a real sales call looks like, and then do a Q&A with a sales rep because that notion gets thrown out the window. You hear how stressful it can be. The questions that get thrown at you, the frustrations, sometimes, that the sales rep has to really navigate through, but still come top of the game, and really push that deal forward. Then the Q&A is fascinating because every time it’s like, “Wow, you know, my blood was boiling listening to that call like how do you handle that kind of question and that?” Over time really builds like a respect for the other function, right? So this room of not to pick on engineers, but like I’m an engineer so I’m better like there’s just no room for it because you understand how hard those jobs are, and it’s a good self-reflection exercise for like, “Man, if I were in that role I would probably suck at that job,” and really realizing all of us here are for a reason. We have a role to play to make the entire business successful.

Claire McDonnell [22:41] – I love that sales idea I’m going to start doing that. Also, that reminds me of another one of our approaches to this challenge which is our no jerks policy. In hiring we have a very firm no jerks policy, and every time we’ve violated that it’s been a really big mistake.

Kat Manalac [22:58] – How do you know when someone’s a jerk?

Claire McDonnell [23:00] – Yes, good question. One, we put it on our job description, so we hope that helps screen people out, but, also, we’re basically looking for humility and respect in the hiring process, so we do this in a few different ways. We focus on times people have gotten feedback asking them to tell us about that, and how they responded to that, and how they changed their behavior. We have people interact with members of a lot of different teams on different levels, and we evaluate how they treat everyone, basically, that’s a really big one, and then we also discuss diversity and inclusion in our culture we talk about our value of humility, and respecting different functions things like that. From across those things it actually becomes pretty clear pretty quickly and that’s a big factor in why our team is composed of actually all the wonderful people that it is.

Jennifer Kim [23:52] – Adding onto hiring for the no jerks policy really watching how candidates interact with different levels of people can be so key. Two examples of this, our receptionists are told if for any reason, anyone, any candidate makes you feel disrespected, or there are any comments like let us know right away, so it’s either me or let the recruiter know because the person whose a little bit rude to the receptionist but comes across as super suave and confident with everybody else that might be a flag. Of course, it’s not going to be the, you know, automatic veto power, but it’s just one data point of many you are collecting in a hiring process. Another example I have with this is we were hiring for a PM, Product Manager, and there was this person with the perfect resume, all the right schools and companies, and they just were so confident that everybody was, in love with this candidate, and it looked like a pretty, full speed ahead for his hiring, and when we were doing one of the hiring debriefs one of our most junior members of the product team kind of hesitantly raised his hand and said, “Hey, like I don’t really know how to say this, but I had some weird interactions with him.” It turned out during that conversation, so there were three people in the room, and the most junior member felt like this candidate wasn’t ever addressing him. Would not make eye contact, would kind of talk over him, only answer questions and ask questions

Jennifer Kim [25:26] – of the more senior PM that was in the room, and he felt so bad bringing it up because he wasn’t sure it was appropriate, but once he said it it kind of made us realize, actually, he is a little bit comes across as arrogant, right? Really that distinction of someone who interviews really well versus when someone kind of gives indicators of who they are kind of like as a co-worker it can be such a huge wake-up call because once we’re looking at that candidate with that lens we started kind of remembering like, “Oh, yeah, there was that one little weird moment, or he did say this and this e-mail kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” but we’ve kind of gotten dazzled by their resume which happens all the time, so assembling interview panels across multiple levels can be really, really helpful.

Claire McDonnell [26:17] – We do something really similar, and actually a really helpful tool for us in making our interview panels even more effective, and really pulling out feedback from people has been Lever, and using the feedback forms on Lever, actually, before we even get together as a group to discuss things, so that everyone feels like no one is influenced by others people view, and everyone is sort of forced in a disciplined way to talk about the pros and cons of a candidate, and Lever’s been really helpful for us in surfacing some of that and even from me, personally, I am sensitive to those cues. When someone’s making eye contact with my co-founder and not me, and it’s always a delicate balance of saying am I being over sensitive or is this a real thing? Actually, taking that moment to reflect in front of the computer and collect the data, and then compare that data to what other people submitted has just been invaluable for us.

Kat Manalac [27:07] – Another thing that is really important is you’ve talked about feedback channels, making it possible for everyone to give each other feedback, and then also having hard conversations. Feedback can be difficult to give, so how do you build it into your culture so that you can have these really kind of uncomfortable conversations and make it okay?

Claire McDonnell [27:32] – This is an ongoing challenge, and I actually think it’s something that’s really easy to get complacent about as either a founder, a leader, or a manager where you say, I’m getting tons of feedback. People give me feedback they feel comfortable, right? It’s actually really important to always be saying is that true, is that happening? One of the most valuable tools for this has been a couple things. One, we do diversity and inclusion trainings that are actually a lot about speaking out, and how to speak out if there’s something that makes you uncomfortable, and I think we actually are going to go even deeper on that because it can put people in a tough position to know, “How do I bring this up respectfully and with whom?” Two, I think is modeling. You talked to a couple of our team members who care a lot about diversity inclusion, Paige and Issac, and I think they model for the whole team actually bringing up issues with folks in a really respectful way raising issues with me and Kai, sometimes, in front of the whole team in a team meeting saying, “Hey, did you mean to say that that way?” It’s that modeling that shows like we actually all have an open conversation. This isn’t about hierarchy it’s about respect that is maybe one of the most powerful tools.

Jennifer Kim [28:44] – A little bit of investment into communication, and almost Emotional Intelligence 101 can go a really, really long way, so what you might take for granted when you’re, again, five, 10 people when you’re now 100 and 200, and you don’t have as close relationships just investing a little bit, and injecting into kind of that emotional intelligence into your culture can have such multiplier effects, so two things that we’ve done. One, there’s this concept called nonviolent communications. Amazing tool, terrible name. Nonviolent communications what does that mean? So another alternative name for that is called compassionate communication. It’s a style and kind of a practice of communication that is rooted in empathy and about self-expression, and about these human emotional needs that we all have, but, sometimes, in the fast-paced business setting it can kind of get glossed over which makes misunderstanding or judgment a lot more likely. We’ve run a couple of workshops on that. Another one that’s been really helpful for us is one called colors. There’s a ton of these kind of like personality assessments out there, and all have their pros and cons, but what we liked about colors is that it helps give people a framework for individual differences, and kind of stylistic communication differences. Why someone might be really drawn to this kind of project, whereas, I get motivated by this which is different than this. When you join Lever you take this short test, and it tells you what color energy from this, you know, rainbow circle you’re leading with,

Jennifer Kim [30:25] – and what you are drawn to and what your strengths are. It gives people this basic framework for understanding yourself and then, therefore, once you become more confident in understanding yourself you become a lot more tolerant of others differences.

Kat Manalac [30:39] – Piggybacking off of the idea of, modeling I have seen that it does make a huge difference when the founders of the exec team are really honest and open about the mistakes they’ve made because this is tricky territory. Culture and D&I and all these conversations are really tough to have, so it’s always great when, founders can be open with their team about mistakes, and that makes a lot of people feel more open about sharing their own, or realizing that a lot of mistakes aren’t intentional, so in that sort of frame of mind I’ll share a mistake that I’ve made here at YC, and then not all this stuff as you said, Claire, you’re not perfect you don’t have the silver bullet, no company has all the answers. For me one of the mistakes I made is at YC we run the Female Founders Conference, and we are in our fifth year it’s a conference where over 1,000 women come, and we made it about three or four years and realized we never had a mother’s room, so this is 1,000 women and we didn’t have any accommodations for women who had just given birth, who needed to take time in a private setting to pump their breast milk, and for me I don’t have children, and I don’t have that experience, so it didn’t even occur to me that was something you even needed. One of the attendees reached out, and pointed it out and said, it’s something that she would have very much appreciated.

Kat Manalac [32:15] – It was super distracting for her to sort of run around the building looking for a place to go. It just made me realize that without a diversity of perspectives and experiences on the team you just miss out on a lot of different things that you need to start building in a culture that includes all kinds of people, so I would love to hear a story. Do you have a specific story where, a mistake that you’ve made, something that you wish you could get a do-over on, something that, you hope others will learn from?

Claire McDonnell [32:49] – Another blind spot for me, and for a lot of early stage founders is the fact that you have to play a lot of different roles at the company, right? For example, I’ve always taken care of the HR function, right? In addition to being people’s supervisor in terms of their work performance I’m also the person they have to come talk to about a benefits issue, right? Or a family issue and I think that actually puts people in a pretty hard situation, and seems actually like an intractable challenge, right? If you’re like, “Well, it’s a five person team who else are they going to talk to,” but what I’ve realized recently is that it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, if you have questions about this or issues about this here’s two to four other people you can talk to.” It doesn’t have to be me, or like if you have a problem with me here are some other members of the team that you can talk to, and we’re lucky to have this strong set of leaders. But it’s literally as simple as saying one sentence, and it basically makes the problem go away.

Jennifer Kim [33:50] – When you’re running a startup things are moving so quickly, things are changing constantly. You really underestimate how confusing it might be if you’re a person that’s joining for the first time, and you’re trying to figure out your job, and everything culture around it, right? So I found really writing things down, really investing in, again, onboarding has gone such a long way. What you don’t want to happen, and that’s some of the mistakes that we’ve made not making some of the expectations clearer so people feel like they have to guess, or they’re wondering they’re sitting there like, “Am I doing this right?” Sometimes losing good employees because they’re like, “Look, like I need a little bit more explicit guidance,” and realizing, “Wow, we could have done just a little bit more to make their confusion really alleviated.” When you’re running a company it’s hard, but just a little bit of investment into writing things down, explicit communication goes such a far way.

Claire McDonnell [34:50] – I completely agree. I’ve learned that lesson over and over again, and it still might not not have fully sunk in, but it’s so true, right? Of saying, “Hey, I think we have an implicit policy about this thing. Maybe if I took 45 minutes and wrote that down, and put it on our internal wiki I wouldn’t answer 30 questions about it over the course of six months.” Where it’s this little upfront investment that actually saves a lot of time and confusion, and if I’m getting 30 questions that means that was 30 employees who were actually probably thinking about it, and tried to find the answer, and wasted a bunch of time before they came to me, or other folks with the question.

Jennifer Kim [35:26] – Once it’s written down then you can invite more discussion and questions like “Help me make it better.” But if it’s in your head no one can figure it out, so we’re all just kind of trying to figure out what you mean, so writing things down, investing in an intranet where you write down policies, over communicating during your whatever weekly or biweekly all-hands can be really helpful.

Kat Manalac [35:49] – I wanted to go over some of your favorite resources. Founders want to learn more about culture, and we didn’t even get to dig into D&I much at all, but if they wanted to start reading on it what are some of your favorite pieces that you might recommend. I would say one of the things that I loved reading is Jennifer wrote a piece that was called “50 Ideas for Workplace D&I That You Can Start Today,” and we can link to it in our blog, but I think it’s sort of a primer, or it’s 50 easy things that you can implement at an early stage company so that to start things off is one of the things that I would recommend folks take a look at.

Claire McDonnell [36:32] – The three resources I would recommend are first of all Facebook has an online training called Managing Bias that’s basically about, well, managing bias, so it’s an inclusion training, and one of our team members, Isaac, has adapted that training for the company, and given it in a few different ways, and it’s great resources, and it makes preparing a training about a very complex topic much faster and easier, or you could just do it yourself it’s really interesting, and edifying and all online. Another place where we’ve gotten a lot of resources focused on inclusion in particular is Kapor Capital Founders’ Commitment. The Founders’ Commitment is a pledge that early stage startups take to commit to taking small, but meaningful actions that relate to diversity and inclusion. A lot of incredible companies are a part of it, and they’ve put together a ton of great resources that make it easier to make simple easy moves on a lot of this stuff. I really recommend checking that out, and considering joining. Then, finally I love First Round Review. They have a lot of incredible pieces on culture and inclusion written by people who have accomplished really impressive things on these fronts. There’s probably like 15 different pieces on there that have been really helpful for me.

Jennifer Kim [37:49] – Yeah, I would agree with all of those. I’d probably add on one more, Project Include. is an organization, a non-profit founded by a bunch of really amazing women with years of experience in Silicon Valley. They’ve seen it all. hey came together to put together these recommendations ranging from hiring to culture to measuring everything that you want to do to follow to make sure you’re building the right scaffolding, the right foundation to build the right culture from the very early days. I recommend to every founder that they at least read through it once because you’re going to learn so much from it.

Kat Manalac [38:28] – Awesome, is there anything else that you guys wanted to hit on?

Claire McDonnell [38:31] – One other thing that is challenging, but important from an inclusivity aspect is, well, it’s basically just like interruptions, interrupting in meetings, and how that like perpetuates power dynamics, basically. I find this really hard because I’m a huge interrupter. Maybe I should constantly be recording, and have microphones in front of my face. There’s some simple ways to reduce people interrupting each other in meetings. You can assign somebody for each meeting as the interruption police whose job is stopping that. You can just remind people with one sentence on the wall, but if you want a quick and easy way to not replicate bias and weird power dynamics, slowing down interruptions at your company is a good way to do that.

Jennifer Kim [39:20] – If you’re any kind of team leader really understanding D&I is all about paying attention to those people who are more perceptive, and more affected than the average person by some of the systematic inequalities and obstacles, so if anything they’re just trying to give you information, and better signals so here’s what we should work on together because if you ship the right programs, and make the right improvements it’s only going to end up helping your entire company. It’s going to benefit everyone. The saying goes, you know, rising tides lift all boats. I really think that’s what sustainable culture building, and D&I is all about. It’s not us versus you. It’s you get this and I get that. It really is about how do we just build better companies, and we’ll all benefit from that.

Kat Manalac [40:08] – My last question for both of you is going to be, what’s one thing that you would recommend founders and team builders do if they want to start thinking intentionally about culture and D&I from day one?

Jennifer Kim [40:24] – There’s an infinite number of initiatives and programs you can Google them. You have plenty of ideas to get started. One thing we’re not talking about nearly as much is, this conversation around how do you learn to become a better culture leader. I can kind of give one ongoing thing, and one short-term thing. What I really love about, you know, YC is really great about giving this advice, and really drilling it down to the founders take care of yourself. Get sleep, exercise, make sure you’re taking breaks, spend time with friends and family. This is really important because even though there’s all this pressure around, crazy growth and 10x-ing yourself at the same time it’s nearly impossible to be a really great culture leader if you’re burnt out, if you’re running on fumes because to really build culture in a thoughtful way you need to kind of embody the spirit of almost generosity and deep caring for your people, right? Claire, I know you’re doing that because the things that your employees are saying they wouldn’t be saying it if you didn’t really deeply care for your team, and they didn’t know it. Really remembering that if you want to build a great culture start with yourself. Make sure you’re taken care of. You can’t do the job without you being okay, and then maybe a little bit more short-term thing again D&I and culture it can sometimes be like, “Oh, that’s not my thing, that’s not my area of expertise.” Why not, right?

Jennifer Kim [41:57] – Culture is everyone’s business, especially, if you’re part of any team, and doubly especially if you’re any kind of leader, right? I really encourage everyone to think about what can I do to really show everyone that I’m learning about this, and I care about it, and encourage others to care about it too, right? Maybe share this podcast with your team, or a blog post that you really like. Share it on Twitter, it will be a good break from all the crypto you’re Tweeting about. A really good way to do it is, share something just a couple of sentences on like here’s what I’ve learned. Invite others to what did you learn? What did you agree with, or what resonated? Maybe what do you think we should start doing? I think it’s a really great invitation for a conversation about culture, and showing that I’m learning, and I want you to learn with me we’re going to do this together.

Claire McDonnell [42:46] – My two pieces of advice are, one, figure out why you care about this, and what you care about specifically. What motivates you when it comes to inclusion? What motivates you when it comes to culture? The second piece and this is really building on what Jenn was saying is empowering members of your team. At True Link it’s actually members of our team who aren’t me and Kai. I’ve mentioned a couple of them this podcast. Isaac and Paige and other people who are some of the real leaders at the company around building an inclusive culture, and that’s happened because they’re empowered to be leaders at the company because we’ve talked about it, because we share values, so it’s really having those conversations, and opening it up so other people can be leaders. That’s especially helpful when you are burnt out and tired, and not taking care of yourself, and you’re not really at your best it’s cool to know that I can rely on other folks to play that leadership role, and to build the culture we want even when I’m not having my most energetic day, or my priority list is so long I can’t get to those things that I wanted to focus on.

Kat Manalac [43:57] – That’s great. It has to come from the founders. The founders have to empower other people to do that. It will come from them, but then also give people the autonomy and the power to take that role. That’s something that was beautiful about what Lever did and what you did there is that you really owned that piece as Lever grew.

Jennifer Kim [44:19] – Yeah, I really feel like I was given this really great opportunity from the Lever founders like, “Hey, run with it, go with it,” and what started out as like a very tiny kind of a couple of income person conversations grew into this large brand, and a number of initiatives, and Lever really becoming known as one of the companies that’s embracing D&I. When I started it almost four years ago I could have never predicted this is how it’s going to turn out, but when, like Claire said founders are authentic about why they care, and they empower others to do it it can have this really magical multiplying creative effect.

Kat Manalac [44:55] – Very cool. Well, thank you guys. Thank you both.

Claire McDonnell [44:58] – Thank you, Kat.

Jennifer Kim [44:58] – Thank you.

Craig Cannon [45:00] – All right, thanks for listening. As always you can find the transcript and video at, and if you have a second it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcast. See you next time.


  • Y Combinator

    Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon