Diversity in Entrepreneurship: Shashank Saxena (VNDLY)
The Bowery Capital Team recently launched a new blog series titled “Diversity in Entrepreneurship”. Throughout this series, we will discuss with Founder/CEOs in our portfolio the impact diversity has had on their startups and careers. This blog series is just one initiative we are taking to better educate ourselves on diversity-related challenges and under-representation among high growth startups. We strongly believe in the power of representation and hope that through storytelling we can help encourage and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders in tech. You can check out the introduction to the series here.
To kick off our series, we sat down with Shashank Saxena, the Founder & CEO of VNDLY, Inc. VNDLY is a technology platform and marketplace designed to help hiring managers and vendor account management teams come together on a common platform for end-to-end contractor recruiting, on-boarding, and full lifecycle management. Shashank started his career at Citi in Strategy and Planning and eventually moved to work at Kroger in New Business and Strategy Development before founding his startup. Shashank is experienced in corporate strategy, eCommerce, and technology with success in building, growing, and scaling modern agile organizations into Fortune 25 companies.
What does diversity mean to you, and how would you define it?
Diversity has become a topic that has gained a lot of steam in the past decade in corporate America. It is not just about skin color, it’s also about the difference in thought: making sure that everyone’s voices are heard at the table and ensuring representation. Essentially, you have to start peeling the onion deeper in the conversation on diversity. When you talk about diversity as a large aggregate, you lose the nuances that drive the conversation. VNDLY is made up of a 40% women workforce, which is rare for many of today’s large technology companies. It was also important for us to bring on other underrepresented groups in tech, such as LGBTQ+ and veterans. While we are doing well on a macro level, we’ve also recognized that only 3% of our employees are Black. You may be doing well in an overall sense, but we need to dig deeper. This discussion needs to be broken up into multiple in-depth conversations to identify real problems and opportunities.
You’ve discussed how you recognize diversity within VNDLY. How does this definition of diversity correlate to the values of your startup?
We’ve always chosen to bring multiple perspectives to the table and challenged the status quo since the company’s early days. We take a lot of pride in the diversity of thought and background in our company, but we’ve also chosen to focus on opportunities to do better. We have kickstarted hiring initiatives, such as the Leadership Rotational Program, to actively seek out diverse candidates to join our team. In addition, we are introducing ourselves to historically Black colleges and professional groups to build relationships. We could sit back and complain about this lack of representation, or we could take a step forward, lean in, and fix it. At VNDLY, we are trying to acknowledge the problem, address the root cause, and invest in those underrepresented communities. As part of this program, we plan to address this problem at VNDLY and in the larger technology industry.
Could you discuss the specifics of the leadership rotational program at VNDLY?
The LRP is a two-year rotational program that consists of three, eight-month rotational assignments intended to develop technical and leadership skills in multiple areas of our business with a focus on service. Rotations range from customer support and success, implementations, technical documentation, and more. Through these rotations, participants will be full-time employees at VNDLY and given full benefits. Each year we will bring in a new class, continually increasing our representation of diverse professionals within the organization.
What inspired you to create this type of program and acknowledge this diversity-related weakness within your own company?
Recent events, such as the Black Lives Matter movements, were a catalyst to recognize that the Black community is severely underrepresented in tech. While this may have brought the conversation of Black representation to the forefront, we continuously try to keep diversity top of mind at VNDLY. We had this moment of realization that although we have food metrics on diversity at a high level, there are opportunities to improve when looking a little closer. Recent events reminded us that representation at VNDLY and in tech is still a work in progress.
What other strategies have you used to face diversity-related challenges at VNDLY?
When we were starting the engineering team, we made sure that we had several female engineers and software developers in the early core team. From a talent perspective, it was imperative to approach the build that way. If our first 20 or 30 engineers were all men, it would have been challenging to attract female engineers to come and work in that environment. My first employee was a veteran, and my first head in the implementations group was also a veteran. You have to be conscious about addressing diversity early to create an inclusive culture. It’s harder to build a system to fix this issue after the fact than to address it at the beginning. If you wake up a couple of years into the startup journey and realize that your company is not representative, it’s very hard to fix that problem retroactively rather than being proactive and conscientious upfront. It’s also important to consider the power of the network that you’re tapping into. If you bring someone on and they like the work community, they’re going to recommend the opportunity to three other friends of theirs. If your network is isolated in terms of diversity and not inclusive of other networks, then you haven’t tapped them which could have a compounding effect over time.
How has diversity specifically played a role in your career, and how has it affected your progression in the tech ecosystem?
I was a first-generation immigrant and moved here from India for graduate school. When I tried to apply for diversity-related scholarships at school, I was notified that I wasn’t eligible. I was told people of Indian-origin were overrepresented. I’m sitting there, scratching my head, asking myself if I’m a minority or not! Diversity is too often lumped into one big category, instead of focused and targeted on specific conversations and backgrounds. I thought I was underrepresented in my community at school, but Indians may not necessarily be considered a minority in tech. The problems faced by LGBTQ+ are different from that of African Americans in terms of acceptance and inclusion, yet both are considered diverse or underrepresented groups. When we talk about diversity, we are losing focus on what exactly the problem is. Each of these communities faces different challenges, which is why we need to focus on the disadvantages and solutions unique to these individual communities to make our impact meaningful.
You’ve discussed being a first-generation immigrant and your experience with complications on the definition of diversity. What other diversity-related challenges have you faced in your career?
Being an Indian founder, I haven’t faced significant challenges. I don’t think it would be fair to state that I’ve faced bias or racism. I’m lucky that many Indians have done well in tech. The market works in our favor, and I don’t think that Indians are an underrepresented community in the VC or Startup ecosystems. When we talk about a level playing field, I would maybe even call it a privileged area because of all the work that has been done by the immigrants before me in the past 30 years to pave our way in the tech industry–I benefit from their tailwinds. But in thinking about this disproportionate advantage, I also believe it is essential to ask who is sitting on the other side of this deal getting a disproportionate disadvantage?
What advice would you give to someone trying to get involved in the startup ecosystem that comes from a diverse background and is concerned about the challenges that they may face?
Try to think of it as the opportunity to be a trailblazer: being the first of your kind is a very unique and exciting opportunity. When you’re entering a workforce that is dominated by a particular type of category or ethnicity, don’t think of it as a challenge but rather an opportunity. Now you get to stand out, which has its own benefits. Your message gets amplified because of who you are. Go for it, and embrace this opportunity to stand out, shine, and be different.
If you liked “Diversity in Entrepreneurship” and want to read more content from the Bowery Capital Team, check out other relevant posts from the Bowery Capital Blog. Look out for more content on Diversity in Entrepreneurship from us in the coming weeks, as we talk to more Founder/CEOs from our portfolio about their experiences with diversity.