Building an Inclusive Mindset and Culture

Noa Gafni
Noa Gafni
Noa Gafni is the Executive Director at Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation, where she educates business leaders on corporate social responsibility, including diversity and inclusion. In this guide, she explains how to create diverse teams, ensure supportive work environments, and reap the innovation benefits that come from a broader perspective.

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Questions Covered in this Guide

Why does inclusivity matter?

To have a comfortable workforce – you want people to feel safe at work so they’re able to be their best selves and they can display their talents.

To take advantage of the diverse workforce pool – demographics in the US are changing. To make sure you have access to the broadest, best talent pools, you want to be able to make sure you can connect to diverse audiences.

Homogenous teams are good for incremental innovation, but diversity is important for breakthrough innovation – there’s been research that shows that diversity can be a detractor when you’re just trying to get something done quickly and that’s because it takes more time for people to get on the same page. However, when you take into account all the aspects of diversity, in terms of backgrounds and lived experiences, you can have a really amazing mix of people in the room. And that’s when creative breakthrough ideas happen. This is called “cross-pollination” in academic literature.

To make sure your product works for everyone – when there’s no diversity on teams, you can’t see how the final product might exclude people. For example, Alexa responds better to my husband’s voice than it does to mine (as a woman), and people of color have a harder time opening their phone screens using facial recognition.

What are the different types of diversity that companies should be aware of and sensitive to?

Five Traditional Types of Diversity

Race and ethnicity – how someone identifies in terms of their ethnic background and race. 

Gender identity – broadly, people tend to identify as female, male, or non-binary. 

Ability or disability – ​​that can include anything from what you traditionally consider in terms of physical disability, but it should also take into account mental health and other hidden disabilities. 

Religion – how someone identifies for their religious practice, such as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, agnostic, etc.  

Sexual Orientation – heterosexual or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual, etc. 

Five Non-Traditional Types of Diversity

Age – ageism is a real thing, but having people on both ends of the spectrum can be a real strength. ​​When you’re thinking about digital natives vs. people who have seen the space evolve over decades, both add valuable perspective to the organization (in different ways).

Political Beliefs – different ideological beliefs provide added perspective. Otherwise, we’re talking within our own silos and contributing to a more and more polarized society.

Socioeconomic status – including factors like income and education. Socioeconomic status is often closely tied with race and ethnicity.

Lived experience – these could be experiences in their current live e.g. whether they’re a parent taking care of kids at home or in their past life, e.g. whether they have experienced food insecurity, or homelessness, or other issues that really impacted their lives in a serious way.

Introversion vs. extroversion – the working world is tailored towards extroverts, and introverts bring something different to the table. We need to cater to them in a different way, especially in this virtual environment. 

It’s important to think about the intersectionality of traditional and non-traditional diversity – progress has stalled on diversity because we’ve been focusing mostly on the “traditional” measures, but those are interwoven with non-traditional diversity:
  • E.g. Socioeconomic status is closely tied to race – for instance, at Ivy League schools 20% of students are from families in the top 1% of the population in terms of income. More students of color tend to go to public universities vs. top schools, even those who could get into elite institutions. So if companies are only willing to hire from certain schools, they’re doing themselves a disservice when it comes to both socioeconomic and racial diversity.
  • E.g. Gender and caregiving responsibilities can impact lived experience – as we saw during COVID, more women left the workforce because of their increased caregiving responsibilities. If you’re looking to drive more gender diversity, it’s important to consider how at-home responsibilities shape women at work.

How does non-traditional diversity impact everyday teamwork? What are thoughtful ways to be inclusive?


  • Be aware of dominant voices – dominant voices tend to overlap with certain racial, gender, and other profile characteristics. Of course, that’s not true across the board, but there are tendencies.
  • Give credit to the person with the original idea – this is a tangible way to deal with situations where introverted people are talked over. The responsibility shouldn’t fall on the diverse person to say, “Hey, that was my idea and this person is just repackaging it.”


  • Pair ends of the spectrum – during COVID, some companies paired their oldest and youngest employees together. So many people were onboarding and had never met their colleagues in person, and some of the older employees were having trouble transitioning to a highly digital world. It turned out that both could learn from the opposite sides of the spectrum.

Political Beliefs

  • Don’t avoid talking about politics – we tend to avoid talking about politics at all costs, judge people based on what we think their political beliefs are, and there’s no middle ground as a result. Some companies even avoid hiring people with a certain belief.
  • Leaders should model making space for neutral conversations – Giving people the tools to have neutral conversations and modeling that for them is key. People can be Republicans and people can be Democrats, and there can be common ground. It’s okay to have conversations about issues affecting the world today in a neutral way.

Socio-economic status (including academic background)

  • Think about how employees will deal with expenses – when teams go on a business trip, they tend to get expensed after the fact. But not everybody can put a $10,000 balance on a credit card.
  • Hire from outside your regular pools – there are so many opportunities to hire people from diverse backgrounds who are just as smart, but didn’t have the opportunity to attend a certain school. There are some interesting AI-based hiring tools that rip out brand names from CVs and make sure you’re actually testing people on what they know.

Lived Experience

  • Especially in work-from-home, people may not want to be on video – there may be multiple people working from home in a small space (and employees may not want their co-workers to know that). The expectation that everybody needs to keep their camera on all the time can be counterproductive because it can make people feel really awkward.
  • In an “always-on” culture, be mindful of the hours people need – many people have caregiving responsibilities and need flexibility in their schedules for how to fulfill those responsibilities, or they need time to step away from work during their “off” hours so they can recharge.
  • Create space to talk about their past lived experience (when its relevant) – ask which issues employees care about and why. Volunteer days and corporate responsibility days are good ways for an employee to mention a cause they care about.

Early on, what key steps can companies take to be inclusive in their hiring?

Look at your existing team to look for gaps – make sure that you’re building a well-rounded team. In tech innovation, when you have a very diverse team, they can create cross-pollination, which leads to bigger breakthroughs. 

Make sure you’re posting “beyond your network” – you don’t want to just hire people who know other people in your existing network. For example, reach out to talent pools from public universities (including historically black colleges and universities) and alumni networks. 

Early on, what key steps can companies take to create an inclusive environment for their team members?

Once employees are hired, make sure people can be themselves at work – this has to really relate to your office culture, and it’s going to be different for every organization, but one big reason people leave companies is because they feel like they can’t be themselves at work. 


  • Say things like “you’re the only person in the room who fits into this diverse category. How do we make you feel more comfortable?”
  • Put the onus on diverse colleagues to fit in. Instead, it should be responsibility of leaders to adapt and be accommodating (without needing to be asked).

As a company starts to have more resources, what role should the people/HR team play?

Often HR sees this as a compliance risk issue, but it should be more than that – of course, compliance is a consideration, but your bigger goal should be to create an inclusive environment.

When onboarding new people to the team, ask questions that lead to a broader understanding – for example, people tick a box on their application saying they might have a disability, but then no one follows up and ask if they need an accommodation. You need to have more of a conversation to actually make that person feel comfortable and be successful.

You’ll experience “step-changes” where the organization grows and you need to formalize – when the team is smaller, the culture tends to be very informal. But as you grow, you need to formalize it. It’s not about getting rid of the founding ethos, or not wanting to move quickly, but it’s about how you bring new people along on the journey in a way that works for them.

Are there any types of 3rd party resources that companies should consider leveraging?

Books and publications are a good starting point – these conversations are always ongoing so reading is a good way to stay up-to-date. Consider resources like:

  • Books: How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility
  • Magazines/journal – Stanford Social Innovation Review, Harvard Business Review, The Economist or The New York Times.

Consultants and trainers can help you “set the scene” and establish a vocabulary for discussing these issues – having an external consultant do a training and facilitate a conversation in a safe way can be transformative for an organization. Especially when a company is small, doesn’t have an HR team, and is thinking about bringing more people into the organization.

How should you make cultural corrections in everyday work?

If there’s awkwardness, talk to the team leader, NOT the diverse person –  if there’s one person who looks different from everybody else, and that’s creating friction on the team, you need to talk to that team leader, not to the diverse person.

Make sure team-building is inclusive – if you have a team member who needs to leave right at 4:30, try to not make most team-building activities revolve around getting drinks after work. 

Rally the team to correct individuals who aren’t behaving inclusively – a training can help rally the rest of the team to model a more inclusive culture. Once you have an HR person, you can have that conversation more formally, but it’s really about how you model a culture and lean on everybody to model that culture. 

How should companies think about responding to potentially sensitive current events?

The “say nothing” approach is antiquated and can backfire – Millennials and Gen Z expect companies to take a stand on issues. Even if you’re a small employer, they still expect you to take a stand. As you think about making a statement, consider how you bring everybody in.

Be careful not to be hypocritical – for example, many companies post around International Women’s Day, but this year there was a bot that fact-checked all the companies that posted on LinkedIn for International Women’s Day and checked their pay gap. When you take a stand on issues, you need to make sure that it’s reflected in your organizational culture.

Don’t look to the affected diverse people in your org to understand the event – for example, following the death of George Floyd, many employees were leaning on their Black colleagues to explain to them what was going on. 

How should CEOs and founders think about personal activism?

If you’re particularly passionate about a divisive issue, try to separate work and life – for example, personal political contributions should be personal because a company shouldn’t promote a certain political candidate. 

If you want to take a stance, do it in a balanced way – if your company takes a stance on a certain issue and you have employees in the organization who don’t agree, you need to find a way to respect their opinions without trying to make them stay silent. Leaders have to be mindful of that balance. 

What steps can investors take to foster more inclusive portfolios?

Broaden the pool of prospect companies to invest in more diverse founders – there’s a huge gap in diverse founder funding. The pipeline isn’t as narrow as people think; we just need to look harder. 

Take into account non-traditional differences – for example, if you have an introvert presenting at a demo day it may not have the same effect as if an extrovert was presenting, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have a great company. So how do we open our minds to what it means to pitch?

Success rates aren’t tied to the “norms” of what we see in founders – we’ve created a prototypical idea of a founder (i.e. young, white, male) that benefits a narrow group of people, but it excludes lots of profiles who end up being highly successful. For example, some of the most successful founders are in their 40s.

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Diversity is a business imperative – it’s great for innovation; it’s not just a nice thing to have when you take a company photo.

Build an inclusive culture from the outset – take small steps and make sure that the onus is on the founder/the people at the top. 

Think about the intersectionality of diversity – if you don’t, it’s much harder to move the needle effectively. If you hire someone who has a different gender or ethnicity on the team, but they have the same experiences as everybody else, you won’t get the same innovation boost.

What are the common pitfalls?

Doing nothing – and expecting it to be fine. You’ll revert to the culture of the majority, and you’ll be left wondering why people don’t come into your company and stay. 

Don’t rely on your diverse employees to create your DEI strategy – it’s not the right way to go about it and it’s not appropriate. These individuals already face enough bias, so to ask them to take on more of a load than they’re already taking on is wrong.

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