Here's what DEI looks like inside 2 Nigerian startups

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June 5, 2024
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5 min read
Realistic image of a modern office environment showcasing diversity, equity, and inclusion with a diverse group of professionals collaborating in various activities, including a person in a wheelchair.

Elon Musk took over X (formerly Twitter) and cut its global workforce, with more women (57%) laid off than men (47%). Since females are considered a marginalised group, Musk's move did not look good, especially when looked at in the light of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

This prompted a discrimination lawsuit by two women — ex-X employees — who alleged that Musk violated employment laws by dismissing significantly more women than men. The court had to decide if it was a deliberate attempt to target women in the company or sheer coincidence, especially since the company had more male employees at the time.

Gender representation in the workplace is an important consideration in DEI, which stems from the efforts and initiatives established to ensure that a workplace has a proper representation of different groups of people, treats these groups fairly, and permits them to have a sense of belonging in the organisation.

Why DEI?

Labour laws contained anti-discrimination laws long before DEI was coined and went mainstream. These laws stop employers from hiring or laying off from a place of bias.

These biases come in the form of gender, ethnicity, age, religion, disabilities, etc. Despite DEI's growing popularity, it is not without its criticisms, including how it is only a matter of time before representation begins to look like discrimination to the other demography whose talent and merit are ignored because of another group's inclusion.

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Having already gained much ground in the Global North, DEI has undoubtedly been recognised as a global need. Aside from companies with intercontinental operations implementing DEI initiatives in locations with less attention like Africa, startups have also been drawn into this movement as they build locally for the globe.

Most people agree that social and cultural shifts impact how a company approaches and commits to the DEI movement. Now, founders and leaders are expected to think more and speak about DEI-related issues. Still, some prefer not to talk about it. Luckily, two Nigerian startups were interested in sharing.

"Ours is an equal-opportunity workplace. We value inclusion and diversity, and anyone who applies and qualifies for opportunities in the organisation will receive consideration for employment without discrimination against age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, colour, or disability."

You'd often find companies include closely worded paragraphs like the above in their job advertisements to reflect their stance on inclusion or because legislation compels them to.

For instance, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits companies from asking about certain personal characteristics while hiring. Questions about race, religion, ethnicity, age, illness/disability, or marital/parental status can be considered evidence for discrimination, although some of this information can be obtained through other means like thorough background checks.

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Is DEI an American problem?

It is not strange to hear people say that diversity and inclusion is an American problem; “We have other pressing problems here,” they might add.

DEI strategies are meant to eliminate discrimination and foster a culture of inclusion in the workplace, but there's no one-size-fits-all approach to it.

With different countries' labour laws containing provisions for treating cases considered to be biased or prejudiced, employment lawyer, Damilola Mumuni submits that "with time, everyone will catch up. All we need to do is remove any enabler of bias and allow a free system."

However, he does not support enforcing DEI policies that have worked in the US, for instance, on people in this part of the world.

"Except there's a manifest injustice in the way of employment or appointment, maybe there's an obvious bias or an irregular system of employment, I do not see a reason why there should be DEI compliance."

Bias and discrimination exist everywhere and are influenced by culture and history. Hence, there's a need to understand each location's needs before defining what inequality means to them.

Africa, for instance, is often divided along the lines of gender, religion, and tribe, and so companies in the continent would have to measure representation in that sense. Moreso, Africa is still struggling to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

On the other hand, inclusivity exists along the lines of race, disability, and sexual orientation in the US. Meanwhile, 31 out of the 64 countries that have laws criminalising homosexuality are African.

Awa Ekekwe, People and Culture Lead at Risevest, singles out infrastructure — especially provisions for physically challenged people — legal provisions, and finance as the challenges African companies face when it comes to implementing DEI initiatives.

Douglas Kendyson, Selar CEO, says it is more of a cultural disposition and believes things are changing now.

"People, organisations, and governments are becoming more aware of these issues and are working to make things better. We are getting to a place where our cultural differences are being celebrated. Gender equality and fighting against social injustices is becoming a thing."

So, what does a DEI strategy look like for an African startup?

Ekekwe emphasises how intentional Risevest is about gender inclusion, especially female representation in key managerial roles.

"In hiring, we are intentional about not discriminating. We don't ask people about their religion, where they are coming from, or sexual orientation."

Having done seven hiring rounds in the startup's four years of operations, Eneyi Obi,  Risevest's Head of Marketing, reiterates how the focus is always to hire based on merit, but they are still aware of how each gender is represented.

For someone who has once been in charge of people at the startup, Obi adds that the organisation has structured inclusion into its hiring process and internal policies, CSR, and operations.

"Even outside hiring, we care about making sure all the groups of people who work for us, who use our products, feel like this is a product for them, this is a workspace for them. So DEI for us is not just about hiring, it's always a full picture — 360."

Outside being intentional about proper gender representation, the company ensures it prevents bias that could arise from age, religion, or sexual identity by simply not asking.

"Do we have people of different sexual orientations working for us? We don't know, and it doesn't matter because it's really not useful to what we're doing."

This is a slightly different case at Selar.

Kendyson mentions how the startup is intentional about ensuring everyone is welcome regardless of their background, identities, gender, and beliefs, but the ultimate goal is hiring based on competence.

"Gender and sexual orientation is what’s important to us right now, and that’s not too fixed. With time, our DEI priorities will expand and change, and we’re always open to that."

"It’s important to me to hire queer people on the team, and interestingly, a lot of that has happened organically, and for some others, I seek out competent queer experts to add to our team," he adds.

Like Risevest, Selar ensures it finds a way to balance the gender ratio.

Risevest operates across two continents, while Selar operates in three. While none of them has faced any serious challenge implementing DEI strategies across their markets, Kendyson would have loved more native representation from those countries on the team.

Obi believes the extent to which companies will embrace DEI initiatives will depend on the leadership's exposure to global practices.


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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.

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