“When I started, there were no black female founders in Chicago that readily came to mind, to whom I could go to for advice,” said Stella Ashaolu, founder and CEO of WeSolv.
Her three-year-old Chicago-based startup is reducing hiring bias by providing opportunities for MBA students to solve real-world challenges for top companies.
“Now, of course, I have a network. But it’s a much smaller one, with not as many people at the levels that other founders have –– people who look like them and come from where they came from.”
Diversity in tech is increasingly being addressed on a number of fronts. Although many companies say they want to be a part of the diversity conversation, they talk very quietly about it –– and don’t actually do anything. It goes beyond a standard blindness to the problem; there’s a blinding gleam reflected back from the shiny, bald heads of old, white dudes. You know, the ones fiercely guarding the gates of the status quo.
Stella has experienced her share of that. “I walked into a business development meeting with a Fortune 100 company that said the CEO talked about ‘diversity from the top down,’” she said.
“I’d worked with their HR team and we’d put together a plan. When I got there, it was literally six white men and one white woman. Everyone has to start from somewhere, so I don’t knock you if you really want to make a change. But in that same meeting, I heard, ‘Diversity is important to us, but not right now.’”
In the world of startups, there’s no time like the present. For startups to truly value diversity, they’ve got to create a unique place; one where creative, talented people want to work. In order to do that, they need tools that help them pick the right candidates.
I’ve seen companies launch diversity initiatives but struggle to retain the employees they attract. Diversity is something companies have to be truly ready for. Often, they’re not.
“I would go a step further,” Stella said. “Companies do have to be ready to make the changes that bring more diversity. And then, once they get diverse folks in the door, how do they make them feel included as a part of their culture, make them stay and continue to multiply that effect? I think it starts with having real intention, not just lip service. Not just something that’s talked about, but is lived out.”
What does that look like?
“We live it out through things like how we run meetings, how we engage with one another, what we value from a culture standpoint, what we reward from a business standpoint, the metrics we track. All of those things must be related to the outcomes we want,” said Stella.
How Stella Got Into the Diversity Hiring Groove
Living this mission is something she’s been doing since her college days at UCLA. She launched her first startup, Westside Student Tutors, to address the need for affordable, quality tutoring in Los Angeles. While growing her company 300% over two years, she created a program called College Here I Come! to help underrepresented high school students apply and prepare for college.
Stella worked in business operations at a law firm, as well as client management for Gallup, before starting WeSolv in 2015. With a commitment to “make diversity hiring obsolete,” the company is a two-sided platform connecting MBA students to top-tier employers who want to work toward inclusive talent acquisition.
WeSolv partners with each company to create customized case challenges. Students take them on and compete for cash prizes. Stella notes that the real wins are less about money than doors that open to those students when they get the chance to prove what they can do.
The WeSolv user network represents more than 60 schools, including all 25 of the nation’s top MBA programs. Partner companies are well-known enterprise and startup/growth stage companies like Discover and Salesforce. Challenges have included product marketing and competitor analysis, new product launch, mobile app go-to-market strategy, and company valuation and analysis projects.
It’s a win-win. Employers get fresh new ideas from MBAs and can recruit from a talent pool that’s incredibly diverse: 50% of WeSolv’s user base is women; 70% are underrepresented minorities. Meanwhile, students gain invaluable experience and connections. It’s a paradigm shift in the way we think about recruitment.
“Even though diversity is a key tenet and focus at WeSolv, it’s really about how an organization identifies the best talent,” said Stella.
“What is unique about us, and about the companies that we work best with, is that we’re thinking about this differently, because the current model isn’t working. How do we do it better? And I think that will help solve the diversity issue.”
WeSolv’s next steps: improving its predictive analytics and performance data, along with broadening its user base to include other graduate students, and eventually undergrads.
“We’re working on integrating a lot more scientific research into our algorithms and the way that we assess candidates through performance,” Stella said. “We’ve expanded our network significantly, so now we have a network of over 30,000 users. We just launched another Salesforce challenge and had over 600 people sign up in less than a week.”
After getting initial support from Chicago tech incubator 1871’s WiSTEM program, a cohort-based program for women entrepreneurs, WeSolv recently branched out to the West Coast as part of the 2018 Seattle Techstars class.
“I think Techstars has done a really great job of trying to create a very similar culture in all of their city sites, but each of them takes on the unique nature of that city,” said Stella. “Techstars Seattle was really great, giving us exposure to a different network of companies, investors and entrepreneurs.”
Today, WeSolv works out of the Chicago Techstars office. “It’s really great to have both of these networks,” she said.
Stella advises young entrepreneurs that any incubator or accelerator is what you make of it. “None of them are a silver bullet,” she said. “For us, 1871 was a great starting place, but I saw so many people not utilize it properly. I’m the type of person who really looks to leverage, a network and learn from others. I was really intentional about not being afraid of asking for help or asking questions.”
It’s also vital, after you’ve successfully leveraged all the opportunities an incubator provides, to offer a boost to the next wave of entrepreneurs. One of the cool things about Technori is that it has a lineage, going back to GrubHub founder Matt Maloney and SpotHero founder Mark Lawrence. As they reach even higher levels of success, they’re leaving breadcrumbs for the next generations of founders.
Everyone has a responsibility to drop their own breadcrumbs instead of eating them all up. For a while, a lot of local founders were being selfish. But now, all of a sudden, I’m seeing founders like Stella stepping up to leave that track for others.
“That’s exactly why I have to do it. It’s something that I think is personally motivated me,” she said. “To be a resource, as best as I can, for those who come behind me.”