Technology startups have long been scrutinized for corporate culture—and with good reason.
It seems like every time I read or listen to the news, I see yet another story about the fallout from some company’s toxic workplace culture. It bothers me, not only because I feel sympathy for those who have had to work under those conditions but because I know from firsthand experience that it doesn’t have to be that way.
I co-founded Bak USA with my family. We knew that we wanted to build a values-based company that would champion people and create opportunities for those who have historically been underrepresented in the technology industry. We also knew that we wanted to create a company with a welcoming, inclusive, and collaborative culture.
I’m proud to say that we’ve done that and that Bak USA is thriving. We recently celebrated our third anniversary and, as of this writing, now have a wonderfully diverse team of more than 120 employees.
I think other startups can—and should—follow our lead. Here are six steps they can use to create a healthy corporate culture and how we’ve implemented each at Bak USA.
Step 1: Build culture with purpose from Day One.
Most startups focus on growing as hard and as fast as they can—to the exclusion of all else. They wrongly believe that they can let their culture grow organically and everything will be fine. That’s how they end up with a toxic culture, unhappy employees, and unfortunate news headlines.
- We defined our company’s mission first and make sure every decision is mission-aligned.
- We recognized from the very beginning that every role we created and each person who joined our team would shape the company. We involved our People Team, led by my daughter, Eva, right from the start.
- Having a healthy workplace culture isn’t something that just happens. We decided to nurture our culture toward a desired outcome instead of letting it grow organically.
Step 2: Focus on inclusion—not just diversity.
I feel very strongly that the best teams are those that include people from many different cultures and walks of life. Each person will look at the same problem through a different lens and your company will benefit from their insights. It’s one thing to hire a diverse group of people. But what happens when they arrive for their first day? Will they feel accepted? Will they feel welcome? If they don’t, they’ll leave—and you’ll lose out on their talent.
- We built a new employee lounge to encourage fellowship, collaboration, and relationship-building. It includes a reflection room and a room for nursing mothers.
- We hold occasional employee potlucks and invite every employee to bring a dish to pass and enjoy a meal together. Seating is arranged so that employees sit with co-workers, senior leaders, and managers they may not see every day.
Step 3: Recognize that people are your most important asset.
It’s an unfortunate reality that, at many companies, employees aren’t seen as people—they’re just there to fill a role and get the job done. But that misses the human side of employment and can result in a toxic culture. A job is the key to stability and a cornerstone of a balanced life. Hiring someone is an investment in their future, and employers should commit themselves to caring for each employee as a whole person.
- We believe that the hiring process shouldn’t keep people out. It should bring people in. We recruit outside traditional talent pools and pay employees a wage that propels them forward in life.
- We connect each employee’s role to a larger purpose and make sure they know that their work is critical to our mission.
- We adopted a few collaborative robots and made them part of our production team. By handling repetitive tasks that people don’t enjoy, it keeps employees safe and happy.
Step 4: Place a premium on gender-diverse leadership.
Recently, there has been a great deal of activism and dialogue surrounding women and equal pay. These issues are of particular importance in technology. To put it bluntly, the technology industry needs more women in leadership roles to serve as role models and help attract women to technology jobs.
- Bak USA is a woman-led company. Women are part of our executive leadership team and serve as managers or directors in several departments.
- We actively work to cultivate leadership skills in women who don’t have formal leadership roles by giving them ownership of projects and initiatives.
- Attracting talented women means accommodating the needs of working mothers. That’s why, as I’ve mentioned before, our new employee lounge includes a private room for nursing mothers.
- Reliance on traditional talent pools has resulted in the underrepresentation of women in technology. We look outside those pools and recruit based on skill, not job history.
Step 5: Model collaborative behavior in senior executives.
In many companies, employees rarely have the chance to observe the day-to-day behavior of those in leadership. It has been my experience that when leadership team behavior is collaborative and visible, employee teams will model that behavior, resulting in a workplace culture that champions teamwork.
- All meetings at Bak USA are visible. Our main conference room has glass walls and there’s a large window into the office I share with my husband, J.P.
- Our open office format encourages teamwork and makes managers visible and easily accessible to employees.
- We share information openly at regular “town hall” and all-staff meetings. Employees are encouraged to ask questions.
Step 6: Support a sense of community.
Company leaders play a critical role in cultivating a collaborative culture. I think every leader, whether they’re in a formal leadership role or not, is responsible for creating opportunities to bring people together in authentic ways and help them build relationships.
- I’ve mentioned our employee potluck celebrations before, but they’re worth mentioning again because they’re so important. Food helps us bridge language barriers and cultural differences and come together as a family.
- Our new employee lounge is also worth another mention. We designed it specifically for relaxation, collaboration, fellowship, and fun. The ping-pong table is almost always in action!
- We hold monthly birthday celebrations—not because we’re great at singing Happy Birthday, but because it’s a great way to make employees feel special.
Create a collaborative culture by prioritizing your values.
If you’re a company leader or business owner, it can seem daunting to build—or adjust—your workplace culture.
I’ve been in your shoes. When my family and I were thinking about the company we’d like to build—the company that eventually became Bak USA—we knew we wanted a company that valued different cultures, inclusion, people, gender diversity, openness, and community. I’m proud to say that we succeeded and that the Bak USA extended family is continuing to grow and thrive. If you prioritize your values and use them as a guide, you won’t go wrong.
Would you like to help us define the future of workplace culture and set an example for other technology startups? If you’d like to work at a values-based company that champions people, we’d love to have you.