The daily for
New Zealand’s Startups

Why startups need to create a sense of belonging ‍

Best Places to Work

Startups may have a head start when it comes to creating more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces, but also an outsized responsibility to do so. 


Caitlin Sykes

BeHeard founder Sian Govind

A few years ago, after Phil Thomson and his Auror co-founders had made their first hires and were surveying their burgeoning startup team, they became aware of a potential, looming threat.

“We looked around the room and said, ‘this isn't actually representative of the community’. And we knew then that the bigger you got, the more you go into ‘diversity debt’, and the harder it becomes to get out of it,” says Thomson.

"At the time we were perhaps 10 guys, but [we thought] when we went to 20 or 30 guys, who would want to come and work for that if they didn't feel like they belonged?”

Auror, which provides a crime intelligence software platform, was recently named Supreme Award winner at the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise International Business Awards. 

CEO Thomson co-founded the company in 2012 with James Corbett and Tom Batterbury, and attributes the company’s success to moving the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) dial since those early days and creating a diverse team. 

“We're building a product for the community, therefore a team that represents that community always builds the best product, the right product, and thinks through any implications that it could have on the community itself.” 

Findings from the EY Belonging Barometer 3.0, which canvassed 5,000 employees globally in May, showed that while 41 percent of workers said their workplace was where they felt their greatest sense of belonging after their home, 75 percent reported feeling excluded at work. 

More than half (56 percent) felt it could hold them back if they shared elements of their identity at work, and this was significantly higher (77 percent) for LGBTQ+ workers.

But a sense of of belonging is key to driving the employee engagement that underpins business success, says Thomson: “You want your people, ultimately, when they come to work every day to do their best work and focus on making an impact; you don't want them to be thinking about, do they belong here – to look around the room and say, ‘I'm the odd one out’.” 

Greater transparency to drive the tech sector forward

It's natural for founders to tap their immediate networks when hiring, but encouraging a more diverse range of people to apply for roles will, more than likely, find a better candidate, he says.

At Auror, widening the funnel starts with keeping job ad language neutral and considering where they’re placed. 

“Recently we’ve had really good success on things like Jobs for Mums. So you're looking at people who might be returning to work, who have really good life experience and they may not have come across your advert otherwise.”

The company environment also helps attract and retain diverse talent, he says; Auror offers specific parental benefits, Friday afternoons off, and flexibility around how and where employees work. 

The company now has 150 staff, half of which are in New Zealand, with others spread globally, and that environment has helped Auror create a positive point of difference in offshore talent markets, says Thomson. Inclusivity is supported by a relatively flat company structure and a culture that encourages dissenting opinions and information sharing. 

Auror co-founder Phil Thomson

Auror is transparent about the salary bands it offers for its roles and reveals its gender and ethnic diversity figures. Women represent 52 percent of all those working in the firm, and in its leadership team; its engineering team comprises 45 percent Pākehā, 44 percent People of Colour and 11 percent other (those who don’t identify as either). But there’s still work to do, says Thomson – for example, increasing its representation of Māori and Pacific people (respectively at 4 percent and 2 percent).

“You can only be what you can see. So for us, by publishing this stuff, it's like, we talk a lot about DEI and being better, but how do we hold ourselves and others accountable for that, and also show that this isn't a flash in the pan? It is a journey.

“If we can show what's possible and also show where we're happy to call out where we want to improve ourselves I hope it provides inspiration for others to show you get better as a company if you have this as a core part of your strategy.”

No D without the E and the I

Sian Govind is founder of DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) social enterprise BeHeard, whose work includes working with organisations that want to improve their DEI efforts and an online community for DEI advocates. Former head of people at Halter, Govind joined the tech industry when she moved to Europe in her mid-twenties, describing a “baptism of fire” working for where she led a team of non-native English speakers from different cultures.

“It was a real moment for me to realise my own privilege because for the first time in my life, I was not part of the dominant group, both from a culture perspective and a gender perspective in terms of a 50/50 split,” she says. “It was also a time where I had to very quickly adapt, because I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought I knew.”

Govind says although diversity is a key aspect of DEI, it’s the sole focus for many organisations.

“But it can become unstuck if that's where it starts and ends, because the harsh reality – and I learned this the hard way – is that diverse teams are actually way more tricky to lead than homogenous teams, because you've got the added complexity of working with people with different life experiences, different cultures, values, beliefs – everything. I often say you can't do the D without the E and the I.” 

Organisations’ focus on DEI is increasing, she says, driven by the need for better workplace retention in the age of ‘quiet quitting’, the rise of Gen Z consumers who factor companies’ social responsibility into buying decisions, and regulatory change, such as the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. Investors also examine DEI as part of their due diligence.

Due to their size, startups have an unfair advantage promoting DEI, says Govind, because they’re relatively free of the diversity debt racked by many larger organisations. But she argues tech startups – as society’s disruptors – have an outsized social responsibility to do so.

“If we have a homogenous group of people building products that are changing the way that society works, then we run a huge risk of those products meeting the needs of that homogenous group and driving a much wider wedge within society because you're building a product that solves for the way that you experience a problem – and that’s not the same for everybody.”

Govind’s six DEI tips for startups

  1. Be intentional: You can make a laundry list of great initiatives to move the dial on DEI but “to make meaningful change and actually get tangible results from what you're doing, you need to be really intentional and focused”.
  1. Diagnose where you're at…: “You need to really understand the baseline that you're working from and get a very clear picture of where you're at as a company on your journey.”
  1. …then ask why: “Say you're not seeing diversity in your talent pipelines, don't stop at ‘oh, we're lacking diversity’, ask ‘why are we lacking?’ Is the problem at the top of the funnel? Is it that you can't attract that talent? Or is it somewhere throughout the funnel that talent is falling out and, why is that?” 
  1. Embrace human-centred design: We need to unlearn the idea of treating people how we want to be treated, says Govind. “We need to be treating people how they want to be treated.” Cancel culture is real, and involving employees in the design of DEI strategies and initiatives also mitigates the risk of getting things wrong. 
  1. Use a simple OKR framework: This helps keep you focused on specific objectives and key results.
  1. Start small: “Start with something that you know you can deliver on, use that to build trust and credibility and then expand the conversation.”


DEI is one of the key aspects covered in Best Places to Work – a programme Caffeine is supporting as its media partner for the startup community. The Best Places to Work employee engagement survey is now open.


Caitlin Sykes

Freelance business writer and editor; former NZ Herald small business editor and Unlimited magazine editor

6 hours ago

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
6 hours ago

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.