Written by: Demir Vangelov - CEO, Soylent Nutrition, Inc.
One year ago, we made a renewed commitment to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at Soylent. A big part of that process has been gathering information: listening to what our team has to say about what we can do better and drawing actionable insights to make tangible changes to our processes and culture. Often when companies talk about DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) the focus is on raw numbers—which can be meaningful, but numbers are not the most important aspect of this work. Making people feel a part of the team and making sure everyone can be their true self at work every day is what is important, but that is much harder.
In 2018, we were proud to become the first tech company to join PledgeLA, a collective of locally based companies and VC firms working to create a tech sector reflecting the diversity of Los Angeles. They helped us conduct our 2021 Soylent DEI survey, asking team members about the progress we’ve made, where we need to do better, and how we might make it happen. With the results now in, there are a few key lessons we’ve learned when it comes to making each person at Soylent feel included.
Being accessible requires work
Almost every leader thinks they’re making themselves available to colleagues, but it takes discipline to create a culture where that access is actually used. Just because “your door is always open” doesn’t mean your team members are going to walk in, have a seat, and tell you what’s on their mind. To be inclusive you have to make time for everyone and let them know you are actually listening.
One of my personal commitments has been to hold regular lunches where small groups of Soylent employees are encouraged to show up, and (gently) asked to come with at least three questions and proactively engage. I’ve found that without these structured, regular forums, I miss out on hearing from key members of our team. They also bring us closer together as humans.
According to our survey, 86% of Soylent employees feel included in company decision-making, and 90% say they have easy or very easy access to leadership. We believe those results are due to the hard work and many small actions that we’ve put into making sure people have not just the ability to make themselves heard, but the opportunity.
Feedback isn’t always comfortable
Creating practical channels for Soylent employees to voice their views doesn’t mean much if they think we’re only looking for praise. I believe it’s important to not only claim an openness to criticism, but actively try to draw it out.
In part, this means getting down to details. Asking a colleague “what they think” about a broad topic or big-picture strategy isn’t likely to get more than a shrug—that’s just checking a box to the notion that their opinion has been asked for.
We’ve found more success asking members of our team for specific feedback on tangible problems we’re trying to solve: How will a particular approach help us reach more consumers, or reach our targets, or help them achieve a specific goal? Asking for specific advice on an actual issue at the company beats a generic comment card every time.
The result is that I routinely get frank pushback on decisions I’ve made, and I’m happy to hear it, because it means we won't miss important points of view coming from every corner of the business.
I believe that Soylent is the rare company where people are truly welcome to voice dissent, at every level. And our recent survey results bear this out: 95% of employees reported feeling comfortable voicing contrary ideas and opinions, and believe that the company is receptive to their ideas.
Diversity starts early
Bringing diverse viewpoints, opinions, and experiences to the company has become a cornerstone of our recruiting process. We partner with various recruitment sources to help ensure that when we publicize available positions, they’re reaching diverse applicants (i.e. HBCU Career Center and Valence). More importantly, we hire for skill, the ability to offer thought leadership and expertise—not pedigree. We don't care where someone went to college or where they are from, focusing instead on whether they’re passionate, smart, can do the job, and bring a different point of view.
Our 2021 survey shows that Soylent employees tend to think we’re on the right track. 80% of survey respondents called our hiring process fair. 48% of respondents feel the company is mostly or very diverse, and another 37% feel it’s somewhat diverse. 67% perceive their day-to-day teams as either somewhat, mostly or very diverse, while 47% feel the same about leadership diversity.
When it comes to questions of pay and equity, we were also encouraged by the survey results. 76% feel that the performance evaluation process is fair; 67% feel their current pay is fair or more than fair; and 86% are comfortable or more than comfortable with their standard of living.
We know those numbers mean we still have work to do. But we’re optimistic that 81% of those surveyed say Soylent is mostly or very receptive to diversity and inclusion issues—because it means that we’ll continue to receive the feedback we need to keep making progress.
Implementation is key
Even with structures in place to make sure folks feel comfortable bringing their views to my attention, there’s a long way to go between listening to feedback and doing something about it. If employee concerns are heard but not acted on, people quickly lose the will to have hard conversations and no longer feel like their opinion is valued.
At Soylent, we are obsessed with execution: if we can do something quickly, we do it quickly, and that goes for employee feedback as well.
One favourite example from this past year is how we now run meetings at Soylent, and the process that got us there. After getting a ton of feedback that folks couldn’t carve out enough time to get their work done, we made Wednesday afternoons meeting-free. We just don’t do them: barring an emergency, everyone from the executive team to the most junior employee have at least one big, weekly block for themselves.
We found that folks loved the regular stretches of time to take on whatever needed to be done, however, they still felt like meetings were slowing them down during the rest of the week. So we revamped meetings themselves—putting out (and enforcing) new rules and guidelines that keep them punctual, efficient and purposeful.
95% of people are now showing up to meetings on time, and 80% say that those who’ve organized meetings are prepared and are sending a pre-read ahead of time. When people feel like their time is respected, they feel valued and trusted. That’s borne out by our survey results as well, showing that 95% of employees feel they are “respected, included, and valued” at work.
By acting on the concerns of our team and putting recommended changes into practice, people not only feel the support to make their voices heard. They trust that when they say something, it's taken seriously.
Our people are our business
No matter how committed our employees are to the mission and success of Soylent, at the end of the day, we recognize that we’re all individuals with our own personal concerns and needs at work.
In fact, we don’t view the two as separate: “How are YOU doing at the company?” is an important business question for us, and we strive to take issues that improve people’s performance here as seriously as any point of strategy or sales.
In our survey, 94% of Soylent employees said they do not have to cover any part of their identity at work, 81% feel comfortable reporting personal concerns, and 95% said that the benefits provided by the company are “very inclusive” of their personal and family needs. When folks feel satisfied in their role and comfortable being who they are at work, that not only leads to a stronger team, but helps drive the success of our business.
It also sustains the buy-in necessary for all of the practices I’ve described above, and the values they depend on. Maintaining a company culture of inclusion isn’t about a policy or a single executive or an HR manager; it comes down to every single member of our Soylent team, who makes the choice every day to participate.
It’s why I believe we can proudly claim progress since our commitments to our team one year ago, and why I’m confident we’ll continue building on that success in the years to come.