Fostering A Culture Of Inclusion From The Start


Naeim Khanjani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Elect Analytics, a public affairs software company designed to empower policy teams.

In the earliest stages of building my company, I worked hard to facilitate a strong culture. My team, the majority of which are women, worked alongside me to help create a tight-knit and welcoming work environment for all. They brought their openness to change and accountability and their unique approach to innovation. This served as a fresh perspective from what I remembered as a management consultant in a male-dominated industry.

After some time, I knew that in order for our company culture to succeed, we had to have the necessary foundations of safety, trust and empowerment. From there, we could focus on our goals as a business. Creating a sustainable work culture requires an earnest attempt to make your team feel safe, cared for and motivated. Diversity, equity and inclusion also remain heavily reliant on the culture of a workplace.

Early-stage companies often have the opportunity for a more flexible culture that refines itself over time. As the founder of an early-stage company, you have the opportunity to create a workplace culture with intention.

Here are some takeaways to keep in mind based on my own experience:

Place safety and well-being first.

Arguably, the most important part of creating a workplace culture is creating a safe work environment. For decades, business leaders took employee safety for granted. We can’t afford to make this mistake any longer. Early on, ensure your team members feel safe, respected and cared for at work. This should be a top priority.

To facilitate a safe work environment, we make our support system clear during the onboarding process. Team members know they are free to ask for additional support or guidance on their work. Everyone is encouraged to prioritize their health first, and we make accommodations if someone needs to adjust their work as a result. As executives, my co-founder and I are intentional about refraining from contacting our team after work hours. Barring an emergency, their time outside of work is their own.

Depending on a team member’s background, they may need different types of support that you may not have considered in the past. As a senior leader, it’s critical to establish anti-discrimination and equity policies and walk employees through them. If you’re an early-stage company without formal HR, you can look to free or consultative resources on establishing equity policies for your company. Additionally, I’ve learned that team members receive immense value from proactive investment in their well-being, capturing the fundamental needs of real people trying to survive and thrive at work. At Electo, we take our current team dynamics into account when hiring new talent. Ensuring new team members contribute to the well-being of everyone remains crucial for us, even if it lengthens the hiring process.

While leaders can’t guarantee employees and team members will feel safe 100% of the time, the culture you create early on will have a significant impact on their overall well-being. Within our daily operations, from my tone in meetings, intentional interaction with team members and consistent positive attitude, I share a sense of respect and care for my team members that reverberate throughout our entire company. My co-founder and I work together to take a personalized approach to uplift each team member based on accommodations they might need. Team members are free to ask for accommodations at any time. Through getting to know our team, we work to use our intuition to sense how to best support someone and then use individual feedback to refine our approach. It’s not rocket science; wellness-first management requires people skills.

When team members are onboarded, we stress the importance of clear, direct communication, whether it be a need to take an afternoon to focus on wellness or needing support to meet a deadline.

A strong work culture reflects one where everyone feels comfortable advocating for themselves. It’s important to take steps to encourage those who might need extra support and work to demonstrate a genuine commitment to everyone’s well-being.

Treat equity as a fundamental component of strong leadership.

Current conversations about equity and inclusion often treat both as secondary considerations for management — or worse, as afterthoughts. Companies that take equity and inclusion as seriously as business strategy find an alignment between employee satisfaction and achieving business goals.

Achieving an equitable work environment takes time, intention and education. Alongside absorbing the latest thought leadership in business, take time to learn about relevant equitable management practices such as inclusive language, flexible leave policies and wellness-first management.

Research from TINY Pulse in 2020 found that 61% of employees think trust in senior management is important to their well-being and satisfaction. Senior managers who prioritize workplace equity and transparency are likely to earn trust from employees.

Early-stage companies with strong work cultures are more likely to succeed.

Workplace culture can make or break a company’s resilience. A healthy work culture remains as important as healthy finances and a sustainable business model. Unhealthy work environments lead to higher turnover rates, burnout and low productivity. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Human Capital Trends Survey, “Organizations that integrate well-being into the design of work at the individual, team, and organizational levels will build a sustainable future where workers can feel and perform at their best.”

Setting the foundation for a healthy, equitable and positive workplace early on helps prevent companies from developing a tolerance for institutional bias and inappropriate workplace behavior. Early-stage companies have a responsibility to set the tone for their company’s values and culture. Implementing genuine efforts to involve diversity, equity and inclusion in the early stages set a company up for long-term success.

Through cultivating a workplace culture to include and uplift a diverse set of talented team members, two things are clear to me: First, women are rewriting the fate of startups. Second, taking the extra time to establish boundaries and build trust early on is necessary for the long-term strength of a team and company. Early-stage DEI is not a “nice to have;” it’s essential.


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