An invisible albeit powerful force, company culture binds an organization. It’s what keeps teams in sync and together emotionally, even when they are miles apart. Company culture also inspires positive change and sparks innovation. Similar to how culture in the human microbiome impacts systemic wellness, company culture plays a critical role in maintaining the health of a business. Notably, the importance of company culture has come to the forefront for nearly all business leaders during COVID-19 quarantines.  

But, as all business leaders know, company culture is a complex, living system that’s born just as much from the people who make up an organization as the policies an organization implements, influencing how people connect and interact. It’s informed by a company’s vision and values and shaped by its history. And, more importantly, company culture is inspired by the beliefs and behaviors of its leadership team.

At Urban FT, we strive to build a culture upon the pillars of respect, love and authentic expression for all – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age and background. While we’ve made strides in founding these pillars organically, we recognize that ethos also filters from the top down.

Through our journey, we’ve found that there are a few key elements needed to trigger transformational changes that move beyond just talk.

Take a stance 

Reasonably, few would dispute that all people should be equally represented, rewarded and valued in the workplace. But many have strong feelings about what those values actually mean, who they serve and how to achieve them. After all, emotions are intrinsic to how we make decisions, how we interact and how we make sense of the world around us. Nobody is perfect and we can easily make mistakes or be misguided. In a world where social norms and attitudes are constantly evolving, I am now making emotional intelligence (EQ) a critical part of my leadership strategy. I believe that by developing my own EQ, I will be able to appropriately respond to social movements and make better decisions that nurture a healthy and inclusive company culture.

In the fintech industry, we are not bound to regulatory or compliance protocols to promote diversity, inclusion and equality protocols. But regardless, we should hold ourselves to our own high standards and we do this because we viscerally believe in equality for all. This involves being unafraid to take a stand when its needed and going a step further by actioning on this stance.

When it comes to discrimination, Urban FT has a zero-tolerance policy. As a company, we fundamentally believe that creating and maintaining a safe space that allows for all people – regardless of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, sexual orientation or military status – to feel 100% comfortable being who they are and bringing their whole selves to work, is fundamental to the success of our business. Apart from being a skyrocketing competitive advantage in improving productivity and encouraging better staff retention, it’s also, very simply, the human thing to do.  

There are two pivotal moments in particular that stick out to me that warranted a stiff and strong response. Both of which captured national attention. 

I was particularly captivated by the Me Too (#MeToo) movement, which uncovered widespread practices of gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion in workplaces across the country. Knowing that biases do not stop at gender, it became clear that our organization needed to take a stronger stance and play a greater role in tackling workplace discrimination of all kinds so that we could become part of the solution – and not add to the problem. While I’m the first to admit that we still have work to do in terms of bringing on more women at the executive level, I’m proud of the progress and commitment we’ve made.

Additionally, I, like many, was horrified by the senseless death of George Floyd that sparked protests around the world. As I’ve tried to comprehend just how things have gotten to this point, I have formed the opinion that ‘inequality’ in this country is not just limited to race. We live in a society where our leaders – local, state and federal – often can’t help themselves but to deepen the partisan divide for their own political gain. It may seem harmless, but it is the first, and perhaps most significant, example of empowering inequality by normalizing a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mentality across society. 

In times like this, real change needs to come from our leaders. They first need to acknowledge that there’s a problem without finding someone to blame for it. They then need to lead by example. They need to show that they ‘respect’ our laws; the people living here; and, the amazing melting-pot of culture and diversity that we have here in this country. They need to show pragmatic and compassionate bipartisan leadership to all matters affecting this country – not just some. They need to do a better job at governing for ‘all of us’ and not just ‘some of us.’ No matter what political persuasion you may have, both sides of politics need to do more and need to lead by example. Candidly though, they will only do this if you, and others in our society, demand it.

As an individual and a leader, I recognize the importance of taking a stand and doing my part to promote equality. Everyone deserves to be treated with equal rights, respect and compassion. I respect and value each member of my team very much and encourage each one – no matter how insignificant it may seem – to help instill greater human decency in their respective communities.

There is no one regulating or forcing us to do so. It’s simply the right thing to do.

Naivety is no longer an excuse

Over the last few weeks, conversations in board rooms across the country have shifted from addressing outward and blatant discrimination to also addressing harmful microaggressions and unconscious bias.

It is important to address all categories of discrimination. Good intentions may be enough to regulate intentional discrimination but you’ll certainly need to do more to stop unintentional bias, which usually occurs inadvertently in interpersonal interactions. For example, certain staff members may not feel as comfortable or welcome attending events for socializing or networking where important discussions take place and critical decisions are made.

Taking a top down approach, all business leaders must be committed to personally overcoming naivety and uncovering their own biases. And this value must be embedded in company culture so that it reverberates throughout the organization.

Formally recognize and support

When it comes to any social movement, history has taught us that change can happen through collective activism. But progress doesn’t just hinge on the big headline events or legal victories. First and foremost, change starts with ourselves. The way we talk, think and act each day can then influence those around us. Collectively, these ripples build momentum, creating a large-scale wave that changes the broader community.

As business leaders, we are in a position to trigger the ripple effect in a profound way, starting with ourselves and inside our own organizations. All too often, organizations outline abstract DI&E policies but fail to bring rhetoric to reality. To bolster Urban FT’s impact on the ripple effect, we’ve implemented our CEO ACT!ON FOR DIVERSITY, INCLUSION & EQUALITY (CADIE) initiative, which focuses on creating a solid diversity, inclusivity & equality (DI&E) framework and inspiring a strong company culture that drives growth and innovation. It goes beyond just crafting a policy but gets people from every facet of the organization involved.

One of the first steps in making our plan actionable was identifying and defining the groups that are most distinctly subject to discrimination and inequality in the communities we serve. This served as an eye-opening learning experience for us as a company and we were able to use this knowledge to enable and empower meaningful action.

We’ve also worked to ensure that we formally and boldly state our position against discrimination and inequality across all internal and external communications channels, such as on our intranet, corporate website and social media channels. We hold ourselves markedly accountable as playing a role in the issue, clearly articulating the challenges and the tangible action we are taking to eradicate it.

To further invigorate our DI&E charter, we’ve passed a policy to ensure these principles also hold weight in the selection of customers, partners and vendors we choose to do business with. For example, we’ve formally included our DI&E values as part of the terms and conditions in our Master Services Agreement (MSA). This policy is “make a break” for partnering with Urban FT, meaning that we will not do business with any organization that refuses to sign it. After all, we thrive on innovation at Urban FT and we know that diversity and inclusion drive companies and people forward. Why would we want to work with anyone that doesn’t share those values?

Go against the grain and set industry standards

Against the tumultuous financial squeeze of COVID-19, women and people of color are finding themselves disproportionately affected personally and professionally. And as scores of recent headlines continue to expose systemic social gaps, it’s clear that we as a society have a long road ahead of us in repairing gaps in social equality.  

Unfortunately, in particular, 2020 has not been a win for DI&E in Corporate America. In fact, even at this precarious moment, we’re seeing leading companies, including Google, take a step backwards to halt DI&E programs. Meanwhile, a new report has exposed Facebook’s grossly imbalanced workforce and the main takeaway from the 2020 State of Wage Inequality in the Workplace Report is that the gender gap is widening: men are being offered higher salaries than women for the same job title at the same company 63% of the time, compared to 60% in 2019.  

We cannot let these regressive trends prevail. Business leaders across the board must commit themselves to doing better when it comes to fostering a culture of inclusivity. One of the best ways to accomplish that is to work with other leaders and organizations in your industry to create waves of change and raise the tide together.

At Urban FT, we are committed to transforming the fintech industry. We seek to establish a standard in which companies and business leaders in fintech will hold ourselves and each other accountable. We believe embracing DI&E is the way forward and will become increasingly critical in upcoming years, helping us draw from a multitude of perspectives to solve problems and play a positive role in disrupting systemic inequality.