The anti-racism protests of the past month have had special impact on one Atlantic Canadian startup, MESH/diversity, which is witnessing first-hand the movement’s effect on society.
The New Brunswick- and Toronto-based company was founded four years ago to help organizations become more diverse, thereby improving their productivity and profitability. And the events of the past month – the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and media attention on systemic racism throughout society – have given the issues of diversity and inclusion, or D&I, unprecedented exposure.
“There’s been just a sea change, an absolutely massive shift,” said MESH/diversity Co-Founder and Chief Diversity Officer Leeno Karumanchery in an interview. “If you had told me four weeks ago that we were going to be asked to go into corporations to do anti-racism work I would have laughed. . . . Racism was always a scary word.”
The company was founded to help corporations implement the teachings of Karumanchery, a sociology professor who has spent several decades working in the fields of diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.
MESH/diversity’s software helps organizations build a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Using predictive algorithms, its Diversity Intelligence platform measures an organization’s inclusiveness, and helps to implement improvements. The goal is to develop an inclusive culture in which the best people will want to work, stay and thrive.
In the interview, Karumanchery said racism has persisted not so much because of “the guys in white hoods with torches” but a broad spectrum of well-intentioned white people who simply did not recognize that the system was working against minorities. But the repeated reports (many video-taped) of minorities being killed by police have jarred people into recognizing the problem.
“It’s that big group of good, kind white folks who never saw that they were part of the machine, but now they’re seeing it and they’re not having it,” said Karumanchery. “They don’t just see it – they want to be part of the solution.”
What that means for MESH/dversity is that more organizations are coming to the company asking for assistance, and they are not looking for “one-and-done” solutions, he said. They realize that systemic racism can only be solved through long-term evolution and they want to engage in lengthier programs.
What’s more, there is a different tone in training programs now. Karumanchery said he no longer has to spend the first four hours explaining that there is a problem. People get that. And they ask more insightful questions about the nature of racism than he has previously received.
This he said will help develop systems in hiring, remuneration, and advancement that will ensure greater D&I at every level of organizations.
Co-Founder and CEO Mike Wright said the company, which employs 13 people, experienced a slowdown in the spring due to COVID-19, and the anti-racism movement has helped it recover.
“The demand for what we’re doing has increased for sure, and . . . what we’re saying is you need to take a systematized approach to D&I work,” said Wright. “That was something we always had to push or explain in a sales call. Now on these sales calls, the client is asking us for it.”
MESH/diversity closed a $950,000 funding round last September, led by the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation and members of East Valley Ventures. Asked if he was raising more capital, Wright said he is always raising, and the change in society is making the job easier.
Karumanchery believes the change is permanent.
“I very much doubt things will go back to the way they were,” he said. “After the civil rights movement in the 1960s, [you had] legislative change. It’s just that: it’s policy and legislation, and it’s permanent. But the civil rights movement couldn’t get rid of the Confederate flag in Nascar but it’s gone now. People are asking for change.”