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In Conversation with Tom Staff: On Diversity and Inclusion at Street Group

In Conversation with Tom Staff: On Diversity and Inclusion at Street Group

A couple of weeks ago, our D&I Manager Tzeitel Degiovanni had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Staff - Co-Founder of Manchester- based PropTech company Street Group. Tzeitel and Tom spoke about what Street Group, as a tech start-up, are doing to address inequalities in the workplace, and why it is so important to them to embed diversity, inclusion and accountability in their culture, rather than in performative exercises. Read on to meet Tom and learn more about Street Group...


Hi Tom! Introduce yourself to us and tell us a little bit about Street Group's D&I

Hi there, I'm Tom, and I'm one of the co-founders of Street Group. I actually run the company with my sister, so we’re both shareholders, and co-founders. We have historically put quite a bit of emphasis on making sure we have a diverse team, but we've just recruited Johnny into our talent departments, so we've now got two dedicated people in the talent department, which is brilliant. And we've asked them to place an extra emphasis on making sure that we continue to keep growing diversely.

That’s awesome, especially to hear how you are growing your team and expanding this year, congrats!

On your website, it says Street Group believes in leading through innovation, which is reflected in your people, their talents, and how you develop technology. I think this is such a great ethos and amazing way to lead, especially in the tech space. Has there ever been a time, in Street Group or otherwise, where someone on your team has come up with an idea, a solution, or developed something that was informed by their specific background or lived experience, and it was something that you probably never would have thought of?

I can’t think of a very specific, singular example that springs to mind, but what I would say is we've always hired for talent first and ‘industry’ experience second. And I think that's naturally led to us having quite a diverse team, pretty much from the off. I mean, the first person that we hired into our sales team was a historian, and a history podcaster with absolutely zero experience of sales. And he has been an absolutely exceptional asset to the team. But yeah, he comes with a different point of view, and we've got people in the team like him who come from a history background, and then when we hire into the engineering department, we have real mix of people who come from really big companies, small companies, start-ups, or people who have never worked anywhere before. And just having a diversity of professional backgrounds really lends itself to creating a diverse group of people, as no one has to fit any sort of cookie-cutter mode which often writes people off at the door. They approach problems very differently, and so we tend to get a lot of different inputs from a variety of backgrounds which creates not just amazing company output but also a great environment to work in.


I think you're absolutely right in that. So, so much of where we're going wrong in recruitment is looking for these kind of tick-box, cookie cutter ideas of what we want, instead of opening that out. And bringing in those transferable skills, that diversity of background, which brings such a rich perspective.

Yeah, I've done quite a lot of reading over the years about building teams and diversity, and I think a lot of people see diversity as an external signal that, you know, it's good to have diversity, because people externally looking in will judge you based on that diversity. But I think what a lot of people miss, which is why we've always placed a huge emphasis on it, is the intrinsic value of having diversity within your team. And so like, the famous example, which I'm sure you will probably know, is the experiment with the Japanese teams and the American teams looking at fish in reverse.

Yeah, so they had a challenge which was watching this video of fish in a river. And then you'll be shown the same video, but things had changed, and you had to identify what had changed. And basically, the American teams would almost always identify if there had been a change in the object (i.e the fishes) within the video, whereas the Japanese teams would always tend to get it right and identify if there was a change in the environment.  So if you took a team of both of them and mixed them together, they would outperform the teams that were more homogenous. So that's the example I always point to when I'm trying to explain why we as a company place such an emphasis on diversity, as well as just being the right thing to do. You know, it's not a virtue signalling exercise, it is intrinsically valuable, which I think a lot of people don't really get.


This might be a tricky one as I know you are still growing the company, but I did want to ask you about whether you guys have a trans policy or whether you're looking to implement one for any trans or non binary stuff in the future, or ones that you may currently have?

That’s a really good question. I think with the size of company we are, we're light on official policies kind of across the board, and putting in place more formal policies it's something that we're doing at the moment. Currently, we don't have any trans or non-binary members of the team. But interestingly, I was on a Diversity and Inclusion Conference recently and they were saying how it's so important to get these policies in place before you end up interviewing someone, because you might go to all this effort to attract diverse talent, but then if you've not prepped your internal team and haven’t got policies in place, they’re not going to want to work for you and they will feel really poorly coming away from that experience. For example - if a candidate asked “What is your policy on non-binary and gender neutral bathrooms?”, would the interviewer be able to answer that question? I was thinking, even though we have a very diverse, liberal team, would every one of our interviewers be able answer that question? Well, I thought, no, they definitely wouldn't. So it's something that we're putting in place and actively doing at the moment. It’s definitely an eye opener and we're personally just always learning. Which why these D&I conferences are so great.


I know you mentioned tech returners, which is amazing. But tell me what other things Street Group are doing, besides using DJM, internally to address diversity and inclusion challenges and also what’s happened over the past year.

Yeah, so the first thing to kind of note is that we're at the 50 employee mark at the moment, and we're growing really quickly. So we really want to make sure that we're building in diversity from the ground up, rather than trying to retrospectively add it into the company, which I think is extremely problematic and very difficult. So we've always set out to do the right thing from the off. We have great diversity within our team, other than female representation on the engineering side, which I mentioned earlier. But we want to make sure that we're putting an active effort into making sure that diversity continues and grows.

We have the tech returners which is great, but we want to be quite visible out in the community as an inclusive company. There’s no point in having initiatives going when no one knows and therefore can’t take part. So we have, just by accident really, quite a large gay contingent with our company – many members of the LGBT+ community. So we're actually looking at getting a float this year in pride. I'm really looking forward to that. Well, if pride is on this year, I'm hoping it is. But a lot of it is setting our culture internally, and then making that visible externally and making sure that from the outside looking in diverse candidates can see quite clearly that we are an inclusive company, and it's going to be a good place to work.

One of the major things that we've done is recruit the talent team. So obviously, with mine and Heather's background, D&I has always been a focus. And so when we were bringing Laura in, who's our Head of Talent, one of our number one requirements is we wanted somebody who was as passionate about D&I as we were. It was kind of a weird thing, bringing on a Head of Talent, because you’re kind of passing on that responsibility of growing your team and culture to someone else and that’s difficult, especially when you’re so protective of that inclusive culture like we are. So we really wanted to make sure we were finding the right person. And we've continued with that, so every person we bring into our talent team, like Jonny, it’s pretty much a prerequisite that they're passionate about D&I. And hopefully that will mean that it organically becomes an ingrained value in the company.


What are your personal feelings about doing this work and taking on that responsibility?

My personal views is that I quite enjoy it. I enjoy the challenge of making the work environment as inclusive as possible. The last year in particular has been really tough, like particularly punishing whilst trying to do everything remotely. But I would genuinely say, if I look at the real highlights of the year, what really picks me up, is hearing from the team that they love working for Street Group - I know it sounds cheesy as anything, but it makes it worth it. We have a culture of ‘default to open’, I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this? It’s where basically, most companies will operate on the basis that if a piece of information comes in at the top, they will think “do the team need to know this?”, whereas ‘default to open’ is basically flipping that on its head. So by default, anything that comes in - any piece of information - you share with the team. That's the default, unless there's a really, really good reason not to. So we enacted this basically from day one, and we've always operated like that. And it’s really, really easy to do when things going well, and much more difficult if there’s a problem and you have to share bad news.

But the idea is to try and almost back yourself into a corner where you've set up your company in such a way that you will be forced to adhere to these values later down the line. And one of the things that we do is that every Friday, the team can use a system called Slido to ask us anonymous questions that we will then answer to the whole team. And it really puts that pressure on you because you know that there will come times further down the line where commercial stuff will come directly in conflict with cultural stuff. And there will always be a temptation to go with the commercial pressures. Whereas if you set up this type of system, if we ever start doing stuff like that, then people can call us out on it in front of the whole team, and we will have to answer that. Which is great from I think it's great from company corps point of view.

But back to the original question you asked, some of the best moments I've had over the last year was where people have used that system to anonymously say how happy they are with the things that we've done. For example one of the things that we've implemented is Sanctus, which is a mental health coach for the team. So we have dedicated mental health coach that comes in once a month, and anybody can just book in with them. And I've had loads of anonymous messages, because obviously, it’s completely anonymous and I don’t know who is using the mental health service – saying its been really helpful, and telling me that you know, they were really, really struggling and I’ve got no idea how much of a difference its made to them. So creating a good environment for people is genuinely one of the most fulfilling parts of running a company, I think.

That’s amazing - and you're going to be held accountable because you've made yourself accountable, which is so important. But then you also get to see when people are happy because of the environment you are fostering. That’s brilliant Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me!