Look within: Do the deep work — change starts with developing our own awareness at an individual and then collective level, simply because we can’t fix what we don’t know is broken. In order to be part of a driving force towards a more inclusive, representative and equitable world, we must look at ourselves. We must evaluate our deep-seated beliefs, assumptions and values, our levels of inherited privilege, our earned power and our blind ignorance. This can be ugly and difficult, but only when we’ve identified our individual starting point can we start the ongoing journey
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Zoe Jervier Hewitt.
Zoe is a leadership coach and Talent Partner at multi-stage VC fund EQT Ventures. Here, she helps portfolio companies structure and accelerate their search for talent by facilitating connections to the right technology and people required to source candidates at each stage of company growth. She is also responsible for building EQT Ventures’ talent network and helping the fund discover world-class founders. Zoe has spent a decade working in strategic and operational talent roles within technology and venture capital and is an advocate for taking an evidence-based and data-driven approach to the People agenda.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born and raised in London and grew up in a mixed-race, working-class family. My paternal grandparents were part of the Windrush generation and made their way to London from the Caribbean in the 1950s. Strong work ethic, education and meritocracy were household values and I was the first person in my family to pursue higher education. I earned my bachelor’s in Art History at the University of Oxford, and had originally intended to pursue a career in curatorship. However, I pivoted to technology, joining Apple straight out of university.
I’m a very people-oriented person and have always had an intellectual curiosity in both the psychology and conditions surrounding outlier talent. In 2013, I joined Entrepreneur First (EF), a startup creation programme backed by Reid Hoffman and other notable investors from Silicon Valley and Europe. EF pioneered a new way to create companies by making entirely talent-centric bets, and as the first hire I built the talent attraction and selection function from scratch. I spent four years identifying and convincing the high-potential ‘pre-founders’ to build important companies which wouldn’t have otherwise existed.
During my time at EF, I realized that in order for companies to become truly important institutions, founders need to be able to access, attract and keep world-class talent. For many founders in Europe, this is currently still a hard and broken process. This is why I joined EQT Ventures as Talent Partner as here I help our portfolio companies build the strong, ambitious and diverse teams needed to scale their businesses into global success stories.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are many! In the last few years, I’ve really skewed my reading list towards better understanding the human mind and the tricks it can play on us. I’ll spare the much mentioned Nassim Taleb reading list, but I love anything that forces me to look at the cognitive interferences that get in the way of our best thinking. Time to Think by Nancy Klein is one book which has helped me become a better coach, mentor and advisor to the founders and leaders I work with. Klein outlines how in the business realm we’ve been conditioned to believe that talking equates to professionalism and quality, when in fact it stifles the thinking potential of those around us. As someone who’s often introduced as an ‘expert’, I used to believe that the more advice I could give in a meeting the more useful I was being — something I had to unlearn. Now I find conversations to be of higher quality and have lasting impact when I’m attentive, listening and asking the right questions. My knowledge is just a secondary complement to the ideas and solutions that already exist in a person’s mind.
Another book which profoundly changed the way I select and assess talent is The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. It champions the idea that HR can and should strive to be more evidence-based and less reliant on gut — my top recommendation for any People practitioner.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have “the mind is the limit”, a quote by David Hockney, pinned up on my notice board. Like most, I’ll have the occasional day when things feel like they’re getting on top of me — usually in moments when I’m trying to deal with conflicting priorities of motherhood, career, relationships and self-growth. I like this quote because it reminds me that it’s usually the views I’m holding about my abilities to navigate the situation that are the problem, not the situation itself. I also like that the statement is from one of the greatest living British artists because it reminds me that creativity is always a resource waiting to be drawn on, if you allow yourself to access it.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is the act of taking responsibility first and foremost. My extended definition includes striving towards an outcome through the influence and empowerment of others. Too much conversation around leadership centres on trying to describe a universal pack of successful traits (an inconclusive and inconsistent endeavour) or conflates it with a person’s seniority. I often talk to founders about how they can inspire leadership cultures to develop inside their fast-growing companies and highlight this as a separate activity to hiring more executives. I refer to this as leadership with a ‘lowercase l’, meaning that anyone, at any level can be invited to demonstrate leadership qualities. I’d also like to see more attention on the impact of leadership behaviours (rather than looking at behaviour in isolation) and the leadership of self (the act of raising one’s own awareness in pursuit of a goal).
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I like to do a simple ‘check in’ with myself before high-stake meetings and decisions to ask questions like “what’s the desired outcome here?” and “what information will aid the discussion?”. More generally though, I’ve become more cognizant of the link between stress, energy and performance. I’ve developed an understanding of what energizes me and what doesn’t through becoming aware of my strengths and non-strengths. Feeling stressed or anxious before an activity is often a signal that it’s something which will require me to use a non-strength, and therefore might drain me — even if I’m able to perform well in the moment. So, as much as it’s about preparation beforehand, I’ve learned that recharging afterwards is just as important.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I have a much longer response to this question and can talk better to the parallel conversations happening in the UK. Put simply though I think it stems from the lack of critical assessment of the systems which play a role in creating and maintaining everyday inequality (from education to law enforcement, businesses to media). In terms of the recent racial tensions, I assume that the majority of people are not explicitly racist, but rather that up until now many people have been unaware and untouched by everyday discrimination — operating under the illusion that society is mostly fair. The recent events in the US have shone a light on this inaction and I hope we continue to see positive results come from the fresh active engagement and support for change from those in privileged positions of power. In the UK, racial disparity is intertwined with a socioeconomic and class problem for some ethnic minorities (especially for those of Black Caribbean descent), which highlights the need for a nuanced look at inequality that includes social mobility as part of the conversation.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
At EQT Ventures, I am the in-house talent advisor to both the EQT Ventures portfolio and investment team. I work closely with founders of VC-backed companies to build strong, high-performing teams. I advise our portfolio companies on how to build diverse and inclusive cultures and why that’s important. Also, I help connect startups with new talent, with a focus on helping these companies increase the diversity of their new hires. Right now I’m working on one initiative to provide our portfolio CEOs with warm introductions to talented women who might be interested in joining their boards. One of the reasons women are overlooked for board directorships at scaling companies is the extremely limited view that candidates must be former CEO/CFOs or have substantial experience serving on boards. This narrows the pool significantly so I’m taking a broader view and looking for other relevant experiences, such as executive level strategic organisational development, and am coming across some exciting, very qualified women.
In addition to ensuring our portfolio companies have diverse boards, I focus time with companies helping them understand how to improve selection. I’m a firm believer that much of tech’s diversity and inclusion problem is a second order effect of weak talent assessment processes. We operate and perpetuate such narrow views of what a great hire looks like (often based on elitist credentialism) and this shifts attention away from assessing qualities and skills that are actually important. When selecting leaders, it becomes even more difficult if your selection methods are not set up to distinguish between confidence and competence (which has been shown to disproportionately affect women and result in mis-selection). I’m regularly introducing more scientific ways of assessing a candidate’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses, which helps teams reduce bias and make more informed decisions.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Well-cited studies point out the economic advantages of building diverse executive teams; however, I’ve noticed that the science and ‘how diversity actually works’ often gets lost. This makes it hard for business leaders to fully engage with the topic. Decades of research by organisational psychologists, scientists and sociologists have found that diverse teams are more innovative than their homogeneous counterparts. Socially mixed teams specifically contain different viewpoints, ideas and values which lead to higher quality thinking and direction-setting. This initial friction leads to breakthroughs and innovation, essential for any company attempting to disrupt a market. Team performance and product quality are directly impacted by the social and cognitive diversity that lives within leadership teams. Interestingly, research shows that simply increasing the levels of social diversity within a team means that the team starts to believe alternate perspectives exist and works harder to actively seek them out. This could prevent the dangerous leadership team habit of groupthink.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Look within: Do the deep work — change starts with developing our own awareness at an individual and then collective level, simply because we can’t fix what we don’t know is broken. In order to be part of a driving force towards a more inclusive, representative and equitable world, we must look at ourselves. We must evaluate our deep-seated beliefs, assumptions and values, our levels of inherited privilege, our earned power and our blind ignorance. This can be ugly and difficult, but only when we’ve identified our individual starting point can we start the ongoing journey. In our teams and social groups, we should also seek to assess the homogeneity of beliefs, thoughts and perspectives and where they might stem from. Recently, I facilitated a leadership team assessment for one of our portfolio companies which highlighted the uncomfortable level of ‘same-ness’ that existed across the executive team. The team used this awareness to make an imminent hiring decision for the next executive who would bring social and cognitive diversity to the table.
- Look around: Understand the paradox of meritocracy — meritocracy, though it may seem like a positive societal value, can be a disguise for perpetuating an inequitable society. Research shows that in companies that have merit-based systems in place, gender and race bias may be more prevalent due to complacency. Businesses that bring more transparency to their talent management can build a meritocratic process for progression and development, which is fairer for all without lowering the bar. For example, clear information on how performance is measured and a performance management framework that prioritizes objective over subjective data can ensure merit, rather than favouritism or likeness, is rewarded.
- Listen: Engage with underrepresented perspectives — in order to reach a better, more respectful and fairer society we need todevelop greater levels of empathy. By paying attention and listening to the marginalised voices and perspectives not normally in our social news feeds, we can better understand the barriers which prevent opportunity from being distributed. Businesses looking to attract and hire more diverse groups of talent will do well to first understand how attractive and known their employer brand is to target underrepresented groups and proactively design for their inclusion, before looking at the metrics in the hiring pipeline. Organisational psychologist Laura Morgan Roberts has produced a great book compiling perspectives on the Black experience in work and leadership.
- Act: Focus on creating opportunities within your zone of control — Once we have better understood the barriers that exist through looking at ourselves, our systems and hearing the stories of the underrepresented, we can decide and commit to action. We should focus on what’s directly or indirectly within our zone of control and on what we will have the greatest impact, even if it’s small. For example, VCs play important roles as early gatekeepers in the chain of company creation and leadership selection. At EQT Ventures, we’re moving further away from the idea that our own network will warmly introduce to us the best founders. We’ve built our own proprietary AI platform, Motherbrain, to move to a more blind and proactive method of sourcing companies based on objective company performance signals, giving us a greater chance of increasing company diversity and reducing bias in our founder selection.
- Share: there is no playbook — Lastly, as we’re trying and testing new ways to build a fairer, more representative society we need to share stories and examples with other members of our social and professional groups. In the tech world, we’re obsessed with finding playbooks (a standard plug-and-play set of best practices), but the honest answer is there’s no playbook for mastering diversity and inclusion. It’s a highly situational, contextual and nuanced topic, and so we must be sophisticated in our approach to implementing and iterating activities which drive the right kind of change for the situation. At EQT Ventures, we have dedicated Slack groups for portfolio CEOs and their People leaders to share insights, what’s working, what’s not and support one another on our journey towards inclusion.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m generally optimistic about most things in life. However, I believe a better tomorrow is conditional on the act of investing in and developing better leaders today — ones who can empathically navigate the chaotic world we’re living in. In recent months, we’ve seen higher engagement and intent towards diversity and equality, but this needs to be converted into true action, and therefore true leadership. I’m hopeful that we’ll see better leadership selection decisions made at the top and more unconventional leadership archetypes emerging from the grassroots. Back to what I mentioned earlier, anyone can be a leader — let’s remember the lowercase ‘l’.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye! I love his positivity, humour, authenticity, courage and gymnastics.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!