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How Canva got ahead in diversity and inclusion [an interview with COO, Cliff Obrecht]

Here’s why (and how) Canva put diversity and inclusion at the top of their priority list.

There’s no denying that diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords in today’s employment space. 

Yes, it seems like companies everywhere are touting everything they’re doing to welcome and support talent from all different backgrounds. In fact, Atlassian’s 2018 State of Diversity Report found that 80% of respondents agree that diversity and inclusion is important. 

While it’s a concept that’s only recently started gaining steam for a lot of employers who are scrambling to compete for top talent, that’s certainly not the case for Canva, the online design platform founded in Sydney, Australia in 2012. 

Diversity and inclusion aren't just buzzwords for Canva — it is at the very core of who they are as an organisation and how they engage with their millions of users across more than 190 countries. 

We chatted with a couple of the company’s fearless leaders — Canva Co-founder and COO, Cliff Obrecht, and Lead Recruiter, Scott Crowe — to get the lowdown on why diversity and inclusion matter so much to them, how they’ve stayed true to their company values, and what lessons you can take away from their own efforts.

Why diversity and inclusion really matter at Canva:

There’s a good reason why diversity and inclusion have found their time in the spotlight: plenty of research backs up the fact that they offer numerous advantages, including the following:

  • Diverse teams reportedly make better decisions 87% of the time.
  • Racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to perform better.
  • Companies with gender diversity in the workplace are 15% more likely to outperform their competitors. 

But, performance statistics aside, Canva zooms out even further when pointing to the main reason for their emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Put simply, it leads to a better team and a better product.

“A diverse team is critical to enabling differences in thinking,” Cliff Obrecht, Canva Co-founder and COO, explains. “ That diversity in thought and creativity enables better decision making and is a benchmark for success.”

Those varying perspectives are undeniably important for Canva, considering their customer base includes people from all different backgrounds — including gender, race, geographical location, and more.

Just one example? Since its inception, Canva has been translated to over 100 different languages. “At Canva, we recognise that while English may be one of the most universally used and commonly spoken languages, it is just another language,” the company explained in a blog post

The translation initiative was made possible by the breadth of the Canva team and their diverse backgrounds. The team were a driving force for the inclusion of languages such as Arabic, Hebrew and other right to left languages delivering an essential offering to the millions of users on Canva every day.

Better together: How Canva prioritizes diversity and inclusion on their growing team.

It’s not difficult to see the growing importance and undeniable advantages of prioritizing diversity and inclusion. 

But, employers are faced with a bigger challenge: taking action and figuring out how to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace (especially when research shows that around three quarters of employees in underrepresented groups don’t feel that they’ve personally benefited from their company’s diversity and inclusion programs). 

That statistic is proof that a company’s efforts and initiatives can’t be just lip service. They need to walk the walk. The good news is that Canva has found numerous ways to make that happen — from refining their hiring process to requiring unconscious bias training. 

Below are six different strategies they’ve used to keep diversity and inclusion top of mind for everyone.


1. They dig for a deeper understanding of each team member

While diversity is linked to high performance, there are still some hurdles that companies will need to overcome. When you’re bringing together people with varying backgrounds, preferences, and experiences, collaboration can become increasingly complex.

That’s why Canva doesn’t just build a diverse team — they empower them to understand what makes each of their team members tick. 

“We use F4S to understand people’s drivers and that allows us to be more inclusive,” Obrecht says. “If you understand what motivates someone, you understand the whole person and can support them to be their best selves. You can also help build a diverse team who works well together, rather than building a team of all of the same behaviours and skill sets.” 

Additionally, with a globally-distributed team and offices in three countries (Australia, the Philippines, and China), the Canva team also has cultural differences to contend with.

They’ve used the F4S culture maps to scientifically map out their team’s:

  • collective work motivations,
  • communication preferences,
  • shared blind spots,
  • and potential friction points across their many teams.

They’ve even tracked the cultural changes they’ve experienced as they’ve grown, by analyzing their F4S culture map results over multiple years. 

2. They don’t forget the inclusion piece of the puzzle

Diversity and inclusion are two terms that are often used at the same time, but they actually mean two different things. 

What is the difference between diversity and inclusion?

The simplest way to think about it is that diversity is the makeup of your team. It’s who’s sitting around your table. However, inclusion is all about behaviors. It’s all of the things you’re doing to help those diverse team members thrive within your organization. 

As diversity advocate, Vernā Myers, eloquently puts it, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” 

Canva recognizes that they can’t just get a broad range of employees through the door. That’s only half of the equation, and in order to truly be successful, they need to foster an environment where everybody feels truly valued and supported. 

They do this a number of different ways, but their company celebrations and events — from Pride Week to Chinese New Year — are a great example. 

“If you want any inclusion or diversity effort to be effective, you can’t do it to the exclusion of the majority,” says Scott Crowe, Lead Recruiter at Canva. 

Crowe mentions that many organizations mean well when they put together celebrations, but that it often ends up having the opposite effect of what they intended. Those festivities become exclusive, and employees who don’t necessarily belong to that group feel left out or discouraged from participating. 

“Canva’s approach is focused on creating celebrations for everyone and inviting all team members to get involved. ,” Crowe says. The company is constantly seeking out ways to celebrate the diversity of the team and ensure a true sense of inclusion across the whole company. 

3. They set diversity goals and targets

Despite the fact that Deloitte states that setting specific diversity goals has been found to be one of the most effective measures for increasing representation, things like diversity quotas have remained a hot button issue within the industry. 

“In respect to an external perspective, you run the risk of people seeing a woman, for example, as being a token hire, rather than someone who’s able to provide significant value to the team,” Crowe explains. 

However, Canva subscribes to this philosophy: if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. So, they do set targets and measure their efforts in recruiting and hiring diverse team members — but they still stay focused on things like talent and alignment with their company values first and foremost. 

While Obrecht acknowledges that diversity quotas can be divisive, he explains that they help keep a data-driven and goal-oriented company like Canva focused on the end goal, particularly when hiring for positions that tend to be male-dominated. 

“There are heaps more men than females coming out of computer science,” he says. “So, setting targets backed up by an unbiased approach to our recruitment means that we don’t just end up with way more guys on the engineering team but the right skills and a mix of men and women making things happen”  

4. They consistently refine their hiring and interview processes

In Canva’s own Women in Tech Report, the company stated that, “Equality doesn’t mean that we approach everything and everyone as equal.” That’s certainly a sentiment that they’ve applied to their own hiring process, after recognizing that not everybody tackles the job search the same way.

“We need to make sure that everything from our job ads to the recruitment process itself is extremely inclusive and doesn’t rule out anyone,” Obrecht says. That inspired Canva to make numerous changes to the way they approach hiring, including:

  • Ensuring diversity on their interview panels to combat against unconscious bias or homogenous teams
  • Revising the language in their job descriptions, after discovering that job ads tend to favor more masculine wording (think terms like “competitive” or “ambitious”)

  • Taking a more proactive approach to headhunting passive candidates who have the specific expertise or backgrounds they’re looking for

Canva even went so far as to lower the barrier to entry for some positions. “We used to give all of our engineering candidates a four-hour coding challenge that they had to take home,” Obrecht explains.

“For working moms and plenty of other people, that’s not the most inclusive process, because not everybody has four hours to spend on something after work. So we introduced an hour long assessment”.

Canva knows that the onus is really on them to open the door for diverse candidates, and to make sure they are constantly re-evaluating and adapting their processes to suit. 

“Even if we get a bunch of people into the pipeline, if they can’t get through the interview loop, then we might as well not bother,” Crowe adds. “Addressing those parts where things break down and fall apart is equally as important as how we get them into the funnel.”

5. They empower employees to get involved

It’s obvious that Canva’s leaders have made diversity and inclusion a priority, “At Canva, diversity and inclusion is a values based approach to work for our team members and it really isn’t a top-down kind of methodology,” says Crowe. 

They empower employees to find common ground, celebrate their differences, and connect with each other by encouraging them to create their own clubs dedicated to a variety of interests. You’ll find a club for nearly everything within Canva, from a beer club to a nail club. And, if it’s not there yet, you can start it yourself.

For clubs with at least 10 members and a regular cadence of meetups, Canva will actually sponsor them and even provide funding. 

“Our goal is to provide our team members with that sense of belonging we all crave. The clubs are just one avenue that our team can connect across the business no matter what their role and be on a common ground,” Crowe adds. “We want to create a safe environment where they feel connected beyond the “job” they do.” 

6. They require unconscious bias training for all new hires

Brand new Canva employees will quickly realize that the company doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion. They walk the walk by requiring every new employee to engage in unconscious bias training. 

“Everyone participates in unconscious bias training within the first month of starting,” Crowe explains. This training helps people identify their own biases. Once they have that awareness, they’re able to reduce and address those initial perceptions. 

Additionally, Crowe adds that Canva’s training also fosters a sense of psychological safety, so that team members feel encouraged to speak their minds if and when they see biases creeping in. “It’s all designed to ensure people can call out when things aren’t inclusive or things aren’t right because of a certain latent approach people take,” he adds.  

This emphasis on mitigating unconscious bias is also something that they prioritize during the hiring process by offering interview training to inform people about their tendency to view candidates through their own specific lens.

“Everyone has inherent biases to hire people that look, act, and sound like them,” Obrecht says. “It’s about educating people involved in the hiring process around their own biases and ensuring our process is very inclusive.”

Take it from Canva: Diversity and inclusion need to be priorities today, not tomorrow

With over 20 million users (and counting) and well-deserved spots on numerous “best place to work” and “top startup” lists, Canva has undoubtedly found the key to success in leveraging their diverse team to build a thriving company and a positive, inclusive culture.

But, that wasn’t a happy accident — it was a conscious effort. The company continues to focus on improving and refining their diversity and inclusion initiatives, and they recommend that other companies do the same. In fact, the sooner the better. 

“In all honesty, we didn’t focus on it enough to start with,” Obrecht explains. “We hired our first person and, inherently when you’re building a small startup, you rely on friends and networks. We looked back and realized that we had built an all-male engineering team.”

Since those early lessons, Canva has continued to put diversity and inclusion at the forefront. “It is a priority for us and one we give specific focus to, making sure we continue to build a diverse environment that is welcoming for all,” Obrecht concludes.

When it comes to Canva and their own efforts, one thing can be said with confidence: what they’re doing is working.

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