The founder of a top Silicon Valley startup got interrupted during a board meeting when he showed a slide of 5 new female hires, and it offers a lesson to other companies

Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti and chef Derek Sarno present some of their first meals made from cultured meat.

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Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti and chef Derek Sarno present some of their first meals made from cultured meat.
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Memphis Meats/Facebok

  • Heidi Roizen, a partner at Silicon Valley venture-capital firm DFJ, had to stop a board meeting with cultured-meat startup Memphis Meats when the founder showed a slide of five recent hires, all of whom were women.
  • That kind of commitment to inclusion is rare in Silicon Valley.
  • At Memphis Meats, more than half of the company’s team identify as women; 40% of them are in leadership roles.
  • This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

The moment Heidi Roizen knew she’d backed the right startup happened in the middle of a board-room meeting. After 20 years working as a venture capitalist, she’d never seen a slide like the one presented to her by Uma Valeti, the founder of cultured-meat startup Memphis Meats.

Before her were photos of five of the company’s most recent hires – all of whom were scientists or managers by training, and all of whom also happened to be women.

“I stopped him right at that moment to tell him I’d never seen a slide like that in my career,” Roizen told Business Insider. “And he looked at me like something was wrong, which partially explains why Memphis Meats is such a leader when it comes to diversity.”

Based in Silicon Valley, Memphis Meats kicked off with funding from leading biotech hub IndieBio in 2015. Today, it’s backed by investors such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Twitch cofounder Kyle Vogt, and Kimbal Musk (Elon Musk’s brother). Two food giants – Tyson Foods and Cargill – are other notable investors.

Like a handful of other enterprising startups in the meat-alternative space, Memphis Meats’ mission is to grow real meat from animal cells to minimize the environmental waste and ethical problems linked with factory farming.

But unlike the majority of the startup world, more than half of the company’s team identify as women; 40% of them are in leadership roles.

The reason that’s significant isn’t merely because it’s novel. It’s also a key indicator of the company’s core values, Roizen said.

‘Great resumes are the price of admission, not the focus of our hiring process’

Memphis Meats is committed to hiring a diverse team of people who hail from a variety of backgrounds, Megan Pittman, Memphis Meats’ director of people operations, told Roizen in an interview for a blog post she wrote about the experience.

To do that, they look beyond traditional hiring practices that focus exclusively on things like résumés, which can be biased toward white men because of institutional racism and sexism. For decades, policies like redlining (the process by which banks refuse loans or insurance to people of color because an area is determined to be too financially risky) and immigration practices favoring European countries have limited the resources available to women and people of color.

The Memphis Meats team.

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The Memphis Meats team.
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Courtesy of Memphis Meats

Those policies and behaviors also contribute to limiting the amount of money that goes to women and people of color. Last year, all-female startup teams got just 2% of all venture-capital investment dollars. Fewer than 1% of American venture capital-backed founders are black.

Instead of sitting down to a traditional interview, hiring managers at Memphis Meats ask all job candidates to begin by giving a 30-minute talk focused on an accomplishment or a topic they’re familiar with.

Hiring managers at Memphis do other things that help to make diversity an entrenched part of the process. They all ask one question, for example, when looking for a new hire: “What do we need our next person to bring that our team doesn’t already have?” Pittman said.

Roizen said it’s critical that more startups prioritize inclusion like Memphis Meats did – from the beginning – because not doing so can trap a company in a vicious cycle.

“If you suddenly wake up one day and you look around the room and it’s all guys, it’s much harder to back things in than to build that gender diversity from the beginning,” Roizen said.

Memphis Meats’ question about bringing in someone who can speak to a skill or attribute that the company doesn’t already have hits this nail on the head. It emphasizes that what the company needs is not more of the same, but instead a variety of perspectives from a variety of backgrounds. The practice has paid off, Pittman said.

“We’ve seen plenty of data showing that companies that hire based on résumés and checkboxes end up with homogeneous workforces,” Pittman said. “Don’t get me wrong – great résumés and hard skills are requirements at Memphis Meats, but they’re the price of admission and not the focus of our hiring process.”