SmartCompany feature: “We simply can’t stop” – Why the time was right for DivTal to level the employment playing field

We may be in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis, with hiring freezes all around, but DivTal has launched its diversity-focused recruitment startup anyway, with co-founder Lorna Deng saying the need has never been greater.

DivTal is an online platform helping connect organisations that want to diversify their workforce with candidates from under-represented groups.

It takes a “contextual recruitment” approach, Deng tells SmartCompany, taking potential employees’ life experiences into account, as well as their skills and professional backgrounds.

“There’s so much more to a person,” Deng says.

People who have gone through tough times, whether that’s migrating to a new country, growing up with a disability or growing up in foster care, can bring skills that aren’t easily conveyed on paper, she adds.

“They’re coming with resilience, they’re coming with change adaptability, and so many great soft skills that are completely disregarded in resumes,” Deng explains.

More people reaching out

Originally, the startup was set to launch in April. But, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the founders were forced to put the brakes on.

Since then, however, they’ve had an influx of candidates reaching out, saying they need support now more than ever.

Many people have found themselves out of work because of the pandemic. For people who were excluded from the job market before, that means there’s even more competition.

“We’ve had an increase of demand from the job candidate point of view, but at the same time we understand that a lot of employers just can’t recruit right now,” Deng says.

While the economic crisis might mean it’s not the ideal time to launch a new business, “we simply can’t stop”, she says.

“At the end of the day, there are people out there that desperately need jobs. They have the skills, they have the potential,” she explains.

At some point, recruitment restrictions will be lifted. “It’s making sure that when that happens we’ve got a talent pool ready for them to start to tap into.”

“Put your money where your mouth is”

The launch also comes at a time when the conversation around racial inequality and injustice is reaching a peak. The death of George Floyd in custody in the US has led to large-scale protests around the world, and ignited a discussion around Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia.

It’s brought racism in Australia, and the role businesses have to play in countering it, to the forefront of the conversation, Deng says.

“For organisations, the pressure is absolutely there,” she says.

“It’s one thing to put out a social media post to say you really care about Black Lives Matter, and that you don’t condone police brutality.

“But, if there’s no black executives, if there’s no black PR people within your organisation, if there are no black candidates, then are you practising what you preach?

“If we want to see success of minority groups, they need to be contributing to society. And a lot of that is around jobs.”

If a person has a job, that means they have economic power, Deng explains.

“That means as a person you’re able to provide for yourself, you’re able to provide for your family and for your community.

“It’s absolutely an opportunity for organisations … if you really back these people and you want to support them, you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Partly, DivTal is conceived to make it easier for businesses to make good on those intentions.

But, the very idea that it’s difficult in the first place is a damaging misconception, she says.

“People create these barriers,” she says.

“The reality is, if you really go out there and talk to people — job candidates for example — and really understand some of their challenges, and tailor your organisation’s recruitment needs or your progression criteria, it’s really not that hard.”

And part of the challenge is in the language used when talking about diversity in business. People tend to talk about it as if it’s a problem to be solved, Deng notes.

“Who wants to deal with problems? No-one,” she says.

“Diversity is not a problem, it’s an opportunity.

“It’s really just caring about each other as human beings, recognising the people who have been left behind, and helping to bring them up.”

She says that DivTal offers video resumes to help its clients project their skills more effectively.

“Through that, they can actually talk to employers directly about their experience, their life, and what makes them stand out.”

Deng and co-founder Bedi Othow started building DivTal two years ago, and have come through the Hatch Quarter pre-accelerator program.

The co-founders are both drawing on their own experiences. As South Sudanese migrants, they each faced challenges finding work after university, Deng says.

“If you look at the data around the number of people entering into organisations, and the people going up the ranks through organisations, diversity is not there,” she says.

People are starting to become more aware of the importance of diversity, but the focus has historically been on the gender conversation.

“Slowly, people are starting to recognise that diversity is broader. There all these other elements of diversity, and in that there’s the intersectionality conversation,” she explains.

“If you consider the experiences of an indigenous woman, a migrant woman and an Australian woman born and bred here — they’re all women, but their experiences are very, very different.”