Welcome back to yet another episode transcription of Hustle Harder! In this weeks episode Steph, Britt and Ali sat down with their friend and the COO & Co-Founder of Crescendo, Daniel D’Souza!
Crescendo delivers tailored microlearning to your employees inside of Slack to scale your diversity and inclusion within your organization. Throughout this episode we chat diversity, inclusion, culture, hiring practices, quotas, and more.
Anyways, let’s begin.
Daniel: Before I go into describing Crescendo, most people actually call me Tuba so if you're looking for me on LinkedIn or whatever, it's gonna be Daniel ‘Tuba’.
Ali: Is there a backstory to that? Yeah,
Daniel: Definitely. So I never played the tuba I was actually just really short and choppy. Basically back in like the fifth grade, I was four foot 10 and super chubby. So all the kids start calling me Tubby Tuba. Grade 5’s are cruel people. But then like a year or two later, I had a huge growth spurt, I went from four foot 10 and really chubby to five foot seven and super lanky. I woke up one morning I was like, What the fuck happened? So I was like Tubby Tuba doesn't make sense anymore. So the Tubby part dropped.
But anyways, Crescendo is a software that helps employees learn about different cultures. And so when we first started, we built it really natively inside of slack that interacted with every employee one on one through direct messages and builds personalized learning journeys for them, and sources the best content available from YouTube, medium, Twitter, blog posts, etc. to help employees learn about what the world looks like through someone else's eyes.
And so we started the company about two years ago now. We've now grown into a team of 10 across Toronto, New York and the UK, we've got a number of clients like SurveyMonkey or Shopify.
Ali: So to give our listeners some context, how do you know us and why are you here?
Daniel: So I was speaking at SAAS North and then I got to do a podcast with you all and then it took off from there. We had a really interesting conversation about diversity in the workplace, but also cultural competence and what that looks like five years from now.
Ali: You started Crescendo two years ago, what were you doing before that?
Daniel: So I graduated in 2017 and then right after undergrad actually was in my undergrad, I had started a nonprofit startup accelerator. We partnered with IBM and a number of other companies and basically what we did was we took really talented undergrad Masters and PhD students who had really interesting research, help them get a little bit of funding, and then help them turn that idea into a validated prototype. And then we would help get them into other accelerators, whether that was the DMZ or other partners like that.
And so I started that when I was an undergrad, and then after I graduated, I still ran that. At the same time, I was also on contract with the Student Union. So I was the CFO or the VP of Finance for a year and we had a budget of about $15 million. We had 250 part-time staff and 40 full-time staff, so my role was really focused on overseeing all of our business units and anything that really generated revenue.
But my background was in biochemistry. So everything I learned in business was really just a crash course on my own from starting that nonprofit, raising money, getting partners to then going to the business world with the Student Union, managing managers, dealing with revenue, finances, forecasting, all that I learned on my own.
Steph: What were some of the key differences that you learned between business and biochemistry? I know science is very empirical whereas when you think about business, although yes, it is based on numbers - there's so much that you have to learn in terms of soft skills, people and dealing with employees. So what were those differences?
Daniel: I'll start off with what science taught me. So I was in biochemistry at McMaster, I could name all parts of the metabolic cycle, I worked in the lab and I was like, fuck this. I'm never doing this again. But I realized that there were a lot of skills in there that I could transfer to business but I didn't realize that right away. Anything I did in business really came on the side just because of things that I was passionate about. I started that accelerator because I was frustrated in my own program and I didn't feel like I could apply a lot of the skills I was learning to the real world and I knew that other students felt this as well. And so that's what kind of sparked that process.
But I think the key things that were different were dealing with people who are more senior than you and so for me the first actual experience with that was when we started bringing on partners for the accelerator, like the VP level of IBM, or a company called Hatch.
So I think it's being able to learn how to see through people's personas or the vibe that they create and really understand what are their motivations? And why are they doing the things that they're doing? And what are they not telling you about that? Because like, once you can actually understand those, then you can actually better work with them and provide them value. And so I think that was the biggest difference I learned from science. I think realistically with schools, you don't get a lot of that experience until you actually go and do it.
Ali: Do you regret going into biology?
Daniel: I don't at all. I think it was a lot of time I spent memorizing things that I will never use again. But I think one of the things that science really taught me that I actually use all the time today were things like how to make evidence-based decisions, how to effectively conduct research, how to effectively design experiments that really test variables that you should be testing. And now it's interesting because with Crescendo, I work a lot on the product side, and I'm using all the skills that I learned in my undergrad, obviously for a different purpose, but the method is very similar. So designing hypotheses, designing experiments, analyzing data, all these things are very second nature to me. And they have huge implications on the business side. But because I have the science background, I'm able to do them in a way that's actually better than people who are coming from a business background because I do or look at things a bit more rigorously.
Ali: Going back to when you first started building Crescendo, what would you say was probably one of the biggest challenges that you faced?
Daniel: So the biggest challenge and still the biggest challenge is hiring as well as building and managing a team effectively. It's very different. I think when you're in university, the teams you manage are often a lot of volunteer teams. And when I was working with the Student Union, the teams I was managing were people who had already been there. And we already had money from our budget and it was very different than in a startup it's almost like a combination of the two. Like a lot of the team you're bringing in, in the early stage is almost partly volunteer because you have no money. And so you have to motivate them, but you're not in university anymore, right? Like everyone has actual jobs, they've got bills to pay. And so I think hiring and managing teams at that early stage is very difficult. Because you have to find people who really, really believe in what you're doing but are also very skilled in their own right, and can be making a ton of money doing something somewhere else, and convince them to join your team. But then also do that with every person that you bring on and build a culture where you're actually accomplishing something together.
Britt: When you're trying to manage people who are significantly older than you like about 10 years, do you find it a little bit awkward to be in that type of position? And do they look down on you just because you are younger?
Daniel: I don't really know about the second part because age isn't really something we discuss a lot on the team. But I think the thing that it does impact is just that those feelings are imposter syndrome. Just sitting there being like, how am I going to really be a strong leader to this amazing team, who in a lot of cases, are so much more experienced than you and have just seen a lot more of the world.
So I think that's the most difficult thing to manage is just telling yourself that you are where you are because of the things that you've done and that you have some unique skills that actually make you the best at what you do.
Steph: We can totally relate to that. We actually have an entire episode about imposter syndrome and how the three of us deal and don't deal with it. But I think us being young has always been such a barrier. I remember when we first started the company, we would be going to networking events, and people would be like, when did you graduate? Keep in mind that we started this company while we were in school, and we'd be like… oh, you know, um, you know… and we’d avoid the top. We would just change the subject or figure out how to get around it. We didn't want to tell them we’re still in school because as soon as we said that, people would immediately start playing the student card.
Ali: I think something that we've learned is that a lot of it comes through how you hold yourself and present yourself because a lot of people assume that we're older than we are. And it's not until they might specifically ask (we would never lie about our age). So if they ask us how old we are, we’ll say our real age, but most of the time, they're assuming we're like, four or five years older than we actually are. So I think that it is that competence. And if you have that imposter syndrome, telling yourself that you are credible, that you are in the right place, and that you do have the authority to speak on the subject matter. And I think that will shine through to people as you're meeting them and as you're presenting the company
Britt: I think the best part about meeting people and they're like, you're only 24 that's shocking, then you see their jaws drop. I think that's probably my favourite part of meeting people who think we're significantly older, they're like, wow.
Daniel: 100% and it is interesting because I think once you get to the point where you have that confidence, and you can really speak with authority on what you're doing, and what you've built as an actual company and not just a project anymore, people just tend to take you more seriously. Because I remember at the beginning somehow, like at graduation, it would come up all the time in conversations. And now it doesn't because whenever we speak to people now, like any three of us, we've done so much that people just assume we're older.
Steph: I think something that I think about all the time is being self-aware and being aware of what your weaknesses are, what your strengths are, but also the things that can trigger you as well. How important do you think that is when you're running a startup?
Daniel: Self-awareness is huge. For a number of reasons. I think one is understanding how you can effectively work with your co-founders when you're first starting, and then to how you can effectively work and manage a team because they're two different experiences. And when we started the company, Stephen and I, we lived together for eight months when we first started it. We worked remotely for six months while we were all working other jobs. So I was a student,, Sage was at Microsoft, Stephen was doing a bit of school and consulting on the side because he had taken a couple of years off to work full time. So when we first started, we moved into this small dingy apartment in Toronto, and we lived there for four months.
We did the same thing when we got into TechStars and we moved to Montreal. We wanted to do it because we were like if we're going to do this, let's do this right. We're either gonna die fast or learn about each other and grow really quickly. And that process was huge because, for the first time, I was living and working with people. And so it was understanding all of their quirks, understanding all their strengths, their weaknesses, understanding all of my strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and how those all work together, both in a business concept and a living way. And so when we first started Crescendo, every single week we’d do a founders session where we talk with each other and then a part of that would be areas of improvement and highlights from the week. So like, I really liked when you did this, I really didn't like when you did this or I think you could have done this better. And so we did that for almost a year every week. From there, we learned a lot about our strengths and weaknesses. And I think the biggest benefit of that was when we started hiring a team, we saw how each of our individual flaws was actually magnified because we were now working with other people who looked at us as leaders and expected us to be in a leadership role.
Steph: We also can relate to that too. I know the three of us have also talked extensively about this but, us trying to figure each other out for the first two years I think. We're in a good place now in terms of like, we know each other's quirks and strengths, weaknesses, all that kind of stuff, but it took a while and I think everyone has their own antics.
Ali: Even for us like, I've known Steph for probably over 13 or 14 years. And I realized I didn't know stuff about her until we started a company. You know someone for so long and then once you’re interacting with them and working with them in a different way, there's so much more that you learn and that comes through. That was a huge thing for us. So even though we were friends, we had to learn how to work together and be around each other in a different type of setting, which was interesting. Kudos to you for being able to live with your co-founders. It’s a risky move, I feel like it can either go really great or really wrong.
Daniel: We were warned against it, too. People were like, this is a really bad idea. And we're like, fuck it. Like let's just do it anyway. It was like just putting all that in a pressure cooker, right? All the lessons you learned about each other in like, a month or two months or a year, we learned in a span of a couple of weeks. I'm curious when you got into your groove were there things that you did that were self-reflection exercises or something like that to help you learn about each other?
Steph: Yeah, so a lot of it was organic. Every year we do our yearly planning, and we do self-audits, but the self-audits are essentially like we'll go through and a audit ourselves. So it's, what are your top five values? What are your goals for the company? And what are your biggest fears about the company? And then the other thing is we talk about the top five things that we all love about each other. And we also talk about the things that we don't love about each other. And I think that that's really good because it gets an open conversation going. And what we’ve found a lot of the time is that, for example, maybe I didn't appreciate something about Ali, but Ali already knew that about herself. And that, I think is a really good way of doing it.
We usually do it with drinks, and then just hang out, talk about what we think we're doing really well versus what we don't and I think it's really important to talk about people's weaknesses, but it's also equally important to talk about what you think they're strong at and what you think they're doing really well because a lot of the time, I find anyways in the startup chaos, you almost forget to tell people how much you appreciate them.
Daniel: I think when people get into a business or create something, we often think about business first and then team second. But I think it almost has to be team first, just because how are you supposed to grow your company if you don't know each other, you don't know your strengths and you don't know your weaknesses. And that is a company that's working in silos and isolation from each other.
Ali: That goes back to what you were talking about with the importance of culture. Because at the beginning of the startup stages, it is a mix of that volunteer work almost because there isn't a lot of money. And yes, money is important, and it's an important driver for a lot of people. But I find that the cultural aspect is such a priority and needs to be such a priority because it is huge for people to want to work with you. And when maybe the money isn't as great that culture will be able to make up for a lot of that because people feel the growth and they see the opportunity.
Steph: Shifting the conversation a little bit. So your company is really big on diversity and promoting diversity and stuff like that. We kind of talked about how you're building your team, but how do you think about hiring people from diverse backgrounds?
Daniel: I think there's a common misconception that I want to address right away and it’s that you have to give up something for diversity. And I think that’s a load of shit. I think that a lot of people use that as an excuse. And I think it really is just laziness. When you think about it, a lot of people have trouble hiring candidates that don't necessarily look like them or come from different backgrounds, because they aren't taking the effort upfront to really look in the right places.
A lot of it happens really organically, right? Like you make friends with people who are similar to you. You grew up in areas where people are similar to you. And so obviously, when you're like hiring or when you building a startup, your first instinct is to just reach out to people who you know, maybe worked with before who just happened to look like you. And then a year down the road, you've got a team of like seven white dudes who all went to the same university. And that's the reality of a lot of companies that had started off. And so for us, when I think about it, I think about it in two ways. I think about, are we making sure that we are looking in all the places that we can potentially find really interesting people, regardless of where they're from? And then number two is people that we're bringing onto the team, do they bring a unique life experience onto our team. And we find that the more we kind of spread our reach in terms of trying to find people from very different backgrounds who aren't traditionally looked at for roles. The more you find those unique life experiences, the more you end up with a team that is representationally diverse.
And so at the beginning, we were very intentional with it. We said, how can we make sure that we have the most diverse hiring pipeline set up? And so even in the early days, when it was just the three of us, we would go to a lot of community events and that's how we just started getting our feel out there because we're also a very mission-driven company. We felt that people from more marginalized communities, it would really appeal to them and it was true. And really, at the end of the day, when I think about bringing someone onto our team, the decision is really a factor of three things. One of them is - how is their EQ? How is their ability to work with others? The second one is - how are their skills? Can they do the role? Can they do it well? And the third one is - what is their unique life experience? Can they bring something onto this team that no one else has?
Steph: I really like that you guys are looking at the life experience part of things because I feel like a lot of people don't necessarily think about that. A lot of the time you look at a person when you're hiring and you think of their LinkedIn or their resume and then whether or not they're presentable when they come into the interview. That kind of stuff, I feel like it’s so traditional and today it doesn't necessarily matter because it doesn't necessarily matter how old you are, it depends on the quality of the experience. Maybe the quantity of it and obviously like how you're reacting to the situations around you.
Ali: What's your opinion on quotas in larger, specifically larger organizations that tend to have them for diversity hires?
Daniel: It's a step like they are a start, but it's also very insulting. And I think what it ends up doing is giving this perception that you are hiring someone because you want to hit a quota versus that they're the best person for the job. If you're looking at quotas, they should really be at the top of your hiring funnel with all of the people that you source, like do you have a good representation of people from different backgrounds. And then get rid of the quota because what you're doing is you're looking for the best person for the job, you should make sure that your hiring process is unbiased itself and that there's enough areas in there that the bias of the interviewees or the way you're asking questions if the way you're structuring interviews doesn't favour one type of person or another, but I think that's really the only place quotas should be because, after that, it's just who's the best person for job.
And if you've done a good enough job getting a funnel of candidates that come from all different backgrounds, you are very likely to hire someone who wouldn't traditionally be who you think would fit in this role. I think if you have them at the end of the hiring model, and you say we need to hire six people who look like this, then I think not only are you doing a disservice to them, you're doing a disservice to your entire team.
I think we're perpetuating a lot of the issues within companies. I think companies try to do this as a way to fix their cultures. But I think it just makes things worse. Really the biggest secret in all of this is just making sure you're reaching out to the right groups. And I think the biggest thing that people forget about is just the power of being involved in communities and community groups, because that's how you get a more diverse pipeline. Like that's how you fix that issue.
Britt: What's your opinion on some hiring technologies where they would just scan all these resumes looking for certain parts in order to have the candidates move to the next stage? Because I think with that, it all comes back to the developer, does the developer have a bias when they're coding these programs?
Daniel: There's a number of issues with that, specifically, because when it comes to artificial intelligence, a lot of it is based on data sets. And a lot of the data sets that you pull from the real world are inherently biased because of the social structures that we have in place. And so I think the two scariest things are: one is the automatic scanning of resumes. But two, more is the automatic scanning of faces, and video interviews and a lot of things that are happening in that world.
I think there are companies that are doing it better. But when you look at it, there was a point in time where a lot of the best facial recognition software wasn't able to scan the faces of people with darker skin tones, it couldn't recognize them because the data that the sets were based on we're all based on people who had lighter skin tones. There was actually a group where they literally just did a huge data collection process of people with dark skin and what their faces looked like to be able to help improve all these algorithms. And that tech actually goes in everywhere, because I remember one of our mentors used to work at Google X, which was Google's secret research lab, somewhere in LA. But they told me that one of the things they were testing out, it was like a wearable device, but the sensor that they had ordered, it was working with everyone on the team and then when the one black person on the team tried it out, it wasn't working on them. They found out that the sensor that they were ordering from like this big sensor manufacturer wasn't actually able to detect darker skin tones.
Ali: What is the one thing you want to leave listeners with when it comes to diversity in organizations?
Daniel: I would say don't think about diversity as something outside of what you're already doing. Diversity, inclusion and anything within that spectrum should really be at the core of everything that you do. It should be integrated into all the things that you do. So when you think about diversity, you should just be thinking about it in the hiring of the HR context, you should be thinking about, you know, how do I apply that mindset to the way I design marketing campaigns, sales campaigns, product design, and once you really start doing that, you get away from this mode from thinking about the world in quotas or thinking about the world as just like, I have to do this because I look bad.
And you start to integrate it into the way that you interact in everyday life. And when you do that I think that's how you really become more successful in a world that is increasingly multicultural and increasingly diverse in representation
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