How Inclusive Culture Grows People and Business

My guest for this conversation is Patrick Penzo. Patrick is currently the Growth Lead at Quench AI. Prior to that, Patrick was working for Onfido, a tech company that has recently been acquired for record-breaking figures. Part of the valuation was based on culture, which is something Patrick can speak to from personal experience and he’ll be talking to me about how it really adds value to a business.

We got started with me asking Patrick to tell me a bit more about his role as a growth lead at

‘ is a startup that has been around for about two years, our purpose is to help everyone we touch be the best they can be. We believe that human beings are the best people to help you grow in your career, but we think AI can help you find the right people and build the right resources to go to where you want to go. As the Growth Lead, it’s my role to oversee marketing and sales and effectively find the first early adopters that are excited to build pilots with us, to hopefully build another successful company.’

I asked Patrick to tell me how he ended up at and why was diversity important for his career progression?

‘I like to talk about my professional career in the context of belonging and authenticity. I belonged to a Calvary Catholic community where I grew up in Venice, Italy. I was going to church on Sundays to lead the local parish choir, but I always felt a little bit like an outsider. I couldn’t wait to get out of Venice. I was lucky enough to make it to Oxford University. When I got to Oxford, I started to realize that I could explore who I authentically was. I came to realise that, as a gay person, there were many reasons why I didn’t belong and fit into the community that I grew up in.

For people who don’t know what Onfido is, if you ever opened a bank account with your smartphone or rented a car, when you take a photo of your driving licence and a selfie, chances are you’re being verified by Onfido – it makes sure that you actually are who you claim to be. When I got to Onfido, I was still stuck in these prejudices that I built from the community I had belonged to for a long time, that I didn’t believe it possible for me to be my authentic self and be successful and thrive. I didn’t think that I could belong and be authentically myself.

Over the course of five years at Onfido, I had to slowly unlearn that. I started as employee number 10, the first salesperson and queer person on the team. By the time I’d left the company, I had raised hundreds of millions of pounds. I had worked in the United States, in Singapore and in the UK opening offices and winning some of our biggest customers. Onfido is now being acquired and it’s the biggest return on investment for the University of Oxford from a student-led business. I’ve been asking myself what made it all happen and that’s why I’m here today. I think it’s a really interesting use case for people to hear about.’

I asked Patrick what kind of projects Onfido had run to create an inclusive culture?

‘Disruptive innovation happens in a place of psychological safety. It is at the heart of a startup and how you generate value as a business. I don’t think it’s possible for it to happen in a place where the employees don’t feel psychologically safe. From an early stage, Onfido invested in creating that environmental and psychological safety.

I think the emphasis on that culture is what set us apart in the market. We were about 20 or 30 employees who took the day off work and went offsite where we spent the whole day asking ourselves what were the kind of people that we wanted to be? Who do we want to sit next to? What did we want our customers to say about us? What were our values? From that whole exercise, we diluted it all into four key values.

Those values were to succeed together. Success didn’t ever belong to one individual, but it was always a product of a network. It was learning things and sharing them, being curious and not being afraid to ask questions. It was taking pride and caring about the environment that you’re in, caring about what people think about you, caring about how other people help you thrive. It doesn’t matter if things are done well now, there’s always a better way to do it. Don’t just sit in the status quo.

Those cultural values became like antibodies. We had the culture police, and every single person in the company was adamant and really emotionally protective of these cultural values. You could have been the Chief People Officer; you could have been the CFO. If you did something that didn’t feel like it was Onfido, a new joiner could walk up to you and say, that was not very Onfido of you. It created an environment where people could feel safe and could feel like they belonged. I think the key for Onfido was bringing two people who were different from one another together. The moment different people share their opinions, there’s going to be disagreement inherently, because they come from different places.

We created a space that was safe where people could share their opinions, could feel listened to and could trust that in the process of hearing other people being honest and frank with one another. From that cacophony of different opinions came a decision that was always greater than any one single opinion would have been by itself. I believe that was the across-the-board building block that made us successful, without that foundation, we wouldn’t have got to where we did in different aspects of the business.’

I like these four values Patrick cited because they’re really simple. If I was working in the company, it’s something I could definitely get behind.

I was also thinking about a framework that we often share with our clients, the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. He talks about these five dysfunctions and then also what a high-performing team looks like, and   like a pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid, you’ve got trust as the first layer. Dysfunctional teams don’t have that trust or psychological safety that Patrick mentioned, where people speak up if they notice something isn’t going right, or they’re not afraid to share their idea because they’re worried about backlash.

The second layer is the fear of conflict. High performing teams, have candid conversations and feel like they’re able to challenge one another in a supportive way. Low performing teams will tend to avoid difficult conversations because they want to avoid that conflict. When Patrick was saying, ‘That’s not very Onfido,’ that was an indicator that people felt able to potentially have  conflict where there wasn’t that alignment with that particular value?

‘The founders created a team that was very different and diverse. They really encouraged people to share their opinion. As the business grew, they made sure that they created a leadership team that had a lot of differences, that they established a rule of interaction with one another that was critical. It’s not only feeling comfortable to disagree, because that is both a personal and an environmental thing, but it’s also making sure that people feel listened to.

Within the executive team that the founders put together, there was a CFO who’d done it all before at PayPal and was in his 60s. There’s also this extraordinary woman who now works in helping women in leadership. She comes with huge amounts of energy and bubbliness and is very go-getter. She has a different personality from a lot of the other people in the executive team. Although everyone was very different, no one ever disrespected anyone else in the process of making decisions. That led to a very high impact and effective leadership team.

As the company grew, we were able to retain that behavior. Onfido did a great job of hiring people, but we know every business makes mistakes. When someone was hired and they didn’t fit within that behaviour model, it was easy to identify very quickly. After my first year at Onfido, I moved to the United States and opened up an office.

At one point, a hard decision had to be made, the person that was hired was not the right fit for the role. The founders made the difficult and swift decision when they realised that this was not a culture fit to finding a new GM.

America’s now the powerhouse of Onfido in terms of revenue and growth. It wasn’t just a face value culture, as I said, it was almost antibodies. You could identify very quickly who didn’t fit. We generally believe that that was the key to our success and that it was worth investing in and protecting.’

We often hear stories where companies will keep hold of somebody because they are a big rainmaker, but they have a toxic leadership style. If they don’t align with the values of the business it causes all sorts of problems, but they’re retained because they’re making big money. It takes a very courageous leader to say, ‘Hang on a sec. You know, yes, you might be a big rainmaker, but your leadership style is damaging the culture of the company. And that’s having a negative ripple effect across the business.’

Patrick agreed adding, ‘We’re in a business of innovating, disrupting and doing things differently and that’s not possible in an environment where people don’t feel safe to disagree. We’ve eliminated disagree from our vocabulary because we assume that people will disagree. We want a moment of listening and sharing opinions which can’t happen in an environment that isn’t creating a space of belonging for everyone.’

Patrick has now moved over to another startup, which is I asked him, ‘What are you personally taking across from Onfido to’

‘We’re only two years old, but we want to make a very successful company so I’m trying to work out what the ingredients that I can replicate are. There’s one thing that comes from Onfido and another thing that is new but is inspired by Onfido.

Understanding how we can create an environment of belonging where people can be their authentic selves and feel comfortable being you and bringing yourself to work and feeling like you belong. In that kind of cultural environment, the magic happens effectively.

Give people the freedom and the power. At my team level, driving that culture of disagreement. I came in and I had a team that was a little bit unsure about voicing their opinions, giving them the space to do that and fostering that disagreement. The second thing that we’re doing at a business level, is making sure that we’re creating a team that’s different from the ground up. The leadership team has people who come from slightly bizarre or unorthodox backgrounds.

We’ve partnered with Blue Hope, an organisation that helps refugees get employment in their new host countries. This has allowed us to hire a fantastic guy from Afghanistan that we’re training and upskilling as a software engineer. He brings so much wealth, not only because he is really passionate and wants to develop personally to become a successful software engineer, but also because he brings so many different perspectives that most of the people in the team haven’t got. It makes us all the richer for it.

Those are two things we’re investing in a lot, that culture of safety, but also making sure that when we go through an interview process, we find people that are in some way different from who’s already in the team. We push ourselves to find ways of sourcing candidates that bring something new and different, so that there is disagreement, but in a good way allowing us to listen to one another.’

My next question was to find out what advice Patrick would give to a leader of a startup or a scale-up regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion?

‘I would ask them if they are authentic at work? For a long time I wasn’t and I had to ask myself why. The second question is, if not, then why not? Why are you feeling like you can’t be your authentic self in the workplace? And if you aren’t, then probably the rest of your team isn’t either. I would ask if you feel like you absolutely belong and is that true of everyone around you? Does everyone else feel like they authentically belong? Is everyone feeling like they belong because they all have the same opinion and everyone’s saying yes to the same things? If so, that means that you are not creating an environment of disruptive innovation. You’re creating an environment where not everyone belongs. It’s not true psychological safety, it’s an environment where people conform to this one environment.

Patrick said that previously he hadn’t felt like he could be his true, authentic self. I asked him, ‘What did that look like and how did that impact you?’

‘When I joined Onfido, I wasn’t openly gay in the workplace because I genuinely believed that if I told people I was gay, I was not going to be able to become a CEO or be able to progress in a customer-facing role. I thought I couldn’t close deals. I worked very hard to have a neutral personality. I wouldn’t disclose any information about what I was doing on weekends. I was guarded and I found that was really difficult in an environment where everyone is being very open. In order to disagree and share your opinions, you need to be vulnerable and you need to feel like you can say what you want to say. I realised that I was feeling uncomfortable not being vulnerable, especially when the people around me were. When I started being vulnerable and open and honest, I saw I was still having successes in the workplace.

In the first 12 months, I went from knowing nothing about sales to closing this little known company at the time which has a kangaroo logo and delivers food with scooters. You might know it as Deliveroo now. I couldn’t wrap my head around how the more I was myself, the better things were. How the relationships with the people around me improved the more I was my genuine self. To Onfido’s credit, it’s the fact that they created this environment where I could go on that journey for myself that I really thrived. I was given opportunities. I was never held back. I was never made to feel like anything was impossible or that it was just up to me.

In the UK we were quite lucky, we found product market fit relatively early. As I said, we won Deliveroo in my first 12 months of working there. In the United States we assumed we could do the same thing, but it was a different market. We had to understand people a lot. Often people are much more open in an American market than they are in a British market. I had very few successes for a year and a half. That was the point in time where I had to realise, I needed to be more comfortable being me. I discovered the letter from Tim Cook where he described that he was the CEO of Apple and a gay man. All the things that were built up in my head disappeared. At that point in life,  I was able to be brave, and  I was able to be more authentic. I found that that’s when successes actually came in the workplace.’

I thanked Patrick for sharing that story. I think it goes to show how individuals can thrive when they work in an environment where they can bring as much of themselves to work as they want or  choose to. If people thrive as  individuals, then that’s only good for the business. That will only help the business and the team prosper.

Patrick agreed, ‘That’s exactly why I’m working where I’m working now. We’re in the business of upskilling people and what that means is, you are somewhere in life and you want to go somewhere else. It’s helping you find the right path for you. AI doesn’t have all the answers, it’s a combination of humans and AI. We really think that we can help you find the right people to go on the path to be the best person that you want to be and that you can be. That’s why I’m quite passionate about where we are now.’

I asked Patrick, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘Since the 1980s, growth for businesses has meant share price. Growth is whatever benefits the shareholders of a company. Historically, I don’t think shareholders have been the most diverse or inclusive group of people on the planet. It also means that companies haven’t taken into account various other stakeholders that they’re accountable to like employees, customers, or the environment, so that’s the community and the planet that they exist within. I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of the results that we have today, compensation of CEOs being disproportionately massive compared to employees.

When you build a company where employees are similar to the market that they sell to, that business is going to better understand its customers and it’s going to have better long term growth. A company that takes into account the environment that it exists within has a long-term growth trajectory that’s much better than a business that doesn’t take into account the costs of environmental crises disrupting their bottom line. In a very broad sense, inclusive growth is taking into account all the stakeholders that a business is accountable to for much better long-term growth than short-term minded growth, which is what we’ve had for a while.’

I like that long-term thinking or planning that Patrick’s talking about there. Something he said reminded me that I did a project once with a FinTech organisation that worked with entrepreneurs. The chief executive said to me that it was important that the product team reflected the diversity of the end users because they were then able to build a better product which would get into the hands of more entrepreneurs. I think the penny dropped for her because she realised that their customer base was incredibly diverse. The world of entrepreneurship is diverse. Their business vision was to expand to markets outside of the UK as well, so there was this clear link – mirroring the diversity of their end users and the growth of the business, which I found really interesting.

Patrick replied, ‘We’re at a startup that’s not quite at that product market fit stage. We’re constantly questioning what do people want? How do we help people upskill? Does a business need this? If we can’t get into the minds of our customers, we’re going to go nowhere. I’m only one person with one perspective on the world. The more diverse the group is, the more perspectives we can come to understand better and faster. It all goes back to psychological safety.’

To get in touch with Patrick Penzo he recommends reaching out on his LinkedIn page where he’s very active. Alternatively, visit the Quench website at, and contact him there.

If you need any support to develop your organisation’s inclusive culture, then feel free to reach out to Toby and his team. The best place to start is either through their website at or just drop the team a line on LinkedIn.

How Inclusive Culture Grows People and Business - Mildon