Tech Making a Dent in Diversity and Inclusion

This week I spoke with Khyati Sundaram, a founder and technologist who has developed Be Applied to help improve diversity and inclusion within recruitment and onboarding processes.

Today’s guest is Khyati Sundaram, who is the founder of Be Applied which is an application that helps organisations with recruitment and onboarding and focuses on reducing bias within the process. I like talking to technology founders before I got into diversity and inclusion, I worked in technology, so I’m a bit of a self-confessed geek. I like a new app or a system when it comes along, but I also believe technology helps people working on diversity and inclusion to scale up their effort. 

Before we started talking about the technology, what it does and how it helps organisations with diversity and inclusion, I asked if Khyati could begin by saying a bit more about her professional background and what led to developing this piece of software? 

‘My background is quite non-linear. I’ve had a jigsaw career. I started as a trained economist in London, and I went into mainstream banking. I found a job in the city, that was back in 2008, I did that for about six years or so. I call it paying my dues. I realised that wasn’t my cup of tea after six years and I wanted to have more scalable impact and I quit my job. I had started to get more into technology and I went back to school. I taught myself coding and somehow became a technologist. I started my first company looking at how do we use data for good and build better supply chains – what in today’s world would be called clean tech or green tech. I started that back in 2013 or 2014 with a co-founder and did that for three years and a bit. It didn’t go according to plan as many startups don’t, so I shut that down in the middle of 2018, and I suppose that’s the inflection point that would be most interesting to the Inclusive Growth audience. That’s what got me started into HR recruitment, and I came about it from the candidate experience. 

Let me take you back to 2018. This is about a span of six to eight months where I would have spent time sending CV after CV after CV and cover letters. It was just a total nightmare. I wouldn’t hear back. I would just send applications and never hear back; it would go into a black hole. As we all know, nobody ever actually likes writing an application for a job, as candidates do, because they have to find a job. I was looking for a similar theme of carrying technology, tech for good into the next phase, still looking at startups, looking at senior roles because I had started a company and led the company on the product side and the business side, and I just couldn’t find anything. 

It was that time that made me realise that everything in hiring is completely broken. How people were judging me on a basis of a piece of paper was completely inaccurate as to giving them a signal of whether I can do that job or not. That’s what Applied is built on, it’s built on that experience. It’s not a singular experience of mine, it’s an experience that many millions of candidates go through when they’re going into the job market.

It’s built on that premise of how do we hire correctly? Do we know we’re looking at the right signals? Do we know we’re treating talent right? What is that view of talent? What is the lens of talent that we’re applying? That’s why Applied exists, to bridge that gap between what organisations are doing really and what they should do as the evidence tells us.’

It always strikes me that the traditional way of applying for a job, writing a cover letter, creating a CV, going along to an interview, if anything, they assess your ability to write a good CV or write a good cover letter or perform well in an interview. These things don’t say anything about whether you can perform the job that you’re applying for. It’s obscure when we reflect on that.

‘That’s exactly what I say, all it’s testing for is how well you write in the cover letter and a little bit of storytelling. If it’s an editorial job, that’s important so it’s a good test. But what about if it’s not an editorial job? What if it’s some other job? What are the kinds of attitudes, values and skills you need to test for? That doesn’t come through at all. Some people are lucky that might come through in the interview stage, but that is very late stage, you’ve already screened so many applications out without even seeing those things that are most predictive of talent.’

I must have sent about 800 applications. I got two responses in that period, and that was just horrible as a candidate.’

I know that the early stage of that recruitment process is just rife with all sorts of bias and it’s really devaluing.

Khyati agreed. ‘Yes, it’s dehumanising. It makes you feel less than you’re worth. It starts a narrative in your head, “Oh, there’s a pattern forming now, more than 10 people have said no to me, or they’re not responding to me. Is there some problem with me?” Especially with minority groups, that creates a very heavy burden. People like me, women, ethnic minorities, you are not privileged. You don’t come from a background of privilege. So, a lot of the times that narrative is very self-harming.’

I know that from the tech companies that Khyati has set up, one of the main focuses is really shaking up and addressing the status quo of what’s going on. I asked her, ‘When you set up Be Applied, what was the status quo that you were trying to disrupt and shake up?’ 

‘Think of the status quo today. Most of the world is hiring on this linear pathway which goes something like this. You put in a CV or a cover letter, it’s screened either by a human or a keyword search match or an auto-board on the employer side. Then based on certain criteria, you would be called for an interview. Perhaps you get to meet the team, but quite often you would then be called to meet the boss, which is also a bias inducing mechanism. 

Then you’d be told whether you get the job or not. Everyone else who’s screened out in the first stage is never told about why they were screened out. Is there any feedback? The status quo is literally optimised for speed. That’s what we’ve been doing since the first CV was made back in the 1400s.

Every HR team has been optimising and rewarded for speed of hiring. We still talk about bums on seats. We still talk about vacancies being filled as of yesterday because no one has time. But what they forget is this, in every company is a recruitment company. We have to think about the people and we have to think about how the organisations evolve as the people within the organisations evolve. For me the status quo is just optimising for one parameter speed that is completely broken, and Applied brings this new perspective, which is flipping that lens to consider what other parameters are important?’

I asked Khyati to describe what the Be Applied tool is and does, so people can be clear on how it functions.  

‘The Applied tool is a software text tag that sits as an end to end hiring platform. For ease of an employer’s use, it still sits in the same linear funnel format that they would expect. They would expect to see applications coming in. They would then need to screen those applications based on certain criteria. Then they would need to send through those successful candidates into the next stage and the next stage and so on. 

It’s still set up like that, but we are fundamentally different at each stage of that funnel. The nuts and bolts of the product are that in the status quo first step, most people ask for a CV or cover letter. We advise our customers not to ask for a CV or cover letter because we know that every piece of information that sits on those two pieces of paper is completely rubbish because it’s not predictive of talent. It is predictive of whether you can write well. As a person who has paid other people to write their CV for them when I was not getting a job, I can tell you that it is completely random. It is not predictive. 

There is no accurate signal that you can get from CV or cover letter apart from details like, “Oh yeah, you were a developer at Google, great. You must have been great. Let me call you for an interview.” Those kinds of signals are the biases that we have been using and we will be using forever because that’s how our brains are. We are all biased as humans. It is an evolutionary mechanism that we can’t just get rid of and it’s going to be with us forever for our entire lives, for our generations.

We have to understand how to mitigate for those biases at every stage of the funnel. Coming back to our first stage, that’s what we do. When a traditional hiring manager would look at a CV or resume, we go two ways. Many hiring managers are really, really comfortable with a CV, they never want to give it up. And there are some who understand the problem space, have broadened their understanding of the solution space, and therefore come to Applied saying, “We’d never want to look at a CV, tell us what’s the best thing to do.” 

We work on a bespoke way. Some of the people who want to still use CVs we’d still allow them to collect CVs, but it would be more objectively assessed. We give you a rubric against which you can assess the CV. So please don’t assess the CV on grammar mistakes, or the ability of writing. Please assess the CV, for example, on, can this person work in a team, if it’s a teamwork related job.

We anonymise and remove information that is not predictive. Name, gender, ethnicity, age, where someone went to school, all of these things are removed from the CV. That’s the first stage for people who are not willing to give up the CV. 

On the other side, there are people who are completely okay, they’re like, “We understand evidence tells us never to use a CV,” and for that set of people, we have completely new, novel, predictive ways of assessing. We have created a battery of tests. These range from numeracy tests that have been validated to show that they’re not adversely impacting women or ethnic minorities. Or the organisation could use free text-based questions that would test for values, skills and attitudes – all of the things that a hiring manager thought were critical for the job. 

You could also test for other kinds of pieces of information. Once you have got your tests, you get a predictive, anonymised leaderboard of scores. We say those scores in 90% of the cases, we can bet on that that’s the person you should hire. Those are the top five or top ten people you would take to interviews, and then you would take them further in the journey.

We completely flip it to make sure organisations are testing more holistically for the things that are important for the job.’

I’ve got first-hand experience of that flipping and testing myself. When I was working within the BBC, I was working in technology and engineering, hiring software engineers. We did this experiment where we would invite anybody and everybody who was interested in a software developer role on BBC iPlayer to just respond to a challenge that we put out there. We tried to make it as real world as possible. We just said, “We’re developing this new feature for BBC iPlayer, and we want you to submit a short bit of code that would make this feature work and the test script that would go alongside that.” 

This was before we even asked for their CV or anything like that, the hiring manager was assessing them on the quality of the work that they were turning in. We were monitoring people that were getting through the process compared to the status quo way of doing it, and what we noticed is there was so much more diversity getting through the recruitment process.

In one case study, we had a guy who had a severe speech impediment. It got worse with anxiety, so he would really struggle to get past the first hurdle of recruitment, speaking to a recruiter on the phone because he would get nervous and the recruiter wouldn’t put him through. We had an autistic guy get through, again, but he could show us that he could do the work from his house, and again, he struggled with doing face-to-face interviews. 

We had more women getting through the process as well, because they weren’t screening themselves out. It’s a bit of a stereotype, but men typically will put themselves forward for a job if they feel like they meet half the criteria, and women will only do it if they feel like they meet 90% or more of the criteria. I’ve definitely got first-hand experience that this way of working definitely is better.

Khyati picked up on my point, flagging these situations of potential discrimination where people are autistic or disabled. 

‘We have case studies and anecdotes about people who were applying for the same company, re-applied, and they were not getting through because they’d sent their CV with a name that probably sounded too Asian or too something else. We, as Applied, brought the tool in to the organisation, and suddenly this person has been called to an interview. Nothing has changed on her application, it’s just that their name was taken away and they were tested on what they can actually bring to the job.’

I’m aware that there’s been some well-known research about names on CVs. So identical CVs apart from the names being different, and then people with English-sounding names get through. Scope, the National Disability charity in the UK did a similar experiment where they had identical CVs. They did like an A/B test where some of the CVs mentioned disability and the others had no mention of disability. Apart from that, though, the CVs were identical, and those CVs where disability were mentioned hardly ever got through to interview stage.

Khyati pointed out, ‘That is the shameful reality of how most of HR works’.

Having had the business running for a couple of years now, I was keen to hear what kinds of success stories Be Applied are seeing from organisations that they’re working with? 

‘Fortunately, we’re still going after four years and post pandemic. We are still selling in there, so that’s been good to see as support for the product and the business. We now have 300 customers that have had half a million applications through the platform. With these customers and candidates, we see that we’ve been able to flip the narrative completely. 

On a broader level for all of our customers, we’ve seen multiple benefits. I’ll try and stay away from the speed benefit because that’s what you normally get in the status quo although we do see that too but that’s not the premise that Applied is built on. Applied is built on the premise that we will give you level access to economic opportunities wherever you come from and whatever you look like.

Across our customers, we’ve been able to see those who used Applied in the way it’s meant to be used see a four-fold increase in ethnic diversity of candidates, both applying and then hired. We’ve also seen that traditional hiring would have missed 60% of the hires that we have been able to get through, and we’ve now got through about 14,000 hires across all of the customers. We know for a fact 60 % of those applicants would have not made through had it been a CV process. 

We’re just opening up both the top of the funnel and people who are getting access to those economic opportunities by entering the workforce. The other part is, as I said, “What does success look like to candidates?” Are they able to stay in the job? Are they thriving in the job? What do they rate their experience of Applied? 

If you think about it, half a million applications, 13,000 hires, so 490,000 odd candidates have not got jobs, and they have all come back and rated Applied nine out of 10. That’s incredible to hear. Who does that? Firstly, who enjoys a job application? No one. Secondly, who would go back and say, “Oh, you gave me such a fresh way to apply for the application, I’m incredibly grateful and thank you, even though I didn’t get a job.” That blows my mind every day, because we’re completely changing how we view talent and how inclusive we’re making the process. We’re changing what success looks like on both ends for the employer and the employee.’

It amazing to think that someone would apply for a job, which is quite a hard slog as it is, but then actually have a good experience. I guess that positions that employer in a favourable light. Candidates might go back again for a second try or they might refer a friend or a colleague to them as well.

Khyati agreed. ‘We do see this. A lot of our new candidates who apply to us, or even new employers who come to us have come through a referral mechanism. If you look at case studies of our customer, there has been significant change, not only the representation in their team, but also retention in the team. So, we are actually matching people to the right jobs in the right instance, and they just happen to be of a different ethnic minority or a gender minority than what you would have expected. 

I’ll give you an example, one of my favourite clients is London Sport, although I should not be saying any favourites! People in London must know London Sport which exists to make London fitter. They’re an active charity, and they work with people all around London on all of sports-related matters. For them initially, it was a leap of faith, because they had educated themselves on the problem space. They came to us and they said, “We want more representation. We want to make London more physically active, so we need to look like London.” 

That was one of their aims. What they did was they completely trusted us with that leap of faith, and they said, “You know what, you know best, tell us what we need to do,” and we went and did a CV-less hiring. And by focusing simply on identifying the most suitable candidate for that job, based on what the candidate skills, values and attitudes look like, they found that they had a 50% increase in ethnic minorities in their team. That’s without putting any diversity goal and without putting any fake quotas in place that you have to retrospectively force, or any kind of other forcing function. That’s the beauty of the product. It is, that there is an organic level of talent that it opens up that you would never have imagined because now you’re doing it the right way.’

These stories are powerful. The reason I came across Be Applied was one of my clients who’s a major publisher uses it. I sat down with the Head of HR and we were talking about their recruitment process and bias within that recruitment process. He took it upon himself to find a solution to try and minimise bias, particularly the beginning of that recruitment process, when you’re starting to get covering letters and CVs and you’re screening them.

Off of his own back he found Be Applied and he absolutely loves the product and just keeps raving about it. That’s when I thought, “Oh, okay, maybe I definitely need to get Khyati onto the show,” because any excuse to talk about a bit of technology brings out my inner geek as well.

I was keen to know what is next in store for the product as the company continue to develop it. 

‘We’ve been talking a lot about technology. We’ve also been talking about inclusion and human-centered issues. For me, it is very important to come back to that interplay of tech and humans. That’s how I think about business day-to-day as well. I mentioned before that every company is a recruitment company, so our people have to look after the people. But tech still has a major role in my opinion, although a lot of people will argue with me. But in my opinion, that’s how you scale, and that’s how you have sustainable impact in the long term.

That interplay of technology and working in a human-centered way is what we’re looking at and asking ourselves how do we best ensure that throughout the product? One of the next stages in that theme is ethical automation for us. As I talked about at the very beginning of the podcast, speed, that is the status quo, that is the challenge we’re fighting that we should never only be optimising for speed. What I’m looking at is that speed is very important because nobody needs to or wants to wait fifty days to hire somebody who would make or break their start-up, for example, but we still need to look at it in a more inclusive way.

At Applied, we call it ethical automation. As you’re moving toward speed, as you’re using technology, as you’re using any forms of innovation like artificial intelligence, is it ethical? Is it going to be sustained? That’s what we’re heading towards at Applied. How do we build for the future of 2050 or the future of work in a more sustainable way, taking account every parameter that is important to the current hiring teams, which is speed, but also infusing that with our ethos?’

Finally, I turned to the question that I ask everybody when they come on the podcast is, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’

‘For me, growth has to have three things. I think someone famous said this, but I don’t remember who it was. But for me, it is very important whether we take a business view or a societal view, it has to have three things. For me it has to be constant in a way that it is visible, it has to be sustained in a way that it can be long-term, and it has to be inclusive, i.e., it has to bring together broad swathes of the population and they have to benefit in that growth. Otherwise, it’s just finance and numbers, and I would be back doing banking where I was seven or eight years ago. So, for me, it is about those three things, whether we see it as a business or as a society. At Applied, it’s much more about embedding that expression of inclusion. Starting that education and debate and asking how are we progressing as a society? Are bigger sections of population all advancing together? Applied does its tiny bit in that bigger debate.’

If you are interested in Be Applied as part of your systems and tools to deliver better diversity and inclusion in your organisations visit the website where there’s lots of information available. Even if you are not looking to buy a technology tool right now, or there isn’t a budget for it you can still get lots of free information to help implement the Applied approach or a less biased, more robust approach even without using the tech tools.

Tech Making a Dent in Diversity and Inclusion - Mildon