Words at work

– 4 min read

Interview with Jeremy Evans-Smith, Founder and CEO of Ascending

Devon Delfino

Devon Delfino

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activities are now business critical for large companies. One problem: there isn’t a good way for companies to take stock, set goals, and track progress towards doing better. 

Enter Ascending, a startup that’s helping teams measure and improve DEI. Their mission is to bridge the gap between companies’ good intentions and actual, sustainable results — by providing personalized action plans for DEI. 

“Think of us like Credit Karma for company DEI,” says Jeremy Evans-Smith, founder and CEO of Ascending. “Right now the way people think of DEI, they think of the people aspect of the problem, rather than the data aspect. If you talk with someone on engineering or product, who’s not in people ops, they may think, ‘diversity is not my problem.’ On that we’d push back, contending that DEI is everyone’s business.”

Here’s what else you should know about Ascending:

The vision

Jeremy Evans-Smith, Founder and CEO of Ascending
Ascending Founder and CEO Jeremy Evans-Smith

DEI isn’t new, but it’s new enough that the critical data points for accessing and improving key DEI metrics — stats like retention and pay equity — often aren’t accessible. Ascending wants to change that.

“Companies don’t know where their DEI is with pinpoint accuracy. They don’t know how to measure DEI,” Evans-Smith says. “There’s no benchmark. We need to build that in addition to the community and the resources and expertise.” 

So how does Ascending, which is still in beta, solve the DEI data problem?

“It’s not that the data doesn’t exist…[but] companies won’t talk about attrition data and retention data. We can’t hold large companies accountable [without this data]…but it’s critical to truly actualize diversity. If we can start with empathy for all parties … we can foster a community that will genuinely bring about diversity, equity and inclusion.”

How Ascending works

Ascending is partnering with the companies in its beta to productize its approach to DEI management. The company’s approach during this phase is bootcamp-style: for the first four weeks, beta customers will get an audit of their culture from the Ascending team, with an emphasis on hiring and culture .

“Your interviewers will be gatekeepers,” Evans-Smith says. “Hiring managers will be decision-makers. Regardless of how well you recruit, those stakeholders could derail your process. How do we make sure your values are aligned? With a shared foundation.”

After the first month, Ascending will administer a company-wide survey to get a DEI data baseline.

A glimpse into Ascending's DEI questionnaire
A glimpse into Ascending’s DEI questionnaire.

“Once we have sentiments in place, then we can have the policies,” says Evans-Smith. “But it has to start with empathy.” And how do you foster empathy? “By amplifying the voices of your employees in a truly safe manner…Effective DEI can’t happen without that. It requires getting to know people, listening and iterating.”

The Ascending Score model

After the survey, companies will receive a rating, similar to a FICO score, based on several key data points:

  • Diversity representation among existing employees
  • Top of funnel representation
  • DEI growth opportunities
  • Sense of belonging, advancement opportunities and cultural values
A closer look at the Diversity section of Ascending's DEI scoring model
A closer look at the Diversity section of Ascending’s DEI scoring model.

Ascending’s goal is nothing short of a consistent DEI bar across industries using this key data. Insights from policy and social justice experts help tweak and improve the scoring model.

Starting wherever you can

Many factors go into creating diverse workplaces, and many of them are difficult to pull off, but that doesn’t mean it’s something companies should be afraid of.

Ascending Academy provides participants with baseline DEI to help create an even playing field
Ascending Academy provides participants with baseline DEI to help create an even playing field.

The language that’s used in a company is a good way to start fostering cultures of inclusion and belonging. Writer publishes a Diversity and Inclusion glossary for inclusive language guidelines for both internal communications and external content. 

“Potential sales prospects, potential employees and business partners will likely discover your content before coming into contact with you,” says Evans-Smith. “This will either sway them in the direction of wanting to learn more or not bother…I’d assert that investing the time and effort into equitable and inclusive language is well worth the up-front time and money.”

Whether it’s language or hiring metrics, the first step is acknowledging the gap and committing to transparency on DEI. “But it needs to be guided with trusted advice, to be vulnerable and courageous, without shaming,” says Evans-Smith. “This is what Ascending is bridging the gap on.”