From The Council

69% of Women Would Have Stayed in Their Jobs if Offered Flexibility: Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly, Co-Founder and CEO of EVONA, a space and geospatial staffing solutions company, prescribes leading with a clear set of values, adopting a diversified hiring approach, and embracing flexibility as essential to attracting and retaining diverse talent. Read on to learn how EVONA is reshaping the industry with innovative DEI approaches
Tom Kelly, EVONA Interview with WGIC

WGIC: Tom, congratulations on winning the prestigious WGIC DEI Trailblazer 2023 Corporate Impact Award. What does this recognition mean to you and EVONA?

Kelly: This award holds great significance to us at EVONA. It was a modest beginning when we launched the company five years ago. But our vision was clear, though initially it was just for ourselves. We wanted to create an inclusive work environment. Unlike the convention of being in the office at 7:30 AM and working till 7:30 PM daily, we promised our employees no start or finish times. This enabled us to work with super-experienced professionals and people from diverse backgrounds, steering clear of a company where everyone looks alike. This philosophy has been ingrained in our culture from the beginning. 

Winning this award is particularly meaningful for us, especially in a sector where we are deeply involved. We collaborate with numerous companies, advise them on strategies to enhance their workplaces, attract a wide array of talent, and ultimately retain that talent effectively. It’s truly gratifying to receive this recognition for all the efforts. 

WGIC: A remarkable achievement, especially in an industry perceived as having high entry barriers.

Kelly: That perception is correct. However, many positions companies within the sector recruit are relatively routine. Take marketing, for instance. It plays a huge role in the space and geospatial sectors. Interestingly, many marketers may not realize that their skills are applicable in this sector. The same goes for business development, account management, and sales. 

In our experience, we have successfully placed candidates in every conceivable role. We operate across the entire space economy, from those launching rockets to companies translating data into meaningful insights. Our spectrum spans from working with virtual assistants at Apple to collaborating with astronauts. It is a sector that accommodates a wide range of talents. 

Our mission is to dispel the misconception that this industry is exclusive. There’s a place for everyone, and we’re committed to breaking down the perceived barriers for those who think they might not have a place within the sector. 

WGIC: As a staffing solution company deeply involved in the space industry, how have you conveyed this core philosophy around DEI to the companies you work with and impressed upon them the need to create inclusive work environments? 

Kelly: As we expanded our business and started working with more companies, a new realization dawned on us. We saw that the industry has been witnessing substantial growth, the investment landscape has changed, and in the past year, we have seen several mergers and acquisitions (M&As) in the marketplace. Technology is dynamically evolving, and the industry is continuously expanding. Being a staffing solutions company, the first thing we anticipated was that the demand for skilled professionals would soon surpass the available talent pool.

So, we said we need to welcome individuals from diverse backgrounds and industries into the sector. Simultaneously, we recognized the need to encourage younger generations to pursue relevant fields of study proactively. We viewed ourselves as relatable catalysts, understanding the importance of guiding those who might feel lost in their career journey – an experience I empathize with from my school days. 

Our approach is rooted in the belief that we can make a difference, offering opportunities in a vibrant sector with numerous career paths. This philosophy is not just rhetoric; statistics substantiate it. For instance, a significant 2021 study in the US revealed that 69% of women would have stayed in their jobs if offered more flexibility. This insight underscored the importance of adapting flexible strategies to accommodate the evolving needs of the workforce. 

Recognizing that the space sector, particularly with many new and first-time founders, has the chance to redefine norms, we’ve actively pursued innovative approaches. This involves rethinking how companies attract and retain talent acknowledging the diversity of skills and experience individuals bring from various sectors. 

While numerous statistics support our approach, our philosophy’s fundamental essence revolves around reintroducing as many people as possible to the sector. We advocate for a work environment that values inclusivity and flexibility. We believe fostering such an environment attracts diverse talent and enhances overall happiness and productivity. 

These principles continue to guide us today. The commitment to inclusivity, flexibility, and rewriting conventional norms in talent acquisition and retention remains unwavering in our pursuit to positively impact the space industry. 

WGIC: In its recent meeting, the WGIC board discussed the challenges of the geospatial industry in attracting and retaining diverse and skilled talent. The statistic you mentioned that 69% of women would have stayed if their jobs offered more flexibility aligns with these discussions. Besides flexibility, what other challenges hinder talent attraction and retention? 

Kelly: A fundamental issue within the geospatial sector lies at the core of our challenges. The proliferation of start-ups, while fantastic for industry growth, has brought to light a significant concern. Many of these start-ups are founded by individuals new to the entrepreneurial journey, like us in our early days. As first-time entrepreneurs, the intense focus on mission and vision often leads to overlooking that they can achieve their mission only with the right set of people. 

Human tendencies, such as unconscious biases, come into play as entrepreneurs tend to bring on board people who share similarities with them in appearance, background, and traits. Founders believe working with people they already know or went to school with is a lot easier. While this natural inclination exists, it becomes a significant issue when it begins to hinder diversity. On the other hand, statistics reveal that women are six times less likely to apply for a job solely based on the job description in the advertisement. Such unconscious biases have repercussions, affecting the overall diversity and inclusivity within the geospatial industry. 

Another critical factor is the benefits package. Recognizing its importance early on, especially in attracting experienced professionals, we understood the need for a comprehensive package. This effort was not just about addressing immediate concerns but about being proactive in creating an environment that caters to experienced individuals, including women. 

Even before the impact of COVID-19, the benefits package gained heightened significance. The pandemic prompted a shift in priorities for individuals, emphasizing the importance of work-life balance. Hence, a well-thought-out benefits package, which need not be extravagant, became an essential aspect for attracting and retaining talent. 

Moreover, flexibility emerged as a vital component. Establishing strict start and end times can inadvertently create invisible walls, limiting the potential of employees. Employers can unlock higher levels of productivity and engagement by demonstrating flexibility in work hours, breaks, and other aspects. It’s about striking the right balance acknowledging the need for structure while allowing room for individual preferences. 

Our experiences at our bootstrap business reinforced the idea that excuses should not hinder the implementation of progressive policies. For instance, when a team member highlighted shortcomings in our maternity policy, we took immediate steps to rectify them, showcasing our commitment to continuous improvement. 

Thus, the challenges within the geospatial industry, including unconscious bias, reliance on traditional advertising methods, insufficiently thought-through benefits packages, and a lack of flexibility, are fundamental aspects that businesses must address to attract and retain the best talent. From a DEI perspective, the goal is to foster an environment where limitations based on background or appearance do not impede the pursuit of excellence, ensuring that merit remains the primary criterion for hiring. 

WGIC: Could you share the specific initiatives or best practices that you, as a company, are implementing to address these industry challenges and promote greater diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

Kelly: First and foremost, our strategy involves proactive headhunting. We advise businesses to diversify their candidate pool, especially addressing the gender gap—where females are six times less likely to apply through job ads—headhunting is critical. It’s not merely presenting the job and its requirements; it’s about personalized outreach. We engage in meaningful conversations, expressing genuine interest in a candidate’s experience and aspirations. 

This direct approach has proven highly effective. In numerous cases, we’ve successfully built teams with well over 50% female representation, surpassing the average percentage in specific skill sets, typically hovering around 19 to 20% female. 

Another crucial aspect we emphasize is the interview process. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming candidates would automatically be drawn to the business. While passion for your business is essential, it’s equally vital to position your company as an attractive workplace. Leading with the culture and highlighting what sets the firm apart beyond core skills can make a significant impact. Companies must shift from a mindset of ‘everyone should want to work here’ to actively selling the benefits and positive aspects of their workplace. 

Furthermore, we advocate for creating an enjoyable and interactive interview experience that allows companies to understand candidates genuinely. While not every candidate may be the right fit, fostering a positive and respectful environment is crucial. 

Lastly, leveraging our extensive data on placed candidates, we assist companies in structuring competitive salary packages and benefits. This includes providing insights on current market trends, helping them navigate complex aspects like setting up a U.S. entity, structuring payroll, and tailoring benefits packages to align with industry norms and employee preferences. 

Our multifaceted approach involves strategic headhunting, reshaping interview processes, and leveraging data-driven insights to guide companies in attracting and retaining top talent. 

WGIC: The logical next question that comes to mind is: How have your customers received your initiatives, spanning both established companies and start-ups? 

Kelly: It’s a bit of a mixed bag, as you can imagine. Everyone shares the goal of recruiting the best talent for their business. No one intentionally plans to hire subpar individuals, and losing valuable team members is something everyone wants to avoid. 

However, people often become intensely focused on their day-to-day operations, and staffing, unfortunately, doesn’t get priority. It’s not any fault. It’s just a natural part of running a business. Take, for instance, companies like Hermeus. Even though they are not directly related to geospatial, they are an excellent example. Despite being in the hypersonic field, one of their initial hires was dedicated to talent acquisition. This emphasizes the importance of recognizing that, as a staffing firm, our role is not in competition with internal staffing teams within companies. We often collaborate with them because we are an asset in talent acquisition. 

However, one of the significant challenges we observe is that not all companies adopt this approach. Many fail to realize the importance of strategizing to attract the right people, which becomes a hurdle. 

In our experience, seasoned individuals within the HR domain or those with extensive experience building teams tend to be more receptive. They have encountered challenges before and are keen on avoiding pitfalls. On the other hand, first-time founders might initially overlook these aspects, making it crucial for us to engage with them early on, providing insights to spare them from potential headaches. 

WGIC: One commendable aspect of your DEI initiatives is the emphasis on the grassroots, particularly in fostering diversity within STEM education. Could you elaborate on this approach? 

Kelly: In terms of walking the walk and talking the talk, we recognized early on that to attract the best talent, our company needs a purpose beyond just the day-to-day job—a concept we internally refer to as ‘Everyone Purpose.’ While optional, it is strongly encouraged, driven by the realization that we will eventually run out of candidates, especially in skill sets with a finite pool of individuals. For instance, the demand for electrical engineering is expanding, especially in the hardware development of satellite constellations. 

Recognizing the need to make an impact, many of our employees serve as STEM ambassadors, having undergone checks and clearances to visit schools regularly. We highlight these efforts every month, fostering partnerships and spreading the positive message that working in the space sector is impactful and accessible. We aim to inspire students by showcasing the potential to contribute to solving global challenges, urging them to consider meaningful careers in the industry. 

Our commitment to making a difference extends beyond recruitment. We encourage other companies to focus on their impact rather than solely pursuing profits. This cultural perspective aligns with the belief that people need a purpose beyond their job description, a sentiment magnified by the pandemic’s impact. 

We engage in these initiatives regularly, several times a month, emphasizing the welcoming and open nature of the sector, regardless of one’s background. Additionally, we are developing a platform tailored for early-stage professionals, including interns, graduates, and those new to the sector, to reduce the friction in the hiring process. 

This commitment to purpose and inclusivity is ingrained in our DNA, influencing how we manage people and contributing significantly to our company’s identity. 

WGIC: If you were to make three recommendations drawing from your experience in the space and geospatial sectors on cultivating an inclusive environment in an enterprise, what would they be?

Kelly: First, I would emphasize the importance of investing time in understanding the workforce. Whether a start-up making early hires or an experienced business, it is crucial to identify the desired personality traits to have on the team. Once these traits are apparent, the company can establish its values, encouraging people who match the desired values to join the business. One can turn this into a science by reverse engineering the traits of the best-performing individuals or the best people one has ever worked with. Leading with these values becomes paramount in outreach, hiring, and staff retention. It’s something foundational that everyone lives by and is massively important. 

That leads me to my second point. Relying solely on job advertisements is a recipe for failure. Employing a blended approach that involves headhunting or direct messaging, especially for key hires, ensures a diverse pool of candidates. Data shows that relying on one specific way to attract people begets only a particular cross-section of the workforce, and one ends up attracting similar people.

Lastly, flexibility is vital for both attracting and retaining talent. Beyond the traditional notions of remote work, flexibility should encompass a broad spectrum. It could involve varied start and finish times, dress codes, or any unnecessary rules that create invisible barriers. By providing flexibility tailored to individual needs, you enhance job satisfaction and address a significant factor in retaining diverse talent. As evidenced by the statistic I mentioned earlier, 69% of women would have stayed in their jobs in 2021 if only they were offered more flexibility. 

In summary, understanding the workforce and leading with a clear set of values, adopting a diversified hiring approach, and embracing flexibility are the three crucial elements for organizations aiming to attract and retain talent from diverse backgrounds.