Ben Milne, CEO of Dwolla, wrote a blog post about his frustration at not being able to hire more women. Here’s what happened next.

By Janet Choi (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

“I can’t find enough women to work with and that’s really frustrating. I’ve been trying to understand how to change that,” began Ben Milne, CEO of Dwolla, in his blog post and call to application, “I Want to Work with More Women.” Inspired by leaders like Cindy Gallop, Sally Nellson Barrett, and Dwolla’s own COO, Charise Flynn, Milne decided to broadcast his inquiring message in the hopes of increasing the numbers of female developers applying to the Des Moines-based startup, which enables payments through email, cellphone, and social networks.

Jenna Hogan, who runs HR and recruiting at Dwolla, explains that Milne’s tactic was a natural extension of how the company runs. She explains: “We’re trying to solve really complex problems at Dwolla and our attitude toward work is constantly driving toward the answers to ‘what can we fix?’.”

Milne’s post, then, was just one way to find the best talent for the company. “How do we make sure that we’re entering the right networking groups, finding the right forums to identify this talent, whether it be women or any diverse class?” Hogan summarizes. “It’s us waving the flag, saying we’re hiring, come find us. But we also want to find you, so how do we do that?”

Getting Proactive

According to Hogan, the reaction to Milne’s post was largely supportive. Even doubters of the utility of a blog post making a real impact on diversity in hiring — such as Alexis Finch whose own post proceeds like a sharply arched eyebrow — offered constructive suggestions on what Dwolla, and indeed any company trying to attract and hire more women, could do better. For instance, job descriptions can be written more carefully to prevent women from deselecting themselves, given a pattern that men see requirements in a job postings as suggestions while women see them as just that, essential requirements.

“When you go to learn, your approach is not to hear something that you want to hear, you’re trying to find out what can we do better. We knew we’d probably get some constructive criticism, some more friendlier than others,” Hogan acknowledges.

Much of that criticism centered around being more proactive in searching for talent through networks and referrals, reaching out to and participating in diverse communities. From increased participation in educational initiatives and conferences such as the MINK WIC (that’s Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas Women in Computing) conference to connecting with groups they hadn’t previously known about, such as Girl Geek Dinners, Hogan saw that Dwolla needed to focus more on the supply of candidates rather than only on the demand. “We started to look into things that we just hadn’t previously utilized as resources,” she reports, “and that’s the perfect result that we were looking for to help us learn.”

Filling the Pipeline in the Silicon Prairie

Another major lesson for Dwolla was having to dig deeper into the fundamental issues behind the shortage of female candidates —  influencing and changing the pipeline — and doing so in the particular context of Iowa, a state that has ranked last for women entrepreneurs.

Jordan Lampe, director of communications, elaborates, “What we didn’t expect was a lot of feedback came down to basic education, trying to inspire entrepreneurs younger. We live in Iowa, which is pretty risk averse. You go to high school, go to college, have a 9-to-5 job, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But breaking down those stereotypical roles that a lot of Iowans grow up thinking, where you have to be a farmer, a policeman, doctor — that’s where they were telling us to start.” For Dwolla, that dismantling and education is taking place through partnerships with the Iowa STEM Initiative and with schools through programs like Hyperstream.

Speaking to Hogan and Lampe, it’s clear that Dwolla’s rootedness in Iowa also serves as a source of identity, pride, and empowerment. “I’ve heard Ben refer to our Iowa team as kind of the secret sauce,” recounts Hogan. “So maybe there are hurdles such as finding as large or as diverse candidate pools that might exist in the New York or San Francisco market, but we’re able to play on an awesome opportunity that people who are Iowans, that want to stay in Iowa, that have ties here, to do something besides go work in a cubicle in an insurance company. We are attractive to those that want to explore a startup but don’t want to leave the Midwest which is an awesome place to live.”

While remote working is often put forward as a way to recruit and retain more women, the current agile and pair-programming setup of the development team makes distributed work situations difficult to implement. Dwolla does have small offices in New York, San Francisco, and Kansas City, but nearly 80% of the company’s employees, including its developers, work in the Des Moines office. Hogan explains: “We strategically make decisions around remote work and we have to consider our limitations to that,” including the complex security issues of dealing with sensitive financial information.

Growing With Diversity

Since the May 2013 posting, there have been approximately eight hires of which four were women. Though these four hires were not developers, Hogan views those numbers as a great step forward.

“Ultimately what we want to do is we want to find the best people, and we want to grow different perspectives and voices at the table. We’ve made some big wins in the fact that we continue to grow our team with some diversity. We’re hiring and we’d love to hear from all the talent out there!”

What else could Dwolla do to hire more women?

Janet Choi headshotJanet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest way to share and celebrate what you get done. Janet writes about productivity, motivation, and the way people work. She has previously been an opera magazine editor, lawyer, and gelato scooper. Follow her on Twitter at @lethargarian.