The Success of Diversely: It Takes Two to Tango

Helen McGuire (CEO) and Hayley Bakker (CFO) came together in 2020 to set up their successful venture Diversely – a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I)-specific platform that enables businesses to deliver an inclusive hiring experience through AI-driven recruitment tools and deep data insights.

The award-winning D&I technology of Diversely was subsequently bought over by the UK’s largest software provider, The Access Group, for an undisclosed sum early this month.

Helen McGuire and Hayley Bakker

Diversely served clients globally across both in-house and recruitment sectors, having initially raised over half a million US dollars in funding. 

Diversely will now be exclusively available as part of The Access Group’s Volcanic solutions in order to create inclusive online recruitment experiences. Volcanic solutions will give recruitment agencies much-needed visibility of D&I data and the tools they need to remove bias from the candidate attraction and selection process.

This acquisition represents a landmark move in the DE&I space, with Diversely being the first technology platform of its kind to be acquired by a larger technology group.  Launched with a vision to level the playing field for candidates through the invention of inclusive recruitment tools and deep data insights, the platform has amassed a large industry following and been recognised with awards for innovation, most recently winning DE&I Solution of the Year at the UK’s TIARA Tech Star Awards in June 2023.

Not only did Helen and Hayley build a tech marvel platform, but they went on create an exclusive ecosystem that caters to the workforce industry.

Following the acquisition of their successful venture, Women Icons Network (WIN) reached out to these amazing achievers to understand their thought process behind setting up a successful tech platform. Excerpts:

WIN: From founding Hopscotch to the acquisition of your yet another platform – Diversely – by the Access Group, it’s been a long journey. What changing trends have you seen in workplace diversity, globally through tech?

Helen McGuire

Helen: I founded Hopscotch back in 2015 in the Middle East and the first question I had from a prospect was, rather memorably, ‘But why would I want to hire women in the first place’?   This was – let’s not forget – pre-#metoo, pre-#blacklivesmatter, and at a time when Diversity and Inclusion weren’t even considered an industry, let alone a career choice, in most places in the world!  Solving the problem in MENA and APAC was in its infancy and though there were laws and targets in place – mainly around gender parity – there was very little on-ground action in the private sector to make this happen and absolutely no tech at all in existence!

Fast forward to 2021 and the number of those with D&I in their title had jumped by 60% over 12 months according to LI research.  Flexible working had become ‘the norm’ thanks to the pandemic and the global furore surrounding George Floyd had propelled racial inequality into the foreground.  It was around this time that the number of solutions in the tech (and no-tech!) space to solve for D&I started to ramp up.  Diversely was founded in early 2020 as a scalable tech answer to the many problems I saw NOT being solved whilst running Hopscotch, but others were quick to follow and we saw many a platform that had not been built for D&I being swiftly adapted for that purpose – some successfully, others less so.

D&I was suddenly a recognized industry and profession and had the HR tools – and myriad consultancies – to support it.  In 2022, we created this Guide to The New World of D&I Tech in order to help practitioners make positive choices around the tech that could help them achieve their goals across the hiring journey – counting multiple solutions that had sprung up across multiple touch points. The space has absolutely matured – as have the attitudes around D&I – but there is still a long way to go to make these approaches an expected part of every recruiter’s day-to-day activity.

WIN: Raising USD550k from investors internationally and being acquired by Access Group, was indeed quite an achievement of that vision in under four years. Can you elaborate on the experience?

Helen: We’d always known on starting Diversely that finding funding in order to build the tech was going to be key.  We started early – even before we’d built the platform, we were winning awards for innovation for our vision and creating marketing materials, messaging, and digital content in order to post out on LinkedIn, to our networks and educate followers about what we were trying to achieve.

It was that network – plus some family and friends – that got us started with the fundraiser and we executed two pre-seed rounds, attracting investors that had never met us in person to invest in our vision and plan.

We were also accepted onto multiple accelerators – Antler, Workplace Accelerator, and the London Mayor’s Business Growth Programme – all of which helped us grow through mentorship, access to resources, and understanding how the funding ecosystem worked, as well as introductions to key players.

The funding went to supporting the build of the platform, hiring of key team members, and of course supporting our marketing activities in order to start building a sales pipeline, but it also brought us important investors from our industry that made vital intros and helped us break into the market.  That plus our valuable partnerships created as we grew were the key to achieving our vision in a short space of time and building a business that was a highly attractive acquisition prospect.

WIN: Besides being a landmark move in the DE&I space, with Diversely being the first technology platform of its kind to be acquired by a larger group globally, what does this acquisition mean for Diversely?

Helen: It’s a huge win-win all around.  Our vision for Diversely was to become the gold standard D&I tech platform globally – the go-to for D&I data and inclusive hiring practices to reduce biases and improve workplace diversity.  Our mission was to get this tech into the hands of as many hiring professionals as we could.  This acquisition means that both of these purposes are achieved at a speed and scale we could never have thought possible a few years ago!

The technology will form part of some of the largest, most popular recruitment solutions on the market – first, through Access Volcanic and then through Vincere, followed by further integrations over time.  D&I will become quite a simple day-to-day platform for those users, meaning fair candidate journeys and a reduction in human biases towards under-represented groups.

Finally, the acquisition has meant that our team has a home as part of one of the world’s largest software companies and we – as founders – still play a part in our platform’s journey.

WIN: What was the driving force behind your decision to turn into an entrepreneur?

Helen: It was always going to be my path!  I come from a fairly long line of entrepreneurs and 90% of my close family members are also entrepreneurs – let’s say I picked up a lot from osmosis.  For me, it was about falling in love with a problem, something that came along when I had my first daughter back in 2014 and quickly realized how many women in my circles were being excluded from the workforce due to a lack of understanding of their need for flexibility.  My first business, Hopscotch, was born a year or so later and grew across the Middle East and Asia over the following four years.  That business built on my skills as a communications professional, using PR, digital content, broadcast, advertising, social media, partnerships, and events to grow my brand.  On that journey, I learned sales, key business, and even some technical skills to keep going!

WIN: What were the important factors that kept you going?

Helen : The people we surrounded ourselves with is partly what kept us going – taking advice from those who’d done something similar, getting a hand up when we were knocked back, and finding answers fast to things we’d never encountered before.  Some of those things included selling to large corporates, tackling TPRMs, hiring for various roles like sales or customer success, and – of course – building the technology!

The other thing was each other.  As equal co-founders with quite different focuses in the business, if one was having a bad time of it the other would generally have enough in the tank to help!  There was nothing easy about the journey, especially having zero blueprint or similar business to learn from in the market, so internal support was very important.

But in the end, it’s up to you to keep going.  You HAVE to fall in love with the problem and be prepared to do anything – including letting go of solutions you may already have developed – to solve it.  That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you pulling those rabbits out of hats that will ensure you’re moving forward.

WIN: How would you define success?

Helen : Doing what you said you were going to do – finding a way – but ultimately being at peace with any decisions you’ve taken on that journey to make it work for you.

Across the eight years I’ve been working on this problem I’ve had three children and moved countries twice – I’ve had to factor my babies, their journeys and my role in the family as very much a part of growing the businesses.  I knew for me staying at home full time would never be the answer, but equally that I needed to be flexible and ensure I could be there for important moments. Entrepreneurship suited me in that respect and has meant I can role model being a successful woman for my children as they’ve grown up. It’s something I’d call a blended success on both fronts!

WIN: What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?

Helen : Don’t feel you have to have it all figured out to start – starting IS figuring it out and NOBODY has all the answers.  Find the problem you want to solve, do your due diligence to ensure there is a genuine need for that solution, and start networking with those in a similar space.  There will be many people offering you advice, be choosy about what you take and always go with your gut feel – you need to become the expert in your field and that won’t happen by copying everyone else.  Have faith in your approach – ultimately the execution is where you win and that comes down to you.  Finally, don’t be afraid of competition – it’s a good sign that there is a healthy market need and will keep you on your toes.

WIN: On a similar path to Helen by launching your talent off-shoring start-up, Colibri Growth, besides having fintech and M&A expertise, how difficult was it to lead the product and tech elements of Diversely?

Hayley Bakker

Hayley: My journey to product and tech felt quite natural, luckily. Although I started off my career on a very different path – studying financial engineering and working in M&A and risk modeling – there was a stepwise transition to where I am now. Working in M&A financial due diligence, I quickly realised that I missed the people component in my work, which at that point mainly involved sitting behind a computer and going through spreadsheets. I moved into Business Transformation and Operational Excellence, both still very data-driven fields of work, however offering the opportunity to look at organisations more broadly, from a process, people, and technology view.

In my Singapore banking role, I noticed a huge gap in the market. Singapore is highly innovation-focused, and Fintech is one of the growth areas, however for all the funding, accelerator programmes and corporate partners, the skilled tech talent pool was lacking. That was my main reason for establishing talent tech off-shoring startup Colibri Growth. In those years, I had the opportunity to work with about 20 different tech startups, across fintech, e-commerce, medtech, AI chatbot providers and many more fascinating areas. My role was very versatile and allowed me to build on top of the skills I already had – data analytics, lean six sigma, human-centered design – becoming a product owner coach and agile scrum master for the bigger projects. It was a great opportunity to build a pool of amazing tech talent in the Vietnam market, and to learn how to work with engineering, clients and product managers to develop prototypes, MVP’s and full fledged products.

Having a couple of years helping other founders build their products, Helen approached me to join forces. We had met through my other passion, Girls in Tech Singapore, a non-profit I was managing in Asia to engage and support girls and women to join, stay, and grow in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers. Our vision on where Diversity & Inclusion needed to head was very similar – to truly make an impact we had to focus beyond just gender, become more data-driven to demonstrate value and be tech-enabled to scale our impact. And that’s why and how Diversely was born! I was very quickly able to redeploy some of my engineering team in Vietnam to build Diversely’s MVP, from there we grew out our dedicated tech team who are still with us today, post-acquisition even. I usually describe the product role as being a spider at the centre of a web, sending and receiving signals across your threads that connect to engineering, customer success and support, sales and marketing, and essentially the entire business. It’s a very exciting role, allowing me to interact with a wide range of stakeholders and build a wide and diverse skill set.

WIN: At Diversely, you picked up new core skills including human-centered design, agile methodologies and UX/UI design. What was the strategy behind this approach?

Hayley: As an entrepreneur, it’s essential to learn new skills, almost every day. Those skills you mention, I had mostly already built in my previous roles in Operational Excellence where Human-centered design is essential, and Agile methodologies in my time as agile scrum master at Colibri Growth. UX/UI design was a completely new skill set, which I developed specifically with Diversely in mind.

As the founder of an early-stage business, you start off without a team, so you become the team to start off. We realised pretty quickly that we needed a simple prototype to bring our idea to life. To get feedback from potential clients – and start building a leads pipeline of beta testers – and to entice some of our early-stage angel investors. I took a 3 week UX/UI design course through Coursera to learn the basics, got a subscription to Figma, and with the support of many (many!) YouTube videos, I created the initial wireframes and clickable prototype for Diversely.

The funniest part is that even today, the Diversely product looks and feels about 90% like those initial designs, even though they were meant to be our temporary starting point. Other skills you have to have or learn as an entrepreneur? People management (you don’t have a huge pile of cash, so you need to inspire with your vision, and manage like a human), Sales and pitching (even if I head product and tech, as a founder you’re always selling, delivering demo’s, whether to clients, partners or investors), Operations and Support (there’s a lot that sits between selling and delivering tech, it needs to be set up and managed), Legal and compliance (contracting, data privacy etc), Finance basics (how to invoice, account) I love learning new skills and figuring out how to make things work (more efficiently), I guess it’s part of being a consultant. And definitely an essential trait for any (successful) entrepreneur. If you’re not curious and willing to learn new skills and continuously improve how you work, it’s going to be a very tough journey. Once you’ve figured it all out for yourself at a high level, by doing the roles yourself for a while, that’s when you can start considering hiring, if scale requires it, not early.

WIN: What was the driving force behind your decision to turn into an entrepreneur?

Hayley: I never aspired to be an entrepreneur or founder per se. For me, it was driven by the desire to solve problems and make things work better and feeling like the corporate world did not offer the right environment to make the impact I wanted to make. For Colibri Growth, it was having the freedom to tap into new markets (Vietnam) and find a new business model for Singapore tech startups to leverage this talent pool.

For Diversely it was establishing an entirely new way for D&I to be delivered, through data and tech, as opposed to (or more accurately, in addition to) just training and consulting. The corporate world has a lot to offer when it comes to financial resources, brand reputation, support teams, and existing client bases. What it usually doesn’t have? Speed to innovate. At Diversely, I had the opportunity to step out of the red tape, and work directly with clients and our engineering team, to develop a truly impactful solution that gets to the core of D&I in recruitment. And with the Access Group acquisition, we are now perfectly positioned to scale that vision!

WIN: What were the important factors that kept you going?

Hayley: The belief that what we were doing was important for the industry, and for (under-represented) job seekers around the world. And knowing that we had the right solution to solve the problem of bias in recruitment, and nobody else did. We always knew we were uniquely positioned and had a value proposition others didn’t have. Data-driven, addressing D&I beyond gender, across 8 elements of diversity, and providing tools to improve how recruitment is done. It’s this firm belief and the massive support from people close to myself and our business that kept me going.

WIN: How would you define success?

Hayley: When you read about startups, one of the key metrics that’s highlighted in the press is how much funding they’ve raised. I’ve always found this a very odd metric or definition of success. Especially given how biased and skewed the fundraising processes are (less than 3 percent of funding goes to female-founded businesses). Investment raised has certainly never ever been one of our definitions of success. What is my definition of success? The impact that we’re able to make on workplace diversity and inclusion, starting with the recruitment process. In the early stages, that meant getting launching our product and getting positive feedback from initial clients. Later that meant winning greater businesses and increasing the number of talent acquisition professionals and recruiters who use Diversely’s tools and analytics.

With Access Group, we’ll be embedding Diversely into their Recruitment website solution Volcanic, which means that ALL of their clients will get access to Diversely’s solutions. This is the scale we’ve been looking for to achieve our vision of making D&I a part of the way every recruiter day-to-day, to deliver a fair candidate experience every time.

WIN: What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?

Hayley: Pick your advisors well. When you start a business, there will be loads of people – for some reason mostly men – who want to give you advice, whether you ask for it or not. They all believe they’re the experts, and know exactly what you should do next. Step back and think though, do they know your specific industry (get niche), what the current day challenges are (times change), what your vision is for the business (their goal might not be your goal), and have they asked you what you’ve tried before. We wasted a lot of time on people who really didn’t get our market, business or goals.

Tuning into those advisors that really got us, was well worth the time! Do your research, continue learning, try things out, take feedback from trusted advisors, and from there trust yourself and your process. If you set up this business, that’s hopefully because you know more about this area than most do. Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself and leverage your unique knowledge and skills!