Challenging Workplace Culture: Michele Heyward’s Mission for More Representation in STEM

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The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

Michele Heyward, Founder and CEO of Positive Hire

Michele Heyward, Founder and CEO of Positive Hire, is on a mission to create inclusive workplaces for underrepresented women in STEM.

After working several years as a civil engineer, Michele saw firsthand how workplace culture created barriers for diversity in STEM. So she set out to change that with PositiveHire, a tech company helping employers recruit and retain women of color for management roles in STEM. Ultimately, PositiveHire is combating the lack of career advancement through creating inclusive workplaces where professionals can flourish.

We asked Michele about the mission behind her company, the lessons she’s learned in scaling, and the advice she has for others fighting the status-quo.

Q: Tell us the story behind your company’s founding: What led you to start this business? 

As a civil engineer, I worked on construction sites rather than the traditional office setting. I thought other engineers were rubbing elbows with upper management and getting raises and promotions. But what I learned was completely different!

Many of my friends and classmates were not progressing in their engineering and science careers. Instead, they were encountering barriers and given less technical work. In some instances, they were assigned projects but were excluded from meetings where those projects were discussed. I immediately knew this had to change because it wasn’t a pipeline issue like employers claimed—it was a cultural issue.

Q: In what ways do you think differently about your industry than others do? In what ways are you disrupting your industry? 

I look at the bigger picture. I acknowledge workplace cultural issues that are typically ignored. My startup, PositiveHire, focuses on changing workplace culture first, retaining underserved talent, and then diversifying the talent pipeline. Employers want to start with recruiting, which isn’t the issue. Without reforming the culture, underserved talent will not be attracted to your company. 

Q: What’s one thing you wish you had known before starting your company? 

One thing I wish I would have known before starting PositiveHire is that it is a team effort. Building a team sooner would have allowed me to test tactics and strategies faster. Then I could’ve made iterative changes in my sales offerings and marketing processes and systems. It would’ve made me be more focused on community sales.

Q: What was the best piece of fundraising advice you got? 

The best advice I received about fundraising is to do it only when scaling. I have since spent more time listening to customers to learn more about their problems. By listening to my audience, I have been able  to determine whether I am willing to create a solution or not. Active listening has also allowed me to learn about what’s impacting my industry and how I can provide a solution outside of my customer base.      

Q: If you could start all over again, would you do anything differently about how you fundraised? 

If I could start over, I wouldn’t focus on raising at all. I’d focus on sales—getting more information about my target market’s issues with retaining and recruiting Black, Latine, and Indigenous women in STEM. I’d focus more on being in B2B spaces like engineering conferences, the Society for Human Resource Management events, and hyperfocus on my tri-state area. Next, I’d develop and deploy a marketing plan to give more value to my target market while I collected data.

Q: How have you been able to differentiate yourself in terms of product offerings, marketing, positioning or leadership? 

I’ve been able to differentiate myself in my space in a few ways. First, I’ve created a community of experienced Black, Latine, and Indigenous women in STEM. Next, I focus on women who have 10 or more years of experience in their respective industries but haven’t been promoted into management or subject matter expert roles. Lastly, my solution doesn’t start with recruiting. I start with culture change so that employers can retain experienced Black, Latine, and Indigenous women in STEM. This, in turn, attracts more talent like them. In order to fulfill my process, I offer corporate training and resources, host Women of Color in STEM Virtual Summits, and provide women with a network so they can build their net worth.

Q: What are the three most important things you look for when bringing on a new hire? 

First, I look for someone who understands and believes in the mission and vision of PositiveHire. They will be an advocate for the brand. Next, I look for the willingness to learn the role and grow. More importantly, they should be open to asking questions, correcting me as their manager, and testing, testing, and testing some more. Lastly, I look for someone who has a skill set I don’t have. I firmly believe that growing a person’s skills based on their willingness helps you build a strong and diverse team. I don’t look for culture fits. I look for culture-adds.

Q: What is one challenge you have faced as a female founder? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs in a similar situation? 

Let me count the ways. Women will always face backlash when moving up the ladder, and even more when branching off to start their own businesses. My advice would be to hold your head up high. The success and stats will speak for themselves. Break the status-quo and go for your biggest dreams.

Q: What advice would you give someone starting out on the journey you’re on?

I would provide four pieces of advice to anyone starting out. First, talk to people whose problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t mention your idea or solution. Avoid using surveys and opt for a phone conversation or live video chat. Make it personable. Then, create a service or low-fidelity product you can sell to the market you’re targeting. Lastly, document the entire process to identify where you need to make improvements.

Michele Heyward is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.

  • Originally published April 21, 2021, updated September 12, 2022