Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL Tech Wire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – There’s a great quote from Stephen Covey that says “most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” The key is to figure out which is which. It’s an idea often called The Eisenhower Matrix, and it’s echoed in almost every leadership guide that’s on the market today. If you’re a small business owner, let me cut straight to the chase and tell you: diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is critically important to the long-term health and success of your business, but it might not feel urgent until you’re already falling behind. 

Most of the entrepreneurs I know are chronically short on time, so it’s easy to put big-picture projects like DEI on the back burner, especially in those first few years of business when there are a million things you need to do urgently to get your idea off the ground. Then, once your business is up and running, why fix something that doesn’t seem broken? Here’s why: 

The good news is that aligning your small business to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion is not as hard as it might initially seem. Diversity and inclusion isn’t only for big business, and you don’t need to tackle everything at once. Instead, take these first steps to integrate DEI into your small business right now. 

Work on inclusion first

Gauge inclusion by asking current employees to rate their sense of belonging at work. Do they feel welcome, respected, and empowered to grow? Where do they see room for improvement, and what suggestions do they have for moving forward? Trust and transparency are vital to inclusion, so stay open to feedback and admit your mistakes. 

To create a more inclusive, productive, and innovative culture — one where the best idea always wins — you have to make sure that all employees have a voice in solving real business problems. Ask for their approval on marketing and messaging. Share strategies and insights as they are developing. And create structured time and spaces where employees can be actively involved in creating company policies or procedure changes with a more inclusive lens. Don’t just give people the opportunity to speak up; actively seek their feedback and input.

Commit to continuous learning

DEI is a perpetual journey of seeking to understand diverse perspectives, experiences, and identities. The more you learn, the more perspectives you seek out and the more you get comfortable with complex conversations and inclusive terminology, the better you will be as a leader. DEI affects everything your business will do, from your hiring strategy and branding to policies, procedures and expectations for performance, so commit yourself to continuous personal development. Free resources like webinars, newsletters and podcasts are simple ways to increase your awareness and start building your skills. In fact, you can start next week with my team’s free webinar on Disability Inclusion.

Tone at the top is critical to success, especially for small businesses and new startups where leaders are highly visible and present. Your employees are looking to you for permission to step out and contribute their best ideas. They’re watching where you invest your time and attention, and they will model your inclusive behavior. It’s your responsibility to lead by example.

Diversify your suppliers and advisors

When your organization is new, your employees and advisors are likely your friends or people close to you who have similar life experiences. Yet, a wider range of perspectives and experience leads to better problem solving and stronger business outcomes, so look for ways to expand your network. You can enhance diversity of thought by carefully considering your suppliers and advisors. Reach out and ask for mentorship from leaders you admire or professionals in your industry who are different from you. Associations and startup groups can also be a great way to share knowledge and find people with similar goals but with diverse and varied experiences. 

At the same time, kickstart your efforts toward greater supplier diversity by re-examining which companies and people you partner with for foundational business services, like legal services, insurance, pest control, office supplies, catered lunches, or accounting and payroll. Seek to make an intentional impact both socially and economically. 

Hire to be more diverse

If you’re just getting started, you have the unique opportunity to build a diverse culture from the ground. Of course, recruiting top talent is important for any business, but rarely is any decision more critical to success than those first few hires you make as a business. Ensure diversity among the candidates you interview by using diverse job boards and blind hiring practices that help to mitigate bias. Employ a diverse interview team and standardize your questions. Before you start your job search, you may want to learn more about unconscious biases and how to mitigate them

If you’re already operating, take the time to measure your team’s existing dimensions of diversity. Consider socioeconomic background, education, race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, neurodiversity, age, experiences, and more. Then, look for ways to fill the gaps.

In any business, it can be difficult to remember that what’s urgent isn’t always what’s important. That’s especially true for small businesses and startups, where most people are wearing multiple hats already and it feels like no one has time for additional tasks. However, as an innovator and entrepreneur, it’s important to remind yourself of the business benefits that DEI can bring to your organization in terms of innovation, productivity and profitability. Staying focused on the business case will help you keep your foot on the gas and remember to make time for the things that are important to your long-term business success.  

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and executive coach, recently named one of Forbes’ Next 1000: Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream. He is currently the CEO of Walk West, an award-winning digital marketing firm, and co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy. He is also a board member for several organizations in healthcare, banking, technology, marketing, and sports, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. Connect with Donald on LinkedIn or join him next Thursday, April 15th at 12:00 noon for a free webinar about Leveling Up Your Workforce Through Disability Inclusion.