Cultivating equality and diversity in the workplace: an interview with Xolo CEO Allan Martinson

Kayla Brown
Written by Kayla Brown
on March 29, 2021

Equality and diversity in the workplace have become something of a hot topic within the global business community over the past few years. But if it's going to be more than just empty virtue signalling disguised as a branding exercise, these initiatives have to come from the tippy-top of the organisation! 

Equality and diversity in the workplace have become something of a hot topic within the global business community over the past few years. But if it's going to be more than just empty virtue signalling disguised as a branding exercise, these initiatives have to come from the tippy-top of the organisation! 

For this reason, we sat down with Xolo CEO Allan Martinson to discuss his thoughts on equality and diversity in the workplace. This wide-ranging discussion covered everything from the cultural shifts he's witnessed since he started out his business career in the former Soviet Union, his experience working with female founders on overcoming their self-doubt, and how his approach to leadership has evolved since stepping into his biggest job yet and becoming a #girldad.

Why is workplace equality and diversity an important topic for you?

First of all, let's not forget that I'm kind of a dinosaur as somebody who started doing business 31 years ago in a very different environment. Back then, it was even a different country — it was still the Soviet Union when I launched my first company. And it has been very dramatic watching how our part of the world has changed over the past 30 years — but the rest of the world has changed, as well.  

To be honest, when I look back on the '90s, for example, and even the 2000s, it was almost like a jungle in the early days — a strange form of young capitalism which brought with it a very competitive and male-dominated culture. These were very different times. So how I thought about gender equality back then and the way my mindset was initially shaped was coming out of a completely different era from the one we are living in today. So now when I look back on myself 30 years ago, I would like to kick that guy and say, "Hey, stop doing that, stop thinking like that!"

And in the decades since, I have actually become a proud feminist — I'm not afraid of saying it out loud. I think it's an important part of everything I do, to ensure that equality is a priority in all of the companies I'm involved in, in all social circles — I won't tolerate misogynist or anti-feminist remarks while the old me may have let that sort of thing slide. 

But I think the ultimate goal is to abolish the term, "feminist," because the goal is to ultimately reach a place where feminism is no longer needed because there is no difference in treatment between genders. 

And as to why equality is important, I would think it's fairly obvious. More than half of humankind is female and there's so much creative power, so much talent, and so many opportunities that have been wasted because we have had such male-dominated cultures traditionally which have often suppressed female-led initiatives. And we need to change that.  

You have worked in many companies both as an Executive and as a VC. What are the main inequalities you have noticed in companies you’ve worked with?

I think companies can be very different. I've often found that the older a company is, the more male-dominated it tends to be, and the more difficult it can be to change. I haven't seen such big problems in technology companies and the younger companies I have worked with, but that doesn't mean there are no problems, because there definitely are. 

I would say in more modern companies, usually it's not like anyone has really any opinions about women not being capable, but it's more about proactively making it a priority to empower women in the workplace and encouraging them to have the same belief in themselves as the others around them. 

What I have seen is many times women put themselves mentally in some sort of box. They haven't done this all by themselves — society, history, and gender roles definitely play a big role, too. So it's your job to help them out from the constraints of this box that they have been placed into and help empower them. Maybe that's the key thing that needs to be done in more modern companies where there aren't any 'glaring' issues when it comes to gender equality. 

How about other inequalities? So not just gender but age, race, language… have you noticed those in companies you have worked with? 

It depends on the company. First of all, age — hello! I'm the oldest person at Xolo and I'm still very much alive and kicking. But if you go to a place like Silicon Valley, the understanding is that anyone older than 45 is already out of the game. Which actually is not true if you take a look at the statistics of many of the more successful startups. Statistically speaking, people in their 40s and 50s are much more successful founders in terms of probability of success when compared to younger founders. But I believe all this is changing for the better!

Regarding race and language, it depends where you're coming from and what the culture is. In Estonia, for example, 10 years ago it was very rare to see a foreigner, but today it's totally different. About a quarter of employees in startups today are expats — usually not even Europeans, but from entirely different continents. And the more you see people who are different than you in your day to day life, the more you get used to it. It becomes the norm. It just takes some time. 

What have been the measures that you have used, or maybe seen used, to successfully measure diversity and equality within companies? 

You either cultivate it or you don't but ultimately, it needs to be a priority to bring in more diversity. Not only in terms of gender or race or nationality, but also in hiring different types of people. When we recruit here at Xolo I'm biased toward bringing more unique people on board. I like people who are different from the status quo, who think differently and might even be considered "strange" by some. I think this improves not only the company's overall diversity, but its neurodiversity, as well. 

Our customer base is made up of very different people from all over the world. I've talked to many of them and it's really fun to see how unique and outside-the-box our customers are. A hostage negotiator, a self-help book author living in the Thai jungle, a Batman impersonator, you name it! It's up to us as a company to reflect our users and it ultimately helps our business if we have a more diverse team. 

If you would have to give a rating on a scale of 1-10, how well off do you think Xolo is in terms of diversity and equal treatment? 

It's not a very scientific rating as I'm not working with well-defined criteria but I believe we are somewhere between a 7 and 8 — in some aspects, maybe 9... others 6. Somewhere in that ballpark. We could be more diverse when it comes to nationalities — we have I think 8 or 9 different passports in the pockets of our people but I would love to eventually have 10s of different nationalities on board and I'm very sure that the time will come. 

Actually, Xolo is the strangest company in my career — in my 31 years, Xolo is the first company which is dominated by one nationality which is Estonians — more than half our team is made up of them and that's never happened in my life. But I would like to change that and as Xolo continues to expand internationally, maybe in a year, year and a half, I hope we'll have more than half of our people working outside of Estonia. 

In terms of gender I think we're doing pretty well. Actually, we have many positions which are held almost exclusively by females. Our entire operations department, for example. But there are many other things we can still do to increase diversity — not only with race, nationality, and gender, but also with other personality traits, I would say! 

It is often said that women are the minority when it comes to startup founders and CEOs. Why do you think that is?

It's a good question. I've been married to a female founder, one of the most visible ones not only in Estonia but in all of Europe, and we have discussed this many times. I know almost all of the female founders in the tech sector here in Estonia and not a single one could be considered to be a weaker leader in comparison with their male counterparts. They're all really strong entrepreneurs, very clever, they know what they are doing — there's not a single characteristic that makes them a worse founder in comparison with a male founder — except maybe one: they are very often in self doubt. 

It's something I've noticed seems to be more prevalent in female founders than male founders, and I think it might have something to do again with the traditional gender roles within our culture. For starters, every male founder should ask himself whether it is us — the males — who have pushed them into that box with our general attitude. 

Female founders are often intimidated at the thought of becoming founders not because they're not capable, but because they are afraid. And that's something that can be changed, but it cannot be changed overnight because it is so deeply ingrained in the culture — but it is possible and we need to deal with that actively. 

You mentioned you have noticed some self-doubt when working with female founders, but have you noticed any other differences between working with male vs. female founders? 

People are just different, and you can't always equate these differences to gender because it's more complicated than that. Sometimes it's a different background or culture or even just simple genetics. But I have noticed that female founders tend to be more empathetic. Many of them are also mothers and if you've given birth and raised a child and then you go on to build a company… well, you do it a bit differently. I myself have gotten a few of my most valuable management lessons from raising my children. But with female founders this more empathetic approach is even more pronounced. 

Maybe to illustrate a bit more on how I, personally, have evolved — my second son was born in '94 and I was the CEO of a company at the time. And I was very proud of the fact that I only left for 2-3 hours to help with the birth during my lunch break and then got right back to work commanding the ship without anyone really noticing I was gone! 

In direct contrast, today it's completely normal for a man to take a month or even more for paternity leave, but back then it would have been unheard of for a CEO to go away for a month to take care of a newborn. But that's how far things have evolved since then. 

Are there any recommendations you have for female founders or any other groups that might be considered minority in the tech space? 

Work on your self-doubt. There is not a single reason for you to doubt yourself or your abilities simply because you are female. And definitely don't use it as an excuse not to get out there and try something new, just because you're fearful that you'll be treated differently because you can do it — and you absolutely should!

And now, to wrap up, a surprise question! Please name one of your female idols. 

My daughter. If there is a single female that has had more of an influence on me than my mother, it's my daughter. She has shaped my personality more than anyone else in her 8 years on this planet. She has taught me so much and helped me to become a better person by being so tender and considerate and curious. I have learned so much more about girls and actually worked with her on her own self-doubt, so that one day she will become something she's proud of. 

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