What do a chemist and a church choir organiser have in common? At first glance, nothing. And yet they have become successful together.

A success story

In the 1960s, scientist and chemist Spencer Silver worked on a kind of superglue, rather unsuccessfully. Silver struggled to find a practical application for this glue, as it was not strong enough for conventional adhesive purposes. The glue could easily be removed from surfaces.

Fast-forward 5 years: Arthur Fry, a colleague of Silver’s, was a member of a church choir. Every Wednesday evening, he prepared songs in the hymn book using paper strips, and was regularly annoyed that the notes had fallen out by Sunday. Fry remembered Silver’s removable glue, obtained a sample from the lab, applied it to small pieces of paper, and tested the new combination. Indeed, his bookmarks adhered reliably but could also be easily removed from the book without causing damage.

A chemist and a dedicated church choir organiser invented Post-it® notes. The little sticky notes are now a fixture in every office.

When knowledge and skills complement each other

A successful idea, a successful start-up, benefits from a team of people whose knowledge and skills complement each other and who come from different backgrounds. If everyone thinks the same way, you will get nowhere. Silver had tried unsuccessfully to find a field of application for his special glue. This example shows that an invention alone is worth nothing if it is not used in the right context. Fly, with his experience in the church choir, then had the bright idea.

A diverse team often has more innovative ideas. It is no coincidence that investors pay attention to the composition of the founding team during pitches, as this team is crucial to the success or failure of the start-up. A diverse and complementary team can succeed even with less-than-perfect business ideas. They are better able to adapt to rapidly changing markets and customer needs. In other words, the more diverse the backgrounds of the people involved, the more likely an innovation or invention will succeed, as more potential applications come into view.

How diverse are start-ups really?

The typical founder in Switzerland is: male (approx. 80%), around 30 years old at the time of founding the first start-up and a resident of an urban area. Most founders have a university degree (about 90%). About half of the founders have previous experience and have already founded a start-up. Taking all founders into account (not only the age at first start-up), most are in the age groups 25-34 years (41%) or 35-44 years (also 41%).

Switzerland values teamwork. Three out of four start-ups are founded by more than one person. Swiss start-ups often employ international professionals – about half of the workforce comes from abroad (mostly from the EU). These people often bring their international networks to the start-up.

However, start-ups could certainly benefit from greater diversity. Many do not consider the different dimensions of diversity when forming their teams, and many founders come from the same social class.

Why do female founders face more challenges?

Female founders often have a harder time securing funding because many investors (usually men) prefer to invest in high technology, whereas female founders often work in areas such as health, sustainability and education. Female founders also often face gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. They have to overcome much higher hurdles with investors than male entrepreneurs.

In 2020, for example, the Harvard Business Review reported on a study showing that the same pitch received less investment when presented by a woman. Wrongly so: companies founded by women are often more sustainable and even more successful economically, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group.

The Female Founders platform aims to encourage women by providing a network for Swiss female founders, trying to show role models and breaking down prejudices against female entrepreneurs.

Diversity as a key to success

Diversity helps start-ups succeed in the marketplace. Society is becoming more diverse, and so are customers. Only a diverse team can analyse the new and different target groups and target them with its products and services.

Diversity encompasses not only the obvious dimensions of gender, age and background, but also other aspects such as personality, life experience, values and attitudes. These dormant potentials need to be tapped into for start-ups.

Would you like to learn more about team diversity? Our compact online seminar “Successful through Diversity & Inclusion” provides an insight into the wide range of topics and equips you with the knowledge and tools you need to build and lead a diverse, inclusive and resilient team. Take the first step to a more innovative team today!

About the author(s)


Sylvia Hodek-Flückiger Project Manager, Competence Centre for Diversity & Inclusion FIM-HSG


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