Startups are time-pinched ventures. Survival, not taking on social issues, is the top priority for most of them. Yet, Hollywood’s ZestFinance thinks despite constraints L.A. tech startups could do more to increase workforce diversity.

In concert with a White House initiative, the debt underwriting software company on Tuesday committed to boosting hiring of under-represented groups and to launch a business alliance that will help other startups do the same.

“We wanted to lead by example in the technology industry,” said Sonya Merrill, chief people officer. “It isn’t enough to say diversity in the workplace is important; you have to actually do something about it.”

Women make up 40 percent of ZestFinance’s overall workforce, though in the technical fields they account for 19 percent; 4 percent are veterans; and 36 percent people of color. The company has pledged to increase its female workforce to 50 percent, veterans to 8 percent and the representation of people of color to 45 percent by the end of 2016. It also said it would triple the number of employees with disabilities and to make sure at least one woman and person of color is in the candidate pool for each open position.

Because ZestFinance uses machine learning software to help lenders better assess the risk of financing sub-prime rated borrowers it is in constant need of tech talent. Matching underrepresented groups with that need, however, may be tough. The pipeline of science, technology, engineering and mathematics college graduates lacks diversity.

Merrill thinks ZestFinance can hit many of its goals, however, by changing its mindset and being more resourceful with candidates it comes across.

“If they don’t have the specific skill set we need then we are going to teach them that,” she said. “If you switch your mindset about how you do your hiring and focus on horsepower and potential over specific skill sets then you can get a more diverse workforce.”

Most of the company’s efforts will be focused on retooling candidates with closely related skills, such as engineers who just need to be taught a new coding language, she said.

ZestFinance is also going to switch recruiting tactics.

The company will look further afield for job candidates, outside its typical hunting grounds at California Institute of Technology and Harvey Mudd College, Merrill said. Possible recruitment targets include school for the deaf Gallaudet University in Washington and historically black colleges.

Moreover, ZestFinance thinks there is strength in numbers. The company is in the early stages of launching a L.A. business alliance intended, among other things, to setup joint-career fairs and share recruitment best practices.

“Our intent is to pull together a bunch of companies that can go out to other schools and universities that have more access to diversity candidates,” said Merrill.

Still, with all the demands of building a profitable startup, are these goals possible? Merrill thinks many of them are, and moreover thinks it’s a worthy goal either way.

“I hope we’ll hit them all; probably we won’t and that’s OK,” she said. “I think the progress we’ll make aiming at lofty goals will be greater than aiming at smaller goals.”

Technology reporter Garrett Reim can be reached at greim@labusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @garrettreim for the latest in L.A. tech news.

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