Last month I was on a panel at a diversity and inclusion event hosted by 500 Startups. The moderator asked each of the panelists what we are doing to make this industry more inclusive. My answer to this question goes a lot deeper than my role at a venture capital firm.
I pointed out that the job I’ve had a lot longer being a VC is being a black man in America. Along with any success in that latter job comes a social responsibility to pass knowledge I gain to my community, with extra attention to those without access to the same resources and support I did.
I take time each week to talk to founders building companies that may be outside of the scope of where our fund might invest, but could benefit from candid feedback from someone who has seen many pitches. It’s hard enough to raise capital from VCs, its endlessly frustrating if no one ever gives you a sense of how close or far relative to what else investors are considering. They are okay with getting rejection, but without actionable or candid feedback the proverbial carrot seems to remain dangling just out of reach. Often a very candid conversation is the most beneficial thing I can do to support a first time founder pitching VCs in the short term.
Most everyone working in tech startups is aware that the population of founders, funders, and employees does not proportionately represent the ethnic and gender diversity of the greater US population. However, awareness doesn’t mean everyone agrees that it is an important problem or even a problem at all. The common refrain from many industry leaders is that the tech industry is meritocratic. This line of thinking suggests that if you’re smart and work hard enough you’ll rise to the top, attaining wealth, acknowledgement, and the respect of your peers.
Others might argue that this is a flawed scorecard because working “hard enough” is relative. Just before presenting at YC demo day last year Matt Joseph, an African American founder, presented a very impassioned tweetstorm that argued for investors to consider his race when they meet him. When evaluating his current position he encourages you to factor in the sacrifices and obstacles he faced to get there. Not only is race on the table to discuss, an investor would be missing a half the story about his resilience and ambition if you choose not to talk about it. The context is relevant.
Even though I feel I have a social obligation to founders with diverse backgrounds, I still don’t view this as charity work. It’s not. These founders are often overlooked because they do not come from the same backgrounds, schools, or have access to a lot of “friends and family” capital. Still these are very real entrepreneurs with companies that, with proper guidance, could compete at the highest levels. They have the unique perspective, talent, and sense of agency required to succeed.
I hope to meet more ethnic and gender diverse founders who are building companies that fit the data driven thesis of my firm. I would take a lot of pride in taking my relationship from an informal advisor to a value added investor. At the same time, backing founders with ethnic and gender diverse background this is one strategy I certainly wouldn’t mind other investors waking up to as well.