Deepening Our Understanding of Diversity

9 minutes, 14 links


Updated February 11, 2023
Better Venture

Diversity has been talked about in business circles for decades, at least since the 1980s. As early as the 1990s, we started to explore the “business case” for diversity. However, what is mostly addressed when people use the word diversity, even today, are only two categories of it, and they are the ones that are only “skin deep”: gender and ethnicity. Most VC coverage, in both reports and journalistic outlets, is limited to these two kinds of diversity, and often just to gender diversity. The excuses for this blatant lack of complexity are often simple: we are either not allowed to collect certain kinds of data (such as data on ethnicity in Germany and France) or the data isn’t easily obtainable (plus people may be hesitant to declare personal data such as sexual orientation or ethnicity). The results are devastating: in many ways, what isn’t measured (or at least talked about) doesn’t count, so anyone who isn’t a woman or a person of color is underrepresented in conversations about diversity, including in venture capital. Not only is this a blatant issue of social justice in and of itself (and one that is easily attacked by critics, such as the Woke, Inc author) but we are also missing out on many of the important possible benefits of diversity: without radically broadening our definition of diversity and especially without taking intersectionality into account, we might be “coloring” VCs and board rooms, but we aren’t really making them truly accessible or diverse in opinions, expertise, and background.

In this part of Better Venture, we want to consequently open up the meaning of diversity, not with quantitative data and numbers but with personal histories and narratives from different people in the VC and startup ecosystems. These conversations touch on numerous dimensions of diversity, and help us think about barriers beyond gender and ethnicity.

We start exploring diverse perspectives by acknowledging the documented underrepresentation of women and people of color among VCs and founders. In our conversation with two Silicon Valley natives, Claire Díaz-Ortiz and Maren Bannon, we trace what it means to be women in the tech world, spanning their various roles, including founder and investor, from the West Coast to Europe. The second chapter adds another facet to this picture: what does it specifically mean to be a female founder? What are the challenges faced when fundraising or working with a founding team? Nandini Jammi and “Maria” (another fantastic female founder whose identity we are protecting given her experiences) were willing to add some color to that conversation. Maria explains the end of her first venture (she has since successfully started another company!) with the following devastating words:

I was very much in an environment where my co-founder had his vision for the company and saw me as an extra pair of hands to execute that vision. I did not actually really have a say in where things were going. That became more and more clear the larger we grew. The way things ended with that venture was that I had talked to my co-founder and said, “You know, this equity compensation isn’t fair, and this environment isn’t feeling like one I can flourish in.”

After hearing several horror stories (and successes) of a similar kind, mostly from experienced female tech founders and investors, the remaining conversations in this section drastically broaden our understanding of what diversity means and what we should include when we talk about it. We start with June Angelides, founder of Mums in Tech turned VC investor; she retells the story of how hard it was—and in many ways, still is—to have parenting responsibilities in the tech sector and shares ideas of what can be done to make VC and tech more family friendly. In the next conversation, we spoke to Jolina Hukemann, possibly one of the youngest serial entrepreneurs we ever encountered. Jolina demystifies some of the stereotypes when it comes to being young (and a woman) in startup-land, and shares some of the challenges she has faced. Our conversation with Emma Lawton, co-founder of More Human, brings up another crucial question: how does a physical disability impact a tech career? Emma brings a phenomenal amount of optimism to her work and to her venture every day, and in fact turns her Parkinson’s into what she describes as a kind of superpower:

I have insider knowledge on accessibility and what makes a product work. I’m living with complicated stuff every day, and that gives me a greater insight. I think because of that I can go with my gut instinct a lot more than perhaps some other people can when it comes to making decisions. Because if you design for accessibility challenges, it’s going to work for everyone.

With Lorenzo Thione, managing director of angel community Gaingels (and co-founder of StartOut), and Gary Stewart, investor (most recently at Techstars), founder of FounderTribes, and Yale Law School professor, we spoke about an invisible dimension of diversity: being LGBTQ. The two share their stories about how they were treated differently in different countries and how, fortunately, it has become easier over the last 20 years to be openly gay in tech.

The last two conversations in this section raise awareness about some overlooked aspects of diversity. The first, and possibly most crucial aspect, is class. We asked British Patient Capital LP Ian Connatty and Balderton GP Suranga Chandratillake about the invisible barriers class puts in front of people trying to “break into VC” or become a founder. Suranga argues really strongly that class needs to become a much bigger focal point, including in its intersectional relation to other factors:

As someone who’s managed to traverse systems, industries, and places, I’m constantly struck by how similar people are in each field, and yet how enclosed they are in each group. … Social and cultural capital are the largest gaps I see in the VC industry. Social capital is very simple. Many people just have no knowledge of venture capital at all. Given that so many people use the products of venture every day, the gap is ridiculous.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, we have finally been talking about founder mental health. We spoke with VC Matthew De Jesus, expert on mental health for startups Kristina Barger, and founder Øyvind Henriksen about the prevalence of mental health issues, another invisible dimension of diversity that is crucial to take into consideration. In our conversation, we unearth a variety of concrete tips for founders who struggle with their mental health to stay afloat.

The conversations in this section reveal how complex diversity is; even just broadening the conversation slightly takes us to both new problems, but also new benefits—and we are far from comprehensive here. Yes, we need to start somewhere, and gender and ethnicity are great, and obvious, points to begin with. However, the work—and the benefits that come from this work—can’t stop there. By focusing solely on these visible dimensions of diversity, we are risking further marginalization of many other groups, and also lose out on one of the major benefits of diversity: bringing people with truly divergent experiences and backgrounds to the table. VC decision making won’t be much improved (and there won’t be more money going to underrepresented founders) if we only have a few women on the table, who themselves all have Oxbridge, Harvard, or Stanford degrees, or grew up on the Upper East Side. Further opening up the diversity conversation is hugely beneficial to venture capital, as well as the right thing to do from a perspective of representation and social justice.

Conversations: Diverse Perspectives in Tech2 hours, 14 links

Díaz-Ortiz, Bannon: Female Tech Veterans

Claire Díaz-Ortiz (VC3 DAO, angel investor)

Maren Bannon (January Ventures)

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