At Blackbird Ventures, we have been thinking more deeply about how to improve diversity in our portfolio and in the tech ecosystem in Australia as a whole. That is why we are very pleased to be one of the founding VCs involved in Project Include.
In particular, we are very focussed on improving gender diversity. Currently, only 13% of our portfolio companies were co-founded with at least one woman. I don’t think Blackbird is any worse than the average tech VC in that respect. Yet, we can see that within our portfolio, companies with a gender-diverse founding team are among the very best performers.
The challenge now is — how do we find more companies like this? I’ve spoken to many successful women who I work alongside in tech and VC to ask for their thoughts on this issue. I’ve been somewhat surprised by the response. At times it’s been hesitancy, other times ambivalence. I wondered to myself why that was so and I’ve identified 3 root causes and why I think they shouldn’t be barriers.
Not identifying with gender diversity issues
When I speak to a lot of successful women in tech, the majority don’t identify with the gender diversity problem. Here are the typical responses:
“I’ve never been aware of being the only or one of few women; I don’t think gender matters.”
“If you need people to do outreach to make you feel welcome, do you really have what it takes to be a successful founder?”
“Maybe women are just different to men; maybe most women just don’t want to work in tech.”
Underlying all these statements is an ‘us and them’ view of the world. A lot of successful women in tech identify less with other ‘women’ than they do with other people who are ‘successful in tech’ (ie mostly men). They find it difficult to empathise with women who are deterred by the under-participation of women, as it was not a deterrent for them.
I’ve been guilty of this and have had to challenge myself with this question: “Does a problem have to be one that I experience personally, for it to be a problem worth acting on at all?”
Soon, the majority of jobs will require STEM skills and yet today only 20% of STEM graduates are women, 14% in IT. Maybe the ratio would improve organically in time, but what a gamble to take. Unless we want to reverse a century of economic progress for women, this is an urgent issue that needs action if we’re to protect the high standards of living that women in developed countries like Australia currently enjoy.**
Jumping ahead to the solution
When considering whether to participate in any ‘women in X’ movements, people jump ahead to the possible solutions. No, quotas do not work. Awareness of bias alone does not seem to be enough. And no, of course we cannot ‘lower the bar’.
No-one has the all the answers yet, however that shouldn’t be a reason to avoid getting started. We aren’t at a point in history where so many things have been tried and failed that it seems futile to do anything. Don’t put the cart before the horse.
I have a strong suspicion that underlying a lot of the resistance is a form of elitism or intellectual snobbery that associates female entrepreneurship with inferiority or somehow lacking in ambition. I’m not too big to admit that I’ve been guilty of this.
We do not need to sneer at female founders of businesses that will never be unicorns.
Not every successful CEO is born innately ambitious. Our observation is that ambition grows over time. When Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquar founded Atlassian 14 years ago, they merely wanted to beat the $48,000 salary offered for engineering graduates at the time. It turns out these were the starting lines, not the finishing lines, of their potential and ambition.
If we accept that all founders are on a personal growth journey, how can we support female founders? What do they not know yet that might change their career or company’s trajectory?
In Australia, we also have another exacerbating factor. The pool of people who have built a tech company to tens of millions of dollars in revenue is small. The female founders or C-level executives of that cohort could, I think, be numbered on one hand. What impact does this have that there simply aren’t that many visible role models? It becomes even more important that those successful women in technology step forward.
What does this mean for Blackbird and Startmate?
As a venture capital fund and an accelerator, we want to fund more gender diverse companies. But we can’t change our investment criteria for it.
So does that mean we do nothing?
If we took action at the ‘top of the funnel’ — would it help our conversion?
Can we run experiments to see what would happen if we:
- Actively reached out to groups of female entrepreneurs;
- Educated the potential market on what we are looking for, and why?
- Made the community a more welcoming place, both online and offline?
Some things might not work, but isn’t it at least worth trying?
Here are some of the things we’re doing in the next few months:
- Tweaking our collateral and website to reflect the diversity we would like to see in our portfolio and in the companies approaching us;
- Actively targeting more female mentors for Startmate 2017, which will hopefully encourage more female founders to apply;
- Reaching out to female-focussed business and startup groups to help us recruit for the 2017 batch of Startmate;
- Start to collect data points on applications and the investment process to help us self-censor against bias.
We’re new to this, so if have other suggestions for things we could do, please reach out to me on [email protected].
** This is a generalisation for simplicity’s sake and should not be interpreted to mean that there are not still great improvements to be made on gender discrimination and equal pay issues in today’s workplaces.