The topic of diversity in tech continues to make national headlines. In nearly every instance, the conversation is about the efforts underway in Silicon Valley. Even the region’s most recognized accelerator, Y Combinator made USA Today headlines last week as its president announced the firm’s push to recruit more diverse founders and said, “I wish that all other venture funders thought about this the way we do…In the meantime, we have this incredible competitive advantage because no one else is doing this.”
While that might be true in Silicon Valley, when one steps outside of that region, they realize that the revelation is not new wisdom. I am amazed by the amount of attention and energy being expended at attempting to solve such a huge and historic problem on such a relatively small scale. In other words, the rest of “us” live in the rest of the U.S. Diversity in tech is not a geographic concern; rather, it is a mindset that must be changed across the entire country, if we hope to see any meaningful progress. Believe it or not, Silicon Valley is not the cure for what ails us. The Valley will ultimately be a part of the solution, and I am glad to hear that it is finally realizing what many have been aware of for quite some time: that there is underrepresentation across the entire tech landscape, and that is what should and must change.
I am a partner at a highly regarded global startup accelerator, DreamIt Ventures, which has helped to launch over 179 companies over the last six years. At DreamIt, we have taken a proactive approach to addressing the diversity in tech issue. Specifically, in 2011, we started that work by creating a component within our accelerator cycles that would specifically recruit startups led by founders from underrepresented populations. In partnership with Comcast, we intentionally created a program and environment that was open and welcoming to new ideas, perspectives, and problems to solve. Since creating the DreamIt Access program, we have seen the diversity in each class increase and more importantly, we have seen firsthand the power it has in the development of high quality startups and founders.
In the tech space, we’ve heard many stories about employees not feeling welcome or even being intimidated by the culture and behavior exhibited at startups. When environments are not conducive to the differences individuals bring to the table, then they stifle the collective potential of their teams and solutions. What we’ve found over the past three years is that when you are willing to make adjustments to your own culture, approach, and mindset, the results are amazing. That sort of open-mindedness has been sorely lacking in the tech space. When it is present, it becomes a beacon that attracts others with a similar desire. Since the launching of the DreamIt Access program, the overall DreamIt program has seen a tremendous uptick in the diversity of each individual class. One need look no further than our most recent class that demoed two days ago in Philadelphia: 12 companies, 7 African-American founders (25%), 7 female founders (25%), and new startups tackling problems for women of color, hiring for high growth companies, and reinvigorating the creativity of large enterprises.
This is obviously in stark contrast to YC’s “7% are either Black or Hispanic, the most of any class in its history.”
At DreamIt, we have been willing to take a frequently uttered Silicon Valley mantra – “move fast and break things” – and turn it into real action. We encourage our startups to adjust on the fly and disrupt the traditional way of doing things. Test, learn, iterate…rinse and repeat. I am proud to be part of a team that is willing to take its own advice and continuously ask the question, “what more can we do to significantly address an industry-wide problem?”
By asking that question, we decided to do something new – DreamIt Athena – a groundbreaking effort to increase the presence of female founded startups in tech. The Athena program will run within the normal operations of the standard DreamIt cycle. It is a unique opportunity that merges the DreamIt experience that all founders receive, with added support for female founders that will propel them further and faster than they could go on their own. With Athena, we are building a new beacon that will attract women who are leveraging technology to solve some of today’s biggest problems. We’re going beyond the usual conferences and gatherings to create a truly differentiated experience, with partners like Golden Seeds and Springboard, who will help to increase the likelihood of startup success, with women at the helm.
The DreamIt way includes building a community in which our startups thrive. We create a space for our companies to work alongside each other, because that yields critical benefits for the founders. The co-location creates “collisions.” opportunities for meaningful dialogue and collaboration amongst talented individuals with vastly different backgrounds, experiences, networks, and insights. Co-location provides each startup with a more diverse set of access points to markets, investors, and advisors. There’s a multiplying effect that cannot be replicated through occasional dinner conversations or random encounters at local coffee shops. This is also where the DNA of a startup is formed and thus these collisions increase the likelihood for founders to witness firsthand that great ideas and talent can truly come from anyone and anywhere, at anytime. Building a spirit of inclusion from the start means that you don’t have to sit down with civil rights leaders tomorrow to figure out how to be retroactively diverse.
It’s great that the national media is now paying attention to the diversity in tech problem. Assuming that level of interest and attention does not wane, I expect that we will see increases in the diversity employment stats of the major tech companies. The optimist in me hopes that every startup we work with is a homerun. The realist in me knows that many will strikeout. But in order to strikeout, you have to swing and miss three times. We need more diverse founders who are willing to take the journey and to do so more than once. Getting numerous opportunities to succeed is how the best startup entrepreneurs will be forged and how our greatest tech companies are ultimately formed. Making that possible across the entire country will get us where we should already be much faster.
Image credit: Michael Dougherty