Diversity is one of the most contentious words in the tech industry right now.
Consider that 2017 alone has involved:
- Former Uber employee Susan Fowler explosively alleging repeat discrimination and harassment at the ride-hailing company
- 60 women mulling a class-action lawsuit against Google over alleged sexism and pay disparities
- A string of allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour by high-profile figures in venture capital investment, including Binary Capital’s Justin Caldbeck, Lowercase Capital’s Chris Sacca, 500 Startups’ Dave McClure, and former Accel partner Fred Destin
All of this happened in the first six months of 2017. And yet engineers and venture capitalists in the tech industry continue to argue against the value of diversity, either overtly or quietly.
After a summer of scandal around harassment in tech, former Googler James Damore argued against Google’s current diversity practices, and was blasted for his “scientific” explanations for why there are fewer women in tech. Amid massive industry outcry, he was supported by several high-profile VCs and entrepreneurs, such as Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham, and Thiel Capital managing director Eric Weinstein.
Clearly, there’s still work to do.
The good news is some companies see diversity as good business
Comcast Ventures, the venture arm of US telco Comcast, in 2012 set up a fund specifically targeted at minority entrepreneurs. The Catalyst Fund has $US20 million (£15 million) under management to invest, and new leadership as of December in Kai Bond, formerly general manager of Samsung Accelerator.
It’s been running for five years, mostly focusing on building dealflow in that time. Now Bond wants to rebuild Catalyst’s brand as the go-to place for minority entrepreneurs — mostly in the US, but Europe too.
Catalyst has started writing bigger checks of up to $US1 million, he said, and will forge partnerships with third parties to support portfolio companies. Portfolio startups include fashion brand Cuyana, and customer messaging service LiveNinja, which was acquired by VoIP firm Net2Phone in January.
“We’re trying to rebuild the brand and figure out exactly where we can add value,” Bond told Business Insider.
Catalyst has just struck a partnership with Sylvain Labs, a brand consultancy whose services are pricier than what startups could normally afford.
Bond added there was a “clear problem” with lack of venture capital dollar flow to female and minority founders. “There’s no network support either,” he added.
In June 2015, CB Insights found that just 1% of funded entrepreneurs in the US were black, despite black people representing 11% of the US population. The figure is better for Asian entrepreneurs, who represent 12% of funded founders in the US but made up 4% of the population.
Bond thinks Catalyst might be able to help with the network problem through its partnerships. There are several disadvantages to not having a network. It can mean there’s no supportive network of peers to bounce ideas with, but also no network of older business mentors to advise you when the going gets tough.
“The plan is to help startups in two ways: to think about their brand and where it fits in the world, and the strategic role of brand in that early stage when you’re trying to educate people,” said Sylvain Labs founder Alain Sylvain.
The consultancy provides its services for free, but takes the opportunity to find startups to potentially invest in down the line.
“This is not about charity,” Sylvain added. “So many entrepreneurs are groomed for the ideal opportunities to start a business — parents who have supported them, elite educations, fraternities.”
There’ll be other Catalyst partners in due course, Bond said.
Catalyst isn’t the only fund trying to promote minority entrepreneurs. Bond pointed to 500 Startups and Y Combinator as “overindexing” in minority and women founders — even as their programme founders were accused of harassment.
But for Sylvain, there’s nothing so tightly focused on providing services. “There’s never been anything like this focused on this audience or entrepreneur. It really feels like something fresh and new.”