Taking action on diversity in tech w/Check Warner & Deborah Okenla
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Taking action on diversity in tech w/Check Warner & Deborah Okenla

The lack of diversity in tech is a widely recognized problem. The homogeneity in venture capital firms is especially problematic because a lack of different perspectives can lead to a narrow view of what constitutes a viable business idea.

On this week’s episode of the What’s NEXT podcast, I spoke with Deborah Okenla, founder of Your Startup, Your Story, a startup community of founders, developers, creatives, and investors; and Francesca “Check” Warner, co-founder and CEO of Diversity VC, a non-profit promoting diversity and inclusion in the venture capital industry.

Warner defines a diverse venture capital industry as “one in which anyone from any background of any kind of group of any kind has access to that career path and any entrepreneur of any background of any kind has access to capital.”

A diverse VC industry might fund more than mobile transportation apps for affluent city dwellers, including, for example, mobile Afro-Caribbean barbers in their portfolios.

Okenla and Warner explained that diversity recognizes individual experiences and identity while inclusion involves implementing a culture that allows all individuals to feel welcomed and thrive. “If you’re able to create an environment where people believe and can see that they belong, then their performance grows 10x,” said Okenla.

Warner has experienced what the lack of awareness by male colleagues can mean to women in the venture capital industry. She remembered being mistaken for a waitress while participating at a conference where the entire panel of 30-plus speakers were white men.

A more diverse VC model
Today, Warner’s organization, Diversity VC, is working to end this kind of limited thinking by focusing on collecting and publishing data on the status of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, helping young people from diverse backgrounds gain experience through internships, assisting entrepreneurs with access to capital, and working with venture capital firms to enhance the diversity of their investing. It also has produced a diversity toolkit for VC firms to back more diverse teams and promote more inclusive environments among portfolio companies.

Enhancing diversity is more than having some percentage of people on your board or in your startup from underrepresented groups. Instead of meeting “demographic criteria on your board and on your team” Warner said, companies should determine if you have the “infrastructure, the setup, and all the tools and resources that you need to be a truly inclusive organization.”

While there has been movement in gender diversity, Warner and Okenla point out that other underrepresented groups, from disabled persons to veterans, are just starting to be recognized as not having a seat at the table.

New business opportunities
Even without the social and ethical reasons to promote diversity, there is a monetary incentive: diversity ideas breed more business opportunities. A previous guest on this podcast, Elvie CEO and co-founder Tania Boler, mentioned that one of the reasons there is so much opportunity in the fem-tech space is that VCs have not been looking into women’s issues around sexual and reproductive health and wellness, despite being a hugely underserved market need.

Many VCs miss opportunities because they do not see them from someone else’s perspective. Diversity VC conducted a study of venture capital in the United Kingdom and found statistics that support Boler’s reasoning: half of all investment teams had no women at all, and two-thirds had no senior women. Moreover, a quarter of investment committee members in UK venture reported that the did not see a single woman at any of their meetings.

Both Okenla and Warner have practical advice for anyone setting out to diversify their teams or boards. Okenla notes that firms can start at the obvious place: “Hire diverse people. I think it’s that simple,” she said.

The roadmap for diversifying starts with action. Advertise and be present in diverse places, says Okenla. And use language that is friendly and is accessible and understanding for other individuals to use and then hire that diversity.”

Of course, attracting diverse talent is not easy. Looking for an envoy to provide an introduction into different communities on your behalf is not a substitute for being there. “You’re going to have to go out of your way to get there,” said Warner. “But what’s kind of nice about that is that the funds that do that will be rewarded with investing in the best companies that they’re going to see opportunities that will be sneaking up on all the other funds that just didn’t have that awareness. “

In the final analysis, Okenla said, if you want a seat at the table you have to “build your own table.”

To learn more about how to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace, you can listen to the full episode in the embedded player above, or subscribe through Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayRSS or your favorite podcast app. Get started building a more diverse investment strategy by reviewing Diversity VC’s diversity toolkit and guide for entrepreneurs.

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