How diversity & inclusion contribute to startup success
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How diversity & inclusion contribute to startup success

When it comes to diversity, the tech world is lagging badly. Women, people of color and LGBTQ people are severely underrepresented in the workforce, and even more so among company founders. Providing equal opportunities for every aspiring entrepreneur helps pave the way for more great ideas to find their way to the marketplace. But there’s another reason to increase the amount of diversity in the tech sector: Diverse leadership, a McKinsey report notes, outperforms leadership at companies that lack diversity.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, just 26 percent of the computing workforce was female in 2017, 3 percent were African-American women, 5 percent were Asian American, and 1 percent were Hispanic.

When it comes to founders, diversity is even lower. According to the Case Foundation, more than 85 percent of the venture capital investments made in 2017 went to all-male teams or individual male entrepreneurs. A recent study of venture-backed deals over the last five years by RateMyInvestor and DiversityVC found that 77.1 percent of founders were white and only 9.2 percent of venture-backed startup founders were female.

Changing this will take time—and a lot of effort. We explored these issues in a panel discussion that I moderated recently at the Samsung NEXT office in New York. The women who took part in the forum, “Female Founders and Their Supporters,” were Maya Brooks, founder and CEO of Coffee & Coded; Cheryl Campos, senior associate at Republic; Tracy Hinds, head of platform at Samsung NEXT; Erinique Owens, event manager for Zapier; Emilie Hsieh, co-founder and CEO of Allie; and Ashley Shillingford, program manager for Standard Chartered, an international bank devoted to diversity. These inspiring women had plenty of ideas about how to drive change.

Be proactive
It’s clear that you can’t sit back and hope diverse people will show up to your event or respond to your job posting. “Diversity is an active effort,” said Brooks of Coffee & Coded. “It has to be intentional and built-in to everything you do.” That means taking steps, such as using explicit language in employment ads and event promotions, and making sure that speakers or hiring managers reflect diversity themselves.

Campos, who focuses on introducing underrepresented founders to accredited and non-accredited investors on Republic’s platform, said she learned that her interactions with funding candidates can’t be only about the product or the money; she needs to connect with the whole person—as a whole person herself.

Moreover, Campos is passionate about making sure none of the founders fall through the cracks. “I’m changing the game constantly by bringing my full self to work,” said Campos.

Hinds added that diverse companies “will deliver better, have better outcomes and be more of a joy to work for.”

Encourage non-technical founders
Interestingly, none of the founders that participated on our panel have engineering or computer science degrees. But every one of them wanted to solve a problem or be an agent for change.

Instead of feeling unqualified, founders who aren’t technical should understand that they still bring plenty of value to the table. For example, Hinds left the healthcare field to build a platform that helps companies in the Samsung NEXT portfolio leverage Samsung’s many resources.

“Domain expertise is so valuable. You don’t start from ground zero when you can bring that expertise,” Hinds said. In fact, many technology startups have no one on the team who has ever worked in the segment they hope to serve. Having even one person on the team who understands that market from the inside can boost the chances of success.

Brooks, whose Coffee & Coded teaches coding, design and entrepreneurship, has seen two different paths for would-be entrepreneurs. While some founders know exactly what they want to create and need introductions and connections, others have a problem they want to solve and have to learn how to engage with the tech world.

“I tell them, ‘It’s not some kind of secret society. You have the power to build it.'” By going to events like this panel, Hinds said, “They realize, ‘Oh, I can do this.'”

Owens, the event manager at Zapier, added, “If you feel scared or uncomfortable, that’s a sign you should go after it.”

Learn how to speak up
People from diverse backgrounds bring creativity, new perspectives, and insights to any company. But they can feel isolated within a company that’s not diverse and inclusive. Little slights add up. It’s crucial for everyone to be able to speak up in a way that team members can understand.

“Everyone has this story,” said Hsieh of Allie. “For me, it was being called aggressive in a performance review. I’ve been called difficult and sensitive—incredibly gendered language.”

Hsieh and her co-founder created Allie, a digital coaching tool, to help companies gather aggregated data about those sometimes-brief interactions that produce an unwelcoming culture.

Meanwhile, Shillingford, program manager at Standard Chartered, told the audience that, in the past, she held back when people at work made denigrating or clueless comments. “You don’t want to be labeled and written off as always talking about female or black issues. Now, I speak up more about it,” she said.

Shillingford has also found an effective way of bringing up uncomfortable issues. “It’s learning to meet people where they are. The conversation is about recognizing and acknowledging why they have a perspective, and then offering yours as another perspective they might not be aware of.”

Speaking up is important not only for today but also for the next generation, said Owens, who recently co-produced the Techstars event Startup Weekend New York City Diversity with Shillingford. “I’m speaking up for the next person behind me. Think about that 18-year-old or 13-year-old girl who will be in your position eventually,” said Owens.

Location Matters
The New York City tech community is different from Silicon Valley, the panelists agreed. It’s more diverse and more welcoming to a variety of people.

They pointed out that New York is where the clients are. Finance, fashion, retail, creative services, media—this city is the hub for these verticals, and that means opportunity for startups to serve them.

The tech community here is thriving. You can go to an industry event every night of the week, learn and make connections. And the support from more experienced founders is a key element of success.

Campos summed this up in a parting comment for the panel: “Being a founder is hard. We are here to help, that’s why we’re here on this panel. Let us love you and support you. We’re in this together.”

At Samsung NEXT, we’re working to change this. And we welcome everyone to join us. To get more information on diversity initiatives, as well as on tech trends and events, sign up for our newsletter.

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