To solve that problem, these critics say, investors need to look beyond their own networks, as well as make their own industry more inclusive. As of now, only about 4 percent of all venture capitalists are Black, according to the National Venture Capital Association. “You can’t just hire one person and it’s done. You can’t just check a checkbox,” says Frederik Groce, a principal at Storm Ventures. Groce says improving diversity needs to be done systematically, rather than simply promoting one Black investor at a firm, or throwing money at the first Black founder who walks in the door. “I don’t think we’ve seen enough actual change happen just yet, but I’m still cautiously optimistic,” he says.
Groce cofounded a nonprofit called BLCK VC in 2018 with the aim of supporting other Black investors like himself; its goal is to double the number of Black VCs by 2024. In June, the group started a seven-week training program called Breaking Into Venture, meant to bring Black candidates into analyst and associate jobs at firms. “It’s our attempt to say, if you have a problem finding talent, or you think there’s a ‘pipeline problem,’ well, no, there’s a filtering problem,” says Groce. “If you only look at hiring out of Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale”—whose degrees by some estimates are held by as many as 40 percent of VCs—“then you’ve created an artificial filter.” The first Breaking Into Venture cohort came from a variety of other educational and professional backgrounds. Groce says half of that cohort now has jobs in venture capital. But as Groce points out, the work of diversifying the industry still falls disproportionately on people of color, and more needs to be done by everyone else.
“I think 2020 crystalized for a lot of people that we need to do better and to build more intentionally,” says Alexis Ohanian, the cofounder of Reddit and Initialized Capital, a VC firm, in 2012. In November, Ohanian announced a new fund called Seven Seven Six, along with an Operator in Residence program to find and train aspiring VCs through hands-on experience and formal mentorship. The program’s open application process aimed to source candidates from beyond the well-covered Silicon Valley networks. “I wanted to put something together that was really deliberate from day one, that could look at how to do the job of venture from first principles and generate even greater returns, and seek out an even greater range of founders,” says Ohanian.
For longtime advocates of diversity in venture capital, these recent efforts seem like too little, too late. After Ohanian declared on Twitter earlier this month that 2021 would be “the year we start to see black & brown investors in the ranks of venture capital firms,” the investor Ellen Pao pointed out that there had not been a single Black or brown investor at Initialized Capital, nor at Seven Seven Six. When asked about it, Ohanian said that he was not responsible for hiring at Initialized, and that Seven Seven Six has only existed since November. “I’m thrilled that she’s so motivated to be giving us feedback so early in our existence,” he said. (Pao did not respond to an interview request.)
As the year of big promises comes to a close, the question is whether these conversations will continue and how much industry leaders will stay committed to a more equitable future. Howard thinks there may be enough individual investors who start to change the status quo. He mentioned Steve Case, the AOL founder turned investor whom he met while fundraising for his seed round. Case created Rise of the Rest, a fund to support founders who are otherwise overlooked in Silicon Valley. “He’s actually putting money in front of founders, and it’s not like $25k—it’s half a million dollars, enough for you to sustainably build something,” says Howard, who received an investment. “In general, investing in diverse leadership teams is proven good business, and funds should do this without a segmentation of earmark capital.”
Plus, in the competitive startup world, having investors like Case on board can make a huge difference in raising more money. “Once a founder gets a term sheet, everyone else is like, ‘Who’s in?’ If someone’s in the round, other folks say, ‘I’m comfortable doing this too,’” says Howard. “If we can change a small community of people around us, then that means that other people have more equity. And then they can say, ‘I’m in, too.’”
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