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You cannot be what you don't see, reflections on diversity, inclusion and entrepreneurship

Craig Zelizer

March 22, 2016

On Monday, March 13th, I was fortunate to attend a great session on the future of entrepreneurship, hosted at the SXGood Hub  at SXSW. The panel was convened by the Case Foundation and National Public Radio's Generation Listen Program. It was moderated by Shelia Herrling @sherrling from the Case Foundation and featured two outstanding panelists, Casey Gerald CEO of MBAs Across America http://mbaxamerica.com, and Erica Berger @goodberger from NPR and Catchpool.

The focus of the session was exploring how to increase diversity in entrepreneurship and move beyond awareness to discuss concrete actions. Herrling started off the afternoon with an exercise in which the audience was to ask us all to close our eyes and picture the name and image of three entrepreneurs. Herrling then highlighted that research shows unfortunately all too often, that people in the US tend to usually think of white men.


Much of the afternoon focused on the critical issue of how to truly build an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem that helps increase the number of people starting tech (and other) businesses, accessing venture capital and creating a more inclusive system. There is both a strong moral/ethical argument for this that it is the right think to do, as well as a business case. The business argument largely consists of two factors, first is that research is increasingly showing that more diverse workforces tend to produce more successful companies (although much research needs to be done). Second, that companies need to reflect the communities they serve to better engage with them, develop appropriate products and be more succesful.

The current data on people of color in tech is very depressing. For example, Gerald highlighted that the current workforce of Google is only 2% Latino, 3% black, and that most major tech companies equally the poor stats. There area many reasons for this. One is the access problem, that many people of color or women don't have the same level of access to opportunities. Second is an issue of awareness, that people of color and women often don't see their peers in significant roles in tech companies or in media representation, thus such careers opportunities may not pursued as many people as possible. Gerald also discussed that there are two types of bias that can hinder equal access to opportunities. The first is explicit bias practiced by people and institutions, the second is more implicit bias. Both are very problematic but it is essential to increase awareness of both and work for change.


Gerald made a very powerful statement "Exclusion is not an act of god". He talked about how he had to increase awareness of implicit bias in his own organization. During the second year of MBA Across America Fellows, he asked his team what percentage were women. The data showed only 28% of their fellows were women. He emphasized since women compose 50% of the world's population they needed to do better. They worked hard and the following year and 48% of their fellows were women.

Berger made powerful points about the powerful role of media in shaping norms around identity and entrepreneurship. She made a powerful argument that if you see it you can believe it. That there is still a dramatic lack of people of color and women featured as entrepreneurs in the media. There is a strong need to change this.
In addition, she urged the audience to challenge ourselves in two areas. First, she urged us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That all too often, particularly in the networked social media age, people are increasingly in filter bubbles where they receive media that all too often reinforces one's own beliefs. This is particularly true if people don't have a diverse set of friends.

Although she stressed the need and benefit of challenging our own filters, she also stressed that As media consumers we should choose our media consumption with the same consideration as a pursuing a health diet. Media can have a significant impact on people and thus being wise what is consumed, when is essential, while also working to try out different outlets.
Several key lessons from the panel include:

1) There are extraordinary people doing entrepreneurial things around the country. They often just need a bit more wing behind their wings. Outsiders cannot come into a community and fix the problem. But working to support locals, build long-term partnerships and being authentic are important.

2) Avenues of change are often right in front of ours. All too often people and institutions look for complex ways of making change. Frequently, there are high impact things that can be done. One example is many tech companies have traditionally recruited only at elite universities. However in recent years a number of tech companies in an effort to increase their talent base to also recruit at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

3) Capital is important but breaking into diverse social networks is key. One of the more important things that can be done is helping to advance ecosystems and peer support networks/institutions so that entrepreneurs can work with others in community.

4) There is a difference between diversity and inclusion - Just saying an institution is diverse doesn't mean it is inclusive. Organizations need to ensure that they build truly inclusive and engaged communities.

Gerald emphasized there is a danger in essentializing race or identity as the magic solution. He stressed that we need to ensure that businesses are engaging in an ethical way with communities and providing products and services that are of benefit..

One surprising statistic is that over 75% of venture capital funding goes to the three main metro areas of San Francisco, Boston and NY. There is a need for investors to invest and support entrepreneurs across the country and around the world.

One audience member commented she is sick and tired of talking about diversity the same conversations has been going on for more than 20 years since the dot.com boom of the 90s and the situation hasn't improved much. We need to figure out a way to make the situation radically improved and not be in the same conversation 20 years in the future.

Gerald made a provactive statement that the social enterprise industry is becoming a bit bloated. Every business is a social enterprise that has either a negative or positive impact.

He also discussed that although the US is a leader in the world in entrepreneurship, the US does lag behind many of the G20 countries in having a strong ecosystem to scale and support entrepreneurship, particularly outside of the main cities where venture capital is concentrated. Casey talked the need to create a much stronger entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Herrling closed the panel saying you cannot be what don't see. She announced The Case Foundation will soon be launching a new campaign to highlight entrepreneurial problem solvers from all different backgrounds.

I encourage everyone to look up the work of the three orgs and post comments/questions here.


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