Unconscious Bias and its Affect on Women and People of Color in Tech

I went to San Francisco last week to attend the Angel Capital Association (ACA) conference. ACA hosts several smaller conferences throughout the year, but the larger, annual conference is held just once a year usually in a cool city that everyone wants to go to.

The purpose of the conference was for angel investors, entrepreneurs, and some venture capital groups to share ideas, hear from some great speakers, and do some serious networking. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate as one of the featured speakers on a three-person panel in one of the breakout sessions . The topic we discussed was on the importance of building a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem to grow your angel or investor network. There was a really good turnout for the session and lots of great questions from the audience.

There were several interesting speakers, one of which included Cindy Whitehead, the creator of Addyi, or what is commonly referred to as “female Viagra.” Cindy gave a captivating presentation about the challenges she faced (as a woman) while developing the drug to treat what is called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. The drug helps to stimulate areas in the brain that become excited when sexually aroused. Cindy and her team took brain scan’s of 11,000 different women who were affected by this disease and were able to prove that their company’s drug could treat this condition. Despite all the scientific evidence  she curated, the FDA turned her application down. Undeterred, she appealed the conclusion of the FDA and asked many of the women in her clinical trials to come with her to Washington to share the story about why the drug was needed. Eventually Addyi was approved and Cindy sold the drug for $1B. Cindy is a remarkable example of a woman who faced multiple critics and overcame several obstacles to achieve what many (mostly men) thought was unnecessary, unneeded, and impossible.

My other favorite speaker was the husband and wife team of Freada and Mitch Kapor. Mitch Kapor is known for developing VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 and his wife Freada is a Phd who has spent her career on social policy and researching the lack of diversity in the tech industry. The Kapor’s are the founders of Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm in Oakland, CA that focuses on investing in early-stage technology companies led by people of diverse backgrounds.

Freada and Mitch gave a compelling, hour-long presentation on their approach to investing, particularly their thesis on closing gaps of access, opportunity and outcomes for low-income communities and/or communities of color. To the Kapors, where you’re from and whether you went to an Ivy League school, do not matter when it comes to hiring or investing. What metrics matters most to them are 1). track record, and more importantly, 2). the “Distance Traveled” metric. The “distance traveled” metric is a subjective metric that the Kapors use to give people credit for the difficulties they’ve had to overcome to get to where they are today. In America, it can be especially difficult for women and people of color to move up the ranks as quickly as white males particularly because of unconscious biases.

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values (source).”

It has been statistically proven through research that women and people of color often have to have already proven they can do a job before they are hired, whereas white males are often hired based on their potential. Mitch Kapor said previously in an interview with USA Today that “everyone has a subconscious and automatic preference of this over that. Once you’re aware of that, you can take steps to change.”  In the same article, it goes on to say that “At the root of Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity is that many companies are started by white male entrepreneurs who tend to hire people they know, says Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP who is a partner with the Kapors. Social networks are both the strength and weakness of Silicon Valley,” says Jealous. “If a company is hiring from the same seven schools (that many of its employees hail from), that’s a pattern of exclusivity that flies in the face of a meritocracy and contributes to social exclusion.”

At other points in the Kapor’s presentation they encouraged the attendees at the conference to re-examine the impact of the types of companies they are investing in and what affect that company might have on particular group of people. For example, assume there is a technology company that is developing an online tutoring platform to help kids study at home better. The intent of this sort of technology is great, but if it costs $150 a month to use then it automatically excludes a large group of families (usually minorities) who can’t afford to pay for it, thereby widening the education gap for kids that are just as smart and talented as their affluent peers. The Kapors will not invest in this type of company for these reasons.

A few years ago, the Kapors made it a requirement at their VC firm that all the companies they invest in have to have a diverse workforce. As such, all of their companies sign an agreement that 50% of their workforce will consist of women and people of color. When many of the companies that the Kapors invested in prior to this new rule being enacted, they voluntarily elected to participate with this new standard as well.

To be clear, the Kapors do not invest in companies that have no chances of being successful – that’s not the case at all. They are venture capitalists first and foremost. But what they’ve discovered over the years is that Silicon Valley misses out on several very great tech investments mainly because of other investors’ inability to look beyond an entrepreneur’s race, gender or cultural background.

I admire what Kapor Capital is doing and it was encouraging to hear them deliver this sort of message to a mostly homogenous crowd of angel investors and VCs. Despite all the evidence out there that supports the fact that having a more diverse workforce only adds to a company’s bottom line, the VC industry still struggles with diversity. I do, however, believe it’s changing though. I, myself, am proof of that. Cheers -KM.

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