Changing the Wrong Ratio

These opinions are solely my own, for the record—not that of my employer, my family, or bald white guys in general.

The other day, I unlocked the "I'm no racist" badge in the VC game.  All I had to do was to name 5 black tech startup entrepreneurs in New York City when asked by a reporter to do so.  Kidding aside, I did feel a totally misplaced sense of pride.  My first thought was how far up the leaderboard I was. 

“I'll bet not too many other VCs in my peer group could name five… Go me!  I’m a good person and not racist at all!”   Kinda sad, actually.

That's about the same time I realized how much of a bad idea it was to count people based on color, gender, orientation *and* to then  diagnose that as the problem.  Now pay attention here because its a nuanced point, and since nuance in a race and gender talk when you're a white guy tends to get lost on the impassioned audience.  Ratios--the supposed lack of black, female, or any other kind of entrepreneur aren’t the problem.  So far, no one has been able to make a good case for me why a certain percent of the entrepreneurial base *should* be any particular demographic—or even more basic why 15% of the population should be entrepreneurs, as I’ve seen one anti-NYC startup statistic.

Now, it may be the symptom of a larger problem, like, women are lacking in access to tech jobs, but its not the problem in itself any more than a fever is a sickness.  Fevers are symptoms.  Just bringing it down with a Tylenol when you're not treating the infection causing it won't do a lot of good.

That's why I have a problem with programs that only focus on creating and funding more entrepreneurs from these groups without addressing root causes.  If you want to work on broadening access to science and engineering education for women and minorities, that's awesome.  I'm all for that.  In fact, I’m all about widening access to that kind of education in general.  Not only do we have a shortage of women engineers—we have a huge shortage of engineers in this country period!  I certainly could have used a little more of a nudge to pursue my interest in computers when I was younger, too—so I could learn how to code.  The problem isn’t just among women or minorities.  We have too many kids that want to become rap stars and athletes and not enough people that want to build real things.

If some of those newly trained go start a tech company, that's nice.  If they work at a big food conglomerate creating veggies that grow in the desert, I think I'd rather them do that than try to create a better way for people to advertise on Twitter.  We're kind of obsessed with growing the entrepreneurship base here, and it's not clear to me why more startups are better. 

More great ideas?  Sure.  Better trained entrepreneurs?  Absolutely.  Just more of them?  I don't know. 

I feel like half the entrepreneurs I meet with would be so much better off joining someone else's startup that already has traction.  They're smart, passionate, capable...and I don't know if you noticed but if you talk to any top entrepreneur, they'll tell you their biggest bottleneck is access to great talent.

Would it be terrible if we created 10 female heads of marketing of 10 billion-dollar companies instead of 10 new female entrepreneurs?    Whose career more positively affects the role of women in the tech industry?  Marissa Meyer as a non-founder at Google or some new female tech entrepreneur who statistically won't create nearly as many jobs and revenues as Marissa does everyday--because startups, no matter what the color or gender of the founder, are hard.  Most of them don't work.  Why push your smartest underrepresented professionals into the role that has a relatively low chance of success and a less interesting expected economic outcome?  Maybe all the white dudes who are starting companies and going for VC funding are just poor optimizers—because VC in general isn’t a very good bet.  It’s more like playing the lottery.  Is this really the path we want the best and brightest young women and minorities?   I spend more time convincing people *not* to take VC money than to take it—should I stop giving that advice to women?

I think we have a problem differentiating between the aggregate statistics and the experience of the individual entrepreneur.  People say, for example, that the Valley is a much better place to build a business—just look at the number of businesses that get funded there versus New York.  Well, what the hell does the aggregate number of venture backed deals in a city have to do with the experience of a NYC entrepreneur walking into First Round’s Office right here in Union Square versus our San Francisco office—or the office of any other Valley VC?  Similarly, on the “ratio” front, I’ve seen all the high level statistics about men, women, whites, blacks, etc. and entrepreneurship, but I’ve yet to be pointed a single example of someone who absolutely had a backable idea that couldn’t get funded because of their demographic.  (If there is, I’d really like to be introduced to them, because I’m always looking for great deals!!) 

Does racism exist?  Of course.  Are their structural issues that are discriminatory?  Probably.  Is the solution counting people in certain flukey professions and imagining what the “right” number should be?  I don’t see how it possibly can be.  I feel like we should focus our efforts on creating the best businesses and the best business and technical professionals to staff those businesses possible—and enabling anyone who wants in to get the skills necessary to participate.  That means creating more white engineers just the same as it does creating more black ones, because there are too many good ideas with traction out there that are stalling because they can’t find the tech talent to support of.  Get me a great female engineer, a great male engineer… hell, I won’t even ask what gender they are if they choose not to identify, as long as they can hack!