As thousands of Bostonians speak out against racism against Black Americans, catalyzed by a string of high-profile deaths—particularly the alleged murder of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis—leaders are beginning to reckon with the racism within the world of startups and venture capital.
Fighting police brutality has not historically been in the wheelhouse of entrepreneurs. But for many, the fresh realization of a centuries-old truth—that American systems are founded on white supremacy—has prompted them to assess how they can address structural inequities in their own systems.
“Thoughts are one thing,” said Daniel Enríquez Vidaña, president of Venture Café New England. “Action is another.”
For venture capitalists, that means writing checks to startups led by Black entrepreneurs. For hiring managers and recruiters, that means sourcing job seekers of color. For accelerator leaders, that means accepting founders from underrepresented backgrounds into their programs.
Venture Café has already begun some of this work, primarily through its programs at Roxbury Innovation Center. In March, Venture Café moved all of its programming virtual in response to the coronavirus, which Enríquez Vidaña said has increased accessibility. Fifty-six entrepreneurs applied to present at this year’s Roxbury Innovation Center Pitch Night, a 40 percent increase from the usual number.
Pitch Night will take place on June 16.
“We’ve seen an increase in people wanting to participate in that process, which then leads them to have more of an interest in other programs we’re offering,” Enríquez Vidaña said. “Let’s get you the right set of resources and connections to help you get traction.”
One of Venture Café’s newest programs is the Pathway Program, a project that connects Venture Café’s entrepreneurs of color with college interns from local community colleges in exchange for college credit. The initiative is a collaboration between Venture Café and Janai Mungalsingh, who teaches entrepreneurship as a faculty member at Roxbury Community College.
Pathway is just a few of several programs in the area meant to boost historically underrepresented founders. Another that is back in the limelight, and perhaps the most prominent local initiative of its kind, is the New England Venture Capital Association (NEVCA)’s Hack.Diversity program.
Over the last week, Hack.Diversity has received nearly $50,000 in donations from local venture capitalists and tech executives. Much of that investment poured in following an emotional plea from the initiative’s co-founder and NEVCA president Jody Rose, who wrote on Twitter that she and her husband this week had “the talk” with their children, a 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, both Black.
“We had to tell them that in fact they are not equal,” Rose wrote. “As I was saying good night to my little man, his eyes welled up with tears; ‘mommy I don’t want to be killed because I am black.’”
The donations make a difference; Rose told the Boston Globe that the money will help fund the group’s operating budget and address hardships students face because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But as Rose and her colleague at NEVCA, director of development and strategic initiatives Ari Glantz, point out, they still have fellows in Hack.Diversity’s current cohort who need summer internships.
“Money is great for Hack.Diversity, but opportunity is what the program’s all about,” Glantz said. “There are fellows who have had that opportunity taken away from them by the pandemic. For everyone who wants to take a first and maybe a second step in how they can be part of the solution, look into your network and your ability to help reinstate that opportunity for those fellows.”
New England’s startup ecosystem is, as NEVCA pointed out in a statement on Wednesday, overwhelmingly white. Venture capital and accelerator leaders are beginning to reassess their portfolios accordingly.
A February report from Fit Small Business found that just 1 percent of venture-backed startup founders are Black, even as Black-owned firms grew: by 34 percent from 2007 to 2012, totaling 2.6 million companies. That same report ranked Massachusetts the 29th-best state for Black entrepreneurs based on specific ranking criteria like “Black Business Success” and “Social and Financial Equality.”
Underscore VC, a seed-stage venture capital firm based in Boston, has pledged to deepen its support for Hack.Diversity and has begun offering investment team office hours to underrepresented founders.
Pillar VC similarly put out a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and committed the firm to “working to combat racism and injustice in our country.” That has already started for individuals within Pillar: Partner Sarah Hodges has publicly committed 20 percent of her salary for the next year to support organizations fighting racial injustice. Hodges was also one of the leaders who gave to Hack.Diversity—$10,000, which was matched by at least one other tech executive.
A number of other local venture capital firms have released statements of solidarity, including NextView Ventures, Flybridge Capital Partners and General Catalyst. Statements only go so far, but Hodges and others may lead the way in terms of meaningful action. Chip Hazard, a partner at Flybridge, is holding open office hours for any underrepresented founder every day in June.
It remains to be seen how long this newfound energy will last.
“Sometimes the things that one does to power sustained change, sustained action, are more incremental and less soundbite-y,” Glantz said. “They’re also more difficult to remain committed to. They involve changing behaviors and processes from now going forward, not executing an action in the moment like pressing ‘click here to donate.’”
On the accelerator side, MassChallenge, now 11 years old and one of the largest no-equity accelerators in existence, with programs around the world, has outlined steps to ensure its programs are more equitable. In an email, CEO Siobhan Dullea said she views those steps as early components of a “transformational process” designed to address MassChallenge’s overall organizational culture.
“We —and many others in the innovation community—are in a unique position to use our privilege, platform and networks to provide immediate opportunities to Black founders while working towards long-lasting change by breaking down systemic barriers in the innovation community,” Dullea said.
The process will begin with an analysis of the talent acquisition data on MassChallenge’s own team, as well as a review of application and finalist data to ensure the program’s existing recruiting and judging practices aren’t leaving out entrepreneurs of color. Each of MassChallenge’s 2020 programs will include anti-bias and anti-racist trainings for their mentors, startups and teams, and MassChallenge will also create a formal cross-cohort networks of founders from diverse backgrounds.
Dullea has opened her inbox to questions, guidance and recommendations. It’s an acknowledgement that organizations in the startup community will need to work together to institute meaningful change. Venture Café is likewise looking to partner with other groups.
“We have a ton of work to do,” Enríquez Vidaña said. “We’re not going to solve the problem by ourselves. We never will. But we have a place in the ecosystem, and we’re willing to work with a variety of organizations on this issue.”