The Startup World’s Diversity Problem

It needs diversity to solve it

Joshua Henderson
Apr 10, 2014 · 4 min read

A few weeks ago I moderated a panel at SXSW on women-led companies as an underserved market. There were hardly any men in the audience, and by the end of the panel the only males in the room (besides the A/V guys) were two of us on stage: me and Adam Quinton.

The second panel in the room that day had a focus on women in technology, and a similar gender breakdown.

I’ve been thinking a lot since then about the startup world’s diversity problem, and specifically gender diversity. And I know many others are right now, too.

500 Startups’ Dave McClure recently posted about their Commitment to Diversity and announced 500 Women.

Homebrew’s Hunter Walk asked the world for advice about measuring diversity in their pipeline and portfolio.

And, of course, Paul Graham caused a stir with his comments and controversy about female founders earlier this year which, however misinterpreted they were, served as a reminder of the notion of the old boys club.

I believe the media made him a scapegoat for a much larger issue, but sexism very much still exists in this system and the entrepreneurs I know could fill volumes with their stories. It’s shocking and appalling that we haven’t yet evolved beyond this as an industry.

How is it that in the 21st century investors can get away with saying things like “If this company is so good, then why isn’t your husband running it?”

That said, I’m encouraged that things are changing.

I’m encouraged by the increasing transparency we are seeing from VCs that blog, through platforms like Angellist. Transparency makes it more difficult for things to stay hidden.

I’m encouraged by a new wave of female investors starting their own funds — Theresia Gouw Ranzetta and Jennifer Fonstad with Aspect Ventures, Aileen Lee with Cowboy Ventures, Cindy Padnos with Illuminate Ventures, Kristen Green with Forerunner Ventures, Adele Oliva with 1315 Capital.

I’m encouraged that there are groups like Pipeline Fellowship, 37 Angels, Portfolia, BELLE Capital, and Golden Seeds that are working to increase the number of women investors.

For now, though, no one will argue that the VC world remains male-dominated.

In fact, fighting for women’s access to capital has been the very foundation of Springboard Enterprises for the last fourteen years.

For five of those years, I’ve been on the front lines with Springboard, first running our programs and now as Vice President. I’m asked frequently, often as an afterthought at the end of a conversation with an entrepreneur or advisor, why I’m at Springboard. I’m a guy.

“Oh my God, you’re right!” I say first with a laugh. But then I’ll share three more serious reasons why I’m so committed to what we do:

Women-led companies are an underserved market.

At Springboard, we so often say that we work with the best and most promising companies… that happen to be women-led. It’s a niche. Gender doesn’t drive us; investing in women is just good business.

The disparate amount of funding going to women-led companies means that there opportunities others are overlooking. Particularly if people have an innate tendency to invest in people that look like them, it means this is a market opportunity.

The startup world needs diversity of thought to operate at maximum capacity.

Will increasing the number of women in the startup world fix all the problems in the VC system? Likely not. But any system that is blinded by a lack of diversity is failing to operate at its full potential. Gender diversity is part but not all of problem.

Cross pollination of ideas and diversity of thought is critical — it’s why corporate boards with women are more successful and why I would argue more entrepreneurs should seek diversity on their cap table as well as their senior leadership team.

I was raised by strong women.

People always want to know what makes others tick. For investors, it gives insight into an entrepreneurs unwavering ability to overcome any obstacle to their vision. I’ve always been so intently passionate about my work that it took a while before I realized this piece of my story. My mother is one of seven, with four sisters, each of whom have been and continue to be a major influence in my life.

After the panels I attended at SXSW, everyone kept talking about how we need more men to show up. I agree. And I think the fact that I am a guy working to support and increase the number of successful women entrepreneurs shouldn’t be a novelty.

The startup world’s diversity problem will require diversity to solve it.

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