The Backstory of The Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge

Stephen Straus
Jan 20, 2019 · 4 min read
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The Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge is an effort to create a meaningfully impact on the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the startup community which we are debuting now. Our goal is to get as many companies to take the pledge over the course of this year as possible. This will give the pledge a critical mass of social proof.

I call myself a serial entrepreneur and former venture capitalist. I came to Austin 23 years ago to join Austin Ventures and spent nine years there— from 1996–2004 —which feels like a lifetime ago. In addition to spearheading The Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge, I’m also launching my 5th startup, KUNGFU.AI — an AI consultancy — as well as launching a new dyslexia non-profit called Impact:Dyslexia. I originally started working on the pledge because, as a veteran of startups and venture capital, I saw the problem firsthand and repeatedly.

In my nine years at Austin Ventures, I can count on one hand the number of pitches that I heard from or what I call an under-represented person — a woman, person of color, or someone who identifies as LGBTQ — as the founder or CEO. I personally made only two investments into a company with co-founders or who weren’t either white men, Asian men or Indian men — and none were CEOs and none were women. And that was roughly the same for the entire firm the entire time I was there and representative of tech overall.

That’s bad.

I also did the same at the companies I’ve started — the teams I built have not been very diverse. Why? Because I wasn’t thinking about it. And, if I had thought more about it? I wouldn’t have known what to do about it.

And that’s, in part, what the pledge is about. It’s a road map with resources for how to be intentional about building your company team and culture. For all of us on a journey — and we all are — the pledge is a either a starting point or a place you can move forward from.

Take the pledge together with your team and think of it as commitment that you and your leadership and your team are making to each other

I wrote the pledge to be hard. But, diversity is hard. So we need each other to build community around building diversity together. So we can help each other and support each other. So the pledge means nothing without all of you.

There are a few more things worth noting. One, while there are other diversity-focused pledges out there, this is the only one that is Austin-centric. We’ll open our aperture and start to market the pledge statewide and eventually, nationally, as soon as we feel we’ve done a thorough job in Austin.

Two, while this pledge has the word Startup attached to it, anyone can sign. If Uber is a startup and Google is a startup, so is your company. Eventually we will more explicitly move beyond just startups, but this is a good place to start in terms of both need and potential for impact.

Why startups? One reason is that at the start of a startup, the cap table isn’t settled. Even if a company has a diverse workforce, how impactful is it if underrepresented people collectively own, say, 2% of the company. That perpetuates an owner class.

What I really want to happen is that this becomes the norm. Habit. In other words, if you’re an entrepreneur then every time you go into the garage to start a company, it’s on your mind from day one. Day one — before you’ve allocated any equity. That can really help break systemic inequality. And, it also helps you build a stronger business because, diversity increases success and returns.

I now realize that when I started talking about the pledge two years ago, that I was stepping up to be a leader. All I did was just show up for this conversation and then I stuck with it. Take the pledge — just show up and keep showing up. Your presence and leadership by example is what is needed most. Make a commitment to your team, make it better, and build a company that has a better chance of winning. Because, and yes I’m hammering home this point, diversity increases success and returns.

In addition to your own organization, please think about the companies you have invested in, the companies you advise and entrepreneurs you mentor, as well. Advise them to take the pledge and help them implement it.

We can make Austin the most committed and diverse startup ecosystem in America. We have that opportunity in front of us right now. Please join us in making that a reality starting now.

We need you to take the pledge. We need a show of strength. Please visit the website and take the pledge today.

Thank you.

The Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge

The Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge

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