Startup Norway VC Series: Tina Israni on the gender diversity of the Nordic funding scene: — A missed opportunity
— We as a collective, have to meet the difficult conversations of prejudices and unconscious biases. It is only from that space we can bridge gaps in understanding and of ‘otherness’ . But this isn’t just a “do-gooder” crusade, this is about missed revenues, given that the Nordics lag behind the US in funding female founders and the data shows diversified teams outperform — says venture builder and priestess, Tina Israni.
Startup Norway is passionate about helping build the ecosystem of startups and investors. But to do that, we need the input from people who have special insight on subjects and sectors that make our startup community resilient for the future. And the key word here is resilient. This is why we are launching our Startup Norway VC Series: To bring you the kind of insight we believe every founder and investor should be mindful of in a company set for the stars.
Tina Israni, in addition to supporting Unconventional Ventures, is a serial founder — and has previously been investment banker. Her current focus is on convergence as a practice for venture building, fusing all parts of who we are in all aspects of life and business. She advises VCs, and steers new ventures into the current of this time. For her, this means fusing spirituality and business through and through. Her inspiration? The diamond cutter.
After five years on Wall Street and then five years as tech entrepreneur, I found myself building a life that no longer fit me. So I accidentally arrived washed up on the shores of Denmark, the happiest country on earth, blown across the Atlantic by the wind of change. I was ready to question my values, and meet the source of my depression.
Converging instead of diverging: a goal for the future
Unconventional Ventures: The name itself is telling you that something out of the ordinary is to be expected. And indeed, on their website it says that they are aiming to unlock “potentials previously deemed unattainable”, and to serve “demographics previously considered undesirable.” It is fitting then, that the very word “unconventional” brings about associations of diversity, which is one of the topics Tina Israni is so passionate about.
In September, Israni was at the TechBBQ conference in Copenhagen, where she helped organise a panel on diversity and investing in startups founded by diversified teams. At the time of TechBBQ, she was preparing the launch of a report on investing in gender diversity within the startup ecosystem of in the Nordics: “Nordic Funding Landscape Report”. The report — which Israni is one of the co-authors of — channels the discourse around diversity, a subject Israni is passionate about. For her, it is not so much about representation for representation’s sake — but more about transparency around this rather charged subject. She has written a follow-on report on how to discuss diversity in business and tech, partnering with a Danish Social Scientist.
“Diversity has become a catch-all phrase for otherness. We need a new language to discuss the under-represented, and the intersectionality between class/privilege and race,” says Israni.
The UV report mainly focuses on gender diversity to just raise awareness: While gender equality is high in the Nordics, that’s not the case across all industries. With only 1% of all invested capital in the Nordics going to female only teams in 2018 as opposed to 2% in the US.
A lot of the focus on diversity tends to circle around the value of “lets be nice”, or some kind of “saviours”, but this report isn’t about saving anyone. Diversity is just good business. There have a been a number of studies on how diverse teams outperform in innovation, solutioning and the bottom line… Prioritising a diversified team in skillset and perspectives across race, gender and class, builds a resilient, defensive and therefore successful business able to protect and grow its marketshare. The world of today has complex problems and complex conditions to navigate against.
Israni herself, sits at the intersection of many worlds. She is a native New Yorker, born in New York city. Her parents are Indian immigrants, and her grandparents Sindhi refugees. Today she is an American expat living in Scandinavia.
She has seen how different cultures have different cultural values for social capital, for instance the treatment of stress in New York is very different to Copenhagen. Another example is entrepreneurship. For some of the world, this is a necessity when you are out of options: This was the case for her father — he became an entrepreneur because he had to — for others, being an entrepreneur actually increases social capital.
Out of crisis comes opportunity: A journey of blooming
Israni, who had depression for several years — only recently reached the source of it. Her time in Scandinavia has been one of self-inquiry and given birth to a number of mental health practices and rituals, insights that she is infusing into her venture building consulting practice as well as a new personal venture, Bloom. She has also built an expert in health tech over the years, very recently serving as an health tech expert panelist at Katapult.
The inspiration came from the Oxford medical trial using video therapy for paranoid schizophrenia. Video therapy proved to have more efficacy than pharmaceutical drugs. Having close friends suffering from schizophrenia, I knew just how big a breakthrough that was, to be able to manage schizophrenia without the side effects of a pharmaceutical drug.
She says depression is a rather catch-all term for what she has found in her research, speaking to psychologists and therapists.
There is so much more nuance to how the depression impacts an individual, and more difficult still capturing those nuances. For example, treatment has to vary based on the pathways in the individual’s brain, I have really enjoyed nerding about the research out there on depression and various treatments. This especially given my perspective as a former patient; it’s rather meta. And after researching this, I now understand why people have difficulties getting diagnosed and getting the right treatment. Not to mention the shame that prevents them from even acknowledging it as part of their experiences of life…For myself, I would often judge my sadness as a weakness, or some kind of imperfection. The pain can run deep.
Investing in your mental health starts with your heart
Israni says we need to talk more about the things that are happening around us, and inside of us. Not only do we need to talk about the underrepresented and why startup communities — despite growing insight into the positive effects of having diversified teams — are still struggling to implement this (unconscious biases certainly has got something to do with it), but we also need to talk about founders’ mental health.
When was the last time you heard of a founder who was struggling? Not just in the financial way, but in an emotional way? Entrepreneurship can take its toll on the strongest of us: Marriages fall apart because of it, mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression develop until they’re bigger than the founder’s will to create, and the never-ending stress can loom in the background — even on a summer vacation with the family.
Our bodies are connected. Mental emotional, physical. Emotional and mental health left unaddressed becomes more gross or dense and expresses itself in the body. We have seen the studies on water, water passed on love vibrated brighter and higher while water ill treated eventually became infected. We are 80 % water, the same principles apply. It stems from the physics principle and also yogic principle, where science and spiritualism meet in metaphysics. Of subtle to gross, thus the need to realize our problems outside today are the result of issues within.
Israni says the immense focus on success stories of founders and their famous startups can serve the ecosystem wrong: When we all feel the pressure to perform, none of us will do great.
Before I conceived Bloom, I started two other companies and worked on Wall Street just before and through the financial crisis. It was a crazy time — and then being a startup founder and doing two different startups, I suppose you can imagine the levels of stress I was exposed to. I remember looking for support, and what I found was this article in Inc Magazine, and they talked about the dark side of entrepreneurship. Even when you’re fully immersed in the startup world, you usually only hear about the unicorn companies and other success stories, but those are the few who come through. We have to connect our behaviours and actions to what is going on within. I was overachieving to the detriment of myself in a search for love. Once we know the inner mechanisms at play we can play it to a strength, which is what I do now.
Getting back on track after a breakdown can take you a long time: Certainly a longer time than having a nap on your sofa after coming home from work, and certainly longer than going on a family vacation to catch up with your kids. And yet many founders choose to “risk it all”, seeing the prize (and the light) at the end of the tunnel.
Stress has been around a long time. When you burn out, it takes 18 months for your nervous system to recover, because it got used to produce such high levels of cortisol, your stress responses are out of sync. You need to adjust nutrition to repair your endocrine system that secretes these hormones by eating high fats, like avocados. We need to talk about these struggles more and solution together as a community. I really believe bringing topics like these out into the open will accelerate innovations, solutions, bottom lines — because at the heart of everything we do is people and our teams.
Building bridges through discomfort
For anyone who’s lived during the second half of the 20th century and for the two first decades of the 21th century, you can pretty much pick and choose which social issues you want to immerse yourself in. There is apparently no end to all the areas in which modern humans are seeking openness, inclusion, and validation. And no matter your personal views on the subjects that are brought to your attention, one thing is for certain: In today’s world, more people are speaking up about injustices than ever before. Today’s modern world and debate climate are vastly different from anything our grandparents and great-grandparents would navigate in when they were young.
We as a people are afraid of conflict, afraid of getting hurt, and afraid of hurting another. Social issues — for example feminisim, racisim, class inequality: We are afraid to have these discussion with the actual members of society that suffer from the impact of this otherness. And so their voices remain unheard, overlooked, and we try to save them without including them in the solution.… We have to go into these difficult conversations and build bridges of understanding, compassion, and witness through that discomfort . There is such a great irony to that by leaning into the wind you can stablize the sail — I believe it’s the same with people. This is a philosophy I live by.
Asked what the further aim of the diversity report is, Israni says it has inspired her to write a follow-on, on how to talk about otherness. She also aims to gather more case studies on how diversified teams are “actually good business” . The point is of course, that they could be doing even better. The Boston Consulting Group study from 2018 are among the companies where the advantages of diversified teams have been studied.
Ultimately, the view of the report is to highlight the lost opportunity of having more diversified teams in the Nordics — especially to position for the international stage and the complex needs of today.
Navigating the horizon of broader perspectives
Talking from the perspective of an investor, Israni says she thinks there are a lot of unconscious biases in the investor communities. Investors are naturally wondering what new innovation will bring about the greatest success and typically we make these decisions from our limited personal view of the world, this is especially the case in the Nordics, with a more homogenous society.
…But it’s basic psychology and evolution: We have a bias to feel more comfort in trust in people that look like us, but if we take the shame and judgement out of it, we can do something about it.
Israni highlights the importance of listening to people who have opinions and perspectives that differ from your own. None of us are free from the “blind spots” that shape our own realities: We always observe the world from a viewpoint of some sort, but this also means that we miss out on things our viewpoint doesn’t “allow” us to see.
To experience something in practice is far more nuanced than to study it theoretically. If something isn’t part of your experience, then you’re not going to know about this particular issue the same way someone else may have. For example, I’m the grandchild of refugees, I’m the daughter of immigrants, I’m an expat in the Nordics coming from the states — so I have lived in many different contexts and had to navigate my own biases and my own cultural norms, adjust, and reframe consistently. Whereas if you’re coming from a homogenous culture, you might not have the same perspective, knowledge, or experiences to navigate the same. Your simply don’t know what you don’t know leaving you unaware of your biases.
She exemplifies this by referencing Malcolm Gladwell — the Canadian journalist, author, and public speaker.
There are certain risks you have to take when building a company, but then there is also the “David & Goliath” phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.’ When you have nothing to lose you are willing to risk everything to make it, which is the underdog, but when you have a lot less resources to work with like a David, you remain lean, nimble, humble and calculate every move. You’re smarter with your risks, you know, if you want to make it against all odds.
Going back to the Israni’s mission as priestess and venture builder, one might find it hard to believe the spiritual and business worlds can converge and collide. The priestess is developing a language and framework around how to work and build ventures holistically so no aspect of health, mental, physical, financial potential, is left unexplored, unearthed, un-bloomed.
It is true, not all individuals and new ventures thrive under harsh conditions, but that is also the ultimate test: You’d certainly be mistaken for thinking that those who are struggling are weak — as they may be the ones actually tackling the difficult issues within as individuals, or in the world today.
“I like to think of it as the process of inner alchemy, turning our coals or hardships and trauma, into diamonds through high pressure”, says Israni.