The Gap Has Two Sides
About two years ago, I was asked to join a Babson College panel discussing the gender gap in venture capital. At the center of the conversation would be the results from the Diana Project, a research study that examined our industry and the stark lack of representation of women investors and funded entrepreneurs. I accepted immediately. Having recently begun working with the National Venture Capital Association’s Diversity Task Force, I was eager to be part of the conversations that were taking place around this important issue. After committing to the event, a number of colleagues warned me that perhaps I should reconsider. I could be setting myself up for an attack. After all, as a white male in the venture capital industry, wasn’t I the big problem? While I appreciated their protectiveness and concern, I had a different perspective. I needed to be on that panel regardless of whether or not I would face difficult questions.
I needed to be part of the solution.
It becomes easy or perhaps convenient to forget that, by definition, a gap has two sides. If we want to be successful in closing the gender gap, the status quo (an industry dominated by white men) and the desired state (a diverse industry that has equal representation of women and minorities) must both make concerted efforts to move together. Women and minorities have been working hard at this for some time, but as part of the status quo establishment, I believed we needed to step up our game. A one-sided effort is often misconstrued as grousing and criticizing the other side. We can be far more constructive and move the needle faster if we work together.
Although it can be daunting to wade into the topic of the lack of diversity in venture capital, it doesn’t come close to the challenges women and minorities experience when trying to break through the barriers of a largely homogeneous industry. I encourage my fellow colleagues (both men and women) to engage in any of the following ways:
Acknowledge the Gap: Every conversation should begin with recognition that there is a problem, even if you aren’t certain of the solution(s). Improvisational comedy, one of the purest collaborative art forms, has a rule of thumb that each participant should accept what the other participant has stated, and build from there. It’s called “Yes, and…” We first accept the situation, and then we contribute to the process. There is no better place to start.
Look In the Mirror: It is difficult to preach change credibly, if you haven’t assessed your own situation and taken steps to improve. I am proud that my firm, Polaris Partners, has hired and promoted women, and that our life sciences portfolio comprises 22% women founders and CEOs. While our stats might outperform industry norms, it is not nearly at an acceptable level, and we need to do much better on engaging with more women and minorities.
Celebrate the Victories: I have a belief that an organization or industry “can become what it celebrates.” But if it doesn’t celebrate an idea or desired achievement, then it may never find that victory. So, look to celebrate the advances (big or small) made toward closing the diversity gap and establishing a culture of inclusion. This year, Dartmouth became the first major university to graduate more women engineers than men (the Thayer School of Engineering, where I chair the board of overseers.) We all know that engineering and STEM have traditionally not been the first choice for most young women. But Dartmouth’s Thayer School is an example of where culture celebrated the opportunities for women, and thereby made a statement that led more women to join in.
Engage Where and When You Can: Our industry remains very small, and, for most of us, the opportunities to hire new partners and invest in new deals are not a daily occurrence. In absence of hiring and investing activity, there are many other ways to get involved. Help gather data when asked, mentor diverse entrepreneurs, read up on best practices around the country, and call out bad behavior if it needs addressing. Encourage others to do the same.
That 2014 Babson College panel on the Diana Project was my first foray into the conversation. The warnings and concerns about me being treated as the enemy that day were, as I expected, misplaced. I learned a great deal, and committed my support through future words and deeds to move in the right direction. And rather than being criticized for past opportunities lost by the industry of which I am a part, those in attendance simply said, “We are glad you are here now.” I hope my colleagues will join me.