Techstars Seattle Diversity Update: Failing, Frustrated + Asking for Help

Last week we announced our latest Techstars Seattle cohort, nine great companies pursuing important innovations across a wide range of sectors. And while I’m proud and excited about the companies we selected for this year’s class, I’m ashamed of my failure as Managing Director to attract a more diverse mix of founders to the program I run.

At Techstars, we have committed ourselves to expanding opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in the entrepreneurial communities we serve. More importantly, I am personally committed to overcoming my own unconscious bias and going out of my way to make the Seattle startup ecosystem a more welcoming and supportive place for founders who don’t match the usual startup stereotypes (i.e., white or asian men from privileged backgrounds with technical degrees from elite colleges).

I’m personally committed to this work because I believe it’s the right thing to do, and helps build the kind of society and economy that I want to live in and see my children grow up in. But that alone is not enough. My job as an investor is to find exceptional opportunities to drive returns for Techstars and for our limited partners (the fund investors whose money we invest). As early-stage investors, we typically commit our (and our LP’s) capital to teams that have yet to ship a product or make a sale — we’re fundamentally betting on people and their human potential as leaders and organization-builders.

After more than a decade of very early-stage investing, I have developed some strongly-held opinions about what it takes to succeed as a founder – not just to start a company, but to persist through all the skepticism, setbacks and turns of fortune’s wheel on the long road to entrepreneurial success. A few years ago I wrote a blog post distilling those views — you’re welcome to read it, but I’ll save you a click by reposting the punchline here:

“Founders aren’t born but made, first by the hurt the world gives them and then by their lifelong fight to forge that hurt into something beautiful and strong.”

If you wanted to go looking for people who have learned to persevere in the face of opposition, who have spent their whole lives being told – either tacitly or explicitly – that they weren’t good enough, you wouldn’t start your search among the economic or cultural elite. You’d go looking for people who have achieved extraordinary things despite their background and environment, people who have learned to keep pushing not because it was expected or encouraged, but because it wasn’t and they wanted to prove that they were better and stronger than anyone ever imagined they could be.

So my commitment to working with founders from underrepresented groups isn’t just a way for me to feel good about myself or earn PR points for Techstars. It’s a deliberate strategy to back the most ferocious and relentless founders I can find, the ones who will walk through walls to deliver for their teams, their investors and themselves.

I am failing in this work. And I’m asking for your help.

Since I took over the Techstars Seattle program in 2014, I and my team have built partnerships and programs designed to increase our visibility in underrepresented communities and reduce barriers – structural, perceptual or emotional – that have prevented founders from those communities from applying to our program. (A huge amount of the credit for any gains we have made goes to Jaren Schwartz, Program Manager for Techstars Seattle and a quietly ferocious leader of these efforts).

And our efforts are producing results. At every step in our application and selection funnel except the last – and most important – one, we have significantly improved the participation of both applicants and decision-makers from diverse populations. Here are a few stats from our last selection cycle:

  • 43% of applying teams had a female co-founder or core team member (up from 19% in 2016)
  • 25% of our first-round callbacks had a female co-founder or team member
  • 30% of our finalist companies had a female CEO or co-founder
  • Final investment decisions were shaped by a 10-person investment committee made up of four women and six men.
  • We offered slots in the cohort to three woman-led companies (of a planned 10-company cohort)
  • Only one of those companies, Silene Biotech, accepted our offer (one accepted an incubation offer from an industry incumbent; the other decided they weren’t ready to take full advantage of the program and wanted more time to work on their business fundamentals).

A few observations about the results above:

  • Women founders are our *strongest* area of progress toward our diversity goals – we have made no meaningful progress in attracting African-American and Latino founders (we don’t ask for or track data about gender identification or sexual identity in our application process).
  • Even though our funnel and process participation is improving, we — and the responsibility lies entirely with me and not with anyone else on my team — have consistently failed to convert our offered slots in the class to founders of diverse backgrounds. Two years running we have fought hard to sell women founders on our program, only to have them ultimately choose other options.

Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. I’m committed to achieving different results in our diversity recruiting, so I need to start doing some different things. I’ve begun a process of engaging with some of our biggest fans and most vocal critics (often the same people) about our diversity strategies, and will add more structure to that work as we learn more about where we’re going wrong. But I’m also asking you – anyone who reads this post and wants to offer ideas, share best practices or just express an opinion about our diversity efforts and goals – to email me directly at chris.devore_at_ techstars.com to open that conversation to participants outside our existing network.

I never expected it would be easy to break down the many barriers to entrepreneurial success for women and other underrepresented founders, but I did expect to deliver better results in my own program and in our own community. I am doubling down on this effort, and I’m grateful for help and advice from any quarter to move us farther, faster.

  • Bob Crimmins

    Chris, first, great to see Techstars commitment to diversity and some initial progress… Even though the job is not done yet.

    Here are a couple of thoughts.

    would expect some improvement in results toward diversity if you further improve the diverse city of the selection panel. Six men and four women is not a terrible mix, but why not five and five? Or why not four and six?

    Build more and or better relationships with women-oriented organizations in Seattle. For example, Nellie Fuji Anderson of pipeline Angels is an amazing advocate for women entrepreneurs. Seattle women in tech holds quarterly events and at least once a year those events are aimed at women tech entrepreneurs. Startup Haven shares similar diversity goals.

    Actively seek out and engage with women entrepreneurs from cities outside of Seattle. Given the relative dearth of women entrepreneurs generally, it may be difficult for any one city to generate enough applicants to move the needle on diversity. Ironically, two women entrepreneurs from Seattle are moving to Boulder Colorado next week for three months to enter and accelerator program there.

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks for the great suggestions and support, Bob – I’d welcome intros to any leaders of the orgs you mention (I don’t know Nellie, for example) so we can engage + find ways to work together well in advance of our next recruiting cycle. This is definitely bigger than just Seattle and I know there are folks throughout the region that we don’t know and should who are working in the same direction.

  • http://moz.com/rand Rand Fishkin

    Thanks for this Chris, and for connecting with folks like myself and Geraldine to talk about it in depth. We want to support Techstars, but even more so, want to support diversity in the tech and startup worlds (for both ethical reasons and for returns-based ones). Appreciate you making this public and a priority.

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks Rand – Techstars is built on mentorship and accountability, and I need mentorship and people to hold me accountable just as much (or more than) the teams who participate. Making a public commitment is a useful beginning, but I know it’s the least part of the work.

  • Megan Smith

    Hi Chris – here are some useful resources — links below w/context. I’d especially point you to the first post “Raising the Floor” and the action grid associated with it (download link) … also read the Demystifying Access Capital post and reach out for collaboration to those who created and signed the pledge, and the “Top Ten Actions …” is also helpful.

    Entrepreneurship and Workforce:

    Prosperity agenda — and the right thing to do…not a charity agenda

    “Research has shown that diverse groups are more effective at problem solving than homogeneous groups, and policies that promote diversity and inclusion will enhance our ability to draw from the broadest possible pool of talent, solve our toughest challenges, maximize employee engagement and innovation, and lead by example by setting a high standard for providing access to opportunity to all segments of our society.”
    President Obama, October 5, 2016 Presidential Memorandum

    Raising the Floor: Sharing What Works in Workplace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
    We’ve compiled some of what we’ve heard and seen work in creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable science and technology workforce.
    NOVEMBER 28, 2016 AT 9:38 AM ET BY MEGAN SMITH AND LAURA WEIDMAN POWERS
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/11/28/raising-floor-sharing-what-works-workplace-diversity-equity-and-inclusion

    ** Action Grid (download): https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/Documents/Diversity%20Equity%20Inclusion%20Action%20Grid.pdf

    Increasing Diversity in the STEM Workforce by Reducing the Impact of Bias
    Interagency Policy Group makes recommendations to increase diversity in the STEM workforce in both the Federal Government and academia by reducing the impact of bias.
    DECEMBER 12, 2016 AT 9:10 AM ET BY JO HANDELSMAN AND WANDA E. WARD
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/12/increasing-diversity-stem-workforce-reducing-impact-bias

    Demystifying Access to Capital for All Early Stage Science and Tech Entrepreneurs
    More than 30 investors pledged to increase access to capital for science and tech entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, including by sharing tips for raising funds.
    NOVEMBER 30, 2016 AT 9:22 AM ET BY LAURA WEIDMAN POWERS
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/11/30/demystifying-access-capital-all-early-stage-science-and-tech-entrepreneurs
    Pledge:https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/diversifycapitalpledge_Nov2016.pdf

    President Obama’s Top Ten Actions to Accelerate American Entrepreneurship
    In celebration of National Entrepreneurship Month, check out President Obama’s most significant actions to promote American entrepreneurship.
    NOVEMBER 30, 2016 AT 9:15 AM ET BY THOMAS KALIL, DOUG RAND
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/11/30/president-obamas-top-ten-actions-accelerate-american-entrepreneurship

    A Year of Progress: The One-Year Anniversary of the TechHire Initiative
    One year later, TechHire grows to 50 communities – communities that have placed thousands of individuals in high-paying tech jobs.
    MARCH 18, 2016 AT 5:01 PM ET BY MEGAN SMITH, RYAN BURKE
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/03/18/year-progress-one-year-anniversary-techhire-initiative

    Empowering Every American to Become an Entrepreneur
    As the Global Entrepreneurship Summit begins in Silicon Valley this week, new announcements to support inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation here in the United States
    JUNE 23, 2016 AT 3:00 PM ET BY NATE SEGAL, JENNIFER ERICKSON
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/06/22/empowering-every-american-become-entrepreneur

    Prioritization Upgrade: Expanding Diversity in Our Technology Ecosystem Now
    Megan Smith and Valerie Jarrett head to Silicon Valley to participate in the “Diversity in Tech” workshop — hosted by the White House and the Kapor Center for Social Impact — to brainstorm and strategize with technology innovators to learn about what’s worked for employers to recruit, retain, and advance top talent from under-represented communities, and for venture capitalists to fund and advise the full range of early start-up teams.
    JUNE 8, 2015 AT 12:41 PM ET BY MEGAN SMITH, VALERIE JARRETT
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/06/08/prioritization-upgrade-expanding-diversity-our-technology-ecosystem-now

    Entrepreneurs Demonstrate their Innovative Ideas at the First White House Demo Day
    Today the President hosted the first-ever White House Demo Day, welcoming startup founders from across the country and diverse backgrounds to “demo” their success stories.
    AUGUST 4, 2015 AT 6:01 PM ET BY JENNIFER ERICKSON, DOUG RAND
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/08/04/entrepreneurs-demonstrate-their-innovative-ideas-first-white-house-demo-day

    ——————————

    MEDIA
    Image of STEM – work to overcome inaccurate and missing history, stereotypes and consistently unconscious-biased writing/creation

    Celebrating Presidential Medal of Freedom Winners in Science and Tech: Garwin, Hopper, and Hamilton
    President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, on Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, and Richard Garwin today.
    NOVEMBER 22, 2016 AT 7:04 PM ET BY KRISTIN LEE
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/eop/ostp/blog?page=1

    Honoring NASA’s Katherine Johnson, STEM Pioneer
    President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom to Johnson, a NASA mathematician who calculated and verified the travel trajectories that took the first Americans to space.
    NOVEMBER 30, 2015 AT 10:37 AM ET BY KNATOKIE FORD
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/11/25/honoring-nasas-katherine-johnson-stem-pioneer

    Celebrating Hidden and Modern Figures from Four Eras of Space Exploration
    “Righting” Space History: From Bessie Coleman to the ‘Mother of Hubble,’ technical & scientific women have always been part of space exploration, discovery, & innovation.
    DECEMBER 19, 2016 AT 9:01 AM ET BY MEGAN SMITH, JO HANDELSMAN, AND KNATOKIE FORD
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/celebrating-hidden-and-modern-figures-four-eras-space-exploration

    Shining a Light on Untold Stories in STEM
    “Read All About It” and See How You Can Help Change the Image of STEM
    MARCH 31, 2016 AT 9:52 AM ET BY JO HANDELSMAN, MEGAN SMITH, AND KNATOKIE FORD
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/03/31/shining-light-untold-stories-stem

    The Lost History: Help Us Find the Declaration of Sentiments
    The Declaration of Sentiments is the foundational document for women’s rights, drafted in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 — and as far as we can tell, it’s missing.
    OCTOBER 14, 2015 AT 4:30 PM ET BY MEGAN SMITH
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/find-the-sentiments

    * longer local innovation list – includes diversity & inclusion best practice work…

    Try this at Home: Scouting local solutions & rapidly scaling what’s working
    Innovative local teams in different parts of the country are driving economic growth, economic inclusion, and solving complex challenges. Let’s accelerate what’s working.
    JANUARY 5, 2017 AT 4:55 PM ET BY MEGAN SMITH, THOMAS KALIL, AND ADEN VAN NOPPEN
    https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2017/01/05/try-home-scouting-local-solutions-rapidly-scaling-whats-working

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      This is awesome – thanks Megan!

  • Mary Jesse

    Despite your overall frustration Chris, your gender based stats are really encouraging and to be applauded. There is much data to support the argument that diversity at every level is a powerful success tool for any business. The collective efforts of groups like yours will certainly make a difference over time. Thanks for raising awareness and moving the ball forward.

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks for the note of support – I know it’s long game but Techstars’ motto is “Do More Faster” and I’d like that to be true on our diversity efforts just as much as with our startups!

  • anne weiler

    Have you considered whether the accelerator model is less appealing to diverse groups? I have no data. Just wondering.

  • http://About.me/danielmumby Daniel Mumby

    Brad, we’ve spent the last 4 years thinking about these challenges Downunder, & iterating a series of offerings that address these challenges. Keen to chat when you come back, though as you mentioned 2 weeks ago when you were here, you aren’t sure when that would be. Skype?
    Daniel

  • http://olark.com/ Laure

    Some great suggestions here. Curious if you also track age as a factor in diversity? My suspicion is that women often feel more need to get experience and expertise before founding a company, and on the other hand a lot of startup resources are focused on young people. The senior ranks of many tech companies probably are an untapped source of great leadership and ideas that don’t make it into “startup culture.”

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks Laure – we don’t explicitly track age data, and often have to fight the perception that we’re focused on recent college grads. Most of the founders in our program are actually experienced founders or business leaders, not kids right out of school. I think we need to work harder to communicate that not just to women, but to applicants from all communities – more to do on that front!

  • Steven Gonzalez

    Hi Chris, first, thanks to you and all of Techstars for being committed to expanding opportunities for women and underrepresented minority entrepreneurs. I do not have a good understanding of the Seattle culture, but I am a 39 yr old Hispanic male (Feels weird saying that) living in the Boulder, CO area so I can just give you my thoughts. Having read a little of the “Startup Life” by Brad Feld, I quickly learned that I cannot live this life. My upbringing, and this is just me, is that family is very important, and I need to work and provide for my family. Sure I can work a job and be in a startup at night, but I need to be a part of my family. Being with my family is very important to me. I think this may be just one hurdle that you may need to resolve if you want to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities. I’d love to help you, so if would like to talk more, just let me know.

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Hi Steven – thanks for the note and I completely understand your perspective; the truth is that entrepreneurship isn’t the right choice for most people, no matter their gender, ethnicity or cultural background. Our goal isn’t to turn people into founders who don’t want to be, but to be sure our doors and hearts are open to founders from any background to pursue their dreams as part of our network. Where we’re failing right now is in reaching founders from under-represented communities and making them feel welcomed in our community. My only request of you is to share that intent with anyone you know who might want that life for themselves – Latino or otherwise – so they understand how serious we are about building an open and inclusive community of founders from all backgrounds.

      • Steven Gonzalez

        Will do!

  • RF

    I am an hispanic male who founded a startup along with 2 female co-founders. Our company attended a fairly prestigious accelerator several years ago. Based upon my experience, I would neither form nor recommend that any minorties who have not attended prestigious colleges attempt to start a company that requires outside investment. Fixing a prestigious accelerator is a laudible goal but the biases in the VC ecosystem will still present seemingly insurmountable hurdles to overcome.

  • Kathleen Urbanic

    I enjoyed reading your analysis. I have worked for an early-stage startup in an incubator, but the most entrepreneurial people I know are experienced software/tech professionals (of all different backgrounds, orientations, gender..) who consult. It isn’t that they are not capable of pitching an idea or developing a business plan as a startup founder. They find self-sufficiency more enticing. For women, it allows them to return after a break in employment yet still bill at a a decent rate. I don’t have data, but I’m wondering if the diverse group of entrepreneurs are hard at work consulting..

  • lisa chick

    Love that you’re leading on this, Chris! And that you’re admitting failure, but not defeat. Just read this interview with the awesome Jane Park and thought it had some relevant points. http://www.elle.com/beauty/makeup-skin-care/news/a43152/jane-park-julep-interview/# We thought a lot about inclusivity and diversity at City Year, and it’s one of the most diverse workplaces in the country – there may or may not be transferable lessons for your work, but happy to chat if that’s of interest. Thanks for fighting the good fight!

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks for the note + encouragement, Lisa – will read + circle back