Techstars Seattle Diversity Update: New Data, New Approaches

Earlier this year, I posted about my failure to attract founders from underrepresented groups to Techstars Seattle and asked for help from the community. I received an incredible response, both in the public comments on that post and – even more powerfully – in private outreach from leaders in a wide range of underrepresented communities.Thank you to everyone who reached out with their ideas, experience, networks, and knowledge — we’ve learned a ton, and have already made changes in the way we approach our recruiting and engagement processes as a result.

One of the many introductions we received was to Christy Johnson of Artemis Connection, Christy has a passion for using facts to develop more effective organizations, and volunteered to help us better understand the root causes of our underperformance through research. With her help we surveyed the founders of over 100 companies that had made it into our final selection process, but had either not been selected or had chosen not to participate in the program. The survey was in the field last month and generated 48 responses, 60% from men and 40% from women founders (unfortunately, we didn’t have a statistically significant number of responses from different ethnic backgrounds, so gender is the only lens we can report out on).

Here are a few results that jumped out at us from the survey results:

There were significant differences in how men and women responded to our decision not to select them for the program. Two thirds of men who were declined for one program were willing to reapply for another. It was the reverse for women where only one-third were likely to reapply. We will continue to decline the vast majority of applicants to our program, but clearly our communication about the reasons for a non-select decision, and support and encouragement for resubmission to future programs for those interested are areas we can improve.

Combining this with the results of another study showing women are less likely to apply for a job if they’ve been rejected from a similar job in the past compels us to work harder to prevent these founders from, as Raina Brands and Isabel Fernadez-Mateo put it, “leaning out”. We will adjust our non-select messaging and feedback process for founders who are not accepted into the program with the primary objective being encouraging and equipping rejected applicants to reapply for a future cohort.

Consistently we hear women say it is hard to build a company when young children are at home, and we’ve made changes to our program in recent years to make it more supportive of founders with young families. In our survey, we were surprised to find that more male applicants than women have children at home, with 31% of the men who responded having children under the age of four. We would like to attract more women founders, including those with young families, and will continue to offer support, resources and knowledge sharing for parents of both genders in our organization.

From these conversations and research, we have identified a few concrete steps we’ll be taking to improve the way we do things to make our accelerator more inclusive. Our primary focuses will be on recruiting, leading by example, and promoting diversity and inclusion within every company we back.

Our current recruiting process involves a wide range of in-person and digital learning events, evaluation of written applications, online interviews and, for finalists, in-person interviews in our office here in Seattle. We aim to be a catalyst for change with the goal of encouraging more people of underrepresented groups to apply. We will be transparent with our evaluation process, implement blind screening, and partner with groups in the community, such as Seattle Female Founders Alliance, to provide applicant readiness training and support for accelerator programs.

We want to increase the number of diverse teams coming into program, but it is also our obligation to ensure that all teams that complete our program go on to be leaders in diversity and inclusion. We will embed this into our program training and encourage founders to build a diverse team from the beginning. First Round Capital reported in 2015 that teams in their portfolio with a least one female co-founder were on average 63% more valuable than those with all-male founding teams, yet both men and women we surveyed believe men are more likely to succeed. Our aim will be to prove this perception wrong and raise the bar for diversity and inclusion in the tech industry.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we are committed to putting one foot in front of the other to learn from our own mistakes and break down barriers to entrepreneurial success for women and other underrepresented founders. Thanks again to all who have helped us to date, and know that our work has only just begun.