The One Thing VCs Could Do Immediately to Increase Returns


Ignoring inclusion is something VCs do at not only their own peril but also at ours, argues a former CEO and Stanford lecturer.

By Nilofer Merchant (CEO, Rubicon)

If the person who can cure diabetes came to you for money, if you were a VC you’d likely turn that person away. And, an inventor who could reduce global dependency on oil by designing better batteries? That VC might not even take the meeting. By venture capitalists’ individual actions, they are limiting growth and innovation. By their collective choices, they are risking our very lives.

Now that might sound a little extreme. But bear with me.

Ted Schlein, general partner at Kleiner Perkins, was recently invited to discuss race and investment in technology. The conversation took place at an inaugural conference called Platform, created by Hank Williams after a provocative series that Soledad O’Brien did on CNN on black entrepreneurship. At Platform, luminaries like Quincy Jones and Governor Deval Patrick, as well as entrepreneurs like urban revitalizer Majora Carter, and Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi came together to discuss what specific changes could be made to have all aboard the innovation economy.

And so all ears were tuned in when well-known VC Ted Schlein of Kleiner Perkins started talking… but Ted denied there was a problem. Despite the story the numbers tell — women receive less than three percent of all venture capital funding, and blacks even less than that — Ted said that the venture capital community was “color-blind” and “operates fully on a meritocracy.” This continued argument disregards the astounding facts that essentially 100 percent of funded founders are white or Asian, and 89 percent of founding teams are all-male.

Since then, we’ve had the case of Paul Graham, who recently got into a brouhaha because he claimed a correlation “between founders having very strong foreign accents and their companies doing badly.” He continued to dig into his argument, believing people were simply misunderstanding him, but he doesn’t acknowledge the facts: immigrants with accents do found successful startups, but often without VC support. Kauffman Foundation research shows that more than half of Silicon Valley start-ups are founded by foreign-born entrepreneurs. Imagine if those with accents could get your support — what tougher problems could they solve?

And who can forget that only two years ago, Vinod Khosla said that only the young can innovate. “People under 35 are the people who make change happen,” said Khosla, who explained his belief that old entrepreneurs can’t innovate because they keep “falling back on old habits,” because “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

So, basically, if you followed this limited logic… you’d hear that if you’re a woman, black, foreign, or old, you need not apply; you will not be seen. No matter how good your idea could be. No matter how many lives it could save, or new solutions you create, or how much revenue it could generate.

Listening to Ted Schlein, Paul Graham, Vinod Khosla, and countless other conversations among VCs reminds me of playing peek-a-boo with a baby. Amazed that the person is there, even though they can’t be seen, this mystery creates joy. In the vast majority of VCs case, they believe that the person isn’t there, because they can’t see them. And there’s no joy in that.

Venture capitalists are often “pattern matching”, thus actively looking for someone who looks like the successful founders of Google, FaceBook, Amazon, or Apple. In other words, you are actively looking for people who look like Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Steve Jobs — white men. Forget differentiation. Forget newness. VCs primarily invest in sameness.

By not seeing (and funding) new-ness you are actually blind, not color-blind.

Now what each of you says when this topic of “blindness” comes up is this: “I am not a racist / sexist / whatever it is you are accusing me of.” And, let me assure you that you’re (likely) not. What you probably are is biased, which is to say your lens is altered by cultural norms and so see what you expect to see. If you’ve largely been surrounded by, say, women who don’t work outside the home, your lens when it comes to women may be warped. But, as I’ve already written in a prior HBR post, bias is fixable — though it takes work.

Others of you say that it’s okay to pass up any particular group since you’re not interested in what you believe is a limited category. The most common one I hear is “I’m not interested in investing in fashion which is why it’s fine with me that I don’t see a lot of women’s pitches.” What doesn’t seem to occur to you is that women are also interested in bio-tech (like Nina Tandon), policy (like Marci Harris), and electronics (like Ayah Bdeir). Even the consumer goods industry is affected. Kara Goldin of Hint is taking on goliaths in the consumer beverages space by redefining what “is” and “is not” water. Each is an innovator, and many more like them exist. If you want to create higher returns, see these “new” types of innovators and watch them deliver home runs. But, first, you have to first actively filter them in, not out.

Finally, I hear you say is that this is about market capitalism and the only measure of success is whether you have made money. You, of all people, know that if you only focus on the profits of your existing enterprise, even though the rules of the game are changing, you leave yourself open to disruption. You now face the innovator’s dilemma — and if you fail to adopt new approaches, you will eventually fall behind, fail, and die. You know this, but mostly you dismiss the opportunity to reinvent.

But my bigger concern is that you will take us collectively down with you. You have — by far — the most access to funds to invest in new ideas. You are the structural gateway of innovation.

You recognize capitalism as an economic system, while dismissing these issues of inclusion as “social”. But I would argue that, in practice, your collective acts in venture capital are fundamentally a new type of structural power, the effect of which is economic in nature. When your collective actions limit human capital, when they deny opportunity based on race, gender and age, then that must be viewed and evaluated as an economic system. Today, practically speaking, it is not the laws that are structurally limiting our economy; rather, it’s money — specifically the flow of money to new ideas.

Ignoring inclusion is something you do at your own peril — and at ours. For we are all at risk when your system excludes. We — society, that is — need you to reinvent how you do what you do.

Now I’m not an innocent. While I’d like to believe in a just world where all creative and hardworking people will be seen, I know better. I know enough of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s work to know that the world has pervasive power differentials and that groups in power, like yourselves, will often respond to outside pressure by digging in your heels because you’d rather feel good about yourselves than risk change.

But what I also know is that it takes some relatively small set of influencers (data says only 10-20% are needed) with an unshakable belief to convince the rest to adopt the same belief. And, of course, some of you are already there, trying to get the rest to join you. Challenging the venture community may seem like an attack, but actually this is a call from the future. Step into the leadership we so need from you.

This post was originally published on HBR Blog Network.

Where would you like to see VCs invest more in?

niloferAbout the guest blogger: Nilofer Merchant is a corporate director at a NASDAQ-traded firm and a lecturer at Stanford, and formerly the founder and CEO of Rubicon. Among other Fortune 500 firms, she’s worked at Apple and Autodesk. She’s the author of The New How and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. Follow her on Twitter @nilofer.