By Christina A. Brodbeck (Co-Founder & CEO, theicebreak) Silicon Valley and the tech community is built on hope. It’s built on beliefs, expectations, and a desire for things to happen. As an entrepreneur, you passionately believe in your idea. As an investor, you believe in a particular founder or team. As a community, we want to believe that anyone and everyone has an equal chance of success.
Hope is what keeps us going; it acts as a bridge to seeing a desire become reality, and it acts as an initial catalyst. There’s been a lot of talk recently about making Silicon Valley a true meritocracy, and I am so excited to see these discussions happening because it means we as a community have hope. It’s exciting to me because first comes hope, then comes action, and then comes change. And, I feel like we are just now on the cusp of action...
I’ve been fortunate enough to sit on both sides of the table, both as an angel investor and as an entrepreneur. My day job is being the founder of theicebreak for couples, a startup that helps keep the spark alive in your relationship). This dual role has taught me much about hope and also about the realities of the ecosystem.
As an entrepreneur, I wear the hat of an optimist first in the face of doubt. As an investor, I wear the hat of cynic first in the face of doubt... until convinced otherwise.
When I first started investing, I came from the entrepreneurial side of things (I was a very early employee at YouTube), and I naively believed that everything was equal. I didn’t know anything about angel investing, didn’t know any other angel investors, and I just took the plunge with my first investment — a trial by fire of sorts. I absolutely love angel investing and love helping entrepreneurs, but to be honest in some ways seeing the investment community first hand has been disillusioning.
I quickly learned that biased pattern matching exists. I learned that in large part it is only a meritocracy for those who already have success behind them. I learned about the concept of social proof. In reality, social proof is just another form of pattern matching; it’s matching other investors and their past successes or failures to a potential future investment. Despite these disheartening realities, I have been encouraged recently by a couple of incredibly positive happenings that I believe are making waves (no matter how small) towards moving our community from just hope into action.
These encouraging changes are:
- Beginning to recognize a problem in pattern matching. We can’t make a change without first recognizing that we have a problem. I love that people are starting to talk about this topic honestly, and that there are actually conversations happening about the existence of biased gender, race, and age pattern matching. It’s even more wonderful that people in positions of power are admitting that it exists. The CNN special “Black in America” about Silicon Valley and poignant blogs like that from entrepreneur and angel investor Chris Yeh are beginning to shine a much needed light on the issue.
- Closing the loop from creating founders to funding founders from underrepresented groups. We can educate and help create all of the founders we want, but without being able to actually get them funded, we’re going nowhere. There has been a lot of work done in the last few years to support founders from traditionally underrepresented groups, but there have been few places for them to go to get funding and few education programs for creating investors out of people from minority groups.In the past month, I took part in two completely separate events that made me hopeful that we are now beginning to take action to close this gap. On the creating founders side, I was a judge for Women 2.0 PITCH Conference & Competition and was completely blown away by the room of 1,000+ enthusiastic women all either already doing their own startup, working for a startup, or interested in joining one. These are 1000+ women who one day, or even right now, might need funding.
On the investor side, I was asked to be a speaker at the Pipeline Fellowship Conference, the culminating event for a program that educates women philanthropists to become angel investors. What’s fascinating about the Pipeline Fellowship is that it’s not just talk but action - at the end of the program, each new angel investor commits to investing in a woman-led venture.
How do we continue this momentum and move from action into change?
There is no silver bullet, but I want to challenge the investment community (including myself) to do the following:
- When making an investment decision, remind yourself that biased pattern matching does exist. Ask yourself if you are pattern matching in this specific case based on gender, age, or race. It’s natural to look for similarities for potential success, but you can do this based off of things like “ambition” that aren’t based on race, gender, or age dependent patterns.
- Actively bring up conversations with other investors and entrepreneurs about this topic. We need to keep the conversation going. Don’t worry about being “that person” that people think always brings up the same thing over and over again. Some topics are too important not to talk about.
- Learn to trust your own decision making more. Input from peers can be very beneficial, no doubt, but it’s hard to know what you really think and feel if you find you are following more than leading. The more you talk to other people about an investment decision, the more noise you put between yourself and your own gut reaction. You don’t really know what makes someone else invest in a company (you can hear what they say and tell you, but you’re not in their head and thoughts completely), so you don’t know if they have some pattern matching bias. So maybe you make a deal that no one else would consider doing next time, and maybe it’s in someone who would have been ruled out by unconscious or conscious biased pattern matching...but at least you took one small step towards enacting change. Who knows, maybe that minority led company will be huge... and then you’ve helped create a new type of positive signal for the community.
- Expand your search beyond just the warm introduction. Don’t just look to the same people or familiar groups of people to fill future firm roles or receive investment. Go beyond just warm introductions, and actually look for a more diverse group of people to connect with.
- Actively reach out. If you’re any way in a position of power, do some research (scour the web, go beyond your connections and circles of degrees on LinkedIn) and reach out to someone that you normally wouldn’t ever meet but who sparks your attention. Actively invest in them as a person. Investment doesn’t have to be monetary at first - it can start with just a connection or even mentorship.
We have a long way to go, but I have hope...
This was originally posted at the Huffington Post.
Photo credit: Buttim on Flickr. About the guest blogger: Christina A. Brodbeck is the Co-Founder and CEO of theicebreak, a service that helps keep the spark alive in your relationship. Prior to TheIceBreak, Christina was on the founding team of YouTube, the company’s first UI Designer, and the Mobile Design Lead. She is also an active angel investor. Follow her on Twitter at @jellyfishbloom.