YC founding partner (and Women 2.0 conference speaker) shares her thoughts on how the changing tech industry is diversifying the accelerator’s applicant pool.
By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)
Since it got started in 2005, Y Combinator has now funded 644 startups, and even more recently has announced its own conference for female founders. The businesses out of YC have gone on to innovate an impressive array of industries. But when it comes to the diversity of the founders leading those startups, not everyone is impressed.
But while critics had some harsh words recently for the king of the accelerators, founding partner and Women 2.0 conference speaker Jessica Livingston remains optimistic with the diversity of founders applying to YC.
Why? As she explained to Women 2.0 in an interview ahead of her keynote, the winter ’14 class is the most diverse ever, and she believes larger tech industry trends are pulling a broader array of both technical and non-technical talent to startups. Read on to learn why she’s feeling so positive.
I understand your latest Y Combinator class is the most diverse ever. Can you give us any details?
Just last week we just kicked off the YC winter ‘14 funding cycle. It is the most diverse in lots of ways actually. I don’t want people to think I’m saying, ‘look at us, we’re so great! We’ve made an effort to be more diverse!’ It’s not that at all. This batch happens to be the most diverse. There are 22 different countries represented, and countries we’ve never funded people from, like Romania, Bulgaria, Sudan, Egypt. 22% of the startups in this batch have a female founder. Again, it’s not 50-50; it’s not perfect, but it’s the most we’ve ever had. There’s also the oldest founder as well as the youngest founder we’ve ever funded in this particular batch.
Given that you didn’t do anything dramatically different recruiting this class, does the greater diversity just reflect the changing applicant pool?
All I think that this suggests is that startups are becoming a more mainstream thing to do. It’s not just for computer science majors. It’s becoming an option for lots of people.
We honestly saw an increase in applications after the movie The Social Network came out. It sounds so silly, but just having parents see doing a startup as an option for their kid makes it more normal. When we first got started we had parents who were like, 'Wait, you got into Stanford grad school. You’re not doing this thing called Y Combinator!’ But now starting a startup is becoming more mainstream, so we’re seeing different types of people doing it.
So more of your applicants are coming to you without a hardcore tech background – how many more folks are you seeing make their way into the tech industry without a traditional tech background?
We’re seeing a lot more of that, and, by the way, Y Combinator is funding a lot more of that. I’ll give you an example. You have these people who are domain experts in their area wanting to solve problems that they themselves have encountered, and they’re not programmers. Maybe they partner up with a programmer, but they are the visionary.
An example is a company we funded called MediSas. Gautam Sivakumar was a doctor. He stopped being an MD because he wanted to create software to help with the hand-off process – that’s when one doctor is on a shift and they want to transfer their notes to the next doctor on call. You and I might think, like, so what? Apparently, this hand-off process was so sloppy it caused like 60,000 deaths a year. It was so inefficient. So he created software to streamline it. He didn’t know how to code, but he was a complete domain expert and understood the intricacies of, "what do we need to have for this to work?"
That reminds me of Andreessen’s “software is eating the world,” saying everything is becoming tech. What effect is that having on the talent pool coming into YC?
We’re funding so many startups of people who are not technical, like The Muse. They weren’t programmers. They were experts in career advice and they were able to build a company based on that domain expertise. It’s happening all over, and we’re funding a lot of startups doing that kind of thing.
If you care about diversity in tech this all sounds positive. Are you optimistic that diversity is going to continue increasing?
I’m thrilled. Starting a startup just seems more open to everyone. You don’t have to be a programmer. You need a programmer on your team, but you don’t have to know how to program. Obviously, you’re not going to start a deeply technical idea like a distributed database company, but there are so many startups happening now that aren’t super technical.
Are you at all worried that the interest in tech is too intense, that it’s a little frothy?
That’s not something we worry about. What does it really mean? It means that yeah, there are going to be some players in the area that aren’t maybe as good as others. There are going to be a lot more people starting startups so there will be more failures, but you know failing as an early-stage startup isn’t the end of the world. Everyone should try it because you just don’t know which one is going to work, which idea is going to be big. So it’s not something that keeps us up at night.
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Photo by Nandor Fejer via Flickr. Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.