Fast Company put out a fantastic package of stories covering the role of race in Silicon Valley. The centerpiece is a deservedly glowing profile of Tristan Walker, but my favorite was an interview with a group of African American startup folks titled “An Honest Discussion of Race in Silicon Valley.”
One thing that I failed to appreciate before, and that this story made clear, is the interaction of risk and race:
In many African-American households—since we don’t descend
from centuries of wealth in this country—parents want their kids to be a
lawyer or a doctor, or go to Wall Street to make a lot of money so they
can come back and take care of the family. Is the African-American
community too cautious for tech and its “fail fast” mantra?
Erwin: Black folks like me have to take care of
family members at home, so jumping into a startup is very risky when you
can make it either on Wall Street or do something more stable in
finance. If my company fails, the people who are counting on me also
T. Gauda: You have to have a very high risk
tolerance, and we are traditionally risk averse. As it is, just being
who we are is extremely risky.
The two key points are that a) simply being African American increases the level of risk in your life. Logically, the principle of risk compensation would call for African Americans to take on less personal risk. Layer in the socioeconomic effects of historical discrimination, and the magnitude of the effect would grow further. B) Coming from a less-advantaged background, a potential African American entrepreneur might feel compelled to “play it safe,” so that he or she would be in a better position to help the rest of the community. The cost of failure is far higher for such an entrepreneur than for a wealthy Caucasian male.
Given these headwinds, it is all the more important that we encourage the minority entrepreneurs who take on these increased risks.
Another key passage tackles the issue of networks:
“I hear about bootstrapped rounds and angel rounds and friends-and-family
rounds, and I just think to myself, Man! There are people who just know
and are related to folks who can write $50,000 checks all around them!
It’s in their ecosystem.”
As an investor, I take the stance that an entrepreneur ought to be able to be able to bring a product to market before raising money from professional investors, either by bootstrapping, or by raising a friends and family round.
But I’m guilty of unconscious bias in that filter–how can an entrepreneur bootstrap a company or raise money from friends and family if she comes from poverty and doesn’t have any friends and family who can write a $50,000 check?
That being said, investing in pre-product startups tends to be a bad bet; I’d be hard-pressed to make money with that investment strategy.
Encouraging Investing In Minority Entrepreneurs: “Greed Is Good.”
I believe the answer is to set up some kind of matching fund to encourage investing in underserved minority entrepreneurs; if my check were doubled or tripled by a foundation (and I got the equivalent equity to compensate for the increased risk), the financial incentives would encourage, rather than discourage investing in those entrepreneurs. Investors would see investing in minority entrepreneurs as *less* risky, and minority entrepreneurs would see starting companies as *less* risky.
When it comes to getting people to change, I always bet on appealing to their sense of self-interest, not their sense of responsibility. And the idea of using risk manipulation to solve a problem that’s created by risk has a certain ironic appeal!
Now we just need someone to reach out to the appropriate funders to create this program….