Knee On The Neck: What Investors Can Learn From ‘Black Lives Matter’
Is it controversial that I’m tired of Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd? That’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to say that I’m just tired, full stop. It’s hard to watch the videos. I know how they’ll end before I press play. Being a minority is not easy for anyone, but being black has always meant cleaning up behind those at the back of the queue. Growing up, I knew many people saw me as inferior and even sub-human. My Auntie Joy would counter this daily barrage of negativity by brainwashing me: “Gary, you are as good as any, better than many, and inferior to none.” It worked. As a freshman at Yale College, I didn’t yet know what an “entrepreneur” was, but I knew that I did not like being told I was inferior.
In 1994, I co-founded The Yale Black Political Forum with Danielle Holley, now Dean of Howard Law School, after one such insult. I was appalled when an academic department invited Charles Murray to speak at Yale. A British journalist summarises Murray’s argument as follows: “Black people are more stupid than white people: always have been, always will be. This is why they have less economic and social success. Since the fault lies in their genes, they are doomed to be at the bottom of the heap now and forever.” I didn’t bust my butt getting into Yale to hear that garbage, so I decided to fight fire with fire: If freedom of speech was so inviolable, controversial black speakers like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Anita Hill and Sista Souljah should have an equal right to speak at Yale. To its credit, Yale turned into my first “investor,” offering to subsidise the organisation if we prioritised security. When I moved from Yale College to Yale Law School, my fascination with my own supposed repugnance continued. I published an article in The Yale Law Journal arguing against giving police broad discretionary powers when policing minority communities. Ever since the days of slavery, discretion often resulted in white people killing black people.
Maybe that explains why I’m tired.
With age, I’ve realised that as wicked as it is, the physical act of lynching might not be the worst part. Perhaps a lifetime of injustices is almost as bad. In a statement after the George Floyd video surfaced, President Obama recounted a conversation with a black businessman, who said: "Dude I gotta tell you the George Floyd incident in Minnesota hurt. I cried when I saw that video. It broke me down. The 'knee on the neck' is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help. People don't care. Truly tragic."
Even COVID-19 preys upon the vulnerability of minority populations, putting a metaphorical knee on the necks of black and brown people. Medical experts explain that one cause of its disparate impact on minority populations is “allostatic load” or “weathering”, which means “the accumulated physiological burden from the stresses caused by racism and race-related disadvantage, such as the frequent secretion of stress hormones.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that minorities are literally sick and tired of racism.
Some people can’t understand it, as they see modern acts of racism as vestiges of an unjust but distant past. Particularly in the European tech community that I’ve called home for the last 15 years, racism seems to be relegated to “crazy Americans,” Grenfell and Windrush notwithstanding. And while I don’t feel the need to run from European law enforcement, I am still weathered. It is not only racist cops in the U.S. that dig their knees into the necks of minority groups.
I feel the knee every time I hear the “woe is me” acquiescence of the persistent fact that black founders only get 0.5% of VC funding in the U.K. and 1% in the U.S. The presumption of racial inferiority is palpable.
I feel the knee whenever I am invited to speak at a conference about “diversity” knowing we’re all there to support targets for white women in tech, while conversations about other forms of discrimination (including for women of colour) are, at best, parenthetical. People don’t even try to hide it. A headhunter once told me that I’d be perfect for a role, but the Board really wanted to hire a diverse (i.e., white female) candidate. I also remember when someone at a diversity in tech conference innocently shared her “trickle-down” theory of diversity: People of colour should help upper-class white women to advance, because it’s an easier sell to white men in power. Just look at Ivanka Trump! And no worries: White women would have our backs once their seats at the table were guaranteed. Apparently, Amy Cooper didn’t get that memo.
As an entrepreneur, I believe religiously that change is inevitable, but it will probably require more than a few marches with people of all colours holding hands and shouting “black lives matter.” Celebrating this historic, symbolic moment doesn’t absolve us from asking the hard questions:
· Will mostly white investors finally start to fund black and brown entrepreneurs, without reverting to the very same unconscious biases that caused the tragedies they are now bemoaning?
· Will mostly white foundations that aim to change the world begin to look outside of their segregated circles and fund black and brown social entrepreneurs to solve problems in their communities?
· Will the mostly white CEOs of tech companies who are now railing against racism remember to look at whether their own HR track records reflect certain assumptions about who is worthy and who is not?
McKinsey, Morgan Stanley and the Kapor Center have all made clear, data-driven business cases for diversity, but most folks in the startup community seem fatigued before they’ve made any meaningful exertion. They are willing to suspend disbelief to chase unicorns, but they can’t quite figure out how to add black and brown people to their portfolios, their companies and their networks. As Megan Rose Dickey put it in TechCrunch: “Despite all sincere efforts to fix these D&I issues, it will never ultimately be fixed because the tech industry is a reflection of our society and all of its issues pertaining to race, gender, class, ability, age and sexual orientation.” As a black, gay guy who grew up in the Bronx after immigrating from Jamaica, I resist the urge to be that pessimistic. Life has been relatively good to me. Like my forebears, I know that change is often an unfaithful companion. Like most minority kids, I grew up hearing that I would always need to work twice as hard to get half as much. That’s the price of coloured skin for the indefinite future, but we can change that if we really want to use George Floyd’s death as a moment of inflection.
We need to focus on four things:
· Reuniting a House Divided: In an interview for my new startup, The Nest, U.S. vice-presidential hopeful and general superstar Stacey Abrams highlighted that, whether it’s fair or not, people of colour often need to be entrepreneurial and solve our own problems. No one is coming to save us. The best we can usually hope for is that maybe one of us will get a seat at the table and use that voice to put forward a couple of actionable steps that will benefit the rest of us. There are many wonderful entrepreneurs toiling, often without material funding, to level the playing field in their communities. But to dismantle the system that perpetuates our disparate treatment, we need both critical mass and a scalable platform that will amplify our voices. I propose creating an online directory of all relevant groups (including allies) and then hosting a global summit (shout out to Hussein Kanji for the suggestion) to share best practices and identify the 2-3 best, most actionable steps that will improve the abysmal rates of funding and employment for minority entrepreneurs. We should then use our collective lobbying power to get powerful champions who will amplify our message via online platforms and present them to key decision makers and political leaders in targeted markets.
· A Rosa Parks Moment: Our white allies need to stop asking us to be comfortable sitting at the back of the bus. It’s clear from the statistics that women are also subjugated in the startup ecosystem; 92% of VC-backed teams are all-male, and female-led startups receive only 2% of all VC funding. That does not justify, however, redefining diversity to promote upper-class white women at everyone else’s expense. The same system of targets and public shaming that has led to some progress in the fight for gender equality should be applied with equal vigour to everyone else denied equal opportunity. We all want access to good jobs. We should all be able to aspire to becoming CEOs and board members. We all want data-driven encouragement that meaningful steps are being taken to level the playing field. We all want our stories to be told and our dreams to be realised.
· Access to Data: Funders demand data and metrics to measure traction. Founders must identify KPIs and milestones, use digital tools to chart progress, and report transparently and consistently to stakeholders. You can’t get funding if you are not willing to engage in this process, yet many funders somehow forget how metrics work when it comes to diversity and inclusion beyond gender. I propose that all funders who are now publicly saying that black lives matters should make a similar commitment to holding themselves and their peers accountable by being more transparent about where they are in terms of the diversity of their teams and portfolios, benchmarking themselves against their peers, explaining their strategy, adopting KPIs and milestones, and then sharing their progress in an open and transparent way. Likewise, the LPs that fund the funds–particularly those that use taxpayer money—should hold their fund managers accountable and explicitly include racial diversity within their ESG criteria.
· Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are: It almost made me want to cry of joy to see funds like Softbank committing to create a $100 million fund that will “only invest in companies led by founders and entrepreneurs of color.” Almost as exciting as the ca
sh is the acknowledgement by Softbank’s COO, Marcelo Claure, that “[f]ounders and entrepreneurs of colour have so much potential, but they face unfair barriers that white founders don’t face.” Similarly, a16z announced “The Talent x Opportunity Fund (TxO)” for underserved communities with this acknowledgement: “Unlike these highly visible incidents, the powder keg has been built on deeds done in the dark, without cellphones to show the world what’s always been going on. If your skin is dark, you’re born a suspect. If you do not have the education, the mobility, the network, the social proof, the mentors, the business knowledge, then the Venture Capital world cannot see you. It’s hard enough as it is for people who DO have all these things to get funded, so how are those who have the talent—but not the network and the know-how—going to be seen?”
I might be tired, but I still have a lot of work to do. We all have a lot of work to do.
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