As protests continue across the U.S. and beyond, there has been chatter this week in Silicon Valley and the venture industry more broadly about race and which venture firms have done a better job of diversifying their ranks and founder bets. There have been mea culpas, promises by firms to hold themselves more accountable, vows to “listen and learn.” SoftBank and Andreessen Horowitz have even announced new funds to invest in startups led by founders of color.
It’s heartening to see, but these efforts will only go so far in leveling the playing field for people who’ve largely been left out of the trillions of dollars of economic value produced by the global startup ecosystem. Let’s face it, the vast majority of VCs, like other business leaders, tend to forget about diversity when they aren’t being questioned about it.
In fairness, inertia is powerful. It’s also the case that venture teams are more fragile than they might appear to outsiders, so changing their composition isn’t an overnight exercise. Still, the bigger obstacle is really perception: Investors won’t say it publicly, but many don’t buy the argument that diversity generates returns. They need proof.
One surefire way to get it? Legislation.
Consider that already, most VCs today sign away their rights to invest in firearms or alcohol or tobacco when managing capital on behalf of the pension funds, universities and hospital systems that fund them. What if they also had to agree to invest a certain percentage of that capital to founding teams with members from underrepresented groups? We aren’t talking about targets anymore, but actual mandates. Put another way, rather than wait for venture firms to organically develop into less homogeneous organizations — or to invest in fewer founders who share their gender and race and educational background — alter their limited partner agreements.
It may sound extreme, but study after study has shown that diversity pays dividends. Need one from an Ivy League economist to be persuaded? Try Paul Gompers of Harvard Business School, who has examined the decisions of thousands of venture capitalists and tens of thousands of investments in recent years and found that “diversity significantly improves financial performance on measures such as profitable investments at the individual portfolio-company level and overall fund returns,” as reported by HBR.
A separate Harvard-led study involving a broader basket of asset classes — hedge funds, mutual funds and private equity funds among them — found that, in most asset classes, women and people of color in the finance industry performed at levels equal to their non-diverse counterparts.
Critics might note here that the world of academia is one thing while the business world is another. It’s the very reason we propose legislation that, for starters, would force state pension funds to incorporate diversity-related caveats into their dealings with asset managers, including VCs.
As for the private universities like Stanford and Princeton and Yale that also help fund the venture industry — and which say they are committed to diversity yet refuse to share the demographic data that would prove it — they receive billions of dollars in federal funding each year (and as nonprofit institutions, they don’t pay taxes on investment gains their endowments might make).
In short, if there is a will, there are legal levers that could be applied here, too.
We aren’t talking about funding exclusively or even predominately emerging managers. We’re aware that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for example, recently ratcheted back its emerging manager program owing to slipping returns. Think instead of a hybrid approach that sees both new and existing managers required to diversify their teams and their portfolio companies in order to win over future commitments.
It’s seemingly the direction the U.S. needs to move in if it’s ever going to truly eradicate inequality and the conscious or unconscious bias that plagues many money managers. If the approach is codified into law, there might finally be enough data to establish with certainty that investing in more diverse teams pays, especially when investors are forced to make them work.
Some limited partners may lose access to certain venture managers, it’s true. But it wouldn’t be a good look for those managers. On the contrary, you can imagine how such moves would benefit both the institutions that implement them, and every asset manager they fund.
Talking and tweeting and carving out pools of dedicated capital is certainly better than nothing. But black Americans, women and other underrepresented groups have waited long enough for the powers that be to figure out solutions. It’s time to consider fundamental change within the power structures at the root of the startup world — the money behind the venture firms. It’s time to turn theory into practice.