Month: June 2020
I started with the Wikipedia page for Wallace Thurman.
Langston Hughes described Thurman as “…a strangely brilliant black boy, who had read everything and whose critical mind could find something wrong with everything he read.” Thurman’s dark skin color attracted comment, including negative reactions from both black and white Americans. He used such colorism in his writings, attacking the black community’s preference for its lighter-skinned members
I didn’t know the phrase colorism nor had I ever thought about bias around it. Over the weekend, Lucy Sanders pointed me at an NCWIT article on Colorism Bias in the Tech Industry. I then went down a rabbit hole on colorism, which caused me to realize how oblivious and ignorant I was to this type of discrimination.
Emma Lou Morgan, the protagonist of The Blacker The Berry, geographically follows Thurman’s life, from Boise, the USC, to Harlem. The book is beautifully written and deeply engrossing as Emma’s story unfolds. Some of it is a coming of age story, but also a continual struggle, from a Black woman’s perspective, on dealing with discrimination from all sides, since she is darkly colored and subject to endless colorism.
The book was written in 1929. It was Thurman’s first novel. Per Wikipedia:
The novel is now recognized as a groundbreaking work of fiction because of its focus on intra-racial prejudice and colorism within the black community, where lighter skin has historically been favored.
Thurman died in 1934 at age 32 of tuberculosis. He only wrote two other books: Infants of the Spring and The Interne. I just purchased Infants of the Spring but couldn’t find The Interne.
My digital sabbaths are often running, reading, and napping days. That’s tomorrow for me as I’m feeling fried from another week. I’ve ordered (and received) most of the books from the NY Times Antiracist reading list along with a number of other recommendations. Most are physical books and will be my digital sabbath reading this summer.
A month ago, I read Arlan Hamilton’s book It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage. It’s been on my to blog list since, which is kind of lame on my part since I usually write about books right after I read them, so I’m just going to own that I missed here.
Arlan’s book is outstanding and everyone should read it, especially if you are in tech as an entrepreneur, investor, or aspiring entrepreneur.
Arlan is also outstanding. She first emailed me in January 2013, I was an early investor in her first fund, and have tried to be available anytime she’s reached out. I’ve been an avid listener to her, especially when she’s called me out on something I missed, was stupid or ignorant about, or just needed to change my perspective on something around gender, race, or sexual orientation.
That said, I haven’t invested in any of the Backstage Capital companies. I’ll own that. I’ve committed to Arlan to get to know her portfolio better and try to be helpful with some of them. I understand that ultimately investing in them is the key goal, so I’ll engage with that perspective.
Back to It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage. I love books that combine memoir with personal philosophy with life lessons with deep and personal experience. I prefer storytelling over lecturing or prognosticating. And while straightforward biographies can be informative, I prefer autobiographies (which I often refer to as memoirs.)
Arlan completed rocked it. Like Jerry Colonna’s book Leadership and the Art of Growing Up and Melinda Gates’ book Book: The Moment of Lift, Arlan navigated the challenge of an autobiography and wrote something that will stand the test of time. It’s her story, but it’s a story that everyone can learn from. It’s not a linear biography, but a book full of experiences and lessons, including for the reader. It’s crisp and easy to read with endless moments that stopped me in my tracks, even though I knew some of Arlan’s story.
I count Arlan as a friend and mentor. I hope she does also, as peer mentors (where both people learn from each other) is my favorite type of relationship. And, I look forward to doing a lot more with her over what hopefully will be a long future for both of us.
My book recommendation for this weekend, if you haven’t read it yet, is Arlan Hamilton’s It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage.
On Monday, June 1st, I told Amy that I wanted to engage deeply in helping eliminate racism in the United States.
I’ve been involved in gender inequity issues since I joined the National Center for Women & Information Technology board in 2005 shortly after it was formed. 15 years later, I’ve learned an enormous amount about gender, especially in tech, and while I am nowhere near finished on that particular journey, I feel that I understand and can be helpful in my role as a male advocate (or “male ally”) in eliminating gender inequity in tech and entrepreneurship.
While Amy and I have been philanthropically supporting social justice issues for over 20 years through our foundation, I don’t feel like I’ve engaged in a meaningful way. I have an enormous amount to learn about racial inequality in our country and my network for and advocacy of Black entrepreneurs and investors is woefully inadequate.
In my discussion with Amy, we decided to personally fund and get involved in at least 10 initiatives right away, which I defined as “by the end of June.” I’ve spent several hours a day each day since last Monday reaching out to Black friends I know with one question.
“What are two initiatives you are involved in right now that I could put time and/or money into in support of you and your activities?”
In each case, I offered money along with a desire to actively engage in support of them and their activities. This is not “I’ll do a mentor call with you” or “Email me anytime you have a question” but an open-ended “tell me what I can do to help you execute a particular initiative.”
The conversations have been excellent and extremely enlightening. Given that almost all of them were with people I already knew, I don’t need to do any diligence on the organizations they are asking me to get involved in as their reference credibility is enough for me. In a few cases, I had inbound from people I didn’t know and I also chose several of them to engage with.
Right now, these are philanthropic contributions to non-profit organizations or sponsorships for people going through some kind of program (non-profit and for-profit). This is a completely separate initiative from investment activity with my partners at Foundry Group, which we’ll be talking about more soon once we’ve made clear decisions about what we are going to do over the next few years.
My first of these commitments is to the Zane Access Inaugural Pre-Capital Program Cohort. I got an email from Shila Nieves Burney asking if I would donate 20 copies of Venture Deals. I responded yes and asked if there was anything else I could do to help their first cohort. Shila responded that they’d love to do an AMA and asked if I would be willing to underwrite the tuition for one of the founders, as there were eight in the program who were accepted but would have to forgo the opportunity to join the program due to the financial investment obligation.
I told Shila that I’d do the AMA and underwrite all eight founders who were not in a position to make the investment. I wanted to ensure that no founder who reached the high barrier to be accepted into the program would have to turn it down due to financial concerns.
I’ll be doing the AMA early in the program, so my hope is that I’ll get to know some of the founders, can help them throughout the program, and then connect them into some of my networks proactively where appropriate.
In my previous post, I said that for a while I’ll include one powerful thing each day that I read about racial injustice and Black Lives Matter. Today’s is from Donna Harris, a long time friend who I met through our work on the Startup America Partnership. She’s the co-founder of 1776 and now runs Builders and Backers. When I read her post The Hurt is Everywhere I cried (a “Jerry Colonna induced type of cry.”)
The hurt is everywhere. In every community. If you don’t see it, it just means you’re not talking to the people who are experiencing it.
That’s where we must start. We cannot create a society where all men are truly equal and every community flourishes if we don’t understand how badly the deck is stacked against so many of us and listen to and acknowledge the deep anguish that causes. Then, all of us must commit to repairing the broken places. In our nation. But also in our families, in our schools, and on the streets of our own neighborhoods. To that end, the next time you see a black man walking down your street, stay on the same side of the road and say hello.
Please go read The Hurt is Everywhere.
We are running the Venture Deals Online Course again this summer. But before I get to that, I want to highlight a blog post from a Black colleague. I’m getting, and reading, many of these each day. For the foreseable future, I’ll highlight and amplify one at the beginning of each post I do, in case you are interested.
The country, collectively, has grieved five times in 60 years. People of color have collectively grieved five times in 2 weeks. And we carry that into work, school, our relationships, and are expected to be okay— even if and when we’re not.
Well, white friends, white allies, I’m done being uncomfortable alone. If you’re a white ally in racial justice, if you’re committed to being anti-racist, if you see that our peace, our harmony, our healing, and progress are bound together, then its time for you to share in this uncomfortability.
I encourage you go to read Ruben’s post Black Lives Matter. At Work. In Life.
We are running the Venture Deals Online Course from June 28, 2020 – August 21, 2020. We usually only run it twice a year (Spring and Fall), but given the Covid crisis, we’ve had many requests to run it this summer.
We’ve now had over 20,000 people take it. The last cycle was particularly fun as several of the AMAs I did had around 1,000 people on it. Someone also set up a Slack channel for the course which I was active in and met a number of new friends.
Registration is open now. Please sign up if you want to take the Summer 2020 Venture Deals Online Course.
While I was trying to get my soul to reset a little yesterday, I worried about short attention spans. As humans, we naturally have short attention spans that are amplified by the extremely short attention span of the media.
We are at the beginning of two new crises intermingled with multiple other crises we are dealing with as a result of Covid. The four crises that Covid has amplified (so far) are health, economic, mental health, and racial inequality. But they are not the only crises we are dealing with (anyone remember gender inequity, especially in tech, or #MeToo?)
Sustained leadership to address each crisis – over the long term – is required. I’m committed to that and I encourage everyone else who is writing, listening, talking, and trying to affect positive change to make a long term committment.
I’ve seen many posts and a few videos from white male CEOs talking to their companies about Black Lives Matter. I thought this one, from Bryan Leach, CEO of iBotta, was spectacular.
Emmanuel Acho was even better.
It’s an extremely helpful documentary around understanding unconscious bias. When Robin made the film, she concentrated on examples around gender and race, but the principles apply to all aspects of bias.
I’ve always felt the final wording on the overview captured the film well.
bias is a film that challenges us to confront our hidden biases and understand what we risk when we follow our gut. Through exposing her own biases, award-winning documentary filmmaker Robin Hauser highlights the nature of implicit bias and the grip it holds on our social and professional lives.
Throughout the film, Robin gives voice to neighbors concerned about profiling in their communities, CEOs battling bias in their businesses, and those of us hesitant to admit our own biases. After confronting her unconscious bias, Robin turns to action by engaging with innovative experiments – from corporate strategies to tech interventions and virtual reality – that are reshaping our understanding of implicit bias and attempting to mitigate it.
On Thurday, June 25th at 11am PST (2pm EST) there will be an online panel discussion around Bias. In advance of the panel discussion, you’ll get a link to watch the film online.
Along with Robin, the panelists are Kate Mitchell (Scale Venture Partners), Heather Gates (Deloitte & Touche), and Elliott Robinson (Bessemer Venture Partners).
I appreciate the sponsors – NVCA, Salesforce Ventures, Deloitte, and SVB – for hosting. I’m an enormous fan of Robin’s work (Amy and I also were Executive Producers for her documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap) and I learned a lot from both films.
I encourage you to sign up for the discussion and the free screening of the film online. I just did …
Since mid-March, I have received endless letters from companies and funds I’m an investor in with their thoughts on the Covid crisis. One of the best was from Paul Kedrosky and Eric Norlin of SK Ventures (one of our Partner Fund investments).
Paul and Eric have given me permission to repost it here.
(First published May 15, 2020.)
To start, a few quotations as markers:
Then he heard the sand rumbling. Every Fremen knew the sound, could distinguish it immediately from the noises of worms or other desert life. Somewhere beneath him, the pre-spice mass had accumulated enough water and organic matter from the little makers, had reached the critical stage of wild growth. A gigantic bubble of carbon dioxide was forming deep in the sand, heaving upward in an enormous “blow” with a dust whirlpool at its center. It would exchange what had been formed deep in the sand for whatever lay on the surface.
– Frank Herbert, Dune
Chigurh: Just call it.
Shopkeeper: I didn’t put nothin up.
Chigurh: Yes you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it.
– Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men
Unfortunately, most warning systems do not warn us that they can no longer warn us.
– Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies
Crises usually accelerate real trends in society and technology; they don’t create or refute them.
– Gary Kasparov
The opposite of fragile is something that actually gains from disorder.
– Nassim Taleb
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” That is Lenin’s line, and it has felt right in every way and, likely, in almost every country in the world these last eight weeks. And people—investors, in particular—are falling all over themselves trying to understand what it means. We all want to try to explain something this wrenching, and to explain how it feels.
We want to believe that we just lived through weeks where decades happened, as Lenin said. Except he didn’t say that. And as near as quote investigators can tell, he never said anything like it: the first example of the phrase only appeared a few decades ago. It has caught on partly because it’s well put, but mostly because it captures how we feel about what it’s like to have something come exploding into our consciousness and force us out of our usual amniotic now. We want an explanation, and we want it to explain where things go from here.
The reality, however, is that wildness has always lurked just beneath the surface. A combination of willful blindness, homeostasis, wishful thinking, and luck have let us skate past the holes in modernity’s ice and pretend nothing lurks beneath it. We have been making bets on smooth, thick ice for decades, and we stopped noticing, even if cracks open anytime in the thickest ice. Pandemics are a crack in our preferred reality, but they are nothing new, even if many countries, like the US, lack recent experience with them, and so pandemics hit harder and longer.
So, what changes? Post-pandemic, in the short-run, and contrary to many, we think very little changes, at least very little that is materially different from what we thought before. Rather than being a break with the past, we think people’s desperation for a return to normalcy—shopping! travel! work!—creates immense pressure to return to the recent past faster than anyone expects. There is inherent human-driven homeostasis, an almost inexorable need to bring things back to where they were before.
We think the biggest short-term effect will be an acceleration of existing trends. More things will go in the cloud; more things will be virtualized; more things will happen at the edge; more buying, selling, and entertaining will happen online: and so on. These trends will simply speed up.
What about, you wonder, the bigger changes people chatter about, like the death of commuting to work, the end of globalization, the collapse of professional sports, and the like? Not so much. Sure, we will see a paroxysm of people fighting the last war, much like how we armored commercial airliner cockpits after 9/11. In that light, expect a continuing run on contract tracing apps, thermal scanning, work from home chatter, N95 mask technologies, and that sort of thing. But that is extrapolative and impermanent, armoring metaphorical cockpits, rather than thinking about what this episode has taught us about the wildness that lurks beneath modernity.
We think a more useful analysis must go deeper rather than being merely extrapolative—it must be a thick description of how people live and die. This virus has been, both literally and metaphorically, a disease of modernity. Why? Because It attacks via the vectors of modernity: trade linkages, obesity, diabetes, air travel, mass transportation, urban density, social media, etc. Understanding long-run change requires understanding where modernity itself is under threat, and whether those threats will lead to meaningful—and investable—change.
Fundamental to the changing landscape is the realization that people have been shown how brittle their home structure is. For example, surveys show that New York and Shanghai apartment dwellers are realizing that giving up a balcony for a little more floor space in their aeries made them prisoners of quarantine: most buyers newly say they wouldn’t make the same decision again. Similarly, people all over the world are realizing that “preppers” aren’t nuts (at least, in their prepping), that there is merit in thinking in terms of how much inventory of critical things—food, water, and yes, toilet paper—you have.
Sociologist of risk Charles Perrow, long ago warned against the catastrophic risks created by tight coupling in society. To Perrow, tight coupling was any complex system where changes in inputs ripped quickly to new and unpredictable outputs, without an opportunity for meaningful intervention. Perrow would have called this current episode a reminder of tight coupling’s risks, and a forced re-introduction to loose coupling—an attempt to make your life less easily whipsawed by abrupt changes in the world around you. In that light, we think people—and companies—will carry more inventory of everything, that the scarring experience here will turn us into proto-preppers, less willing to be caromed around by the vagaries of life. This a big change, one that will ripple through supply chains, housing, travel, technology, education, and health.
Speaking of health, life sciences is at an unremarked inflection. There is the real potential for multiple new and effective vaccine and drug delivery platforms to emerge at once, something that has never happened in the history of pharmaceuticals. We not only could see multiple vaccines arrive, which is appealing, but, more importantly in the long run, multiple new platforms for delivering drugs, which would vastly increase the drug arsenal, transform human health, and add vastly to societal wealth via decreasing aggregate cost of illness.
There is also, however, the real potential for multiple massive drug failures setting the industry back decades. Not just because current vaccine efforts could fail, proving that, in economist Robert Gordon’s terms, we are stuck on an undulating plateau of stalled (drug) innovation, but, more insidiously, that multiple billion-dollar vaccine programs could hit the market at once, all lose money, and re-convince pharma companies that vaccines are a terrible business, making the next pandemic even more therapeutically fraught.
Which will it be? We are optimists, and we strongly believe it will be the former, but it’s important to keep in mind that it is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Turning to other deeper changes, machine learning and big data are getting a real run-out here, and given our investments, we are glad to see it. In areas like medical imaging where machine learning continues to acquit itself well, throwing ample shade at human experts. This is overdue, important, and necessary.
On the other hand, naïve application of “big data” models is being shown for the dangerous practice that it is. Epidemiological models continue to acquit themselves poorly, in part because it’s hard, but also and importantly, to abstract away from this pandemic, because most interesting systems involve humans, and humans adapt and change in ways that work to make models’ predictions fail. As the old capital markets saying goes, “at inflections, markets move in whatever direction will cause the most pain to the most participants.” Big data models suffer no better fate at similar points, as people are belatedly discovering. We are hopeful that this new wisdom will lead to better, more flexible, more adaptive, and more useful analytical models, across finance, medicine, sports, risk, and so on.
Overall, we believe we will quickly return to a state much like where we were before recent events. It will be less different than many pundits expect. Under the surface, however, wildness will lurk—our society will merely be subcritical. This will be, of course, normal, not abnormal. Most of human history has been this way, unlike recent times, which were anomalously placid, a state that’s now ending as we return to subscriticality. We think that making this state visible and manageable will be one of the keys to investing moving forward.
There will be explosive economic, biological, and technological moves, much more explosive than in the recent past, in part because the ground has been cleared for them, but also because our new, over-excited society has collective scar tissue making it predisposed to jump sooner, further, and faster. This will lead to more rapid technology adoption, faster cycles, and great gains for investors willing to embrace the emergency of subcritical society. Platforms and tools that embrace this—enabling looser coupling, warning when legacy warning systems can’t warn, systems made stronger by volatility—are the emerging investments that we will be digging into as we move forward.
To summarize, here is our current state of thinking:
- In the short-run, less will change than people think
- In longer-run, we will see a complete rethinking of risk, slack, and societal coupling
- We are interested in investments that acknowledge, track, and even gain from the wildness and disorder lurking under the thin ice of a newly subcritical society.
So that I’m unambiguous about my perspective, #BlackLivesMatter.
Amy and I have been philanthropically supporting Progressive Public Policy and Social Justice Organizations for over 20 years. However, just providing financial support is not nearly enough, and I’ve decided to put much more time and energy into understanding and helping eliminate racial inequity. While I’m not sure that I have the right words (and am asking my Black friends to make sure I do), I believe that the correct term is being anti-racist.
I have no interest in virtue signaling. Since Monday, I’ve had several conversations where this phrase came up and it has been a confusing distraction in each conversation.
Stating one’s position is important. Backing it up with actions, consistently over a long period of time, is more important.
While I have tried to be an ally to many diverse communities over the past 20 years, especially around entrepreneurship, I haven’t focused nearly enough on Black entrepreneurs and investors. I regret that.
I decided that rather than issue specific statements about what I was going to do, I would use this week to learn. With everything I engage in, I believe in playing a long-term game, so rather than simply doing one thing today, I need to do many things over the next decade.
As a starting point, I’ve been having conversations with Black entrepreneurs and investors and asking one question.
“What are two initiatives you are involved in right now that I could put time and/or money into in support of you and your activities?”
If I haven’t talked to you and you are a Black entrepreneur or investor, if you have the energy or desire, I’m very interested in the answer to this question via a comment here, email, or @bfeld on Twitter.
One of our goals with this initiative is to destigmatize mental health and support those in need of engaging in service during the Covid crisis. I’ve been talking about mental health as the third part of the Covid crisis since the end of March when I wrote the post The Three Crises.
I didn’t anticipate structural racism being a fourth crisis. But here we are.
Yesterday, a friend suggested that a middle-aged white person trying to constructively engage around structural racism feels like walking across lava. It’s dangerous and there are lots of ways that you can say or do something that goes very wrong, even if that wasn’t intended.
I’m aware of that, so rather than tell anyone what the solution is, I’m just going to engage, in the same way I’ve engaged with other issues like gender discrimination. Listen, learn, and do things in support of other leaders who are already involved. For example, in the case of gender, I began my journey in 2005 by supporting and learning from leaders like Lucy Sanders.
This morning, I’ve reached out to several black entrepreneurial leaders I know, including Rodney Sampson. My question to him is not “what should I do” but rather “what are you doing that I can get involved in and support right now.”
So, now we’ve got four crisis. Health. Economic. Mental Health. Structural Racism.
If you are involved in one of these, know that you are not alone.
And, if the mental health crisis is on your mind right now, join us Wednesday for our discussion on our the You are Not Alone webinar.