Amy and I are long-time supporters of the Boulder International Film Festival. The 2019
Bias, one of the documentaries that we helped fund, is making its Colorado Premier and showing on Saturday, March 2,
Robin Hauser, the director, is spectacular. Amy and I supported her previous moving Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, which was dynamite, incredibly informative, and very accessible.
I expect Bias to be even better. I encourage you to buy a ticket and go see it at the BIFF 2019.
While there have been many words written about gender bias in the context of entrepreneurship and funding, I thought the following TED Talk from Dana Kanze presented one of the best frames of references, supported by a real research study, that I’ve seen to date. In addition, she has some clear, actionable suggestions at the end of the talk to help eliminate the bias.
Her research emerges from her own exploration of a social psychological theory originated by Professor Tory Higgins called “regulatory focus.” This theory explores the different motivational orientations of promotion and prevention.
While listening to Dana’s explanation and examples in the video, I had a deep insight – around how to ask questions of an entrepreneur – that hadn’t occurred to me before. Here are her direct definitions of promotion focus and prevention focus.
“A promotion focus is concerned with gains and emphasizes hopes, accomplishments and advancement needs, while a prevention focus is concerned with losses and emphasizes safety, responsibility and security needs. Since the best-case scenario for a prevention focus is to simply maintain the status quo, this has us treading water just to stay afloat, while a promotion focus instead has us swimming in the right direction. It’s just a matter of how far we can advance.”
Dana’s punchline is that investors approach female entrepreneurs with a prevention focus and male entrepreneurs with a promotion focus. Interestingly, she finds this is consistent regardless of the gender of the investor!
The talk has a clear recommendation for female entrepreneurs in it. Basically, if you get a prevention question, reframe the answer in a promotion context.
“So what this means is that if you’re asked a question about defending your start-up’s market share, you’d be better served to frame your response around the size and growth potential of the overall pie as opposed to how you merely plan to protect your sliver of that pie.”
Dana also has a suggestion for how investors (both female and male) can help eliminate this implicit bias.
“So to my investors out there, I would offer that you have an opportunity here to approach Q&A sessions more even-handedly, not just so that you could do the right thing, but so that you can improve the quality of your decision making. By flashing the same light on every start-up’s potential for gains and losses, you enable all deserving start-ups to shine and you maximize returns in the process.”
Her talk is only 15 minutes long and well worth it. Or, if you are a fast reader, take a look at the transcript.
One of the philanthropic activities that Amy and I have been doing is helping fund documentaries around issues that we care about.
When she told us last summer about her new documentary called Bias, Amy and I jumped on the opportunity to be the executive producers. The sizzle reel is out and was shown at Mark Suster’s Upfront Summit. Take a look (click through to watch on Vimeo.)
As I noticed quotes from the Code Conference dominate my Twitter feed yesterday, I saw a few from the Jeff Bezos interview that made me say out loud “Jeff Bezos is amazing.” I love his use of the phrase “cultural norms” (it’s one of my favorite phrases) and I particularly thought his comments on Donald Trump and the Peter Thiel / Gawker situation were right on the money.
The interview prompted me to think about how biases affect my thinking. I’ve been struggling with the Peter Thiel / Gawker stuff and have asked a few friends closer to the situation and the people involved to give me their perspectives as I’ve tried to determine whether my biases are overwhelming my perspective on it. As a result, I haven’t discussed it publicly, and instead have thought harder about it at a meta-level, which is actually more interesting to me.
I don’t know Jeff Bezos and have never met him, so my strong positive reaction to the interview reinforced this notion around unscrambling my biases as part of better critical thinking. If we use Amazon as an example, my relationship with the company, and my corresponding experiences over the years, have created a set of biases that I map to my impression of Bezos. And, as you read though the list below of my experiences / viewpoints, you’ll quickly see how the biases can create a chaotic mind-mess.
Following are the quick thoughts that come to mind when I think about Amazon.
- Love it as a customer
- Frustrated with how they have handled relationships with companies I’m an investor in
- Delighted with how they have handled relationships with companies I’m an investor in
- Moments of misery with interactions around difficult things
- Brilliance and clarity of thought from Bezos
- Wasted money on Amazon products that sucked
- Amazing delight with Amazon products that I use every day, including my Kindle
- Sucky experience as an author
- Distribution that otherwise wouldn’t exist for me as an author
- Many friends at Amazon
- Sympathy for the stupid way Colorado has dealt with them around affiliates and sales tax
I could probably come up with another 50 bullet points like this. Given that Bezos is the CEO and public face of Amazon, I map my view of the company to him. I know that is only one dimension of him – and his experience as a human – but it’s the one that I engage with.
Then I remember we are all human. Shit is hard. We make lots of mistakes. And, when I sit and listen to Bezos talk to Walt Mossberg, I have an entirely new level of amazement, appreciation, and intellectual affection for him, and – by association – Amazon.
I know that many different kinds of biases get in my way every day. I’ve learned the names for some of them, how they work, and how to overcome them through various work of mine over the year. But at the root of it, I realize that a continuous effort to unscramble them when confronted with something that has created dissonance in my brain is probably the most effective way to confront and resolve the biases.
For those of you in the world who tolerate me saying “what do you think of thing X” and then give me a thoughtful response, thank you, especially when you know I’m wrestling with trying to understand what I think about X. Now you know that part of what I’m asking you to help me with it to unscramble my biases around the particular person or situation that is represented by thing X.
Last night Amy and I saw Closed Circuit. We both walked out of there completely bummed out. It was a good movie, but the arrogance of some government agencies (in this case British MI-5) was overwhelmingly real and upsetting. We went to bed when we got home and I tossed and turned for awhile, thinking about nasty government shit. I had a crazy dream that seemed to go on forever about being tangled up in some kind of spy related thing with old college buddies and woke up with it completely unresolved.
It was very early when I got up so I sat down at my computer to start cranking on the last bit of Startup Boards since I’m submitting the final draft on Monday night. But I made a mistake – in an effort to procrastinate a little I read the newspaper headlines, my feeds, Techmeme River, and HackerNews headlines.
And then I was completely bummed out. There were the predictable articles that reinforced the incredible arrogance of government. But there were also a bunch of articles, including some that were first person posts, making strong statements about specific things, defending positions, and arguing points that were one sided and didn’t make much sense to me. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, there was a common thread. The first person accounts were almost all incredibly arrogant.
I felt myself getting angry. Several of the articles directly undermined broad initiatives that I care about. Ironically, several of the writers actually appear to support the same position I do. But their delivery was horrible. And arrogant.
I spent a little time on my book and then Amy woke up. I took her out to Snooze for breakfast and as we were walking over I described a few of the things that were bothering me to her. I had a two hour advantage on her since she had just woken up and her first response was “What? What’s got you so riled up?” We kept going and just talking to her calmed me down. And she helped me think through what I was reacting to.
It is arrogance. And bias. Which just makes me crazy – it’s 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech, and bias – both conscious and unconscious – is alive and well. Everywhere. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past two years exploring, understanding, and explaining unconscious bias. It’s at the heart of one of the key issues that we are trying to address at NCWIT. But conscious bias is maybe more offensive and grotesque. And it’s even worse when coated with arrogance.
I don’t expect to solve anything with this post – I’m just venting. And I don’t feel like calling anyone out – I’m not really interested in provoking a fight and giving arrogance more of a voice. Arrogance and hubris is an ancient problem – our Greek friends knew it well. The power, and value, of humility was reinforced to me again this morning. I respect humility so much more than I like arrogance.
There was a huge kerfluffle over the weekend about racism in Silicon Valley which tried to end when Michael Arrington wrote a post titled Oh Shit, I’m A Racist. But it didn’t end – on Monday there were stories by CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien defending herself with an article titled Michael Arrington is right (about one thing) and then a well reasoned post by Mitch Kapor titled Beyond Arrington and CNN, Let’s Look at the Real Issues. And I’m sure there will be more posts, including this one.
If you don’t know me, I’m white, Jewish, third generation American, born in Arkansas, grew up in Dallas, lived in Boston for 12 years, and I now live in Boulder, Colorado. My great grandparents emigrated from Russia and Germany – there were people in those countries trying really hard to kill them before they managed to emigrate to America. I say this not because I’m going to prognosticate about racism, but rather I’m going to tell a story. Of something that happened last week. Just to remind all of us that racism is alive and well in the US and in tech.
On Thursday, I got a call from a CEO of company I’m on the board of. He was very upset as he relayed a story to me. He had just heard from one of his employees who had been at a customer site for the past three days with another employee. The first person (person A) is white; the second is Indian (person B). The customer site is a government owned military installation.
Upon arrival, the customer would not shake hands with B. The customer would not acknowledge B’s presence directly. Over the course of the three days, the customer made endless racial and ethnic slurs directed at B. While it was extremely uncomfortable, A and B did their work, put up with the nonsense, and were professional.
While the CEO was relaying this to me, I was pacing outside a room that I was about to give a talk in. I was furious at the customer. I was sad that A and B hadn’t called the CEO immediately – I know he would have told them to pack it up and come home right away and he’d deal with the customer situation directly. The notion that B, and A, had to put up with racist behavior for three days was appalling to me. Especially at a government facility. In the United States. In 2011. In the tech business.
Everyone on this planet gets to believe what they want to believe, but I’ll assert that racism is alive and well in the US. I’ve seen it many times, including in Silicon Valley. Rather than get into arguments about the existence, or lack thereof, I’d encourage anyone who cares about this to listen to some wise words from Mitch Kapor.
“Being meritocratic is a really worthy aspiration, but will require active mitigation of individual and organizational bias. The operation of hidden bias in our cognitive apparatus is a well-documented phenomenon in neuroscience. We may think we are acting rationally and objectively, but our brains deceive us.”
When you see racism, don’t tolerate it. Take action. And don’t deny reality.