I recently was in an email thread where a Black founder had a powerful and clear response to the question from one of her corporate partners. The question was:
How can our (the corporate partner’s) team better support diversity in our work, particularly in our sourcing, diligence, and onboarding efforts?
The entrepreneur responded with a long explanation that was a brilliant and extremely helpful perspective for me. It follows.
I think one of my core experiences, and a truth that we all have to grapple with, is that programs like yours should be thought of like higher education in 1960, or getting into a NYC Specialized High School today.
Were there no Black students at Harvard because Black people aren’t brilliant? No.
There were no Black students at Harvard because you have to get a certain score on the SAT to get in.
People who score well on the SAT either:
- Come from amazing school districts with a plethora of funding and the ability to prepare students adequately for the test.
- Come from families that can afford expensive SAT prep.
- Come from communities that have an infrastructure that supports robust SAT prep.
Because of institutional racism in our society, Black people:
- Have school systems with a lower tax basis and insufficient resources.
- Make less than half what whites do in many cities and don’t have the resources to sign up for SAT prep.
- Have had our communities and families decimated through mass incarceration and other racist policies.
If we juxtapose that analogy with startups, your team will need to ask itself what criteria you’re using for startups.
Black entrepreneurs have to find a way/make a way/invent a way to launch businesses with two arms tied behind our backs because we don’t get the same funding as our white counterparts.
So I have raised $2.5MM and have to compete with companies who have raised $25m and $70m respectively.
And yet, I’m constantly asked, “What’s your traction?” which is similar to “What’s your SAT score?”
We know that as a society, we are starving Black businesses for capital, and yet we expect them to hit the same milestone markers as businesses that have a plethora of capital. It’s like not feeding a cow yet expecting them to produce milk. It’s literally madness and maddening.
Thinking about your sourcing of Black companies is going to be a far more complex question than “Who do we call to find the amazing Black companies?” It’s going to be “How do we change our lens so we can see the amazing Black companies?” followed by “Once we bring them into our ecosystem, how do we support their journey in meaningful ways that can help to level the playing field = e.g. get them capital or get them revenue?”
Maybe we should stop asking “What’s your SAT score?” and instead ask, “Wow. How on earth did you maintain a 3.7 GPA, and cook for your little brother and sister every night because your mom had 2 jobs, and get an A in calculus without a high-paid tutor, and work a full-time summer job at Key Food while taking a class to teach you how to code at night? That’s a lot of grit!”
Maybe we’re measuring the wrong things in our entrepreneurial society, just as we’ve measured the wrong things in our larger society. Maybe we all need to start talking about grit instead of metrics that can only be achieved with money, and then make sure all entrepreneurs get the funding required to achieve equivalent metrics.