During my short time with Startup Southerner, immersing myself in the startup ecosystem of Nashville and beyond, I have been pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on diversity in the entrepreneurial community. The 36|86 Entrepreneurship and Technology Conference this week was no exception. The conference was full of conversation surrounding this vital issue. One panel, How to ID—and Maximize—Unfair Advantage in Diversity, discussed the topic specifically. The panelists’ stories and foundations seem to suggest that the efforts towards diversity and inclusion go beyond an ethical conviction of corporate responsibility. Diversifying teams also has tremendous benefits for startups.
Among the panel members was Lori B. Feinsilver, head of community affairs and corporate responsibility and executive communications for UBS Group Americas. She set the tone of the conversation by noting the potential of entrepreneurship as “a pathway to career and life fulfillment for all people.” In theory, this is true, but there is still a significant disparity in opportunity that cannot go disregarded. For example, Feinsilver explained that there is a significant divide in who is founding large-scale startups with high growth potential. Only 4% of women-founded startups generate more than $500,000 a year. In other words, there is still a gender gap, especially in tech where only 17% of startups are founded by women.
The lack of diversity in tech also threatens the democratizing potential of entrepreneurship, indicating that the tech world isn’t color-blind just yet. Leslie Miley has experienced this firsthand. After entering the tech industry In Silicon Valley, Miley noticed that he and other underrepresented groups often got written off due to assumptions about “what an engineer looks like.” Seeing this as an opportunity to have a conversation and work with other communities, Miley spoke out against the diversity problems in tech, a move he recalls as the time he “came out black on Twitter.” As a result, Miley left Twitter and became engineering lead at Slack, marking the beginning of his efforts to diversify tech and revitalize communities. He is also involved with Venture For America.
For entrepreneurship to be the democratizing force it can be, equal opportunity and representation is paramount. Accomplishing this task, Feinsilver explained, is the motivation behind Project Entrepreneur, dedicated to providing women with the necessary resources to embark on scalable ventures with high-growth potential. The initiative has seen significant success: 1,200 women of 50% diversity from 70 cities across the country have applied.
Far from being a purely altruistic endeavor, however, these entrepreneurs have seen distinct advantages to diversifying their startups. Feinsilver and Miley both attested to the advantages of finding underrepresented talent. Feinsilver recalled statistics showing that startups founded by women perform 64% better than those started by men. Statistics also show that, in general, startups founded by underrepresented groups perform marginally better.
Feinsilver believes the task of diversifying your team “isn’t easy, but worth it.” Aside from being a step in the direction of democratizing entrepreneurship, diversification provides a wealth of untapped resources—new problems, new minds and new innovative solutions. Perhaps it is in the entrepreneur’s direct interest to heed Miley’s advice and “change the definition of what an engineer is for you.”