Interlude — writing a book on DEI in tech and VC

Venture capital is a very small and incredibly young industry, but it is one with outsized power, particularly when it comes to the contemporary digital economy. For the entire duration of venture capital’s existence, this power has been in the hands of mostly white, highly educated and mostly wealthy men. When I started my research with venture capital investors in late 2017 for my postdoctoral research project at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre, I wasn’t aware of this. I was just happy that people were willing to speak with me, the anthropologist, who asked questions about ethics and decision making.

Of the more than 400 interviews with VCs I conducted, the first 50 were with men, overwhelmingly white. When I arrived for my main stretch of fieldwork in California in May 2019, I looked at my list of interviewees properly for the first time and noticed the utterly skewed coverage: I asked myself, where are the women in this world, not to mention Black or brown people? I hadn’t come across anyone who was openly LGBTQ or disabled or not ‘middle class’, as the English would say. And why on earth do all of these people have backgrounds in consulting or banking (or have exited a company) and come with a degree from an elite university?

This is when I started actively reaching out to a much more diverse set of VCs, and also when I first started writing about my observations, in a series for Crunchbase. I have learned a lot since then, particularly because some fantastic women this side of the pond were patient with me, shared their time and supported me with insights and introductions (thank you in particular Sophia Bendz, Maren Bannon, Anya Navidski, Suranga Suranga Chandratillake, June Angelides and Check Warner).

Most recently, I encountered another strong force of change in this world: Erika Brodnock. While I originally tried to interview her for my book on the ethics of VCs, our conversation quickly turned into something bigger: we ended up reaching out to around ten VCs to discuss growing concerns among communities of colour, with the term BAME. This became our first piece for Sifted.

Erika and I realised quite early that we complement each other in all of the ways necessary to take on a big project — so here we are now co-authoring a book together on DEI in startup and venture world.

Though I’ve worked for VCs, I am very much an academic who’s never worked for a tech company. Erika, on the other hand, has founded two. My network is very strongly anchored in the VC community because of my ongoing research; Erika’s reach is fantastic in the direction of entrepreneurs and specifically people of colour in the tech world, given her own experiences and her work with Extend Ventures. And of course, crucially, Erika is a Black British woman and a mum of five, and I am a Caucasian man with too many university degrees. Together, we make a very strong team, driven by our shared desire to talk about and push for change when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion in tech and VC.

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In autumn last year, we convinced our publisher Holloway — in the form of Rachel Jepsen and Josh Levy — to work with us. We really hit it off with Rachel, our brilliant editor there, and worked together on our first task: putting together a book proposal, planning the volume. During that phase, we took three major framing decisions: one, the book would be based solidly around interviews. Quickly, it transpired that Erika and I would do only limited amounts of writing ourselves, but give space to people from the different communities usually underrepresented in tech and VC to voice their concerns, share their experiences, and offer what they think are some possible solutions. Our own contributions will be focused on tracing a history of VC through a DEI lens and framing and commenting on the interviews. We will also make sure to distill best practices from the interviews, to make the book as useful as possible for people who want to take action. Second, we committed to including as many different dimensions of diversity as possible, going far beyond more common conversations around gender and ethnicity. We reached out to groups and individuals who could teach us more about how sexual orientation, disability, geography, class, and age affect experiences in the startup and VC worlds, and what solutions or practices those experiences inspire. You can read a first conversation on ‘being gay in tech’ here. We deliberately chose to include founders, operators, VCs, and academics alike, bringing together the multiple facets required to work together to create the change we would like to see in the industry. Finally, our ambition was from the begining to include as many different ecosystems as possible but always bring people from Europe together with people from the US for every topic. While the stereotypical understanding ‘globalisation’ brings with it is that ‘everything is connected’, the European and American tech worlds have been operating in siloed ways; particularly when it comes to DEI, Europe is lagging behind the US and we want everyone to benefit from the same pool of information. We hope that Better Venture will contribute to this pushing the industry forward as a whole.

After deciding the overall direction, style, and outline, there was one more key decision to take: the book title! We wanted something hopeful, that alluded to connecting the right dots. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for VC has been proven time and again to be related to better returns, yet the status quo remains reluctant to change. We knew that that was one of the key messages we wanted to focus on and drive home — the industry could do better. Individuals could be better. And the economic model could better serve operators and customers alike. We ended up with an ambitious title that would represent what we believe and hope this book will help accomplish: Better Venture.

The book’s web page made reaching out to our first interviewees easy, but we were absolutely overwhelmed by the response we received from the community: from the 30 people we originally asked to contribute, both within and outside of our own networks, we had 28 positive responses.

By April, we had finished interview number 35 and are now approaching the end of our ‘research phase’. The coming weeks will see us put our heads together, focus on framing the book and writing our introduction and conclusion. We are very excited to be reaching the final phase of the book and getting to the writing, where we’ll bring it all together — exploring the economic history of the industry, organizing the voices that were so generously shared, analyzing proposed solutions, and offering what we think are the most important practices for improving diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in startups and the venture capital industry.

Now, there are three things you can help us with:

  1. Reach out if you want to talk. While we are coming to the end of our research, we are always open to add a conversation or seven as the case may be! We are particularly keen to extend the range of diversity as much as possible — get in touch if that is something you care about, too!
  2. Pre-order the book here — we plan to have it available as soon as late summer: https://www.holloway.com/b/better-venture
  3. If you are a founder and want to anonymously share a story or experience you had with regards to VC interactions, we are still collecting more of those for the book. After the book is officially published, we hope to continue to add stories and experiences to the book. You can simply fill in the form here.