In 2020, the world changed forever in more ways than one.
Against a backdrop of public health initiatives and endless questions about what a new normal looked like, companies across the nation rushed to set quotas and goals to diversify in the wake of George Floyd’s death. But three years later, panelists at a Builders Conference session during Technical.ly’s Philly Tech Week 2023 presented by Comcast say there’s still plenty of work to do — and some wonder how much things have really changed, if at all.
An important place to start, according to panelist Tiara Durham, is knowing that when it comes to venture capital, what happened in 2020 was pledging, not investment. She said that many underrepresented founders had to jump through hoops and prove themselves and their financial worth in ways that other founders didn’t; at the moment, VCs still only invest in surefire companies guaranteed for success. But, according to the director of new ventures at Philadelphia’s University City Science Center, that’s not really how investing works.
“Those who were invested in have gone through the rigors that are not consistent with the rigors that any other particular founder would have to go through to get the investment,” Durham said to moderator Alanah Nichole Davis and a packed room at the Comcast Technology Center. “Because of the innovative thought and ideas with the specific founders that are diverse, there’s greater opportunity for economic success that’s just untapped.”
For panelist Armand Biroonak, the head of engagement and community impact at UBS, a key part of inclusive entrepreneurship is a continued investment. Founders don’t just need a check, they need assistance and, in many cases, multiple VC investments at different stages to get off the ground.
“If you truly want to move the needle, you truly are committed to equity in all forms,” Biroonak said. “If you want to not only support individuals in terms of building, growing their companies, you have to continue to invest — and it’s not only financial returns, it’s also impact returns.”
One major hurdle, though, is the VCs themselves, because dollars still aren’t getting to underrepresented founders. A 2022 report from 1863 Ventures found that founders of color can shell out at least $250,000 more than their white counterparts to create a company. Biroonak identified diversity in the VC world itself as a necessary change to make sure that folks get the funds they need and build long-term, sustainable startups.
“You can write the check and that money goes out the door, but how are we ensuring that those companies and founders have what they need to get to the next stage of where wherever they are in their journey?” Biroonak said.
Even for all those companies who won’t ever reach unicorn status — if they even want or try to — Durham noted that the goal is to nurture and grow businesses. Investors and ecosystem builders should want them to do great things, go global, say nice things about their communities and inspire others to come to their region and grow the local ecosystem by starting a company.
“The work is being done in the space,” Durham said. “But there’s more work to be done.”