When I joined venture capital firm GV in January as the firm’s first diversity and inclusion partner, I was excited by the opportunity to help with one of the industry’s biggest challenges: ensuring underrepresented and underestimated founders gain access to capital. Currently only 1% of VC funding goes to Black founders and 2% to Latinx founders. Women earn 26 cents for every dollar that men earn in stock assets.
I knew that GV had been intentional about investments in underrepresented founders (including $200 million invested in Black, Latinx, and women founders in the previous 18 months) and that they were working to improve diversity across internal teams. I was hired to help steer these efforts, expand investor networks, and coach GV portfolio companies on diversity-related issues. I was eager to get started.
Six weeks into my new job, COVID-19 hit. We’re all now in a completely different world. The pandemic has changed our lives in countless ways. Against a backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, systemic racism is in the news, and racial justice protests are in the streets. The companies I was hired to help—some of which might not have sought such advice a few months ago—are now looking more closely at how they can develop a race-conscious equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) strategy, as well as connect more effectively with diverse customers and clients.
When I counsel our portfolio companies, the process of moving toward a race-conscious equity strategy tends to span four phases:
Phase 1: Draw a Line in the Sand
As an executive or manager, this might be the first time you’ve thought about how your company formally addresses systemic racism. Maybe you shared a corporate statement about #BlackLivesMatter, or made a corporate donation to a racial justice group. Beyond these gestures, you’re getting tough questions from employees about what your inclusion strategy (or lack thereof) looks like.
At this early stage, my advice is that you focus on your own team and not the outside world. This is your most important audience. Have a real conversation with your team: Explain why you’re talking about these issues, acknowledge the problems you see, listen to employee feedback, and make sure people understand your perspective as a leader. Be candid, and be very clear about what you hope to achieve.
These internal conversations can be fraught with emotion and intimate personal stories the group has never discussed before. It’s a good idea for leaders to check in ahead of time with employees from marginalized groups about how they’re feeling and even if they’d like to attend. These are the people who may suffer more emotional labor reliving traumatizing experiences of institutional racism in both personal and professional experiences.
Phase 2: Create More Nuanced Conversations
You’ve had your first org-wide conversation on racial inequality. Now it’s time to move to ongoing education. Create a regular cadence of meetings that provide a safe space for honest exchanges about antiracism and what you’re learning along the way. The executive team should participate in—but not dominate—these conversations with humility and openness. Be honest about what you know and don’t know. Participate in the conversation and be vulnerable with your own stories.
I’ve seen this done well in both large and small formats: at a monthly all-hands meeting, through a dedicated working group, and in smaller learning circles that meet frequently. Guest speakers, video talks, book discussions can all be useful.
I recently led a session for CEOs and chief people officers in GV portfolio companies, and most attendees told me their organizations are in this phase. They were eager to sustain the momentum they’ve built and move to more long-term impact.
Phase 3: Make a Plan and Set Goals
This is the action phase. First, you should form an executive diversity council or working group as an accountability body. It should include the CEO, chief people officer, diversity and inclusion executive, and other strategic decision-makers, such as the head of your largest team. The executive team commits to a race-conscious equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy with the top three to four pillars you intend to tackle and shares these with the entire company. (What might this look like? Crunchbase offers this good example of an antiracism action plan.) The pillars will have measurable goals for the quarter, half-year, coming year, and the next three years. At the board level, you add more diverse representation.
Many companies in this phase hire a head of diversity, but don’t expect this person to shoulder the responsibility alone. The CEO must be a core part of this work and a key partner to this executive.
At this point the company might have an employee resource group (ERG) or several, which typically consist of employees who want to identify with race, gender, sexual orientation, or age, to name a few. They might be frustrated, because they want change more quickly than you can manage it. Stay close to them, keep listening, and demonstrate that you are moving forward. It’s important to have a plan, be transparent about what your plan is, and keep people updated on your progress and how you’re tracking.
Phase 4: Move D+I into the Core of Your Business
We’ve arrived at the phase where your equity strategy is no longer just about internal talent and culture; now it is reflected in your business model. At some point, at least one of the pillars is your product or market. Done well, inclusion and equity are baked into your product decisions, the services you offer, your brand, and the way you think about your customers. If yours is a life sciences company, perhaps equity is an element in how you conduct clinical trials, or how you consider the impact of socioeconomic status on access to care. In enterprise, you want to think about empowering businesses from underrepresented communities. In consumer companies, you want to create forums to address systemic racism with your customers.
Diversity and inclusion work is never “one and done,” any more than motivating employees or striving for excellence is. These are, and should be, drivers every day, and you must put the same strategic oversight in place for D&I that you would for any other business strategy. True operational diversity doesn’t happen overnight, and there can be painful missteps along the way. As I remind our GV portfolio founders grappling with these issues, no matter what phase you’re in right now, this is hard work, but it could be the most meaningful work you ever do.