Minority Report: #SOCAP16
Impact investing, race relations, practiced inclusion, social capital. While my first piece on SOCAP came from a more tactical topic (they invited me to startup pitches, I was grateful to attend), this piece came from a much larger issue consuming minds these days, both in tech and in the nation at large: racism, sexism, and discrimination in all forms. In fact, my interest when registering for SOCAP was chiefly two-fold: 1) impact investing 2) impacting culture. That is to say, attendance was tied to this issue that shows itself relentlessly in the United States, in its cities with bullets, in its companies with comfortable stereotypes, and sadly even in its presidential politics. ‘Money and meaning’? Well, I can’t think of more meaningful [investment] work than getting our -ism house in order, an indirect by-product of investing for return in those that DO look different. In seeing those that have been disenfranchised, those more and more likely to be living in poverty, then make it in[to] another economy … well, that’s what it’s all about, that which we hold dear: equal rights, equal opportunity. It’s not another success despite the odds, but a success that is helping to change them.
“my interest in SOCAP was chiefly two-fold: 1) impact investing 2) impacting culture.”
Was there a Colonel Sanders convention in SF? Nope. His name is Kevin Jones. He helped create the first Impact Hub in the United States as well as the SOCAP conference itself. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he can fry a mean chicken though.) In a word: genuine. He is completely at home onstage with 3 fiercely strong African-American women. The topic of conversation: ‘What happens when your ‘friends & family’ don’t have any money?’ The early-stage funding gap for African-Americans is a very real obstacle, and for many, an insurmountable void. A lot was covered here in an hour, everything from Mr. Jones discussing the deal struck with a Mississippi family member to take down the Confederate Flag, to an audience member suggesting a ‘tithe’ on the tithe that flows into church’s coffers every Sunday (no doubt an interesting take on #WWJD). It gave me pause however, I think ‘God’ would be interested in the idea of investments being made in community members that would actually help that community grow. Something new, something different, something better than ‘god is the answer’ in reference to the next life, but instead, more tangible support in this one. There is most definitely a business around god in the Christian faith at any rate, for larger congregations, why not support startup founders aligned in their faith? In any case, I left that session feeling like I learned something by becoming more aware, at the least I caught a glimpse into a world within the US that I do not know.
“It’s not another success despite the odds, but a success that is helping to change them.”
The other race-related session I attended was a touch further downstream perhaps, but in being centered around the fact ‘less than 1% of VC funding goes to entrepreneurs of color’, most certainly a related conversation/audience. How then can we shift the numbers from 1% to 10%? One obvious answer, at least when referring to software/tech investing, is to empower more Latinos and African-Americans with computer-science skills and degrees. The STEM conversation is a larger one and applicable to all races however. More specifically, the question addressed on this panel was: why don’t even the current numbers of comp-sci candidates of color track/correlate well to those getting tech jobs and starting VC-backed companies? The sad truth, it’s not because they are less capable, it’s because they are different. What correction is then needed/expected in the market? First off, revealing that underserved demographics represent a HUGE business opportunity collectively. In my mind, a more than relevant development is the Universal Basic Income (UBI) study being done by YC in Oakland. This will result in hard data that explicitly reveals willingness-to-pay, and from the organization that wrote the book on seed-stage accelerators no less.
Without question there is still a lot to do on the systemic side to reduce racism from the ground up, but I also want to take a moment to mention anomalies moving towards change at the top. The infamous NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant wants to be known more for the investments from his newly-crowned VC fund than basketball. That’s a mighty tall order given his abilities on the court, but it gives me hope. And speaking of Hope, I wouldn’t doubt President Obama has similar goals for himself once he leaves the Oval Office and enters the private sector. Given all our President has had to deal with in office, I would NOT want to be one that gets is his way. That’s all I have to say about that.
“Given all our President has had to deal with in office, I would NOT want to be one that gets is his way.”
In addition to mentioning the YC UBI study in the 1->10% session, I also brought up that the Secretary of Defense attended a tech conference earlier in the week of SOCAP. Does a Cabinet-level, politician’s politician that defines ‘inside the Beltway’ matter to the conversation of increasing diversity among Silicon Valley’s inner circles? I think it matters a lot. It indicates just how high the demand for developers is, which means there are distinct powers-that-be investing in making more of them. That type of demand is not determined by the color of one’s skin. I hope one of the next great AR breakthroughs is an app that allows us to change our appearance in many ways, including skin color. [I’m thinking an aqua color would be good.] That to me would be a great ‘social’ investment. Watch out Social Capital, I hope there is more competition coming for that name-sake amongst the top investment deals in the Valley. And in an effort to further bridge the seemingly separated realms of impact investing and ‘normal’ investments, Tony Hseih’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas is a model that fits, and outside of the Bay-Area at that. One that does not require having Stanford or Google in your backyard, but nonetheless attracts top-tier talent interested in making a change.