Piotr Godzinski
Startup Contributor

Diversity: How the Startup Ecosystem Can Make A Difference

By Piotr Godzinski | Thu, 05/06/2021 - 12:55

Achieving diversity in any economic ecosystem is a tough challenge and it is a tricky topic to share an opinion on. However, I strongly believe startups and venture capitalists can and must have an impact.

During various, intense, private conversations I have had with friends and family about affirmative action, I have stated my case insisting on two keys points:

-         the startup ecosystem, because of its own inherent characteristics, has an undeniable capacity to make a difference on diversity-related issues;

-         acting within the educational structures is fundamental.

It might not be The Solution, but it can help.

Why Startups Can and Should Change the World

Let’s start with a most sincere personal fact: I do not know what it means to be discriminated against. I am a white, male, Polish immigrant who grew up in France in a multicultural setting where different languages, religions and mindsets were part of everyday interactions. I now work in Mexico. I am lucky to have been raised in such a colorful, open setting where I was never rejected because of my appearance or personal beliefs. I have never felt judged on any criteria other than my behavior, words and actions. And because of this, my bias might be part of the solution.

A startup is an idea meant to die. It is an initiative made out of hopes that costs more money than it can generate in its early stages and consumes energy 24/7 while having very limited chances of success. This we know.

There is a less widespread upside to startups and it is that they make the world smaller very often founders and teams are not from the market they operate in. 

These two fundamental characteristics partially explain why we are not (too) narrow-minded when reaching out for help or recruiting:

-         we look for skills: can you deliver?

-         we need the right attitude: no a-holes accepted.

At Finnu I am blessed to work with Ruchali and Julian, amazing human beings and definitely skilled co-founders. Respectively, they are: Indian, female, “more seasoned” than me; German, male, younger. We decided to launch an endeavor together and see what comes out of it.

Why is this relevant to the issue I am tackling today? Many stakeholders highlight how rare it is to have a woman co-founder and CTO: Ruchali Dodderi. For quite some time, I never knew what to say when VCs, partners or friends mentioned it. When I met Ruchali, I didn’t ask myself, “Do I want to work with a woman?” What I wanted to know when Julian May introduced her was:

-         who is she, as a person?

-         would she want to work with us?

-         could she get stuff done? 

It never occurred to us that we were on the way to a rare setup: having a woman co-founder and CTO. Ruchali is a great person and a brilliant software engineer. We are lucky at Finnu! And yet, it took me two years to realize how much attention people pay to the uniqueness of our co-founding team.

Our team has grown along the way. We now have 14 people with seven citizenships among them, multiple cultures and different religions. And guess what? That just happened too. We are not driven by the mindset of introducing a more diverse setup. Well, maybe we actually could be. More diversity means different points of views, different knowledge, more filters, alternative ways to address a challenge. Overall, it is richer, it increases the chances of success and it makes the journey more interesting. That deserves another article though.

This being said, we choose who to work with only basing our decisions on whether they can help us or not. Yes, we need help from others. 

The more we go forward the more I realize that:

  • many people in the startup/VC space don’t actually care about gender, nationality, background, sexual preferences, etc.
  • those who do may at some point need help and change their approach because a dying startup forced them to. In a nutshell, choosing between dying with their biases or challenging themselves.
  • at Finnu, we are building a diverse team without even thinking about it, just because we onboard those who reach out and can help.

Having a woman CTO and co-founder doesn’t mean we are an example of diversity. Moreover, there is one huge limit to my naïveté as well: we can only onboard those who reach out. 

Venture Capital Funds Can Shake Things Up

VCs help in various areas. They provide funds, network, experience, expertise, time and many other things we need. As is the case in a lot of startups we meet, VCs offer a pretty diverse team setup: we talk very often with people who are different from us. The world is small in the VC ecosystem and we all meet at some point along the road.

How can VCs and startups help anyone enter the startup environment? I believe professional social media are not the only resources available and young people who are not yet in the workforce are invisible on LinkedIn. Students are not really there so how can they know we are happy to welcome anyone who can help and wants to?

Maybe we can reach out to high schools and universities and share our stories? Not that no one ever did that. I bet it might actually be common in some countries or with elite schools but no startup or VC within my network has ever mentioned such a thing to me.

We took part months ago in a study about mental health within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Performed by Endeavor Mexico, it was sponsored by Mexico-based VCs. Awesome initiative. Maybe we could leverage VCs’ networks to take some of their members, some portfolio company team members and share the details of our ecosystem at high schools and universities? Anywhere else?

Prior to the launch of my previous startup, this is actually how we found our first business angels. Our Paris-based university invited successful entrepreneurs to share their journey during our entrepreneurship master’s. My future co-founder asked one of those guys for an email and, four years later, we had launched our first startup and closed a seed round. In other words, we just saw a startup entrepreneur and decided to become one.

I believe that by behaving as I hope a lot just do, focusing on how others can help and not how different they might be and most importantly, sharing this mindset with students, we might end up seeing more diverse applications and, therefore, more diverse teams. 

I do not pretend that this will magically create equal opportunities for everyone. I just think we can contribute.  

Here is my request: Dear VCs, take us to schools so every kid will know he/she can become an engineer, a CFO, a CMO, a CPO or a co-founder (tough one) and join our world. 

I hope Ladji Doucouré, the French 2005 World Champion in the 110-meter hurdles, won’t mind me quoting him: “… I want to show young people in marginalized areas that it is possible to build and emancipate themselves through sport and its values, such as fair play. The objective of a Champion for Peace* is to inspire these young people and give them a role model to follow.”  Let’s reproduce a similar initiative in our ecosystem.

*Peace and Sport brings together and develops partnerships between the Peace (NGOs, UN Agencies, Academics), the Sport (Olympic Family, International Federations, National Olympic Committees, Athletes) and the Political worlds with the aim of implementing and ensuring the sustainability of field programs, maximizing the use of sport for development and peace and leading social transformation in every area of the world affected by poverty or social instability.

Photo by:   Piotr Godzinsky