With protesters in the street of most American cities last month calling for racial justice, VC firms rushed to announce that they were doing more to invest in Black founders. As this TechCrunch article details, these pledges of support came from across the industry, with prominent firms such as Andreessen Horowitz and SoftBank announcing new funds specifically targeted at underrepresented founders.
Now that the news has mainly moved away from the protests, how are investors doing at keeping their commitments? It's too early to say definitively, but if you're looking for anecdotal evidence, a recent piece in Medium from founder Nerissa Zhang is a doozy. And not in a good way.
Same pitch deck, different email address
In it, Zhang, a Black woman married to an Asian ex-Google engineer, details what happened when she saw this outpouring of interest in Black founders and reached out for support. An experienced engineer and the founder of two successful gyms, Zhang also developed a fitness app along with her husband and was looking for investment to grow the business.
The first challenge was actually finding the contact details of the investors who claimed to be interested in supporting Black founders. With no public email addresses available for many, Zhang and her husband resorted to using his network to track down their details, an avenue not open to many founders from under-represented communities, Zhang notes. She then shot off a professional, polished pitch deck to a number of VCs, only to hear crickets in response.
Maybe her app just wasn't a good match for these firms, you might think. That's entirely possible, but wait until you hear what happened when she sent off the exact same message and deck but instead used her husband's email:
Curiously, when I used my husband's email to send our pitch, that's when I started getting some responses. Do VCs only read pitches submitted by men? Do they prefer to hear from someone who is Asian rather than Black? I had the same experience four years ago in 2016 when I was raising funding for my previous startup. I got no responses until I started using the email of my co-founder Noah, who is Asian.
This is just one story, of course (though it's a worrying, thoughtfully written one you should check out in full), but there is plenty of harder evidence that, despite VC's public proclamations of support for diverse founders, the industry is missing out on the vast potential of Black entrepreneurs.
According to the last available numbers, startups with a Black founder receive less than one percent of VC dollars. And a Black woman raising substantial funds for a company is so rare it merits celebratory headlines. All this despite years of attention to the huge disparities in who gets investment dollars.
Black VCs raise an eyebrow of skepticism
Which might be why several Black VCs have expressed skepticism for the newfound enthusiasm for investing in founders of color among their peers. "If people really want to invest in us, they would have picked up the phone and invested in one of us. We don't need another PR stunt," Melissa Bradley of 1863 Ventures told the Times of Entrepreneurship.
"Investors have been reaching out to me left and right asking what they can do. It's not complicated: Invest in Black founders. You don't have to invest in ALL Black founders. You can keep your thesis, and yes, even your so-called 'standards,' and find multiple Black founders to invest in," Backstage Capital's Arlan Hamilton messaged TechCrunch. "If you need help, I have 130 portfolio companies + I can introduce you to a curated list of a dozen Black investors to hire. My email address is ARLAN@BackstageCapital.com. No more excuses."
Time will tell if the recent noise about racial justice among VCs will translate into measurable, meaningful change. But Zhang's post is a helpful reminder that actions often do not match words, and continued attention to how VCs are doing is necessary to keep them to their word to support more Black founders.