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Challenging the bro-grammer stereotype

The first day of Techstars Boston, I was impressed by all the thoughtful, kind, and honest people I met. There was little in the group that resembled the stereotype of a mansplaining bro-grammer. Except for the fact that people said the word “awesome” a lot and nearly everyone was a straight, white man.

There was just a small handful of women and even fewer people of color. One female-led startup. Two founders of color.

But within that first day, both Clement Cazalot, the managing director, and Aaron O’Hearn the director of Techstars Boston, stood up in front of the entire class and told us that this lack of diversity was their fault. They called this their personal failure to recruit more women and people with diverse backgrounds.

They didn’t make excuses or get defensive. They acknowledged it and took responsibility. The program tracked hundreds and hundreds of companies from applications and referrals from the network: only 18 percent of teams had a female founder n and just 48 percent self-identified as non-white (although only a fraction of the applicants shared this information, and empirical data would suggest a very different ratio where non-white applicants are a minority).

Since that day a few weeks ago, by opening the conversation about the very visible diversity gap, Aaron and Clement have already taken the first step towards changing it. This conversation is just the start.

What can we do to change this?

In short, I can see at least three huge obstacles.

  1. Fighting the bad reputation of an entire industry

On that first day, Aaron and Clement also set the tone for three months of a startup accelerator focused on personal development and propelling these startup ideas forward. They laid out the core values of giving first, acting with integrity, and treating each other with respect. They didn’t skip over a single bullet of the Techstars’ Code of Conduct, putting serious weight behind their statements that they would not tolerate any harassment or violence.

It all sounds like common sense, but they are fighting against the reputation of the entire tech/startup ecosystem that is rightly and publicly criticized for having a gender-discrimination problem, an even worse racial disparity, and a track record of sexual harassment.

This bad reputation has a major impact on many potential founders, who might have an amazing idea for a new startup. How many women want to be in a group of dudes mansplaining tech? How many people of color want to feel like the token black friend? Or worse, discriminated against when the investors come around later?

Those fears are real.

Fighting this reputation only starts with words and conversations. Statements that set Techstars as a safe place for not just all kinds of business ideas, but all kind of people. Aaron, Clement, and all the others here who go out of their way to make sure that every person here is treated with respect.

Then those words must be backed up with action.

  1. If you’re actually biased towards actions

It’s not enough to say you care about diversity. You have to follow your words with real actions. This is the supposed mindset of every entrepreneur: see a problem, search out solutions, and take action.

In taking action, Techstars publishes data on diversity and established a foundation exclusively for giving grants to organizations with programs focused on improving diversity in entrepreneurship. Locally, the Techstars Boston is searching for more actionable steps.

“We’re being explicit and looking for solutions,” Clement says. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ and we have to have a long-term approach.”

Clement wants to improve diversity in the application pipeline and make the program known for attracting a diverse mix of potential founders. Last fall, he and Aaron put the word out to people they knew in the community, made the rounds to venture capitalists, and held office hours to recruiting potential founders. Those actions weren’t enough.

In a similar vein, the managing director of Techstars Seattle, Chris Devore, wrote a blog post last year after the program had only one female-led startup that accepted a slot in the program. Chris wrote he was frustrated that he failed to recruit diverse startups and asked for ideas from the Seattle community. Following Chris’ request for help, the diversity in the Seattle program has improved – with the press calling it one of Seattle’s most diverse classes yet.

Some Techstars programs, including in Boston, have had a more equal gender mix (or completely equal) among their startup founders. It takes planning and intentional effort, the long-term approach to get the word out before 2019 applications even open in the summer.

  1. Change starts with all of us

We need all of Boston engaging in this conversation and looking for solutions. More diversity in early stage startups is the fastest way to challenge the reputation that afflicts this industry. To make steps toward better, safer, more respectful workplaces for everyone.

This takes getting the new Techstars founders, the alumni, the mentors, and community partners all involved. For all of us in the Boston community too — in tech, education, finance, marketing, whatever — we can help change this.

Demo Day is at the end of April. Tell your friends, family, or students to come, meet the Techstar team, and the founders. Applications open for the 2019 program in the summer and stay open until the fall.

Help us recruit, encourage, and support all those founders who don’t look like the bro-grammer stereotype.


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Shannon McFarland Shannon McFarland
Shannon is a 2018 Hackstar at Techstars Boston, a writer, and a former journalist focused on telling true stories about good ideas.