Airbnb has long promoted itself as a new way to travel, encouraging users to abandon pricey hotels in favor of renting out a stranger’s extra bedroom. But lately it’s become clear that this future of hospitality isn’t actually for everyone. If you’re black, or transgender, or a sex worker, Airbnb hosts might not open their doors to you. And because they’re private individuals renting out a part of their home, there isn’t much recourse against such discrimination.
It’s not super surprising that a company dominated by white men might fail to anticipate the needs of transgender travelers, or travelers of color. This same lack of awareness can be seen in Twitter’s ongoing struggle to deal with harassment and abuse among its users, or Facebook’s baffling notion of what constitutes privacy, or the many celebrated algorithms and AI platforms that replicate racist, sexist ideas about the way the world works.
The white man problem that plagues Silicon Valley is about more than harassment or discrimination. But the white man problem that plagues Silicon Valley is about more than harassment or discrimination. The lack of diversity directly effects what problems Silicon Valley prioritizes solving, what companies are deemed worth funding, what the future of technology will look like—and who gets the biggest benefit from it.
At this point it’s clear that the “world changing” companies of tech are mostly changing the world for privileged white men. It doesn’t take too much analysis to figure out that the hottest startups of the last few years seem to primarily be solving problems that afflict people with money. If you’re struggling to get by in a world where standing on the street to hail a cab is too much trouble, and you’re willing to spend as much money as you would eating out to dine in, startups are here to help you. If your issues are a little more complex—and, say, less readily exploited for profit—the tech scene is less likely to be of service.
But while it’s easy to mock the young men who dream of a world where no one has to do their own laundry and food is replaced by a more or less palatable gruel, they aren’t really the problem—or not its fundamental source, anyway. Because as laughable as some of Silicon Valley’s most hyped innovations may seem, they’re hyped primarily because they’ve received a good deal of funding. Who is deemed “promising” or worthy of coveted VC cash is one of the primary ways that the Valley’s white man problem can assert itself. It’s clear that the “world changing” companies of tech are mostly changing the world for privileged white men.
The good news is that women and people of color are working hard to get access to that funding. Debra Cleaver, the founder of voter engagement platform Vote.org, is hoping to break into the big time with the help of famed startup accelerator Y Combinator, which accepted Vote.org into its spring 2016 class. For Cleaver, one of the of the biggest surprises about Y Combinator has been the diversity within her accelerator class. Despite Y Combinator’s reputation for supporting white men, “I haven’t been in as diverse a room as the [Y Combinator] room since I moved to San Francisco,” Cleaver notes. “[The accelerator] has such a high percentage of non-American founders that even though it does skew heavily male it doesn’t skew white … which was a huge surprise.”
But a diverse startup accelerator is only the beginning: The small amount of seed funding, support, and industry connections that Y Combinator provides don’t guarantee a company’s success. “It remains to be seen which of the companies that come from [my class] are the most successful,” Cleaver says. “Will we see [that it’s] the companies led by straight white men? Maybe YC is giving all these opportunities to people who don’t fit that mold, but the larger VC community isn’t.”
Who is deemed worthy of coveted VC cash is one of the primary ways the white man problem can assert itself. Other founders’ experiences suggest that might be the case. Stephanie Lampkin, founder and CEO of the Blendoor blind recruiting app, assumed getting funding for her company would be a slam dunk. After all, companies are fixated on diversity in hiring right now and her platform makes it easier to hire a diverse workforce by focusing solely on candidates’ merit and skills. Yet even after a stint in Stanford’s prestigious StartX accelerator, she’s still having difficulty getting VCs to back her platform—something she finds astonishing, given that the average graduate of an elite startup accelerator secures $2 million in funding upon graduation.
“A peer of mine actually suggested that I have a white co-founder,” says Lampkin, noting that this person—a Y Combinator alum—brought a white man onto the team solely for the purpose of pitching the company to investors (as compensation, he was given a 1% stake in the company). “It is so funny to me, because this is actually what happened in the 1800s. A lot of African Americans that started successful companies would hire a white family, or a white man, to be the face of the company, even though they were running it on the back-end. This is something that happened 200 years ago, so the fact that we’re still doing this today in a different form is fascinating to me.”
It’s notable that Cleaver and Lampkin are heading projects that truly do have the capability to change the world, not merely in some vague sense, but in real, concrete ways. Cleaver recalls past experiences working for a social change company headed by straight white men.
“We weren’t actually going after structural racism and sexism and classism at a fundamental power shift.” “I found pretty quickly that the idea of social change was very surface,” she says. “We weren’t actually going after structural racism and sexism and classism at a fundamental power shift. We were looking for the quick, media friendly win that we could quantify using metrics like earned media. At the end of the day, when you address sexism, that is a problem that you can’t measure using earned media. But I think if your social change organization is run by people who benefit … from the current power structure, they are simply not motivated to change that.”
That same power structure is what informs the biases baked into Silicon Valley, serving up limited ideas about what a founder looks like and who can head a successful company—and making it harder for women like Cleaver and Lampkin to get their projects off the ground.
Fortunately, there are funders out there who are trying to break this cycle. Lampkin, for example, was able to secure an early round of funding through Pipeline Angels, a network of female investors that works to bring more women (and, in particular, women of color) into the world of angel investing.
It’s not surprising that the female investors of Pipeline Angels were more receptive to the offerings of Blendoor. But Lampkin thinks white male VCs should expand their ideas about what a successful founder looks like—not just for the sake of social impact, but because it makes good business sense, too. “I would like to see more of the conversation shifting to why this is poor economics, and how organizations are leaving money on the table by not funding women and people of color,” she says. She recognizes that it might take some breakout successes by companies led by women and people of color for this shift to happen. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long.