To build an equitable ecosystem, start with “the diversity problem”


 There is a phrase I hear ALL THE TIME that makes my brain want to explode: “Women and people of color are welcome here.”

Sounds nice and inclusive on the surface, right? But, in reality, it exemplifies the exclusionary attitude of our government, our workplaces, and our entrepreneurial ecosystems. It implies that women and people of color are GUESTS in someone else’s house. When I walk into a house that I helped design, build, and now live in, do you need to tell me I am welcome there? It’s my own damn house!

The entrepreneurial ecosystems in American cities were designed and built by white men, for white men. Period.

It’s a fundamental flaw in these ecosystems that dooms them to produce suboptimal results for everyone in the community.

This didn’t happen by accident. These flawed ecosystems develop from one underlying assumption:

White men are the world’s premier source of brilliance, innovation, and hard work. Their ideas are the best and their skills are best suited for building successful companies. Because they are most deserving, we should pour ALL of our tangible and intangible resources into them.

Because of this assumption, our society spends incredible amounts of time, energy, and money building dysfunctional entrepreneurial ecosystems — ecosystems where women and people of color are “welcome.”

The intersection of inclusion and innovation is the STARTING point

Entrepreneurship is an engine for the economy. Small businesses and startups create jobs, drive innovation, and build the future in ways that large, corporate entities simply cannot. At the national, state and local levels, we need to build thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems that bring out and support the most creative and competent entrepreneurial leaders.

Designing systems that limit competition by eliminating more than half the pool of talent does nothing but lower the bar. It leads us to mistake mediocrity for excellence and confuse pattern recognition with innovation.

If we assume that entrepreneurial talent can come from anywhere and anyone, then the system should be designed to recognize and foster talent in all forms — black, white, brown, male, female, able-bodied, disabled, etc.

This means that we need to engage in equity and inclusion work at the BEGINNING and throughout the entire process. The intersection of inclusion and innovation is the STARTING point, not an add on at the end.

But the reaction to starting with inclusion looks different for men and women

I was at a national event for entrepreneurial ecosystem builders earlier this year, where the facilitators put a significant focus on conversations about: a) how the hosting organization can ensure they are inclusive, and b) how the participants can work toward building inclusive ecosystems in their home communities. It was an intense experience for many of us. More than one white, male attendee questioned the attention and time spent on the issues of equity and inclusion. One said to me (this is a slight paraphrase):

“I can’t believe how much time we are spending on diversity. I came here to learn how to build an ecosystem, not to talk about diversity. If I knew this is what this was going to be about, I probably wouldn’t have come. I am busy and this is not worth my time away from work. Don’t get me wrong, I am a supporter of inclusion, but that’s a different conference.”

While many (certainly not all) of the white men at the ecosystem builders conference were feeling uncertain and/or frustrated, the women at the event repeatedly commented on how refreshing it was for this discussion to be open, transparent, and real. They articulated that the event and network were more beneficial than they thought it was going to be precisely BECAUSE it was tackling the issues of inclusion.

In my experience, there are three major barriers that get in the way of meaningful progress toward building more inclusive ecosystems:

1. Lack of experience engaging with gender in mixed company

Talking about gender dynamics in mixed company is hard for everyone. There are things women will discuss and explore behind closed doors, but not with men or in the company of men.

In general, women have a lot more experience thinking and talking about issues of gender than men typically do. We live in a patriarchal society, in which women are second class citizens. We have generations of women who have consistently had to fight for opportunities and legitimacy. Gender is a topic that is always present in our daily interactions. We have developed conscious and unconscious ways of navigating political, economic, and social norms that are oppressive. This isn’t to say we dwell on it every minute of the day. It is only to say that it is present. It is how we live our lives and do our work. We don’t have a choice.

White men, in contrast, often don’t have a lot of experience examining gender dynamics because they have the privilege not to. It isn’t that gender dynamics aren’t at play every day for men. It means that the world is built for them to receive the benefits and that those benefits remain largely invisible to them.

Historically, they have not had to figure out how to navigate their whiteness or their maleness. These identities bring invisible rewards, not negative consequences.

2. Ego gets in the way of examining your privilege

When white men get into these conversations, their ego often gets the best of them.

The undercurrent at this conference was an attitude of defiance from some of the men in the group, as if they were saying, “How dare you force me to talk about this peripheral topic on your terms, not mine.”

If white men are accustomed to controlling the conversation and feeling like the expert, they are lost when it comes to conversation about equity and inclusion LED BY women and people of color. Men’s sense of their own relevance and competence is challenged in these discussions.

Even in 2018, many, many men are not used to being in settings where women have more expertise and control the conversation. Research shows that when men are in settings that are 50% male and 50% female, they will say that it was “overwhelmingly female” and that women “dominated” the room.

Instead of listening and engaging as a learner, appreciating the opportunity to hear women and collaborate, their ego leads them to center the conversation on themselves. A few behavioral responses I’ve encountered fall along these themes:

  • “I’m actually an expert on this topic because I listened to a podcast.”
  • “Wow, I suck. Men can’t do anything right. I’m so sorry. God, I feel so bad.”
  • “Women are being overly sensitive. They always want to play their ‘woman’ card.”
  • “I’m done. I did not come here for this.”

3. Conversation does not equal action

Many women maintain a healthy level of skepticism when they encounter situations where diversity and inclusion are supposedly in focus. Most of us have been through numerous equity and inclusion conversations that went NOWHERE. The exercise was designed to check a box, not to make meaningful change. The women are tired of showing up, giving their energy and focus to difficult conversations, only to end up disappointed.

Men seem to think that if conversation is happening, then the problem is solved. Women know the reality — talk is cheap — and they’re looking for action. They want clear, concrete action steps, with follow-up to ensure things are progressing and changing.

White men define equity and inclusion work as “conversation” while women see it as a design process integrated in the work.

The work is just beginning

I’m glad more people are having conversations about diversity and inclusion. But too often, these conversations are relegated to the margins. Most ecosystem builders agree that diversity and inclusion are important, but they still think the foundation of the ecosystem comes first, and D&I can be added later. Unless we want to keep building ecosystems based on the assumption that white men have a monopoly on entrepreneurial talent and ideas, we must change our approach. We have to recognize that building inclusive ecosystems means STARTING with inclusion, and integrating it into every step of the process. This is critical if women and people of color are to be designers, builders, and beneficiaries of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And, our economies and communities reap the rewards of investing in the best talent.