with Tonya Riley
Venture capital firms are proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.
But the Medium posts, news releases and tweets from these titans of technology stand in stark contrast to the lack of diversity in the exclusionary and insulated world of start-up investing.
Just 1 percent of start-up founders who raised venture capital are black, according to a joint study from RateMyInvestor and DiversityVC. And 81 percent of venture capital firms didn’t have a single black investor, according to a 2018 analysis by Equal Ventures partner Richard Kerby.
Black venture capitalists and their allies are responding to broad calls from venture capital firms aligning themselves with protesters against racial injustice. But these venture capitalists want specific action, including hiring more black investors and funding more black founders.
The rallying cry from black investors is simple: “Make the hire. Send the wire.”
The calls for action have even made it onto a T-shirt. From Tiffani Ashley Bell, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit The Human Utility, who coined the phrase:
This weekend in replying to @Bryce, I coined the phrase “Make the hire. Send the wire.” as what tech needs to do differently now. Some folks wanted that on a shirt.
Here you go!
— Tiffani Ashley Bell (@tiffani) June 3, 2020
But shaking up the largely white, male world of the venture capital industry will be difficult.
Black investors say the industry has an opportunity to make major changes opening it up to black technologists — and potentially reap big returns on investments in more diverse entrepreneurs. They’re hopeful that this moment could be a turning point, but skeptical of corporate platitudes after years of promises in Silicon Valley to improve diversity.
“Action always speaks louder than words,” said Brian Hollins, a founding board member of BLCK VC, an organization trying to improve black representation in the venture capital world. “The precedent of late has been make sure that we say something so that we’re not in the wrong camp. But the reality is over the next six to 12 months, we’ll really see who truly makes the change.”
BLCK VC is trying to seize the momentum surrounding the protests to make lasting changes in venture capital, Hollins tells me.
More than 2,000 people have viewed a recording on YouTube of BLCK VC’s virtual event “We Won’t Wait.” At the event, black venture capitalists shared their stories about challenges in the industry, and also laid out clear ways white venture capitalists can be part of the change.
Monique Woodard, a venture capitalist, said when she first arrived in Silicon Valley in 2008, she was often the only black person at an event or start-up demo day. Even as more work was done to build up an ecosystem of black founders, venture capitalists were not investing in them. She said she realized she needed to be on the investor side of the table to create change.
“Black founders are often over mentored and under invested,” she said. “Check your desire to open up office hours and mentor exclusively, verses your ability to write a check. … If you have the ability to write a check, but you will only offer mentorship to black founders, that is only helpful to your ego.”
BLCK VC also called on venture capital firms last week to discuss within their own firms and with the companies they invest in the recent protests and police brutality, as well as to donate to charitable organizations fighting institutional racism.
Some venture capital firms are starting to dedicate funds — but black investors warn they still aren’t doing enough.
SoftBank announced last week it would create a $100 million fund to invest only in companies led by people of color. Prominent black tech leaders, including Pindrop Chairman Paul Judge and TaskRabbit chief executive Stacy Brown-Philpot, will serve on the fund’s investment committee. Andreessen Horowitz announced it would start a new fund to invest in underrepresented founders, with $2.2 million in initial contributions from the firm’s investors.
Yet investors have warned these funds amount to paltry sums for well-funded venture firms. Softbank’s first Vision Fund, for instance, was $100 billion, and it has attempted to raise another. Andressen Horowitz last year reportedly closed on $2.75 billion across two funds.
Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, a firm that invests in underrepresented founders, joked on Twitter that she would start a $13 fund to support straight, white male founders. She said in an interview yesterday on Bloomberg that her tweet was intended to call out all funds led by white men that have large means but are dedicating only a small amount of funds to such initiatives.
“It is not enough for them or anyone else,” Hamilton, the author of the new book “It’s About Damn Time,” told Bloomberg. “But it is something. And something is better than nothing.”
Woodard told venture capitalists they should be “well beyond the idea of separate but equal” during the recent BLCK VC event.
“Black entrepreneurs don’t need a separate water fountain,” Woodard said. “You have to fix the systemic issues in your funds that keep black founders out and keep you from delivering better returns.”
Other white venture capitalists are using different strategies to try to make a difference.
Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and the managing director of Initialized Capital, made headlines last week when he announced his resignation from the Reddit board, and he urged the company to replace him with a black director. Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman said Reddit would honor his request and also change its policies to specifically address hate speech. Hamilton and others praised the dramatic move.
Ohanian, who is married to tennis star Serena Williams, said he needed to have an answer ready for his black daughter when she asks him, “What did you do?”
“I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” he said on Twitter. “To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop.”
Brad Feld, a venture capitalist at Foundry Group, said in a blog post last week he regrets not focusing enough on black founders and investors. He says he’s trying to remedy that by having conversations with them and asking one question:
“What are two initiatives you are involved in right now that I could put time and/or money into in support of you and your activities?”
Black investors are calling for accountability from the firms pledging to do more.
For half a decade, major tech companies have annually published reports on the diversity metrics of employees in their companies, sometimes with very granular details. Yet venture capital firms — which often tightly guard data about the performance of privately held companies and funds — have been less transparent.
Investors say that if they want to see the industry change, they need to evolve on this front, too.
In a recent blog post titled “So You Want to Fund Black Founders,” Brian Dixon, a partner at Kapor Capital, called for firms to publicly state their goals, measure their progress and publish the results. His firm in 2015 publicly launched a $40 million initiative focused on diversity in technology, with $25 million earmarked for venture capital. Four years later, it published a report on its findings from investing in underrepresented founders.
“We’ve got to move past the point of being secretive about it,” Dixon said. “You’ve got to publish. You’ve got to say where you want to go, or come up with some dollar amount. Because what will happen is in three months, six months or months down the line, if nothing changes — nobody would know. ”
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Tesla workers tested positive for the coronavirus last month, after Elon Musk reopened its plant in defiance of county orders.
Two workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, told my colleague Faiz Siddiqui that supervisors held meetings with their teams to tell them the company had reported several cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Impacted employees were told to stay home.
One of the workers said a supervisor confirmed two positive cases to a group at the Fremont-based seat assembly facility, which is a short distance from the company’s main production plant.
The company reached an agreement with Alameda County to reopen the plant on May 18, contingent on strict social distancing measures. Per that agreement, Tesla would have to report all positive cases to the Alameda County Public Health Department. But because Tesla resumed production a week earlier, there could have been cases that were never reported to the county because Tesla was “not required to directly report known cases” before the agreement, county officials told Faiz.
The county was not aware of workplace-related infections of county residents with ties to Tesla, said county spokeswoman Neetu Balram in an email. During the prior week “if a person tested positive and they were not a resident of Alameda County, it’s possible we would not have that case reported to us,” she added.
Democrats’ new police overhaul bill would regulate law enforcement’s use of facial recognition.
The sweeping legislation, which was introduced after a week of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody, would prohibit the use of facial recognition on real-time body cam footage and limit the use of the technology on existing footage unless a warrant is obtained.
It would also more generally safeguard who has access to body cam footage, and it introduces oversight procedures for data collection.
Currently 166 Democratic representatives and 35 Democratic and Independent senators are backing the bill, making it one of the most widely supported proposals to regulate facial recognition use by the police in play.
But privacy advocates say the bill doesn’t go far enough. They want it to ban all, not just real-time, facial recognition from body cam footage.
“Body cameras are intended to be tools for accountability, not police surveillance,” ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement. “We need to invest in technologies that can help eliminate the digital divide, not technologies that create a surveillance infrastructure that exacerbates policing abuses and structural racism.”
Putting guardrails on law enforcement use of facial recognition picked up steam in Congress long before recent protests. Lawmakers have held hearings on the issue and introduced legislation that would govern the government’s use of the technology.
Republicans led by Jordan are expected to release their own police reform proposal by the end of the week, the Hill reports.
IBM revealed yesterday it no longer sells or develops facial-recognition tools, as the protests raise concerns about the technology.
“IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” chief executive Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to Congress yesterday.
Krishna also advocated for national discussion about the place of facial recognition and other artificial technology tools in policing. He said he looked forward to working with Congress on new proposals including the police reform legislation introduced by Democrats.
The company’s decision is a major victory for advocates who have raised concerns about how facial recognition can lead to discriminatory policing, because research has shown the algorithms are often less accurate in identifying people of color and women.
Facial recognition did not generate significant revenue for IBM, Lauren Hirsh at CNBC notes. Rivals Microsoft and Amazon, on the other hand, have heavily invested in the technology in an effort to vie for government contracts.
A chorus of Twitter accounts are boosting Chinese diplomats and representatives’ responses to President Trump.
Reporters at The New York Times found hundreds of accounts that have engaged in such amplification and also demonstrated other suspicious behavior. Of the roughly 4,600 accounts studied by the Times during a recent week, one in seven only shared content from Beijing officials. One-third of the accounts had been created just as China-U.S. rivalries reheated over the past three months.
Both the U.S. State Department as well as Next Dim, a data firm in Israel, have found similar inauthentic-seeming accounts in March and April that promoted China’s response to the coronavirus.
But it’s far from clear whether the Chinese government is behind the swarm of accounts.
“Improving the health of the public conversation is a priority for our company,” Twitter said in a statement. “Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, is a violation of the Twitter Rules.”
The inconclusiveness of the findings highlights the challenges of identifying state-backed behavior. Twitter has determined operations to be state-backed after finding as few as six accounts, the Times notes.
But researchers say it’s just a matter of time.
“There’s no reason to think that the parts of the Chinese government that are formally in charge of conducting information operations are not able to conduct operations that are as sophisticated as others’,” said Camille François of the network analysis company Graphika. “They just haven’t been publicly exposed and dissected yet.”
Democrats are calling on the FBI and other government agencies to immediately cease surveillance of peaceful protests against police brutality.
The agencies’ surveillance tactics are “significantly chilling the First Amendment rights of Americans,” more than three dozen House Democrats claim in a letter to the heads of the FBI, National Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Patrol as well as Attorney General William P. Barr, acting secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.
Lawmakers cite the use of an array of surveillance technologies including drones, cellphone data- collecting stingrays and military-grade aerial cameras as examples of fast overreach of surveillance.
“Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration,” the lawmakers led by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rush Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) wrote.
Lawmakers have called for answers over the past week from the various federal agencies involved with protest surveillance but have been met with silence.
Privacy groups are suing the city of Los Angeles over a law that forces electric scooter companies to turn over real-time rider data.
The Northern and Southern California chapters of the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are arguing against the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s requirement for companies to share real-time trip data. They say it’s a violation of both the Fourth Amendment and the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
“Route data can reveal detailed, sensitive, and private information about riders,” said EFF Staff Attorney Hannah Zhao. “This is galling and improper, especially at a time when protests are erupting around the country and privacy protections for those exercising their free speech rights on the streets has taken on new importance.”
More privacy news:
Rant and rave
Google Cloud Vice President Brian Hall brought a new meaning to the “personal news” tweet.
He got the perfect response, too:
and here it is… the perfect response.
— Brian Hall (@IsForAt) June 9, 2020
- The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing, titled “COVID-19 Fraud: Law Enforcement’s Response to Those Exploiting the Pandemic,” today at 10 a.m.
- George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics will host a virtual forum on the coronavirus and social media disinformation on June 16 at 10 a.m.
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