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Sandi Lin of Skilljar is one of the few women entrepreneurs to graduate from Techstars, which is trying to boost the number of women participating in the startup incubator
Sandi Lin of Skilljar is one of the few women entrepreneurs to graduate from Techstars Seattle, which is trying to boost the number of women participating in the startup incubator

Whether it’s marriage equality, legalizing marijuana or addressing the growing gap between rich and poor, we Seattleites like to think of ourselves as national leaders on progressive issues.

But our regional economy depends heavily on the technology industry, a noticeable laggard on gender and racial diversity. Does our regional commitment to progressive values shine through, even in tech?

Sadly, the answer is worse than you might guess.

As a recent GeekWire piece painfully highlighted, Seattle currently ranks 20th among global tech hubs in its percentage of women tech founders (though we at least cracked the top 10 for the percentage of women startup employees). Not only are we not leading the charge, we barely make the list!

TechStars Seattle at its home in Startup Hall on the University of Washington campus
TechStars Seattle at its home in Startup Hall on the University of Washington campus

Embracing diversity isn’t just about living our region’s values of inclusion and equal opportunity, it’s also about building bigger, better companies. First Round Capital, a Silicon Firm known for making early bets on tech leaders like Uber, Square and Warby Parker, recently published their analysis of 10 years of performance data across their entire portfolio.

They found that teams with at least one female co-founder were on average 63% more valuable than those with all-male founding teams, a remarkable difference within an equally remarkable group of companies.

This has been on my mind more than usual recently because the parent organization of Techstars Seattle — Boulder, CO-based Techstars — recently made some very public commitments to help solve the tech industry’s diversity problem.

On August 4, in partnership with the Obama Administration and other technology industry leaders, Techstars announced a set of global diversity goals, including the following commitments:

  • Double the number of women in our accelerator program applicant pool and across our mentor network over four years.
  • Track participation in our programs by underrepresented minorities and double that from the baseline over the same time period.
  • Publish our diversity data annually.
  • Train staff on ‘unconscious bias’ and ensure that every selection committee includes at least two women so that female founders are represented in the selection process.

Last week, Techstars added weight to those commitments with the announcement of the Techstars Foundation, a new non-profit organization seed-funded by the Techstars investor and mentor community with a mission of improving diversity in tech entrepreneurship by providing opportunities for underrepresented entrepreneurs through grants, scholarships, and sponsorships.

As Managing Director of Techstars Seattle, I’m inspired by Techstars’ global leadership on this issue, and wanted to make a public commitment on behalf of our local organization to support these same goals.

As a first step, I also wanted to share our first-ever public report card on our past gender diversity performance (we don’t have accurate past records on ethnic diversity but are now collecting that data for reporting in the future).

I wish I could say that Techstars Seattle has outperformed the Seattle market on gender diversity, but our track record roughly matches that of the Seattle community as a whole; from 2010 to 2015, Techstars Seattle welcomed 140 founders, of which just 11 — or 7.9% of the total — were women. On the mentor front, we’ve done slightly better. Techstars Seattle currently has 146 active program mentors, of which 23 — 16% of the total — are women.

Measuring diversity among current Techstars mentors and founders of admitted companies is only a lagging indicator of our progress on these goals: we won’t be able to deliver on our ambitious aspirations for diversity and inclusion if they aren’t baked into our culture at every step — including the way we recruit and select our participating companies, and in our efforts to draw new mentors and investors into our network over time.

As an organization we’ve become much more attuned to the risks of unconscious bias, and are taking active steps to correct for that risk in all of our business processes. We’ve been fortunate to have the support of strong entrepreneurial women in our past selection efforts, including mentor/investors Amy McCullough of Trilogy Equity Partners and Julie Sandler of Madrona Venture Group.

We’re now making an active effort to increase the diversity of our mentor and program selection teams to help address the risk of unconscious bias and unintentional signaling in every part of our work.

I’m proud to be associated with Techstars and excited to embrace the company’s global inclusion and diversity goals here in Seattle.

We still have a long way to go, but we’ve committed ourselves to the path and will continue to report on our progress in programs to come. Seattle’s incredible startup community is the foundation of our success at Techstars Seattle, and our team is committed to helping Seattle build a culture of inclusive excellence that we can all be proud of — creating bigger, better, and more valuable companies along the way.

Applications for Techstars Seattle’s 2016 class are currently open and we’ll report on our success in recruiting a more diverse class in early 2016.

Chris DeVore is director of Techstars Seattle, and a founding partner at Founder’s Co-op.

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