Why 2018 needs to be the year of transparency in venture capital

Francesca Warner
Amazon's Fulfilment Centre In Hemel Hempstead Gears Up For Black Friday
The largest tech giants in the world - Facebook, Amazon, Uber - were molded by those who wrote the cheques at the outset (Source: Getty)

The cultures of the largest tech giants in the world - Facebook, Amazon, Uber - were molded by those who wrote the cheques at the outset, took seats on the boards and had a say in how those companies were run.

Diversity in venture capital is, therefore, absolutely vital, yet the sector lags behind other industries.

This is no longer acceptable. Over the past year, we have seen the precedent set by industries as wide-ranging as Hollywood and high finance. Intrinsic to this shift is accountability through transparency. VC needs to be more transparent; it needs to do better.

The good news is that, despite the road being long, we have made a start. Last year Diversity VC, the non-profit partnership I launched with four other venture capitalists, partnered with the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA), producing a report on the number of women in UK venture.

Tellingly, it was the first piece of research of its kind, and it showed that just 13 percent of decision-makers in the VC industry are female. They make up just 27 percent of the workforce, compared with 47 percent of UK labour. People at partner level tend to be over 40, white and male.

We are about to look at the data for ethnic minorities working in venture in the UK, where we know the same sort of ratios are true, but the numbers are even more dramatic: in the US, 78 percent of investors are white.

Perhaps this is not surprising. VC sits at the confluence between finance and tech: two industries that have an historic, and continuing, problem with diversity and a lack of transparency. Even details regarding the success of a fund are rarely publicly disclosed, let alone breakdowns on personnel.

Marry that to the fact that this is a small industry - there are only 160 firms in the UK, employing just 1,600 people - often averse to change, and it is not difficult to see where venture’s reputation as an old boys’ club comes from, but also why initiatives to promote diversity have been so well received by many working in the sector.

Continuing to build homogenous teams is not in the interests of VC firms, or the businesses they fund. McKinsey has shown that companies in the top quartile for gender or ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

Homogenous teams do not perform as well as those that are more diverse. And if you are a company that specialises in influencing the fortunes of other businesses - which is what VC firms do - taking this on board is even more important.

Now is the time to act. Over the past year, the world has watched shifts take place in male-dominated spheres like tech, film, media and politics.

As manifested by Time Magazine, 2017 was the year that leaps forward by women of all backgrounds were acknowledged, shining the spotlight on inequality across industries. And 2018 marks 100 years since millions of women around were given the vote in the UK.

The progress we made as an organisation last year was indicative of, and aided by, this groundswell. In 12 months, we went from launch to releasing original research, running multiple events across universities and VC firms, introducing an internship programme and taking Diversity VC to the US.

2018 gives our sector the opportunity to go further. Of course, finding the time and people to enact change in a sector that is, by nature, lean - the average size of a UK VC firm is just nine - is tough. But we want to make it as easy as possible, by providing HR support for the industry.

This year we are launching the Diversity VC Toolkit: a structure and series of resources that will engender transparency by empowering firms to act and demonstrate progress. The Toolkit will include software that screens out biographical information on candidates, adaptable pro forma policy documents, and best practice (using checklists and decision by committee) in areas such as sourcing candidates, assessing teams and fund structures.

It is not through happy accident that Diversity VC is able to do the work it does. We have been using the services of data-scraping company Craft, Applied, which screens out biases in recruitment processes, and Gapsquare, the gender pay gap software.

All of those businesses pitched to me for investment very early on, and all have received money from angel investors or venture capitalists, whose decisions have helped them to exist and thrive.

This should serve as a stark reminder to our industry that there is no room for complacency. As it stands, our teams do not reflect the world we aim to improve - and we continue to hide that fact. 2018 must be the year we open the black box.

Esoteric legal documents, undisclosed returns and male-dominated closed networks should be consigned to history.

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