Five ways to support underrepresented founders

Dan Conner of Ascend Venture Capital shares practical steps VC firms can take to address minority start-up funding imbalances.

Inequities in venture capital funding have persisted for far too long, stifling the potential of diverse entrepreneurs and leaving substantial economic opportunities on the table. In 2022, Black and Latino founders secured only 1 percent and 1.5 percent of US VC funding, respectively, while women-led start-ups received just 1.9 percent of available venture capital. Even more alarming, only 0.1 percent of VC funds found their way to Black and Latino women founders.

Dan Conner, Ascend Venture Capital 
Source: Ascend Venture Capital
Dan Conner, Ascend Venture Capital

This skewed allocation of funds not only perpetuates inequality in securing venture capital for minority founders, but also hampers economic growth. Fortunately, while there are challenges in securing venture capital for minority businesses, VC firms and policymakers can take practical steps to foster a more balanced and inclusive venture capital landscape.

The current landscape

Figuratively speaking, under-allocating resources among productive areas is comparable to only thinking with part of our brains. Assuming that promising founders are equally distributed across demographics, the limited funding reaching certain groups is tantamount to an underweight portfolio allocation. Simply put, better macroeconomic outcomes are within reach if we achieve a more balanced allocation of venture capital among minority businesses.

In practice, however, opinion-swaying tendencies such as unconscious biases, people-pleasing propensities and network-driven investment decisions all perpetuate VC funding disparities. Venture capitalists, encountering a deluge of pitches, can tend to seek reasons to reject quickly rather than take the time to weigh the pros and cons of investments. This process of elimination can amount to a set of criteria that aims to manage workloads rather than optimize investment opportunities.

Why representation matters

A lack of minority start-up funding not only perpetuates inequality, but also leads to missed economic opportunities. Investments in diverse teams have consistently resulted in up to 65 percent better outcomes. And a more inclusive venture capital ecosystem can lead to higher macroeconomic returns, stimulate innovation and drive GDP growth. This is so prevalent that California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill into law requiring VCs to report on demographics.

Still, several challenges stand in the way of achieving a balanced allocation and optimizing the diverse start-up funding landscape. One significant obstacle is the lack of diversity among venture capital decision-makers themselves. Almost 60 percent of venture capitalists are white men; therefore, this group manages a disproportionate share of VC dollars. Bridging this gap will require concerted efforts to diversify decision-making roles within VC firms.

To address minority start-up funding imbalances and drive real change, VC firms, investors and policymakers can take these practical steps:

  1. Diversify decision makers

Sociology researchers describe the tendency to interact more readily with those who share common characteristics as homophily. Unfortunately, the VC filtering process tends to perpetuate this practice, as investors may favor companies that align with their own experiences and networks. To help prevent homophily, VC firms should actively seek out and promote diverse talent at all levels, including limited partners, fund managers, partners and board members.

  1. Expand networks

Encourage venture capitalists to expand their networks beyond their comfort zones and explore underrepresented founder demographics for investment opportunities. This helps combat bias and create more awareness of promising founders outside of established networks.

  1. Set inclusive investment goals

Equal representation is critical for capturing the full spectrum of entrepreneurial brilliance. Research supports the idea that talent and innovation are universally distributed. For instance, studies show that gender and race do not determine success.

If the venture capital community invested more frequently in founders from underrepresented groups, it could significantly increase macroeconomic returns and promote equity within the innovation landscape. To encourage this, VC firms should establish diversity and inclusion goals within the ranks of investment professionals and hold them accountable for achieving these objectives.

  1. Provide mentorship and education

Sponsor pipeline programs at the collegiate level that support founders from diverse backgrounds, helping them navigate the VC landscape in the future. This helps give underrepresented groups the guidance and support that may evade them without an established network.

  1. Promote inclusive policies

Policymakers can incentivize VC firms to promote diversity through legislation and tax incentives, creating a more inclusive investment approach that includes venture capital for founders from underrepresented demographics. By allocating resources more equitably, we can tap into the untapped potential of diverse entrepreneurs, thereby bolstering the economy.

The connection between diversity and the economy is undeniable. Fostering a more inclusive VC ecosystem unlocks economic opportunities that benefit us all. By recognizing that entrepreneurial prowess knows no demographic boundaries and implementing practical strategies to address funding imbalances, we can mobilize diverse entrepreneurs to their full potential to drive innovation, growth and prosperity in our economy. It’s time to level the playing field and ensure that venture capital reflects the rich tapestry of brilliance across society.

Dan Conner is the general partner at Ascend Venture Capital, a micro-VC in St Louis, Missouri, which provides financial and operational support to start-up founders looking to scale.