Editor’s Note: The following is an abridged version of an article written by Rei Wang, Director of Dorm Room Fund at First Round Capital, after her experience as a judge for the entertainment and content category at the 10th annual SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event.
From that experience, where not a single entrant was a female nor underrepresented minority, Rei noted that much of the writing around diversity and inclusion is about why it’s important. Yet, there are few resources for event organizers on how to actually improve diversity at their events.
The following is Rei’s advice to them. Each tip below is accompanied by an interaction with Chris Valentine, Event Producer of SXSW Accelerator, to serve as inspiration for other event organizers.
You can read Rei’s full article about her experience at SXSW here.
Here are five tips inspired by conversations on Twitter, research on the internet, and my experience working on improving diversity at Dorm Room Fund.
Tip #1: Measure diversity at key milestones
Dorm Room Fund voluntary diversity questions from the Dorm Room Fund Application
Add a voluntary diversity section to your application and ask for demographic information. Keep the answers to these questions separate from the application itself. Measure what diversity looks like at each step of the funnel — the applicant stage, the review stage, and the finalists stage.
Tracking this data will show you where to focus your D&I efforts, and will prevent you from being blindsided when your finalists are not diverse. Project Include provides great direction on using metrics to drive D&I priorities and accountability.
Question from Rei Wang: How are the finalists chosen? Who is on the selection committee and how diverse is the selection committee?
Answer from Chris Valentine: The finalists are chosen by our advisory board. I search through LinkedIn and handpick the members of our advisory board. I don’t know the demographics of the advisory board.
Tip #2 Open up the selection committee
Our networks tend to mirror us. If you’re having difficulty finding selection committee members who are diverse, create an open application to join the selection committee and intentionally bring on board members who are representative of the audience you want to reach. Publicize the open call for applications with media partners and groups who focus on diversity.
Q: How are the judges selected?
A: I ask partners from top firms and aim to have balanced judges but there aren’t enough diverse investors so we always end up with majority male judges.
Tip #3 Invite rising stars
List of Black Women in VC
There are comprehensive directories of diverse investors. Check out Sydney Thomas’s list of Black Women in VC or Aaron McClendon’s list of Black Men in VC. In the case that they’re all busy you can also reach out to rising stars. The best pitch competition judges are ones who can quickly understand the problem a founder is aiming to solve and ask constructive questions to help them evolve their approach. It’s a somewhat different skillset than being a midas-list investor, and one that many founder-turned-angel investors, and accelerator or incubator directors have. Reach out to them; don’t let venture’s poor diversity numbers be an excuse.
Q: Have you asked for ideas from the broader SXSW community on how you can improve diversity?
A: No, I don’t have the authority to speak for SXSW on the internet
Tip #4: Ask for help and role models
Engage your community online or in person. Ask your social media manager to start a dialogue with the community. Over the course of the past 36 hours, hundreds of folks responded to my tweet with suggestions on how to improve D&I at SXSW. Host a dinner for the organizations which are referenced as role models and ask them for advice.
Q: Do you have a head of diversity and inclusion or a taskforce in place?
A: Not to my knowledge
Tip #5: Engage an expert and pay them
Paradigm is a respected diversity consulting firm
Building a diverse and inclusive event is a lot of work, and it’s not going to change overnight. You need to invest money and time. If you don’t invest, you won’t get good results. Bring on an in-house expert, hire a D&I consulting firm, or organize a taskforce that’s dedicated to D&I. Most D&I experts are generous with their time and happy to help, but make sure to recognize the value they are delivering to your organization and compensate them accordingly.
To event organizers: these suggestions won’t solve D&I challenges completely, but it’s a place to start. Implementing a few of these tips will lead to a more inclusive event. If you have additional tips, feel free to comment and contribute. I hope this becomes a useful reference.
To fellow investors: next time you’re invited to judge a pitch competition that lacks diversity, I urge you to point it out and send the organizers this post or a similar piece. Consider also signing the Gender Avengers Pledge or starting a your own pledge.
To all attendees: I urge you to hold the event organizers accountable. Lack of awareness or lack of ideas can no longer be an excuse. We can all do more to improve diversity and inclusion in the startup and venture ecosystem.