Building in the age of diversity enlightenment
Tiffany is the founder of Cowrie, a social marketplace for underrepresented and underserved early-stage entrepreneurs to get the support they need that actually moves the needle.
At the virtual 500 Startups 2021 Unity and Inclusion Summit, a range of themes were woven into discussions around intentionality and leveraging experience to build unity and inclusion. Throughout the summit, speakers frequently declared 2021 the year of diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) innovations.
This fantastic event reminded me of other general virtual discussions featuring investors or industry experts, where I often heard them stress the importance of “building from what you know.” Depending on the panel, the experience that deemed leaders most equipped to build could be professional or personal, or both.
When I applied this advice, I tried too hard to satisfy every listed experience experts claimed I should have to be considered an "ideal entrepreneur." Like what I’d done when job searching, I told myself not to leap until I checked every box. I lacked resources and also stalled on pursuing entrepreneurship a second time because I believed I didn't meet all the requirements. Yet, I've witnessed others receiving attention for experiences they are not uniquely qualified to create.
Cultural Capital and Venture Capital?
Most recently, I’ve come across a unique group of individuals—who prove the basis of the argument that connections can get you anywhere—creating and getting funding for experiences that aren't theirs. In the age of diversity enlightenment, I’ve come across voyeurs capitalizing on marginalized communities' experiences.
These individuals who have never taken to progressing equity or support local minority communities authentically have now decided that their passive experience of witnessing the social unrest of last year qualifies them to build products centered on the feelings they felt from the death of George Floyd—the only name many of them know or can remember.
I remember listening to a Clubhouse pitch by a former Department of Defense engineer who admitted to building algorithms that targeted minority communities. He claimed he’s reformed because of George Floyd's death and is now building an app for companies to record videos of underrepresented employees describing workplace trauma and their reactions to social unrest to "help" HR and other employees build empathy. In other words, he was creating an app for capturing and distributing trauma.
This product isn't the first. I've come to learn of others building to solve inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) problems they don't quite understand but seem to be a trendy topic for them to explore. The worst part is they believe their actions are a form of allyship and not sensationalization.
My father had this saying every time he felt I was being taken advantage of and frustratingly needed to intervene on my behalf. It was mostly a reminder that for everything in life—especially as a young, Black woman navigating the world—I needed to be more aware of who was watching what I was doing and the opportunities I afforded them to take advantage of me.
The saying goes something like, "a monkey knows which tree to climb." Every time I come across these ventures, this saying comes to mind. I think about the groups generating cultural currency that they're unable to effectively leverage, but others outside of their community leverage it through free cultural labor.
It's not to say that if you don't belong to an underrepresented group, you shouldn't develop products to enact change; it's how you develop products to enact change and who you include throughout the process.
So what exactly are the requirements for building products in a time when everyone now cares or gives the impression they care about IDEA? What are the resume requirements for founders seeking to build social-impact-driven experiences? I don't write checks, but I favor personal experience as the lead requirement for building social-impact-driven experiences.
Reflecting on why I decided to finally build Cowrie, I realize it’s because of years of hurtful and frustrating experiences as an individual, community builder, employee, and entrepreneur. What accelerated me to build Cowrie was a feeling of corporate DEI burnout. As a result, my idea of an impactful contribution is to connect a pipeline of diverse entrepreneurs—who are certainly out there—to opportunities enabling them to be the "next" and no longer the "first." These opportunities will allow their employees to be a collective and not the "only."
For me, building in this age requires deep awareness of where you stand as being either a part of the problem (passively or aggressively) or on the receiving end of the problem. It requires your team to be aware and to leverage each other's strengths and humility to grow. It requires the foundation of your company's vision and mission to be centered on awareness of whether it solves or perpetuates the problem—and where there may be unintentional consequences of the solution.
Through awareness, there especially needs to be a level of authenticity from which you are building. Our aforementioned Department of Defense engineer should've spent more time speaking with people instead of recording them. Through clearly understanding his user archetypes, learning about the problem he was solving for them, and interviewing a range of individuals, he would've been less surprised by the overwhelming responses from both the audience and the moderators. It was clear he understood what an opportunity looked like but not the solution to the systemic problem for which he is only now waking up. This Clubhouse pitch was a perfect example of a lack of awareness and authenticity.
Someone once gave me feedback that building in the DEI space is uninteresting and won't attract top talent. My response remains to be: one, DEI isn't a "space," and, two, DEI shouldn't need to be interesting for people to care. DEI needs to be the foundation on which everyone is building without exploiting the experiences of marginalized communities.
There are other ways to meaningfully show up without having to overshadow the individuals who have deep connections with what they're building or to sensationalize issues. These individuals, including myself, are seeking other intentional, passionate problem-solvers to join us.
Refer a client. Join a team and deliver with intentionality. Recommend co-founders or other team members who align with our missions.
Team building in the early stages is already a challenging endeavor. Team building for a mission that doesn't aim to be the next Google or Uber can be significantly more difficult.
The virtual 500 Startups 2021 Unity and Inclusion Summit surfaced many thoughts for me on how we all can be better sponsors for each other as we're building impact-driven initiatives. As this has come up in my user interviews and research, those who have obtained mentorship, including myself, too often feel over-mentored and under-invested. That investment could be in the form of funding or sponsorship and introductions that move the needle.
Many don't realize the power of sponsorship—as I try to paraphrase the renowned Carla Harris by juxtaposing my own experience—is that individuals who already have access or seats at the table can champion you continuously. So the next time you're seeking support or funding, you now have a network that can follow through by helping you get to where you ought to be. Unlike mentorship, while the information received is usually golden, if you don't have the power or resources to act on it, well, then it was just a helpful piece of information.
Putting aside entrepreneurship, building in this age also means being better to ourselves and other people.
If you're interested in joining a group of peers who are learning how to build products with their customers' experiences in mind, get in touch.