The terrain of diversity in tech entrepreneurship has undoubtedly shifted since 2011, when I began my PhD on how intersectionality affects women digital entrepreneurs. Back then, there was little discussion in the academic literature of digital entrepreneurship in general, let alone from an intersectional perspective like mine, and scant attention in regular media outlets and the broader public conversation about diverse founders working in digital economy ecosystems.
By the time I met Joy Francis, founder of Words of Colour and co-founder of Digital Women UK in 2014, I had grown frustrated with the lack of attention to the many women I had been interviewing for my PhD, and others like them, who were using digital tools and platforms to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, transition into the next stages of their working lives, solve persistent industry problems that they had often witnessed firsthand, and in general, build businesses that they hoped would sustain themselves and their families for the long term in an increasingly fast paced, complex and unstable world of work.
Joy and I then began an exciting, ongoing conversation about this area that led to us to host our first professional and personal development event for women creatives and digital entrepreneurs, inclusive to all but centring women of colour, in November 2015 at Nottingham University Business School where I was employed at the time. The event was funded by Research Council UK’s now defunct New Economic Models in the Digital Economy (NEMODE) project.
Joy came up with the clever title ‘Missing in Action’ to highlight my persistent feeling that there was an entire population of interesting and innovative women digital entrepreneurs whose activities were being overlooked by the academy, the media, funders and policymakers. Our event aimed to spark this conversation first among the entrepreneurs themselves, to provide a nexus and a meeting point for them, bringing in relevant motivational and educational speakers and entrepreneurship coaches, and inviting messages of support from prominent women making change in the technology field, like Jaqueline De Rojas, president of TechUK, digital economy futurist Shivvy Jervis, and founders of groundbreaking organisations for women and girls in tech and STEM such as Anne-Marie Imafidon and Josephine Goube.
This event, and the subsequent similar sessions that we held biannually until 2018, were always well attended, and the feedback from attendees consistently, overwhelmingly positive: we were serving the career development needs of the wave of diverse women who, since the financial crisis of 2008, have driven the UK’s growth in part-time self employment (Watson and Pearson, 2016), often through digital means. At the same time, with our live events and longstanding blog, Digital Women UK has contributed to the foundation and shaping of a research agenda and public conversation that is now clearly evident, as the conversation about diversity in tech has grown in both scope and volume.
In digital entrepreneurship spaces today, the leading edge of the intersectional conversation on women, race and other aspects of diversity is boldly interventionist, and far from underground. It is Arlan Hamilton, a Black lesbian American founder of Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm that is funding only women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ founders, and has opened a London branch. Her podcast ‘Your First Million’ features in depth conversations with inspiring founders and activists of colour.
It is Check Warner, a white British woman who has written about the privilege afforded to her by her positionality in the venture capital industry, founding first the advocacy group Diversity VC and now Ada Ventures, her recently launched venture capital organisation focused on underserved founders, including women, people of colour, over 50s, LGBTQ+, neurodiverse people, people with disabilities, and people outside of London. It is the OneTech project, an exciting and multifaceted initiative I am currently researching, with a cross-industry partnership of funding and delivery organisations from across the public and private sectors, aimed at creating structural change in the white male middle-class start-up ecosystem in London by creating pathways of support for diverse underrepresented entrepreneurs.
An initiative of its parent company Capital Enterprise and funded by the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Mayor of London, and four boroughs across South London as part of the South London Innovation Corridor, OneTech has partnered with community organisations of colour including YS/YS, UK Black Tech, and Foundervine to reach communities far beyond the normal boundaries of London’s Old Street Silicon Roundabout. These organisations recognise that this is much more than, as some detractors might say, ‘a pipeline problem’: there are talented, visionary diverse and underrepresented founders already hard at work in the tech sector and navigating the entrepreneurial ecosystems with varying levels of support and social capital.
So no longer should the questions be: why are there so few women tech entrepreneurs, and even fewer women founders of colour, or how can we convince more of them to enter this space? Instead, how can we better support those who already exist, while making it a fairer, safer, and more empowering working world for those who are heading in this direction?
Finally, where the rubber meets the road is financial capital – a recent report from the British Business Bank in partnership with Diversity VC shows the appalling statistic that less than .01 of every £1 of British venture capital goes to all-women founding teams, with no reputable statistics available on other axes of diversity, which are serious system-wide design flaws that funds like Hamilton’s and Warner’s are seeking to address.
Considering the flurry of attention and activity now focused around diversity in tech and entrepreneurship, Joy and I have re-envisioned our strategy for Digital Women UK and the Missing in Action series. Although we know the content, both analogue and digital, provided is valued and welcome by our target audiences, we realise that the founders we care about are no longer ‘missing’ or hidden at all. Instead, they are being actively sought out and courted by a variety of corporate accelerators and investment organisations, such as Google.org, Microsoft Reactor, and more.
In response, we believe it’s the right time to organise ourselves and get our priorities in order, as it won’t be long before policymakers will start perking their ears up to the tune of the business case for ‘diverse entrepreneurship’. When they do, we want to be ready. As an Academic Partner of Digital Women UK, I propose that our next phase of work should be about getting Founders in Formation.
This means working together to educate each other on trends and transformations in the landscape, articulating our needs, distilling our messages, and getting clear on our asks, and identifying places, organisations and people on whom we need to put pressure in order to improve the working environment, and the business outcomes, for diverse and underrepresented founders working in digital, here in London and beyond, with an eye to fostering genuine connections and brokering generative alliances across barriers of power, privilege and position.
The future of tech is now, and we are building it. Let’s work together to shape agendas and mobilise resources that can benefit us all.
Dr Angela Martinez Dy is a Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Loughborough University London.
Our first Founders in Formation event will take place in 2020 (date to be confirmed).