This post is Part 1 in a series on the ongoing DEIB journey we are undertaking as a venture capital firm. Make sure to read Parts 2 and 3 in the coming weeks to learn more about how we are tackling DEIB at MATH
MATH’s Approach to DEIB (Part 1 of 3)
At MATH, we believe in collective strength – the power of many voices with diverse backgrounds, experiences, skills and perspectives aligned to a shared vision. Like many in our industry, we have been talking for years about the need for more diversity in venture capital and in the startup/tech community. In 2020, we saw the entire ecosystem turn their focus to the Black Lives Matter movement specifically and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) efforts generally. We saw a number of new funds focused on under-represented groups get launched and pledges from many established funds to do better.
As we saw these initiatives get underway, MATH was publicly silent. I was by far the loudest voice on our team against any sort of pledge as I have seen too many people pledge to do better – swapping good intentions for meaningful action. I wanted us to be in a position to report what we have done, not what we were going to do. Multiple people in the industry questioned why we weren’t being more public at the time – even a few of our closest friends that fundamentally could not understand our position.
What people could not see from the outside is that internally, we were having uncomfortable discussions about the lack of diversity on our own team and in our own portfolio. We asked tough questions about how our sourcing practices and deep networks were contributing to this challenge. We confronted each other directly about our conscious and unconscious biases. At the end of the day, we did not think it was appropriate to be talking the talk, without walking the walk. And, even through all these discussions, we were still unsure as to what to do. Every action we thought about taking seemed like it could create more damage than good or seemed too small and insignificant in the broader context. We were paralyzed.
So, we started problem solving.
The purpose of sharing our journey now is to show one path for getting started – it is MATH’s path. It doesn’t mean it will be right for every fund. And, the one thing I know for sure is that we are making mistakes while also making some progress. We are learning and adapting, following our own advice to our portfolio companies. Here are the steps we took to get started:
Step One: Getting Clear on the Why
First, we challenged ourselves on the why. The discussions ranged from “it’s the right thing to do” to “teams with diverse backgrounds outperform”. We fundamentally believe both of those statements to be true. But, neither statement captures the true reason we believe any company focused on success should be thinking about DEIB. For us, the collective strength of the team around the table is the single biggest competitive advantage for a company. It is the collective team that designs and builds the product, talks to customers, and delivers an experience. That collective team needs to be diverse to push each other further, to reflect the world of the future. Getting this right is a competitive advantage for MATH and for our portfolio companies.
Step Two: Finding a Way To Organize Our Thoughts
To get us unstuck, I realized our team needed to build a framework for how to think about actions related to DEIB and we also needed a way to hold each other accountable. Personally, I was using the concepts of Circle of Control, Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern to keep my head clear in 2020 (something I picked up early in my career). We began to adapt these concepts for our DEIB Framework and came up with the following three categories:
Step Three: Brainstorming All Possible Actions
With this simple framework in place, we created a matrix for each category (see Direct Control Example Below). We had three matrices – one for each category and with different areas of focus on the left side of the matrix. Brainstorming every action we could think of in each category was freeing. It didn’t mean we were going to take every action, instead it was an exercise that allowed us to see all the possibilities. We were thinking about the “what” not the “how”. We were thinking freely, not committing. This experience created a safe place to get all the thoughts down.
A note about the “B” of Belonging. MATH added Belonging to our definition and framework later – after much discussion and research. MATH’s take on Belonging is a bit different than the experts. We believe it is the part where different perspectives actually come together with a shared vision. Without it, you may have individuals all rowing in opposite directions. With it, everyone brings their whole self to the table, is safe doing so, but with the understanding that the team is working toward a higher, common goal and objective.
Step Four: Setting 2021 Priorities
Now came the hard part, what actions were we going to take in 2021. This step by far was where most of the discussion and debate happened on the team. Our team has a high degree of trust and we came to this discussion truly believing in one another’s positive intent. We listened and respected each other’s opinions. We were realistic about what we could accomplish in one year while also challenging each other to go further. This allowed productive conflict – something that is common in diverse teams with strong trust.
Handling the process this way allowed us to recognize both where we are currently and where we want to go. It became a “Now, Next, Future” exercise that helped us immensely and allowed us to get unstuck.
Step Five: Take Action
Setting our intention was the spark that we needed to begin our journey. We made significant progress in each of the three categories in 2021. Overall, I would give us a B+ for meeting our objectives last year. We increased diversity on our team, completed anti-bias training as a firm, established relationships with other diverse VCs and established more diverse sourcing practices. During diligence before funding a founding team, we started more formal conversations about DEIB and continued those conversations with portfolio company founders/CEOs following funding. We also established and funded a budget for sponsorship of organizations in our industry doing important work on these issues.
With all of our progress in 2021, by far the heaviest lift for our team was determining how to measure our progress in DEIB. Those that know the MATH brand know that we like to see quantitative metrics and trends over time. It was critical that we find a way to measure DEIB in a way that would not only give us data but would provide meaningful insight into how to impact change. We decided to work with Peoplism to build and administer a DEIB survey for our portfolio companies. We learned a lot. One quote from a founder who participated in the survey summed up his feedback like this:
“This was one of the most actionable and informative processes we have ever been part of! Thank you so much for this very important benchmarking. It will be great to see trends over time.”
For 2022, we are continuing our journey. As part of that journey, I am going to be sharing two more posts about what we learned about designing and conducting the survey last year. Sharing our journey now is part of our 2022 priorities in the area of Indirect Influence. Our hope is that by sharing our journey, we can have a broader impact in the venture and tech ecosystem.
While progress is there, we have much more room for growth.
We would love to learn more about effective DEIB initiatives that you have been a part of as a founder or a VC. Sound off in the comments.
Posts to Come:
Elements of a Strong DEIB Survey (Part 2 of 3)
Five Key Lessons Learned from our 2021 DEIB Survey (Part 3 of 3)