‘Failing, frustrated, and asking for help.’ How Techstars Seattle ended up with a male-dominated class — and what they’re doing about it

Credit: geekwire.com

Redfin CTO Bridget Frey was one of the few women who presented during Techstars Seattle Demo Night. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

It’s no secret that tech has a diversity problem. In fact, the lack of gender equity at tech events has become so quotidian that I almost didn’t notice that each of the nine CEOs pitching on stage at last night’s Techstars Seattle demo event were men.


Gender inequity is a pervasive problem in the startup world. Just 17 percent of venture-backed companies in the first quarter of 2017 had at least one female founder, according to a recent study. The same was true for all of 2016 and the number has stagnated since 2012.


Redfin CTO Bridget Frey addressed the issue head-on, as the keynote speaker at Techstars Seattle Demo Night.


Related: Techstars Seattle Demo Night: Our favorite pitches from 9 up-and-coming startups

“It’s a really hard problem,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort and it’s something that’s hard to work on when you’re at the beginning of starting a company; when you are thinking about getting your first prototype out the door; when you’re thinking about getting funding. How do you make time to also think about building a diverse team?”


Although it was encouraging to hear from a woman who has broken down gender barriers and excelled in her field, as the rest of the program showed, she’s still very much a minority.


It’s an issue that GeekWire struggles with too, as we seek out a diverse range of industry leaders to speak our events. But it’s important not to let the ubiquity of the problem translate into complacency.


Chris DeVore, managing director of Techstars Seattle, is well aware of how much work there is to be done. It was the impetus for a blog post, titled “Failing, Frustrated + Asking for Help,” that he wrote when this year’s Techstars Seattle class was selected.


Techstars Managing Director Chris DeVore on stage at Demo Night. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“My commitment to working with founders from underrepresented groups isn’t just a way for me to feel good about myself or earn PR points for Techstars,” he wrote. “It’s a deliberate strategy to back the most ferocious and relentless founders I can find, the ones who will walk through walls to deliver for their teams, their investors and themselves. I am failing in this work. And I’m asking for your help.”


DeVore ensured that members of the Seattle Female Founder’s Alliance (SFFA) were seated up front during the event. Leslie Feinzaig, the group’s founder and a Techstars Seattle mentor, wants to help the accelerator become more diverse.


“It is a problem that is bigger and broader than Techstars, and I don’t believe there is a single solution nor a short-term one,” she said. “The SFFA is proving that the pipeline of female founders is a lot bigger than we thought  — we have 70 members today, an additional 30 applicants in due diligence, and new founders popping up every day — and that’s in less than two months. So, I think the next steps for us are to help our founders with applicant readiness, and partner with Techstars and other accelerators who want to create a truly inclusive environment.”


In 2015, the national Techstars umbrella announced a series of diversity goals, including doubling the number of women in the applicant pool and mentor network, publishing diversity data, and training staff on “unconscious bias.” The organization also created The Techstars Foundation, a non-profit that promotes diversity in the startup world through grants, scholarships, and sponsorships.


But as DeVore noted in his blog post, Techstars Seattle is falling short of those goals. Here’s what he says happened with the 2017 class:




43% of applying teams had a female co-founder or core team member (up from 19% in 2016)
25% of our first-round callbacks had a female co-founder or team member
30% of our finalist companies had a female CEO or co-founder
Final investment decisions were shaped by a 10-person investment committee made up of four women and six men.
We offered slots in the cohort to three woman-led companies (of a planned 10-company cohort)
Only one of those companies, Silene Biotech, accepted our offer (one accepted an incubation offer from an industry incumbent; the other decided they weren’t ready to take full advantage of the program and wanted more time to work on their business fundamentals).


DeVore is asking members of the community to send him feedback on how Techstars Seattle can improve diversity, not just in the application pipeline but in the final class of startups that go through the program.


Techstars Seattle plans to take that feedback and translate it into changes to the program later this year.


“Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results,” DeVore says. “I’m committed to achieving different results in our diversity recruiting, so I need to start doing some different things.”


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