Tech’s Diversity Problem Ignores Good Startup Principles: Part I

I recently came across a thread in the Austin Startups Facebook group. It felt all too familiar: a seemingly well-meaning individual made a tone-deaf comment about women and people of color in tech. Understandably, people got upset, and so ensued a heated discussion about tech’s gender and race problems. Folks who have personally been affected by these issues chimed in to share their experiences. And, unsurprisingly, a number of folks stepped in and boldly stated that the women and people of color voicing their concerns didn’t have ground to stand on — that because they themselves have not overtly seen or experienced such problems, the problems don’t exist.

I spent a considerable amount of time reflecting after reading the thread, drawing both on my own experiences as a woman in tech, on conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues of color, and on the knowledge I’ve gained throughout years of working for early-stage startups (including one that I personally founded). I couldn’t help but feel disappointed...not only in the lack of awareness I saw in those comments, but in the lack of willingness to listen.

And I couldn’t help but notice some major hypocrisy: the same principles that many startup founders and entrepreneurs rely on to build great products can easily be applied to the gender and race problems in tech. And, yet, they aren’t.

Product Iteration Principle - Prioritize Features Based on Feedback Frequency

In the startup world, creating a successful product means continuously iterating on your idea and remaining willing to evolve and adjust. A common principle in early-stage product development is prioritizing a new feature when it solves a problem you hear over...and over...and over. If enough people are asking for something (or, better yet, complaining about the same problem), it’s probably something that, at the very least, deserves consideration. This saves both time and money when it comes to product development because you know you’re building features that solve a real pain point. Anyone in the startup world knows that time is a precious resource that startups can’t afford to waste.

And, for many, it works. Companies like Intercom, HubSpot, and 37Signals all implement this methodology. If enough people who are part of your target market point to a hole in your product, any good founder will pay attention. If they don’t, they risk losing customers and, ultimately, limiting their company’s potential for success.

It’s important to note that not all great features will be built this way, especially as your startup scales and has the resources to incorporate highly data-driven methods. (In another post, I’ll outline a more advanced principle.)

Applying This Principle to Tech’s Diversity Problem

The fact that people are pointing out gender and racial bias in tech (over...and over...and over) means something needs to be improved — just like with product development. So why are many of the same folks happily applying this methodology to product development unwilling to apply this to other problems in the startup world?

I have to wonder...are founders unaware of this hypocrisy? Or are we very much aware and simply only interested in applying good business principles when it benefits our own personal success or ego? Either way, it’s problematic.

If you work for a startup, your job is to be uncomfortable and solve difficult problems.

My challenge to you as a founder or entrepreneur: consider the methodologies you apply to your growing business. Do you ever consider other ways those might be applied? Do you stand in front of the mirror and ask yourself if there’s something you’re missing? If there is a perspective you haven’t considered? If there is room for improvement only your target customer (or women or people of color) can see?

If you don’t challenge yourself in these ways, can you really be a great founder?