Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kickstarting the Disadvantaged: Activism in Venture Funding

Research and news tell the same story: there is discrimination both in employment and in business. Women are few and far between among executives and founders of technology firms, and claims of bias are often made, especially in Silicon Valley. On the financing side, venture capital firms appear to disadvantage women in executive roles. #AirbnbWhileBlack is a hashtag collecting discussions of discrimination, and has led to Airbnb examining its processes for retaining hosts.

This looks like a problem for women seeking to start businesses, especially if those businesses are in industries with few women to begin with, like high technology. Even worse, the tendency to favor similar people to oneself – homophily – could make this even worse. Interestingly, a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Jason Greenberg and Ethan Mollick has found a counter effect. The idea is that if a minority thinks that it is discriminated against, it will be especially supportive of its own members. It will not only favor its own, as all groups do, but it will do so in an activist way. If this happens, being recognized as a disadvantaged minority – like women in technology – will lead to better treatment, at least from members of the same minority.

Does it happen? It is not clear whether this is always true, but one good place to look is in crowdfunding, where ventures and their founders are presented to a “crowd” of any interested funder, and they in turn decide what ventures to back. And indeed, women Greenberg and Mollick found that women targeted women’s ventures for funding, and did so especially for industries were women are known to be scarce. So, women especially supported other women not in fashion or publishing, where women are frequent business founders, but in technology, where they are scarce.

This is clearly not a reason to think that discrimination will balance out. Crowdfunding is the form of funding where this type of activist support is most effective, but most venture funding is not done through crowds – and we already know that venture capital firms, for example, have mostly male executives. Also, activist funding does not have large effects when there are few women funders to begin with. So, we can conclude that this provides some relief, but it is a less fair solution than simply evaluating ventures on their merit.