The Sad Truth About Unconscious Bias

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Essays

It is rampant, and extremely hard to avoid. I met with a number of entrepreneurs yesterday whose backgrounds were highly varied, and whose products were all inspired. I saw a couple kids who went to college together and had been tinkering on websites and launching multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns. I saw a twenty-something who had previously founded and been the principal of a Japanese high school where nobody wears shoes and Ambassadors send their kids. I listened to a pitch from a young man from Owensboro, KY who spent multiple years in high school homeless, and who had more grit, tenacity, and hustle than anyone I had ever seen. They caught me on one of those days where I had been reflecting on my own unconscious biases, and so I was paying particular attention to that. I want to take a moment to list a few of the ones I’ve heard, seen, or had.

Oh, you don’t drink elite coffee? You must not be a good designer.

Oh, you aren’t based in – or have strong ties to – a major NFL city? The press will ignore you.

Yikes, that watch is tacky. Your angel network must be small.

Wait, Latino engineer? Surely not. (I kid you not.)

That accent must make you a bad salesperson.

Your market can’t be that big, because nobody who looks and sounds like me and my friends is a part of it.

You dropped out of Stanford? You must be a genius.

You dropped out of [Insert non-USNews top school here]? You must be psychologically compromised.

These unconscious biases, fair or unfair, happen all the time, with all of us, and investors are no exception. And its concerning. Those entrepreneurs who raise early stage capital successfully do so because they navigate the silent social cues that we all look for when building relationships – particularly in the very early stage, when you can’t just point to growth as all the evidence you need. But some of these cues are impossible to navigate. The community is slowly recognizing the awful gender bias, and creating systems to counteract it. The community is working hard on creating infrastructure to counteract race bias (particularly for blacks), but there are many of these, and the most insidious ones exist between the lines of class and elitism, because they are harder (or more taboo) to describe. Just like culture can often be used as a proxy for “people who are like me”, taste can also be a way of discriminating. And I’m vocal in protest of the former, but acknowledging that I’m often guilty of the latter. It’s not good, and it’s not right. The last thing we want is an anonymous non-identity in our entrepreneurship class. The more diverse the problem solvers, the more kinds of problems that will be solved. So I’m working on being more conscious. Join me!

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