‘Extremely unconscious bias’ leading to underfunding of women tech founders

13 Mar 2018

Liz McCarthy, head of special projects at Dogpatch Labs, speaking at the Allyship in Tech event 2018. Image: James Keating/Yohei Ishikawa

Great work is being done in silos around diversity and inclusion, but an ecosystem approach is needed to fundamentally change the Irish start-up ecosystem, Dogpatch Labs’ Liz McCarthy tells John Kennedy.

A worrying trend in the form of ‘extremely unconscious bias’ among venture capital (VC) investors is leading to underfunding of companies led by Irish women tech founders.

That’s the view of Liz McCarthy, head of special projects at Dublin’s Dogpatch Labs, which held a week-long schedule of events at the start-up hub last week around International Women’s Day (8 March).

‘There’s systemic issues of “extremely unconscious bias” in the Irish VC community, leading to underfunding in female-founded companies’

Future Human

Last week’s jam-packed schedule at Dogpatch included a networking event devised by Mastercard Ireland’s Women’s Leadership Network as well as an Allyship in Tech event that included such speakers as: Áine Kerr of Neva Labs, Bernie O’Connor from ESB, Ulster Bank’s Chevy Johnston, Pivotal’s Chisara Nwabara, Expedia’s Chris Burgess, Udemy’s Claire Hough, Dr J Harrison from ThoughtWorks, Felipe Lodi of Workflow ICT, Google’s Jackie Rajuai, Vodafone’s Joanna Gilfoy, Unilever’s Jonathan Hammond, Enterprise Ireland’s Sarita Johnston and NDRC’s Helen Fullen, to name a few.

Speaking with McCarthy after the event, her view is that there is a lot more to be added to Ireland’s scorecard when it comes to diversity in the start-up ecosystem.

She pointed out that a lot of work is being done in silos but that more change is needed.

Worrying trends still exist, she warned, especially around “extremely unconscious bias” among investors that she believes is leading to the underfunding of women founders of Irish tech firms.

Last week, TechIreland.org launched a campaign to see the levels of funding of women-led tech firms grow from €79m in 2017 to €100m in 2018. Meanwhile, Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon said that 35pc of the 2017 class of high-potential start-ups were women-led, but her ambition is to grow that to 50pc and beyond.

McCarthy said that the culture in Ireland, in terms of inclusivity in the tech start-up ecosystem and attitudes towards women founders, needs to evolve.

How do we build an inclusive start-up ecosystem in Ireland?

The culture in start-ups is deeply influenced by their environment, so it’s important that leaders who set the tone across the Irish start-up ecosystem – from start-up founders and community leaders to VCs and tech hub managers – take conscious steps to signal that inclusive behaviour is what’s expected.

And it’s this subtly reinforced expectation of behaviour that, in turn, shapes the culture. This all begins with inspiring a shift in mindset, moving from the attitude of ‘That’s just how things are around here’ to ‘This is how we are going to think and act from now on.’ Successfully achieving this is critical for Ireland if we’re serious about becoming a global leader in tech.

An ecosystem approach is needed  to fundamentally shift the sector at all stages of the ‘pipeline’.

‘Extremely unconscious bias’ leading to under-funding of women tech founders

From left: Ruta Danyte, partner at WeFindX; Chisara Nwabara, staff technical programme manager at Pivotal; and Dr J Harrison, harbinger of change at ThoughtWorks. Image: James Keating/Yohei Ishikawa

A lot of great work around diversity and inclusion is being done in silos but, to move the needle on the topic, we need real collaboration and sharing of best practices. We need exposure to global best practice so that we thoughtfully shape our ecosystem to optimise for inclusivity. This can be achieved starting with small incremental steps – as long at the intention is there, and there’s enough of a critical mass of people placing priority on it.

It was with this in mind that we designed Diversity in Tech Week, a schedule of events targeted at curated audiences. We were privileged to hear from world-class thought leaders on inclusion in the workplace throughout the week, from people like Miriam Dowling, who is doing amazing work at Mentality Ireland, to Chris Burgess, head of IT at Expedia, who joined us from London.

The resounding feedback from all our attendees was that they loved the quality of the content and knowledge of the speakers. There is a real need for more of this in Ireland, and we are proud to be part of bringing it here.

How unique of a situation is Ireland in to resolve the problems of underrepresentation of women and minority groups, and do you think Ireland has its own set of problems in this regard?

Ireland is in a unique position to grow a globally relevant tech ecosystem through successfully leveraging the diversity on our doorstep. I think that the scale of our ecosystem is helpful in this regard. We have a good mix of indigenous start-ups that necessarily have to open with a global vision from day one, and multinational tech companies willing to share their knowledge and experience. We’ve seen this in particular with the start-ups team at Google led by Paddy Flynn and Colin Goulding, who are constantly connecting experts based in Ireland and abroad with local companies who want to learn from world-leaders, on topics from engineering to how to run ‘unconscious bias’ training in your start-up.

It was interesting to hear about the opportunity for Ireland to differentiate its tech sector as an inclusive, diverse place to innovate, from the perspective of senior technologists with deep experience of Silicon Valley, over the course of Diversity in Tech Week. We heard that the Silicon Valley tech scene has in fact become less diverse in recent years and that, encouragingly, there is a real opportunity for the Irish tech ecosystem to learn from the mistakes that have been made on the west coast.

It’s really positive to see initiatives like iWish, which does a fantastic job of inspiring younger women and girls to consider a career in STEM, and campaigns like Enterprise Ireland’s commitment to increase funding to female-led startups to 50pc.

But, in the face of these opportunities and efforts being made, huge challenges and worrying trends exist. For example, there’s systemic issues of ‘extremely unconscious bias’ in the Irish VC community, leading to underfunding in female-founded companies. This is a real issue highlighted by Rhona Togher, co-founder of Restored Hearing, last year, and something we as a community need to look at closer.

A good phrase to apply to Ireland in this respect might be: “A lot done. More to do.”

From the start-ups you work with at Dogpatch Labs and elsewhere in the ecosystem, how do the best ones create the right environment and inclusive culture, and what are their hallmarks?
‘Extremely unconscious bias’ leading to under-funding of women tech founders

Panel discussion at Allyship in Tech event at Dogpatch Labs on International Women’s Day. From left: Chris Burgess, head of IT at Expedia; Dr J Harrison, harbinger of change at ThoughtWorks; Bernie O’Connor, head of diversity and inclusion at ESB; and Jackie Rajuai, Geo programme manager for EMEA at Google. Image: James Keating/Yohei Ishikawa

For tech start-ups, it’s twice as difficult to create the right environment as, firstly, you’re in the tech world, which isn’t known for its diversity; and you’re also time- and cash-poor, meaning you have to make quick decisions, which are not always as thoughtful as they could be.

However, the early stage is where impact is strongest with a smaller effort, as decisions made early on in a start-up’s growth have a cumulative effect. This means that if we can help start-ups in their early stages to be more inclusive, there is a very high chance they will be inclusive and highly diverse – and therefore more successful – going forward.

I think that, put simply, the founders that get this right are the ones who put energy into consciously creating an inclusive culture. This starts with defining their vision and values with the founding team, which can be captured somewhere like a culture playbook, like the SlideShare published by Netflix. This really reflects itself in things like the language they use on their careers page, the photographs they use and the physical environment where they choose to grow their company – be it a start-up hub and community, co-working space or a standalone office.

What roles do tech hubs such as Dogpatch Labs play in fostering an inclusive culture?

Tech hubs that are deeply embedded in their community are a central piece of the ecosystem where people come to meet and interact, thus inclusive hubs are a key driver in having a diverse ecosystem. As previously mentioned, the culture in start-ups is deeply influenced by their environment, so the approach hubs take to this can have a really big knock-on impact.

We are seeing more hubs developing across the country, and these hubs have the potential to play a real role in catalysing and shaping their local innovation ecosystems. Building on the work we did with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation last summer, we’re forming a network of e-hubs across Ireland. This will be leveraging what we’ve learned by being part of the global Google for Entrepreneurs partner network, which is putting top priority on the topic of diversity and inclusion, and we’re excited about bringing this deep expertise to hubs across the country.

‘Extremely unconscious bias’ leading to under-funding of women tech founders

Alaina Percival, CEO at Women Who Code. Image: James Keating/Yohei Ishikawa

As well as directly supporting early-stage companies in the formation of their culture, tech hubs can play a big role in shaping the culture of the meet-up micro-communities, which form the valuable basis of any tech ecosystem, and this is something we’ve been working closely on with people like Vicky Twomey-Lee, aka Coding Grace.

In the last six years, there has been a 1,600pc increase of meet-ups across Ireland, which is a real sign of the growth of tech ecosystem. Meet-ups are the places where people get the opportunity to network, hear about career opportunities and to access high-quality peer learning, and it’s so important that people from all backgrounds can access them and feel safe to express themselves.

Hubs can play an important role as a platform for collaboration between these communities – as evidenced by the incredible interest from meet-up organisers in our Designing Inclusive Events workshop – and there’s huge potential for hubs to provide this kind of knowledge-sharing right across the country.

In short, hubs are responsible for leading by example, by bringing people from all sides of the inclusion agenda and all parts of of the sector together to identify unconscious biases and best practice to resolve these, turning the idea of diversity in tech into reality.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years