Canaries in the coal mine: an inclusion parable

6 Jul 2016

Adam Quinton on the Investors panel at Inspirefest 2016. Image via Conor McCabe Photography

Investor Adam Quinton spoke at Inspirefest last week as part of the Investors section, where he took part in a two-hander keynote asking ‘where are the women in VC?’ alongside Claudia Iannazzo of Pereg Ventures (see video below), and also spoke as part of the investors panel. Here he tells a tale to underline the importance of inclusion.

I had the great honour of being on an investor panel at Inspirefest in Dublin recently moderated by the inimitable Kara Swisher, co-founder and executive director of Recode.

I applied a “canary in the coal mine” analogy to the rationalisations that some people make around the low proportion of women (and indeed the under-representation of many other groups) in venture capital (just 6pc or so of partners) and tech more generally.

The parable goes like this: canaries were, of course, small birds taken down mines for safety reasons. But what happened when the poor little canaries expired?

Did the miners blame the canaries for not being tough enough? Hence conclude perhaps that the canaries really needed some extra-deep mine training.

That way they could “make it” in the underworld, just like they, the tough miners, had done for years before the canaries arrived on the scene.

Or, did the miners decide that really what they needed was more canaries? Hey, building a pipeline of canaries would be great! That way there would always be new canaries to staff the mines in the face of canary attrition and maybe even grow the number of canaries.

The answer is neither.

Of course, the miners didn’t blame the canaries when the canaries quit (well, died, actually.) Neither did they think that just calling for more canaries was going to solve the problem of losing canaries!

Rather they reflected on the underlying problem facing the canaries. When they thought about it, this wasn’t the canaries themselves. They didn’t need “fixing”, rather it was the atmosphere.

‘Work out what is wrong with your organisational culture and ask how you can make it more inclusive’


And the miners knew (once they had evacuated back to the surface, ASAP), that the solution was not tougher canaries or more canaries. It was to change the atmosphere in the mine in the best interests of the canaries, but also in the best interests of themselves.

In a human organisational context we call that atmosphere culture and, what is missing when a group of people don’t seem to stick around, no matter how hard you try to bring them in in greater numbers or “fix” them, is something we call inclusion.

So the moral of the story is: when the canaries in your coal mine seem to be in trouble, don’t blame them.

Look at the context they operate in and work out what is wrong with your organisational culture and ask how you can make it more inclusive.

Maybe that way the canaries will feel they are valued and that they fit in. And, hence, decide they want to stay around a little longer.

Adam Quinton

Adam Quinton is an investor and the CEO and founder of Lucas Point Ventures.

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.