News Flash: Grass is Green, Sky is Blue, VCs are White Men


“Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?”-Chris Rock

On Monday, November 21, the National Venture Capital Association and Dow Jones VentureSource released the results of the 2011 Venture Census, which reported statistics about ethnicity, gender and other characteristics of the venture capital industry garnered from a poll that included 600 VC industry participants. Not surprisingly, the census reaffirmed what most of us already knew: it’s good to be a white male.

Of the total 600 respondents, 87 percent were Caucasian, 9 percent were Asian, 2 percent were African American or Latino, and 2 percent were of mixed race. This is pretty much exactly the same as when the survey was done in 2008, when 88 percent were white guys.

The only thing worse than being non-white when it comes to your chances of getting a VC job is being female. While 79 percent of the survey respondents were male and 21 percent were female, it’s a misleading figure since so many of the women respondents were not in true investment roles. According to the NVCA, of those who identified themselves as investors, 89 percent were male and 11 percent were female. This is actually worse than the 2008 census, when 86 percent of investors were male and 14 percent were female (the NVCA notes that the measurements in the two years were done slightly differently). I am not surprised to see this decline, because we have seen a major contraction in the VC industry over the last three years. Women were last to the party and thus they are pretty much the first out the door when the jobs go away.

Similarly, the people lower on the totem pole tend to lose their jobs first when money gets tight, so that doesn’t bode well for the next generation looking any less like a day at the Polo Fields. It is worth noting that among NVCA census respondents there were far more women among people under 30 years of age (28 percent) than among people in their 40s and 50s (22 percent); additionally, there were far more people of color among those with less than 5 years in the field (23 percent vs. 13 percent overall). In fact it appears to be a straight-line correlation between newness to field/youth and the chance one might be female or of a non-Caucasian ethnicity. Of course, the younger the person the more likely they are to hold a junior role in a firm. Thus, if the ongoing industry contraction takes with it the XX chromosomes and the people with pigment on the theory of last in first out, the future of our field is going to continue to feel a great kinship to Caspar the Ghost: male, white and flying high.

One of the most interesting statistics in the census, in my opinion, is that 49 percent of respondents, when asked where they expect to be in five years, expect to be at the same firm in the same role, while 16 percent expect to be at the same firm in a new role. If you read my post from last week entitled, “Hey, Where is Everybody Going?” you know that, at least in the life sciences sector of the venture world, venture capital jobs are not as secure as they used to be. Look at it this way: there were 462 active US venture capital firms, defined as investing at least $5 million in companies, in 2010. This compares with 1,022 venture firms in 2000. If you define the universe of US venture capital firms as those raising money in any of the last 8 years, the 2010 count was 791, according to NVCA.

However you slice it, there are fewer chairs at the table now then there have been in the past. I would think that this would make venture capitalists pretty paranoid. Note to self on the next great investment opportunity: a company that treats the sore necks of VCs who spend lots of time looking over their own shoulders to see if someone is coming to get them. It may be a small market, but it’s becoming a chronic condition, thus a recurring revenue model.

A last note from the census: despite the fame and fortune garnered by the VCs who have made their names investing in social networking/social media businesses, use of these modes of communication are a mixed bag. Of the 600 respondents, 62 percent use Facebook and just 30 percent use Twitter, although 85 percent use LinkedIn (job search anyone?). Only 33 percent report that they read blogs and only 11 percent report writing blogs (I am actually aware of only 2 or 3 other women VC blog writers).

So to those 33 percent of my colleagues that actually might see this post, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the NVCA venture census. Do you think our field will look more diverse 10 years from now or just the same? Will there be more women and minorities or fewer? What do you think it will it take for the venture capital field to look less like Maroon 5 and more like the Black Eyed Peas? And most importantly, who wants in on my sore neck deal?

Lisa Suennen is a managing director with GE Ventures and former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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6 responses to “News Flash: Grass is Green, Sky is Blue, VCs are White Men”

  1. A Tanibata says:

    Been in the corporate science business for over 30yrs and while the female:male ratio is improved, women still have to work harder than men do to achieve career goals. Something you acknowledge but not let hamper you. Imagine the double whammy of being female AND Asian.

  2. Vinit NijhawanVinit Nijhawan says:

    I have been making this point in the Boston startup ecosystem for years, including to Mark Heesen at NVCA. It is even worse in Boston with very few non-white male GPs. So if you are young Indian or Chinese PhD with a great idea and you can find a GP with the same ethnicity who gets you, naturally you will migrate to them. Most likely that means Palo Alto, Bangalore or Shanghai!

    Vinit Nijhawan
    Boston University

  3. Seamus Carty says:

    Simple statistics do not tell the story… What percentage of VC’s have an MBA from a top 20 business school? I would imagine it is rather high. If one looks at those top 20 schools, what percentage of the students are minorities? What percentage are female?

    “The only thing worse than being non-white when it comes to your chances of getting a VC job is being female.”
    This implies that the VC firms discriminate against non-whites and women. What % of non-white and female applicants get an interview at the VC firms? What % get hire?

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