Startup Diversity Pledge Takes National Aim After Start in Austin

Austin—There’s a diversity initiative in Austin that’s gaining interest: The Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge has now been signed by some 50 entrepreneurs and investors in the city.

The pledge asks any company or individual who signs it to commit to standards such as hiring (and interviewing) a diverse workforce, pay equality, and training about unconscious bias. It also asks organizations that sign it to publicly report diversity metrics (the businesses would track these themselves), create discrimination and harassment policies, and publicly commit to the pledge.

The intent of the pledge is to develop a few concrete measures that might help a company hire more women, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQ, according to a news release. The pledge was developed by Stephen Straus, who spent nine years at venture capital firm Austin Ventures and now is the CEO and co-founder of KungFu.AI, which helps companies build AI strategies and services.

“In my nine years at Austin Ventures, I can count on one hand the number of pitches that I heard from an under-represented person—a woman, a person of color, or someone who identifies as LGBTQ—as the founder or CEO,” Straus said in a news release.

Straus has been working on the pledge since 2017, because he is interested in using his privilege as a white male and an investor to change the Austin ecosystem, according to Josh Jones-Dilworth, whose PR firm JDI signed the pledge (and is promoting it). Straus is making a public announcement about it now as he plans to expand its reach, with the goal of taking it national in 2020, according to the news release.

Companies that have signed the pledge include WP Engine, Data.World, CognitiveScale, Aceable, and Easy Expunctions. Investment firms are also signing the pledge, and adding a few additional commitments, including encouraging their portfolio companies to also sign and taking a percentage of pitch meetings (starting at 10 percent) from underrepresented founders and CEOs. It also asks investors to make mentoring commitments. Techstars, Silverton Partners, and Capital Factory are among the investment firms that have signed already.

Straus and a team of volunteers plan to initially track which companies follow through with announcing their commitment publicly to the pledge (be it through social media, on a blog post, or otherwise) and which publicly report diversity metrics, according to Jones-Dilworth. Eventually, the plan is to create a public database with links to all the participants reports and disclosures, he said.

Joah Spearman, the founder of Austin-based Localeur, has frequently spoken publicly about his own experiences as a black person in tech, including fundraising for his startup. He said he spoke with Straus about the initiative before it became public.

“What Stephen is doing is very important work, especially since white men in technology have a unique opportunity to help craft a different narrative for an industry that has a dismal record for diversity and inclusion,” Spearman wrote in an e-mail to Xconomy. “Ultimately, any conversation about diversity and inclusion in business is a conversation about acknowledging both the historic discrimination that has taken place in corporate board rooms and investment communities and accepting the proven, financial outcomes for businesses whom make inclusion a key ingredient to their growth.”

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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