by Kenneth Corbin

Obama pushes tech startup community for more diversity

News Analysis
Aug 06, 2015
GovernmentStartupsTechnology Industry

President Obama hosts White House Demo Day as the administration teams with the industry to bolster diversity in a tech-heavy startup landscape.

WASHINGTON — If startups in the tech sector and other high-growth industries are going to continue to emerge and thrive, the business landscape must become a more inclusive environment, one that is more welcoming of women, minorities and regions outside major urban and university centers, the White House is warning.

“We’ve got to make sure that everybody is getting a fair shot,” President Obama said this week in remarks at the White House. “The next Steve Jobs might be named Stephanie or Esteban. They might never set foot in Silicon Valley. We’ve got to unleash the full potential of every American — not leave more than half the team on the bench.”

[ Related: Recipe for success starts with diversity ]

Obama kicks off first White House Demo Day

Obama spoke at the first-ever White House Demo Day, an event that brought a handful of entrepreneurs to Washington to showcase the products, services and applications they are trying to build businesses around.

The White House marked the occasion by announcing a string of commitments from businesses, investors, cities and universities aimed at furthering what the administration is calling “inclusive entrepreneurship.”

Several leading players in the tech sector joined with the White House effort, offering various pledges to enhance diversity in the workforce. Amazon, Microsoft, Pinterest and Xerox, for instance, are each committing to consider a diverse range of candidates when interviewing for senior leadership positions. Intel pledged to invest $5 million over the next five years in a partnership with Georgia Tech to fund research projects aimed at drawing women and minorities into the engineering field. IBM is planning to expand its partnership with the Girls Who Code program.

[ Related: White House Tells Tech Sector to Dream Big ]

More than 100 engineering deans have committed to step up their efforts to recruit a more diverse student body.

Obama noted that startups and young companies collectively account for nearly 40 percent of new hires, but cited studies finding that less than 3 percent of venture-backed firms employ a woman as a CEO, and not even 1 percent were founded by an African American.

“Yet we’ve seen again and again that companies with diverse leadership often outperform those that don’t,” Obama said. “That’s the market that is out there — not just here in the United States, but globally. So that lack of participation from everybody isn’t good for business.”

Top venture-capital firms are getting in on the act, as well. More than 40 VC firms, including the likes of Kleiner Perkins and Andreesen Horowitz, are committing to promote diversity in the startups they invest in, and have agreed to participate in an industry survey evaluating diversity both at the VC shops and their portfolio companies, with the results to be made public.

“It’s always hard to get in front of the right people, but sometimes it’s harder if you’re a woman or an underrepresented minority who all too often have to fight just to get a seat at the table,” Obama said.

The White House entrepreneurship initiative

The White House entrepreneurship initiative — an offshoot of the Startup America program the administration rolled out in 2011 — also counts support from many public-sector entities, including the expansion of the administration’s TechHire training and placement program to 10 new cities and states.

Additionally, more than 50 cities have signed onto the administration’s Startup in a Day program, which aims to give local leaders more flexibility to reduce administrative barriers to entrepreneurship in their areas.

Obama also pointed to other steps the administration has taken that he says have the potential to boost small-business creation, including the JOBS Act, which eases restrictions on crowd-funding, and the contentious open-Internet order — the net neutrality regulations that supporters say are needed to prevent Internet service providers from charging for faster content delivery, tolls that startups could have a hard time paying.

“So we hope that these efforts are going to open up new opportunities for all of our entrepreneurs — all of our would-be entrepreneurs,” Obama said. “And in the months ahead, I look forward to seeing more folks across this country — investors, accelerators, universities, civic leaders, corporate giants, growing startups — all take new steps to build on these actions. Because you never know who’s going to have the next big idea, or what path will lead them there.”