Earlier this month, around International Women’s Day, I saw a LinkedIn post that caught my attention. A woman entrepreneur had crossed out “female” in the oft-used phrase “I am a female founder”. The post made its way in my network and I saw comments ranging from “we’re not there yet” to “let us move away from identity politics”.
I felt torn as in late October, I had a very open and fruitful conversation with an older man about identity politics. We were both discussing California ballot initiatives on the upcoming November election and Prop 16 came up which would have amended the 1996 Prop 209 which prohibited state governmental institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in the area of public employment, public contracting and public education. He was concerned such an action would further enforce identity politics and continue to polarize our society further than it has already become in the last 15 years. My viewpoint was that we still had a long way to go in terms of minority access to education in California and underrepresentation of women-owned businesses.
I told him anecdotally that we had been asked to participate in an RFP for a community-based nonprofit as initially, we were not considered as the investment committee had no objective way of identifying women-owned asset management firms. This data is not collected by the SEC or the California State AG’s office. My feeling was that perhaps some government action was needed to kick-start this in areas where it had control.
“Allyship means actively supporting people from marginalized groups. It’s about using as much institutional, social, and/or cultural privilege or power as you have to advocate for people who face oppression.” — Catalyst, Curiosity Powers Allyship to Create Change
I did not manage to convince my new acquaintance, and neither were California voters as 57.3% of the population voted against the amendment. Pundits called Californian voters “race and gender neutral”. I understand the young woman’s LinkedIn post as she was tired of being sought as a “female speaker” on panels and was concerned about being lumped into a “female-founded” category by investors. The further challenge is that the speaker and investor categories are small, and women end up feeling like they are competing with other women for scarce resources. Or we host our own conferences and venture funds where we end up talking to each other.
I have been around the financial services industry long enough to have moved from stage 1 in my twenties which I call “Arrival”. You were told by your family, teachers or coaches that “you can do anything you set your mind to and you have access to so many opportunities through the (entry-level) job market, etc.”. Then in your thirties you move to stage 2 which I call “Awareness” when you realize at least 25% to 30% of your female peers have left the corporate world for various reasons and you start to look up the career ladder and realize there are fewer and fewer women role models up there. Then you move to stage 3 which I called “Galvanize”. You want to change the situation and you join women’s networks, look to your remaining female peers and say, “what is happening?”. Many of us stay at this stage for what seems like forever. We continue talking to one another and to a few male allies.
Speaking of allies and allyship, what does that look like? A research report from Catalyst defined Allyship as “actively supporting people from marginalized groups. It’s about using as much institutional, social, and/or cultural privilege or power as you have to advocate for people who face oppression. Allies amplify unheard voices, call out barriers and biases that can inhibit progress, and act as role models in their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Then there is stage 4, “Action”. While it is important to define the issue and educate oneself, we also need to act. Sometimes, you move between the stages as you start to learn more, go deeper into the work of recognizing power structures, identities, etc.
As the month of March ends, I wanted to share a list of 8 things you can do as an ally to minority and women founders, entrepreneurs, business owners, nonprofit leaders and board members. I start with easy and work my way up to hard. This takes time, commitment, will-power, reputation and perseverance. It is not easy. By aligning together, we can make incremental changes while also move towards the large, evolutionary, social changes that often occur rapidly because of years of policy work.
Here are the 8 Things Allies Can Do to Support Minority & Women Leaders:
Make a meaningful introduction. If you sit on a for-profit or non-profit board, introduce a minority or women-owned business leader if there is an open spot on your board. Please do not assume they do not have the time, money, inclination or skills to participate. Let them decide. It is an introduction to your valued and closed network.
Buy from Minority and Women-owned Businesses. Review your partnership and vendors. Is there an opportunity to hire a women or minority owned business? If you struggle to find partners or vendors, check out WBENC, Black, Hispanic or Asian Chambers of Commerce.
Make referrals. As you can refer professionals to others in your network for products or professional services, include a minority and women-owned business among your referrals. Do not assume that your network only wants to work with male-owned businesses or would be more “comfortable” with a male. I often find that men like to work with female advisors or that women would like to hire a minority-owned advisory firm to broaden their network.
Recruit women leaders for the BIG roles. I often find that at large nonprofits, the CEO or Executive Director role is still white male. There are qualified minority and women leaders out there so spend the time and, if necessary, the money to recruit her or him.
Take risks. Is your pay scale fair across your organization among minority and female employees? While COVID has caused a hit to nonprofits and businesses alike, there are those organizations who are sitting on cash reserves. Use these reserves to rectify your salary scale.
Create an abundance mindset. Rather than being laser focused on having a minority founder or woman business owner on your panel, what if had a panel entirely of people of color or all women or both? Rather than ensuring you have a minority or women-owned business in your RFP list as window dressing, what if you had only minority or women-owned businesses in your RFP list? Or create a goal that you will have 25 or 30% of vendors who are minority or women-owned in 3 years?
Lend your resources and your money. What if you offered a portion of your commercial space at an initially reduced rate to a minority-owned business getting off the ground. Favorable terms to support a new business is impactful. If you have the power to support a smaller business in your industry through a favorable loan note, would you consider it to grow and innovate in your sector? A male friend of mine was able to launch his business during the 2007-2008 down-turn through a private loan from a larger, very successful business owner who saw his vision and believe. My friend was lucky as he was part of a large network of other powerful men.
Invest your money. You may have heard this a lot in the last few years as more early-stage venture funds are focusing on minority and women-founded startups. It’s still not enough as only 5% of venture money still goes to this group. If startups aren’t your thing, invest in a business in your sector or geographic region to help these business owners expand and scale.
I look forward to seeing how this evolves as we come out of both the pandemic economy and the racial unrest and awakening of 2020. We have much work to do. For now, I’m going to continue to call myself a female founder and Fairlight a women- and minority-owned business.