Written By: Mike Snider 4/6/15
The White House on Tuesday became a technology incubator with a goal of increasing diversity and inclusion across the tech industry.
President Obama hosted more than 30 companies and 90 entrepreneurs as part of the White House’s first Demo Day to showcase female- and minority-driven start-ups. The president also announced a public-private initiative aimed at spurring women and minority entrepreneurship.
Companies such as Box and Xerox have pledged to introduce the Rooney rule interview, instituted by the National Football League and named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, he said. That means that at least one woman and one person of color is interviewed for each executive position “just so someone (else) can get in the door,” the president said as he addressed the audience.
Obama visited and talked with many of the start-ups, calling them heirs to Lewis & Clark and Jonas Salk.
“There’s never been a better time to launch an idea, but we’ve got to make sure we’re taking full advantage of this moment,” he said.
The president also thanked nearly four dozen venture capital firms for pledging to increase diversity in their own ranks and in their portfolio companies.
Currently, only about 3% of venture capital-backed start-ups are led by women, and only 1% are led by African Americans, Obama said. He acknowledged that it can be tough for all entrepreneurs “to get in front of the right people, but sometimes it’s harder if you are a woman or an underrepresented minority. … The next Steve Jobsmight be named Stephanie or Esteban.”
Also on Tuesday, start-up backing firm Hackers/Founders said it was committing $20 million to invest in startups and was partnering with Women 2.0, a San Francisco-based media company and resource that assists female entrepreneurs, to encourage women’s startups.
“Women control 60% of household spending, and heavily influence 95% of household spending,” said CEO Jonathan Nelson in a statement. “What can we do to help address gender bias in the innovation capital of the world?”
The attention drawn by the White House event can increase awareness of the need for diversity and inclusion, says Women 2.0 co-founder and CEO Shaherose Charania. “With the support of the White House, our reach can be furthered to inspire more women and men to launch new companies that realize their own dreams while positively impacting their economy,” she said.
Among several entrepreneurs and start-ups who met with administration officials were New York-based ThinkUp co-founders Anil Dash and Gina Trapani, who chose the occasion to launch a new web destination called Makerbase.
Dash described it as cross between Wikipedia and Internet Movie Database, but for the app economy. Innovators can add themselves to Makerbase or others can add them to the current database of projects. Beta testers have been using the service since January. Those seeking work can search the offerings for likely matches and contact them.
“When I talk to young folks who are starting out their career, they say, ‘I will learn to code … but how do I get coffee with the person who made that product that I want to work on?'” Dash said. “One of the biggest shortcomings to that mismatch is that people who are new to the industry, especially those in underrepresented groups, are still being told, ‘Write your resume and put it up. That’s never going to get you there. You need to get an ‘in’.”
Hiring a diverse workforce can improve performance, too, said Megan Smith, the administration’s chief technology officer, citing recent research from First Round Capital, a VC firm that has funded Uber and Square. Among its funded firms, those with a female founder performed 63% better than men-run firms, the firm found.
And consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that firms that were more racially diverse and included women were more likely to have a higher financial performance.
“Not only is it the right thing to do,” Smith said, “but it turns out it is highly profitable.”