I have heard from several industry peers that while they are disturbed by recent events and supportive of change, they act on the principle that venture capital money should only be used for “direct business activities.” And this “business of business is business” point of view seems to be held widely, whether you run a startup or an established company.
Yet, the question I keep asking myself is: As a business, how can we operate in a country where so many people feel powerless, angry and unsafe? How can we build our technology in an America where if you go for a jog or a drive, the outcome is determined by the color of your skin? How can we sell our products and find new customers when Black New Yorkers die from Covid-19 at a rate of 2-to-1 compared to all other New Yorkers? The virus more negatively impacts people in communities across the country who can not afford to work from home and are surrounded by substandard healthcare systems.
I don’t claim to know what to do, but I do know that there is immense anguish and pain in this country right now. And the sources of that pain are not new. We can start by deciding that “direct business activities” includes creating a better, fairer world.
Every company has a platform of some sort. It might be who they hire, where they operate, who their audience is, the products they make, who their shareholders are and even how they speak to one another. And that begs the question not if we can afford to act, but how we can afford not to act—acknowledging that making a donation and checking a box is not enough.
Instead, what if every company in America stopped and asked: How can we use our platform? What can we do? Proactively asking these questions is already a radical action compared with our business-as-usual activity. In the throes of a pandemic, many companies asked that question and used their platforms to make supplies, feed people, create PPE and support essential workers. It’s time to treat systemic racism as the same sort of pandemic and maintain the focus of our attention on it.
Our process starts with sharing, hearing the voices inside of our company and giving team members a place to communicate broadly their personal experiences around racism. It’s emotional and sometimes painful, but it’s important that we understand how close to home this is. And if it’s not something that has affected a team member personally, they can start to feel and understand based on how it’s affected the person who sat next to them every day.
The next step is asking what can we do? This is a process of small-group work and mobilized voices to brainstorm and generate ideas around how we use our platform. We go into this with the understanding that not every idea will be right for us and that we will not follow up on every idea.
The final stage is the discussion about which of those ideas we pursue. That process in and of itself becomes a learning experience. By hearing and vetting everyone’s ideas somewhat openly, we can see who we truly are as a company, what we care about and which action works best for us as we strive to make an impact together.
When the volume and consistency of our actions oppose systemic racism from all angles, we can start to move in the right direction.