Tech accelerators can bring diversity to all-white, all-male startups

This is a guest post from Media Ideation Fellowship’s, Erin Polgreen 

The Slurpee straw is the pinnacle of straw innovation. Widened to accommodate refreshment the consistency of baby food — and with a little shovel-shaped bottom — the Slurpee straw gets it done.

So, consider a Slurpee straw with a hole in the side: Can it even be called a Slurpee when the would-be slurper pulls unsatisfying sips of air through her straw? No. The technical term for that, I believe, is a soggy paper cup full of food coloring and sucrose.

The tech field has a similar problem. The pipeline for entrepreneurial talent, like a broken Slurpee straw, has many strengths and is delivering new products and tools faster than ever before. We are officially up to our ears in accelerators and incubators, which is terrific. There are so many accelerators, in fact, I recently learned that they’re running out of land for all of them.

Yet, despite intense growth in the field, today’s leading entrepreneurs are generally white and generally male. Women and people of color are sorely underrepresented, despite the fact that these demographics represent the largest consumers of emerging technologies, such as mobile.

Accelerators perform the valuable service of providing the founders of promising early enterprises with direction and support. Accelerators launch new ventures and support new talent by providing invaluable critical feedback, a network of support, and, often, access to future investors.

Before enterprises are ready for accelerators, however, what structures exist to support individuals capable of launching such promising enterprises? Few to none.

The learning curve for would-be entrepreneurs is incredibly steep, and valuable swaths of runway are eaten up by minutia and misdirection. Less time plus less support equals fewer leaders who are able to take the leap and start their own ventures. This is especially true for would-be entrepreneurs that are also women and/or people of color, contributing to the virtual absence of diversity we see among tech entrepreneurs.

When it comes to social entrepreneurship and social ventures, things can be even more challenging. Social change-makers who want to take the leap from idea to venture often need extra support developing strong business plans and smart pitches necessary to bring their concepts to life. The risks are greater.

Between having an idea, acquiring the hard skills, and arriving ready to benefit from everything that accelerators offer, there is a gap in the entrepreneurial pipeline. That’s right, techies: There’s a hole in our talent-Slurpee straw.

We must patch our pipeline and diversify entrepreneurship. We need a means of supporting talented individuals with early-stage ideas–ideas that are mere twinkles in techies’ eyes. This concrete problem is something I’m trying to address with the Media Ideation Fellowship program. According to one recent estimate, only 1 percent of tech entrepreneurs are African American, despite the fact that the coastal capitals of U.S. tech — Silicon Valley and New York City — are among the most diverse places in the United States. The fact is that we are leaving talent untapped. Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs need better early-stage support.

As a sector, technologists are failing to utilize the full sum of talent our nation offers. Why is it that we should strain to think of a dozen African American or women tech entrepreneurs? Or even a half dozen? A recent article in The Guardian claims that young entrepreneurs are the future – yet all of the visionary, game-changing entrepreneurs mentioned in the article were men.

Long prosper the accelerators capable of helping ventures reach their potential. Might we offer them better prepared and more diverse enterprises to choose from, though? Let’s give individuals opportunities to fulfill their potential. Let’s flood the tech sector with a new crop of diverse, talented leaders that we, as a nation, are capable of providing.

Erin Polgreen coordinates the Media Ideation Fellowship program, which supports entrepreneurs for social good at the earliest stages of their careers. Applications for the fellowship’s inaugural class open on Sept. 11, 2012. Learn more at mediaideation.org

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