Here Is How Leading Companies Bring Diversity To Their Investments

Paolo Gaudiano
Written by Paolo Gaudiano

This article was written by Paolo Gaudiano, whose goal is to revolutionize the way diversity is handled at all American companies, while creating a more inclusive and equitable society. To this end, I founded Aleria (aleria.tech), which is developing a SaaS platform that lets companies plan, execute and measure the impact of diversity and inclusion initiatives. He founded the center for the Quantitative Studies of Diversity and Inclusion (qsdi.org) at the City College of New York, which conducts core research, education and training on these important topics.

Recent reports paint a grim picture for diversity in corporate America: only four African American CEOs are at the helm of Fortune 500 companies, a number that will likely shrink to three early next year when Kenneth Chenault retires from the top post at American Express. Moving below the CEO spot only reveals a modest improvement: according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2015 less than 3.2% of senior executives across all industries identify as Black. This number is even lower (2.6%) in the Finance sector.

With these troubling statistics as backdrop, it was a pleasure to be invited to attend the recent Culture Shifting: A Weekend of Technology, Innovation & Social Impact, an invitation-only event featuring more than 125 Black institutional investors, angel investors and corporate decision makers. The annual two-day event–which began in New York in 2010, expanded to the Silicon Valley in 2014, and now alternates between Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley–brings together an impressive group of accomplished senior executives, entrepreneurs, tech trailblazers, business influencers and thought leaders, attracting the likes of JPMorgan, GE, Verizon, Hearst and other corporate investors who seek to bring diversity to their investment portfolios.

The event was produced by Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Culture Shift Labs, a boutique management consulting firm focused on Diversity & Inclusion. She is also the author of two books: Black is the New Green and 50 BILLION Dollar Boss: African American Women Sharing Stories of Success in Entrepreneurship and Leadership.

Having attended a large number of investor events in New York and elsewhere, I can attest that it is uncommon to see even a single Black investor, let alone a roomful. The Culture Shifting Weekend shows that there is a plethora of high-caliber Black investors and corporate leaders.

In Ms. Hoffman’s words, “The focus of this event is to harness the diversity in Corporate America and make it easy for decision-makers and influencers to find and fund diverse asset managers (in this case, ‘venture capitalists’ specifically). Many journalists write about the problem, disparity, inequity, and injustice in diversity and inclusion. I simply want to be part of the solution and make those who exist on both side of the solution easy to find… and be an enabler of positive outcomes.”

If the Culture Shifting Weekend event is any indication, Ms. Hoffman is succeeding in her mission. On Nov. 3, participants gathered at SAP’s new Hudson Yards office in New York, where they were welcomed by Deepak Krishnamurthy, SAP’s Chief Strategy Officer. The main event opened with an inspiring fireside chat between Troy Carter and Mark Ein, followed by an institutional investor panel featuring BRAVA Investments, the Surdna Foundation, JPMorgan’s Private Equity Group and Neuberger Berman.

The afternoon was capped off by a series of lightning talks by 15 leading investors from VC firms and Angel investor groups, including Arena Growth Partners, 42 Venture Partners, 1000 Angels, 645 Venture Partners, Base Ventures, Precursor Ventures, Reach Capital, Connectivity Capital Partners, Authentic Ventures, Anthemis Group, Brightwood Management Partners, ALL-STAR Fund and 500 Startups. The lightning talks gave these individuals the opportunity to pitch their organizations to the larger institutional investors, with the hope of attracting capital for their venture funds. The evening reception made for stimulating conversations and deal-making opportunities.

Day two was ushered in by Michael Carter, Co-Head and Managing Director of Technology Investment Banking at RBC Capital Markets, followed by a fireside chat, this time between Kwame Anku of Black Angel Tech Fund, and Hall of Fame athlete and philanthropist Alonzo Mourning. The event was brought to a close after a panel featuring corporate venture investors from Verizon Ventures, GE Ventures, Hearst Ventures, BCG Digital Ventures and Advance Venture Partners.

As you can see even from this brief summary, the Culture Shifting Weekend excels not only in its ability to attract a large number of Black investors, but even more so in the caliber of the speakers and panelists. How many events can boast a Hall of Fame and Olympic basketball player, the former talent manager for Lady Gaga, the co-founder of the Athena Center at Barnard College, an advisor to both the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology, and many more top-notch professionals?

How leading companies bring diversity to their investments

Part of the credit for attracting such an impressive cohort goes to Denmark West and Reggie Van Lee, co-chairs of the event. Mr. West, who in addition to co-chair was also co-host of the event, is a recognized expert on the digital economy often featured on media outlets such as CNBC, is the Founder and General Partner at Connectivity Ventures, and has held executive positions at leading corporations that span finance, technology and media. Mr. Van Lee, a retired Executive Vice President from Booz Allen Hamilton, is a philanthropist and advocate for arts and communities, and was appointed by President Obama to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanites. He is also a founding member of the Clinton Global Initiative.

But having two active, highly accomplished co-chairs is not enough to explain the high caliber of the participants: it also takes discipline and effort.

I asked Ms. Hoffman what she thinks about investors and event organizers who bemoan the lack of a “pipeline” of qualified individuals with diverse backgrounds. In her own words, “If you don’t have the networks to activate your intentions, there are organizations and experts that do. Find them and align with them. The phrase ‘we can’t find any__________’ shouldn’t exist. Certainly not in the age of cyberspace. If Culture Shift Labs has a talent database of over 5,000 Black subject matter experts, clearly they exist and clearly it requires being more diligent and more deliberate.”

The next time you are looking to diversify your investment opportunities, organizing a more inclusive event, or looking for domain experts from more diverse backgrounds, check out the list of speakers from Culture Shifting Weekend or any of the many other events that feature diverse talent, reach out directly to some of the speakers, or look for organizations like Culture Shift Labs for a collaboration. Even a small effort will create a virtuous cycle by increasing the visibility of high-quality talent, which will benefit everyone as we move toward a more diverse and inclusive society.

 Posted with permission of Forbes Media LLC

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