Even though St. Louis’ tech startup scene is growing, it is not always the most inclusive environment for women and people of color. A group of 12 local nonprofits and government organizations want to change that.
It's called the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective. Members range from the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership to Arch Grants. Their goal is to help ensure women and men of color have equal access to everything an entrepreneur needs, from capital to business support services.
“We think there's an additive layer that needs to be strengthened so that we can understand how we can support women and under-represented people of color,” said Natalie Clay, a program coordinator at BioSTL who is managing the effort.
Before rolling out new programs, Clay said they first need everyone to agree on what racial equity means in the business world and collect good data on St. Louis’ current startup community.
“We all report our own data but as an ecosystem we don't know how many women or people of color we're all serving,” Clay said.
The Collective first met in December of last year and is funded by a $420,000, two-year grant from the Kansas City based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The foundation, which focuses on promoting and researching entrepreneurial activity, is putting $4.3 million into 12 projects across the country.
Alex Krause, a researcher at Kauffman who studies what it takes to help women and entrepreneurs of color start successful businesses, said St. Louis’ systematic approach makes it standout.
“Something that these organizations should be thinking about if they want to be inclusive is what does the culture of the organization look like?” Krause said. “Are the support organizations staffed, lead and have boards lead by women and people of color by women of color? That is really important”
The mostly white, mostly male tech startup world has long struggled with racial and gender diversity. For example, when LinkedIn recently surveyed 600 of its users in the tech startup world, it found that most women say they have witnessed sexism while trying to raise capital for their startup. Almost half of nonwhite respondents said they have witnessed racism in the venture capital world.
Those findings dovetail with a study by the National Venture Capitalist Association, which found very little racial diversity among its members’ workforces. The trade association plans to roll out a slew of strategies to its members in the coming months.
“What a great story it would be if St. Louis ended up being the magnet for wonderful entrepreneurs from under-represented backgrounds,” said Bobby Franklin, association president and CEO. “And then, how many people would be jealous of you? That’s where we hope to get.”
As the industry struggles to become more inclusive, Franklin said St. Louis could be in a better position than tech giants in Silicon Valley. Because it’s small enough, he said, that if regional leadership wants to it can help everyone find a seat at the table.
St. Louis Public Radio's We Live Here recently covered diversity in tech startups. You can find those episodes here.