Cytokines, #techdiversity, and Doing More than Talk

Great companies working to solve tech’s gender diversity problem and what you can do about it

Joshua Henderson
6 min readFeb 5, 2015

These thoughts were posted here on Medium in order to facilitate a more open dialogue. I’d be honored for you to use the link to recommend, share, comment, and provide feedback. I’m genuinely interested in hearing from you about it.

The immune system, at a cellular level, is a fascinating dance of cells acting in concert to identify and destroy intruders.

When it functions as it should, often there are small complex proteins called Cytokines that serve as messenger cells by binding to the foreign cells and then recruiting others that can bind to its other end and functionally eradicate the bad guy.

If it plays out well, we get better. If the system over-reacts, we get worse. Those that die from Ebola, for example, die not from the virus but from an excessive immune reaction.

These cytokines are critical because they give the appropriate cells, the ones that actually solve the problem, the awareness of what needs to be done. As far as the immune systems goes, you can’t underestimate the powers of this awareness to address the problem.

The tech world has a diversity problem

A recent Newsweek article on women in tech has been getting a lot of attention throughout the past week. It, and some of the people interviewed, have also been drawing a fair amount of criticism.

As a guy in the tech world that has worked for the last seven years to amplify the success of women entrepreneurial leaders, I am both disappointed and pleased by the reactions this piece has received.

I am disappointed by the onslaught of hate, and how quickly people are to point out everything this article overlooked.

But I am pleased with the mainstream awareness it has brought to the problem — a very real problem — that serves as the focal-point of the article: the venture world has a diversity problem. And just like in the immune system, you can’t underestimate the power of awareness.

The Facts

Fact #1: men are more represented as investors and as programmers. According to a recent Fortune article, 96% of VCs are men and as Adam Quinton points out this is not the only investment class with a significant gender disparity.

Fact #2: both communities suffer at the lack of gender diversity. Not just culturally but also economically. Women drive better performance for startups, and for larger companies. In short, diversity drives success and women provide a powerful leadership advantage.

Let’s take the VCs

First, there is an old guard within this population that are sexist. They are set in their ways and they act like the obnoxious assholes in Mad Men. They are the ones that make us hear stories that make us say “I can’t believe things like that still happens in the 21st century.” It’s unfortunate because these people have money and power and it’s probably not going to change until they retire out of the ecosystem. All you can do is avoid them.

But there is a second group and for them, awareness is part of the solution. These are the male VCs that are unaware of their unintentional bias. Pattern recognition and social proof are investment strategies that can result in a dearth of diversity. Vivek Wadhwa argues that these terms become justifiable labels for sexism.

Patricia Nakache, a partner at Trinity Ventures, challenges her fellow investors to consider what their firm doing to address the inequality described by Newsweek. Smart investors, like the team at Homebrew, are seeking out solutions.

(Note that while women VCs are not absolved of this problem the data suggests that on average women investors are more likely to have women-led companies in their portfolio.)

Some things we can do to increase awareness

  • Use a platform like TheFunded where the old guard of investors can be identified privately and/or anonymously.
  • Forward this to investors you know to call attention to hidden bias and the stats that demonstrate the economic power of diversity across every level of an organization.
  • LPs should raise concern when the funds they’ve invested in back companies that lack diverse teams. There should be accountability. Even when it isn’t part of the investment thesis, as it is with funds like BBG Ventures, Springboard Fund, or Golden Seeds.

Bottom line: Awareness is critical to help combat these subtle biases against women in the venture world.

Awareness isn’t enough. We need to support the solution-makers.

As so many of the women and men I personally work with know, awareness isn’t enough. You also need the ones that make stuff happen.

I applaud those organizations that are seeking to fill the pipeline with more women in tech, those that make those companies more successful, and those that seek to turn those successful women into angels that fund the next generation of companies.

Even though it isn’t just about filling the pipeline, we move the needle in solving the problem if we reinforce this cycle.

Creating more successful women entrepreneurs creates role models.

Creating (and keeping) more women investors creates more pools of capital managed by people aware of the perils of pattern recognition bias.

There is thankfully a growing list of companies hard at work on this. Hackbright Academy, Skillcrush, Girls Who Code, PowerToFly, Plum Alley, Springboard Enterprises, Springboard Fund, MergeLane, Refinery, UpStart, Equita, Prosper, AVINDE, HeraHub, Astia, 37Angels, Golden Seeds, JumpFund, Portfolia, Change the Ratio, Ada Initiative, InnovationWomen, Pipeline Fellowship, and many others I am missing.

It is the responsibility of management of these coworking spaces, accelerators, and tech companies to ensure that there is not a toxic environment.

But women-only isn’t a requirement.

500 startups backs a higher-than-average number of women-led companies and Dave McClure has been outspoken about the issue. Y Combinator’s Paul Graham too has been willing to confront these biases and together with co-founder Jessica Livingston they have produced Female Founder Conferences and assembled a collection of Female Founder Stories. Springboard, as another example, has partnerships with the Partnership Fund for New York City and the National Association of Broadcaster to support women and men run companies. We ensure diversity across the cohort and that the environment for participating companies is not toxic.

I’ve talked mostly about the venture world because I admit I’m less familiar with the brogrammer culture inside tech companies. But I see the same critical component is required: awareness at the leadership level. It is the responsibility of management of these coworking spaces, accelerators, and tech companies to ensure that there is not a toxic environment for underrepresented minorities.

If you don’t cultivate a culture that appreciates diversity your performance as an organization will suffer.

What you can do about all of this

  • First, like bullying, we need to call out sexist behavior AND subtle biases, and make it clear that behavior like that is unacceptable. From the top down, and the bottom up. If you don’t cultivate a culture that appreciates diversity your performance as an organization will suffer.
  • Second, share this link and encourage them to sign up for this newsletter where, just like this, I periodically share about the people I meet, the companies I learn about, and their stories.
  • Third, both women and men need to back the companies working to address these issues with our time AND our money:

Time: Message me if you want to offer help to any of the organizations I mentioned and I will personally pass along your message and provide their leaders with an opportunity to follow up with you. Whether you are a woman that wants to start investing, a guy who wants to get more involved but doesn’t know how, or a woman innovator that wants advice or connections from someone I’ve mentioned. Let me know what you need and I will do my best to help.

Money: Click here to make a contribution to a BrightFund I created with several of the non-profit 501(c)3 orgs in this space (including Springboard, where I work). If you’d like to support any of the for-profit companies I mentioned, shoot me a message with your interest and I will pass it along.

Our industry has a gender diversity problem and this article put another bright spotlight on it. You don’t have to agree with everything’s that was written to appreciate the awareness it is bringing to the issue.

Now let’s signal others and collectively invest our time and money in eradicating the problem. Be a cytokine ☺



Joshua Henderson

1000% committed to helping women innovators transform industries, cure diseases, and build scalable businesses