Diversity Initiative Chicago Blend Aims to Shake Up the VC Community

“The venture and tech community is not as diverse as Chicago is,” says Lindsay Knight of Chicago Blend, an initiative that aims to measure and increase “DEI” (diversity, equity and inclusion) in local venture capital firms as well as their portfolio companies.

“We don’t represent what the city looks like.”

If you read our blog post last week, you already know the bleak but wholly unsurprising news: the overwhelming majority of Chicago VCs are white, despite the fact that our city is more ethnically diverse than the U.S. as a whole. Meanwhile, the local VC ecosystem’s gender imbalance is only a bit less conspicuous.

“I think it was a pretty bold thing for us to announce,” says Lindsay of the new data. The findings are the result of Chicago Blend’s first project: measuring how many women and underrepresented minorities work at venture firms, as well as their level of seniority.

Lindsay Knight, Chicago Blend (John Rosin/Technori)

“It’s scary to talk about,” says Lindsay, who is director of platform at Chicago Ventures. “But we ultimately want to create an environment where it’s OK to talk about this. It’s OK to make mistakes, and we want to create a safe space for people to understand how we can be better, because we’re not going to be better if we don’t have a baseline to start with.”

How did we get here, and what’s next?  I sat down with Lindsay and her fellow Chicago Blend board member, Pritzker Group network relations pro Kristi Dula, to find out.

Own up to it

Inspired by a similar initiative in New York, Lindsay, Kristi and a handful of fellow VC-industry leaders launched Chicago Blend in October 2018  with a dual approach: identify the gaps in DEI, and then create plans to address them.

First up: examining venture firms themselves. Now they’re working on data collection project number two: measuring the amount of women or underrepresented minorities who work in venture-backed startups. Their study will investigate their roles, too —  how many women work tech and product, or how many underrepresented minorities have board seats, for example.

Talk it out

These data collection projects could be the most important part of what Chicago Blend is doing. Making things common knowledge goes a huge way toward diffusing it. If everyone knows the numbers, we’re all on the same page.

Kristi Dula, Chicago Blend (John Rosin/Technori)

“We’ve found that, even among many of our peers, people don’t talk about this stuff,” says Lindsay. “Often because they’re scared of saying the wrong thing and offending somebody. I have done that before. I think we probably all have. We’re trying to change that dynamic with this initiative.”

Aim for more, not less

The eight-member board of Chicago Blend knows that diversity isn’t just desirable –– it’s critical to building a strong, versatile, resilient team. But as Kristi notes, the  issue is not necessarily that there’s too many white men at the table. (Phew).

“The issue at hand is that there’s not enough diversity at the table,” she says. “I think it’s important that we approach this subject in that way, because ultimately having diversity at the table includes white males as well. We just want more diversity, rather than less.”

Data derived from a survey conducted by Chicago Blend (John Rosin/Technori)

Culture shift

As I recently discussed with WeSolv’s Stella Ashaolu on the podcast, culture is a huge part of any DEI initiative. And so is preparing your company for the change. You can’t just flip a switch and everything becomes special. You have to do the work of making your company a place that women and underrepresented minorities want to work.

To help companies build better DEI programs, Chicago Blend has a third project: an ever-growing resource library. Their curated lists of community groups, best practices standards, reports, whitepapers, document samples, and other resources are essential bookmarks for any company that wants to get it right.

Be the change

When it comes to creating authentic, meaningful diversity at a company, we have to start changing the makeup of the boardroom, not just the investors. We have to appeal to a founder choosing her first board as well as the VCs who might have a say about it. And sometimes, leaders in our community can step up and set an example.

Mike Gamson [LinkedIn’s Senior Vice President, Global Solutions] is a really great person when it comes to things like this,” says Kristi. “It’s made its way through the community that if he’s asked to be on a board, he asks about the diversity on the board already. If it’s not there, then he says, okay, I’ll consider it when you do. That has been kind of a resonating story in the tech scene that has actually had an impact on some companies’ board structures.”

“I think that those little moves that we all can make are very important.”

Moving forward

Once Chicago Blend completes its data collection projects — its first step, a different kind of work begins.

“You know, post-‘Me Too’ and over the last 12 to 18 months, we’ve seen a lot done in step one, throughout the world really. There’s a lot of focus on Silicon Valley around decency pledges and putting some initiatives in place. I think a lot of work is getting done. Our goal now is to move from step one to step two. Now that we have the data, we’re going to put some initiatives in place to actually change the numbers.”

Stage two: education and impact

“There are a lot of ideas that we’ve thrown around in our initial conversations,”  says Lindsay. One initiative might be to educate people about the venture capital field so that more women and people of color are ready to take on executive or board level positions.

“What is this weird world that we live in, and how can we get people that are outside of our initial circles of friends and contacts to know what we do to get into this world?” she says.  “How are we working with our portfolio companies to bring people of different representation of all kinds onto their teams –– helping them hire from the bottom and the top, too? I don’t think we will know what the specific initiatives are until we have all of the data in place, but I will tell anybody who’s listening: we want this to be a community effort. If people have ideas, we would love to hear them.”

Join the mix

If you’re in the world of venture capital or just want to share or stay posted on Chicago Blend, you’re in good company. “We’ve got 29 VC firms signed on as supporters already,” says Kristi. “If you are a VC firm who has not signed on as a supporter, let us know: info@chicagoblend.org.”

Nonetheless, persist

“I am a person that just wants to drive and just wants things to get done. I think a lot of us in this community are,” says Kristi. “But somebody said to me recently –– this isn’t going to be a one-fund change or a three- or four-year change. This will literally be a decades-long change. We have to be patient and start laying the groundwork now. Hopefully we will see some results eventually.”

Chicago Blend is confident that transparency itself can inspire change. “I don’t think any other city is talking about their data like we are in Chicago,” Kristi says. “We’re at the starting line, and hopefully we’ll be able to impact change, making this city the most diverse, the most inclusive place to build a business, to start a business, to work for a tech company, whatever it is.”