June 8, 2023

We Are Not Who We Think We Are: Getting Candid About Diversity In Tech VC

Rumbi Makanga

This article was first published by Rumbi Makanga on Medium.

I was asked to give a talk by a London-based company for Black History Month in October 2022. Initially, I was going to title my talk Your Silence Will Not Protect You after the eponymous collection of essays by Audre Lorde and to honour the many silences I have nursed over the years and the vast silences I know countless Black people are forced into in their professional lives.

It took a bout of illness in the last days of 2020 to nudge me out of silence. I developed mild brain inflammation after a severe infection. Losing the full capacity to think and speak made me realise just how badly I wanted to. I watched Brene Brown’s The Call to Courage on Netflix in the first week of January 2021 and it moved me so profoundly that it got me out of bed. I journalled and took notes. I confronted my difficult relationship with vulnerability and delved into some discomfiting questions. I resisted pulling away from the long and uneasy gap between asking the questions and receiving answers.

This is how I broke my silence with myself.

I emphasise this part of my story because it’s important. Creating space to ask difficult questions and developing the strength, capacity, and willingness to dig deep and uncover the answers is exactly what we need to approach some of the complex issues we’re facing right now.

In The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, the first essay in Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Audre Lorde writes that:

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.”

This essay is part of my effort to transform some of my silences into language and action.

I changed the title of my talk because as much as I wanted to reflect on silence and the many things we leave unsaid, I was able to see from my own experience that silence is not what defined my transformation but rather what I did with it. Consequently, I wanted to nudge us (the participants in that live discussion, and now everyone who will read this) to notice and call out the silences, to reflect on why and how they come to exist, and to hold space for the difficult truths that emerge. My hope is that I can nudge us to collectively transform some of these silences into language and action.

The talk I delivered ended up being titled We Are Not Who We Think We Are, taken from an interview with writer and journalist Anand Giridharadas.

The full quote is:

“We are not who we think we are. That is always a hard thing to hear, but it’s also a creative thing to hear because what I’m not saying is, ‘You’ve got to live up to my values.’ What I’m suggesting is, ‘We’ve got to live up to our values.’”

As I prepared for the talk, I was reflecting on the statistic that had just come out showing that in Q3 2022 Black founders raised 0.12% of venture capital funding. One of the questions I routinely reflect on to check on where I need to re-align is: “If someone could see your actions but not hear your words, what would they say your priorities are?” If actions speak louder than words, then what does it say that despite the huge amount of conversation and the numerous initiatives to tackle inequality, inequity and lack of diversity over the last couple of years, the amount of capital flowing to Black founders is decreasing?

We are not who we think we are.

The talk I delivered last year was uneasy — for me, and I’m sure for many of the participants as well. As with this essay, I opened with vulnerability to anchor that as our approach for the conversation. I was unflinchingly honest and open, and created space for others to be as well.

In just one hour, we managed to touch on some important topics. We spoke about how so many diversity initiatives are stalling because they do not have full support, resourcing, or funding from company leadership. I called attention to how many leaders don’t see this as something they need to actively engage in, just something they passively allow to happen. I directed this insight at the one executive in the room, and asked him to engage in the conversation. He walked out as soon as he could.

As I’ve started to speak publicly again, a recurring theme has been Black people letting me know that I’m saying the things they wish they could say in their workplaces, but don’t feel secure enough to do so. You can’t speak truth to power if you’re afraid you’re going to get fired. This is an important thing for people in positions of influence and power to understand — in the conversations that we are having together about race and anti-racism, some of us are having to be extremely guarded in how we speak.

One of the things being said but not taken seriously enough is that we are directing money to things like mentorship, talks, and events, which are all great and useful, but are not the deep investments we need to truly move the needle. In the words of Tiffani Ashley Bell, we need to make the hires and send the wires.

In the end, what matters to me — and me personally because I don’t and can’t speak for all Black people — is that we are who we say we are. After the talk I delivered, one of the attendees told me that I’d said the things they desperately wanted to say, but would get fired if they did. It inspired me to write this essay, to touch on some of those things. It inspired me to keep talking about this.

It also inspired me to say this: if you are in a position of power and/or influence and you really don’t care about diversity and equity and inclusion and think none of us should be focusing on it, then at least do us the service of being upfront about it. Don’t let us waste our time and energy. Don’t create phantom work streams that will only, in the end, frustrate your employees.

Either be who you say you are, or say who you really are.

This article was first published by Rumbi Makanga on Medium.
Rumbi Makanga

Rumbi Makanga is co-founder of Origin Twenty (www.origintwenty.com), a community of investors backing African startups at pre-seed and seed. She is also a startup advisor and fractional executive supporting B2B companies with business development and go-to-market. You can reach her at www.rumbi.co