Why Accelerators Are Supporting Diverse Founders

By: Jared Karol

“Not all accelerators are created equally.”

This sage advice was shared by Andrea Barrica to founders from diverse backgrounds at last fall’s Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco. Andrea is an Entrepreneur in Residence and Venture Partner at 500 Startups, a global VC seed fund investing in diverse startups all over the world. She goes on to say that “[You] should be weary of accelerators. Money is money but it’s really about what you’re going to get out the program. Every accelerator has their own thing, so make sure you know that.”

Joining her on stage for the panel discussion was Fadi Bishara, CEO and Founder of Palo Alto-based accelerator Blackbox, whose exclusive focus is on founders outside of Silicon Valley and the US. Fadi echoed Andrea’s insight: “The most important part of an accelerator program is the emotional support of the community — being a member of the community that is helping you go through this stressful, emotional journey.”

Founding a company is an emotional journey for any entrepreneur, but it’s especially challenging for founders from diverse backgrounds who are trying to gain access to the networks, knowledge base, and other resources that are abundantly available to many of their white male peers. That’s why Dan Austin, Co-Founder at DivInc., an Austin, Texas-based accelerator focused on women and underrepresented minority founders, says there’s so much demand for his program.

In their first cohort last September, they planned to take on five companies but ended up taking on nine — and they had to turn several away. Moving forward they are expanding the accelerator to two cohorts of ten companies each year (spring and fall). The 12-week program has a heavy focus on mentorship and making introductions to other founders in the community. “Founders from underrepresented companies don’t know who to turn to with questions,” Dan says. “We provide that knowledge base. We’re specifically trying to address the lack of diversity in the tech startup ecosystem. How do you tap into the network? That’s one of the bridges we’re building to close the gap.”

Why do Andrea, Fadi, and Dan care so much about providing support and funding for diverse founders? Each of them has their own reason.

“As a queer, woman of color, it’s obvious why I care about this topic,” says Andrea. Diversity is important because “this is the consuming power of the future, and if you don’t have people in your funds who understand these markets they’re going to get left behind.” She also says that unconscious bias is very real. “I’m shocked at how much people don’t understand because of their unconscious bias. A lot of people say they try, and that they see it, but they won’t do the work to bring in the diverse attitudes.”

Dan’s company, DivInc, has a less traditional accelerator model. They’re a nonprofit, and don’t fund companies, take equity, or charge the founders. “We are not in this to make money off the founders,” he says. “We are in this completely to propel the change in the industry. So that’s what we’re 100% focused on doing. There are tons of products and services that haven’t been imagined yet. Who’s going to imagine them? A lot of people that are outside of the current founder demographic.”

Fadi came from Syria 25 years ago. At age 15 his entire city was destroyed and he lost a third of his classmates. “I’ve seen the ugliness of violence and I’ve seen why violence happens. It’s because of the uneven distribution of economic opportunities. It’s because people are not being treated fairly. They don’t have access to the possibility the next person may have.” Fadi has observed a lack of empathy in the Silicon Valley VC world, which he attributes to a general lack of suffering. “Better products are built by different people. There’s nothing good that comes from purity of perspective — from one angle. It’s as simple as that.” He sees inclusion as a richness. “There’s something very satisfying in standing for change, and knowing that there’s meaning in what I do.”

There’s a lot meaning in what Startup 500, Blackbox, and DivInc are doing. And that work is going to lead to a much more diverse and inclusive ecosystem. That, of course, can only be a good thing .

Watch the full panel discussion here.

See more videos from Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion here.

About Change Catalyst:

Change Catalyst empowers diverse, inclusive and sustainable tech innovation — through events, consulting, research and training.

Our Tech Inclusion programs explore and develop innovative solutions to tech diversity and inclusion.

Our Startup Ecosystem programs help underrepresented entrepreneurs and investors to start, scale and fund worldchanging businesses.

Change Catalyst is a Certified B Corp, winning the “Best for the World”​ award for community impact in 2014 and “Best in the World”​ overall in 2015.

Join Us in Driving Jobs, Empathy and Tech Inclusion Across the U.S. and Beyond in 2017

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