BREAK THE MOLD
There are many ways to describe entrepreneur Mitch Kapor.
He is the designer of Lotus 1-2-3 (IBM’s first killer application). Founder of Lotus Development Corporation and Open Source Applications Foundation. Creator of Firefox web browser. Founding chair of Mozilla Corporation. A venture capitalist. Early Uber investor.
But sitting across the soft-spoken Kapor, one gets a sense that he prefers not to dwell on past accolades. Jumping right into the conversation about corporate America, Kapor - a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion - says while both values have virtually become a corporate mantra in recent years, many companies fall short in actual practice.
Demographic diversity, says Kapor, is a problem that Silicon Valley struggles with in spite it being the world’s leading hotbed for talent and innovation.
There are many great things in Silicon Valley but there are many problems. One, it still thinks of itself as a meritocracy. It still thinks of itself as a place where only the best ideas get funded
“I like to say that genius is distributed evenly by postal code but opportunity and access are not,” says the California-based investor during a recent visit to Malaysia.
The ecosystem in Silicon Valley has been criticised as insular and unconsciously bias, where hiring or investing often rely on pattern recognition, leading to companies being dominated by people from the same background.
“There are many great things in Silicon Valley but there are many problems. One, it still thinks of itself as a meritocracy. It still thinks of itself as a place where only the best ideas get funded.”
“But that’s not the case. The cultures are very oriented around White and Asian males, people with computer science degrees from Stanford University, and it’s self-reinforcing.”
“And so that stereotype of who’s going to be successful gets deeply embedded and lots of other people - women and people of color, with every bit as much talent, or have better ideas, have difficulty getting funded.”
Along with his wife Freada, Kapor has for the past decade invested in seed and early stage startups whose success in business generates positive social impact.
They focus on companies that strives to close the gaps of access and opportunity for low-income families or communities of colour. The pair also tend to invest in persons from underrepresented groups and women founders.
(Only eight percent of partners at the world’s top 100 VC firms are female)
“Kapor Capital has invested in over 130 companies. Over half of the founders are women or people from under represented groups in the US,” says Kapor.
Mitch Kapor - Diversity A Great Asset for Companies
When Uber was embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal - seen born out of a diversity crisis that perpetuates a ‘bro culture’ - the pair, investors of Uber since 2010, publicly blasted the ride-hailing company for its toxic ways.
“There have been a number of very badly behaved, abusive venture investors. So, there’s now a great deal of interest in how we can change this system.”
People Ops Tech focuses on companies using tech to mitigate bias at scale across the entire talent chain - in recruiting and hiring, in compensation, in retrenchment
“Some people are just looking for a quick fix but if a startup or a venture investment firm really wants to take diversity seriously, it can if it takes a comprehensive approach, if there is real commitment that comes from the top and if they are willing to engage in a long term process of dismantling the biases and barriers they have erected that prevent equity.”
“In our venture firm Kapor Capital, we have a whole sector, People Ops Tech (POT) that focus on companies using tech to mitigate bias at scale across the entire talent chain - in recruiting and hiring, in compensation, in retrenchment.”
“If you build the software and services in a way that really levels the playing field, it just makes it so much easier to recruit and retain a diverse workforce,” says Kapor.
“Those companies are doing very well because there is a lot of demand for that,” he adds. “It’s moving the needle.”
Mitch Kapor - Lessons From Uber's Management Missteps
“I want to demonstrate through results that you can invest for social impact without sacrificing financial returns,” says Kapor.
The pair is certainly putting their money where their mouth is. In 2015, they pledged to give USD 40 million over three years to make the technology industry more diverse, so that women and underrepresented minorities have better shot at becoming tech entrepreneurs.
Kapor disclosed that they had increased the investment by USD20 million.
“Within the non-profit Kapor Center umbrella, we have continued to invest in education in helping underrepresented groups at the high school level.”
“These are African American and Latino kids from low income families. (We help to close) close the academic preparation gap and develop the intent and social capital to succeed in places like MIT and Stanford, for example.”
The programme called SMASH, aimed at helping targeted students hone their Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) knowledge, has expanded up to eight campuses in the US.
“We’ve had outstanding results. Over a thousand kids, who have a four year STEM degree entering into the workforce.”
“I would say that 40 million has gone to very good hands,” says Kapor.
'You Can Invest For Social Impact Without Sacrificing Financial Returns'
We ask Kapor what are some of the lessons to be learned from Silicon Valley - seen as the cradle of tech innovation, and how they can be applied in a thriving, ever-changing Southeast Asia tech landscape.
There are different stereotypes that are held about people who are not fully participating or under represented. It’s important to understand what those are and how to dismantle them
“It would be presumptuous of me to give specific advice (because the cultures are different) but I would say the leading edge for Silicon Valley is understanding that workforce diversity is a big asset, it is worth investing in.”
“I think there are different stereotypes that are held about people who are not fully participating or under represented. It’s important to understand what those are and how to dismantle them. It’s important to create an environment where it is actually okay to talk about it because the one thing we have seen is that people are either embarrassed or don’t know where to start.”
“With that kind of silence, there is no opportunity to make progress. So putting in a foundation that makes it safe at different levels within companies and between companies to talk about these issues is very important.”
“There are unique strengths in this part of the world. So build information technology that builds on that strengths, I think is the way to go; not just imitating Silicon Valley.”