Ready to Fight Implicit Bias, VCs? Let’s Take off Our Shoes

SputnikATX
4 min readMar 8, 2023
AI generated art by Dall-E

I’ve spent most of my career in spaces where I’m not supposed to be, from the lab to the boardroom. Perhaps there is some mischievous joy in crashing the party, because I ultimately ended up in one of the most notorious boys’ clubs of all, Venture Capital.

Just going by the numbers, VC appears to be a private league for silver-spooned mansplainers where feminism doesn’t come to mind.

Although these kinds of firms do exist, I see a different story in the colleagues I’ve worked with over my years in finance. The men I’ve worked with have been strong advocates for women who have made me feel supported and viewed as an equal. Yet to this day, when I look around I am clearly part of a gender minority.

How could a workplace so keen on equality be so pale and male?

I brought this question up with my daughter, who pointed me to a phenomenon that occurred in the Boston Symphony back in 1952.

The managers realized that a disproportionate amount of their instrumentalists were male. In a conscious effort to be more diverse, they implemented “blind auditions’’ where each auditioner performed behind a screen. But in the end, results still skewed male.

Flummoxed, they tried one more idea — making the auditioners take off their shoes. They were shocked when 50% of women made it past the first audition.

As it turns out, the sound of women’s shoes clicking against the floor signaled to the judges that the auditioner was female. Correcting for this allowed the judges to evaluate on performance alone — and led to a more equal orchestra.

The Boston Symphony was ahead of its time with its effort to remove sexism from their audition process, but despite their best intentions to equalize the orchestra, hearing a woman’s shoes triggered an unconscious bias in favor of male constituents. This tells us that fighting bias isn’t as easy as just wanting to do the right thing.

We all have inherent biases, but the good news is that by recognizing that they exist, we can craft systems to compensate for these predispositions rather than ignore them.

Venture capitalists have a special incentive to prioritize diversity — both ethically and for our wallet’s sake. Diverse teams outperform by serious margins, like being 36% more profitable, yet receive 43% less funding than homogeneous teams. Together we can be ethically interested in our bottom dollar and make conscious steps towards change.

Here’s the system that works at my firm.

1. The Questions You Ask Will Define the Answers You Get

Many hiring managers feel that unstructured, free-flowing interviews tend to be the most effective when screening candidates — but according to Harvard Business Review, this interview style is the worst predictor of actual job performance. According to the research, in unstructured interviews, hiring managers often favor candidates that look like themselves. This contributes to occupational gender segregation — i.e., male engineers hiring more male engineers and female nurses hiring more female nurses.

Screening companies as VCs is no different. A proven remedy to biases in the interviewing process is asking curated, pre-planned, consistent questions to every founder. At my firm, we screen startups with the exact same blind application. Thanks to that form, we know we’re getting the best of the best, free of our own biases.

2. Finding Founders Who Don’t Look Like You Gets Tricky If They’re Never On Your Calendar

If we are truly committed to making the world more diverse, we need to invest time in communities that are different from our own. The Latine AI whiz and Black code maestro are waiting for your attention — and if you never take the time to meet with them, you’ll never be on their radar when they come looking for investment partners.

When we discovered that Latin founders were underrepresented in our portfolio at Sputnik ATX, we made the decision to intentionally network in communities where these founders were present. We put in the work, and we got great applicants. Expanding your circle is the key to finding amazing talent.

3. For an Unbiased Future, Consider the Time You Must Invest Now

Talent could always use a good mentor. If you take on a new mentee every year, consider what your business could look like in ten. I like to tell people to start “coaching their bench.” The players you take under your wing will be team captains one day.

Although much progress has been made, many firms are still ignoring, statistically, the world’s best talent. And it’s all because of implicit bias.

If you’re a firm looking for talent, this is great news for you — because now you know where to go find your next best hire. The secret to finding talented, high-potential startups is in building a “shoes off” type of future.

VCs don’t need to “focus” on diversity; we need to open our eyes. Talented, diverse people are everywhere.

Written by Oksana Malysheva, Managing Partner at Sputnik ATX. Originally published at https://www.sputnikatx.com on March 8, 2023.

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