Tennis legend and venture capitalist Serena Williams wants investors to acknowledge their own biases and expand their networks to support more Black female founders.
In an opinion piece published by CNN Business Perspectives, Williams urged investors to give the “same thoughtfulness and consideration we give white male founders to all entrepreneurs”. This is exactly what Williams does at Serena Ventures, a firm she started in 2014 that invests in early-stage companies and budding entrepreneurs.
“The Black female founder begins her fundraising journey already down a match point. Black women face a unique set of challenges colored by misconceptions of both race and gender,” Serena wrote in the opinion piece.
“Investors notoriously doubt female founders, typically focusing investment analysis on the potential risks and losses of female-founded startups.
“Meanwhile, Black founders contend with systemic inequity at each step of their journey.”
Williams says her life story is one of breaking barriers, both on and off court. In a predominantly white, male sport, she believes she has been underestimated and underpaid throughout her tennis career, and sees herself in Black entrepreneurial women.
“As a venture capitalist investing in early-stage startups, I see myself in the Black female founders who are often counted out right from the start,” she wrote.
Williams says the “network effect” has a real impact on Black female founders, who often struggle to raise early-stage capital. She writes there is a trend for investors to back people who look like themselves, giving wealthy white men the upper hand from the outset.
“To raise your first million, you need to raise your first check. That can be notoriously difficult. Entrepreneurs often turn to their friends and family to raise capital, a luxury reserved to those with wealthy networks willing to bet thousands of dollars on a person with a good idea,” she wrote.
“Black women rarely have a wealthy network they can call upon for early investment. The average Black household had a net worth of $17,150 in 2016, nearly 10 times less than their White counterparts.
Williams says this culture of investing in who and what you know had led to the systemic exclusion of Black women founders, who in 2018 and 2019, raised only 0.27 per cent of venture capital in the US.
“Venture capitalists have a tendency to believe in — and consequently fund — founders who feel familiar and have the ‘right’ pedigree. In theory, this makes a lot of sense — “invest in what you know!” However, this attitude has created a landscape wherein White men receive an overwhelming majority of venture capital funds.
“We can no longer stay oblivious to how our homogeneous networks influence who we fund and who we hire.”
Williams says that the barriers facing Black female founders are detrimental to everyone, as we end up bypassing critical innovation and genius.
“Without the network necessary to raise critical starting capital, most Black female founders close shop before their product even reaches the market. By building exclusive spaces and systems, we are missing out on the innovation and genius of so many.”
Ultimately, Williams says Silicon Valley has a network selectivity and resource allocation problem, and it’s something that can be remedied if venture capitalists start expanding their networks.
“Venture capitalists should expand their network to include Black female founders and focus on hiring investors who have access to a more diverse network,” Williams wrote.
“I am by no means alone in my mission to build an inclusive venture capital landscape. The champions for Black female founders are here to stay. It’s time we all play on the same court.”