OpenView, Startup Institute minority recruiting deal resonates in VC industry’s tired monoculture

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If you spend a little time hanging around the venture capital world, the field’s overwhelming white-maleness is hard to miss.

Academic studies and industry insiders alike say the lack of diversity is a huge problem, but the monoculture persists even though it’s bad for business. And that overwhelming sameness tends to afflict the entire technology industry, trickling down to the entrepreneurs who cash VC checks and the people who get hired at VC-funded companies.

Recent news, however, points to some small but encouraging changes afoot.

OpenView Venture Partners, a Boston-based investment firm, has started sponsoring tech-skills training company Startup Institute — a partnership aimed specifically at helping the VC firm recruit a more diverse workforce for the companies in its investment portfolio.

In exchange for its sponsorship check, OpenView gets access to Startup Institute’s students and alumni, who enroll in the company’s eight-week courses in skills like web development, design, marketing, and sales. The firm declined to say how much it spent on the deal.

Startup Institute has many partnership arrangements, but chief executive Diane Hessan said the diversity focus of the OpenView deal is unique. Startup Institute is a particularly good target for such a partnership, with the company saying 41 percent of its alumni are women and 35 percent are from ethnic minority groups.

Hessan said the drive to find a wider pool of workers has recently become a more hard-nosed business decision. Since hiring is a constantly cited struggle for technology startups, it only makes sense to seek recruits in places that others don’t.

“I think diversity used to be kind of a moral issue,” Hessan said. “Now, diversity is seen as much, much more important strategically.”

One sponsorship doesn’t amount to a wave of change in the stubbornly one-dimensional world of startups, but there are some other notable efforts underway. The National Venture Capital Association, the industry’s trade group, now has a dedicated task force pushing for better diversity. Last week, Intel’s VC fund became the latest corporate investment arm to launch a diversity-focused investment vehicle, committing $125 million to support women and minority founders.

Either way, the issue is probably going to stay in the headlines for some time. Last week, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and former employee Ellen Pao sparred in court and the press over a lawsuit appeal that alleges sexual discrimination by the legendary VC firm – a lawsuit that, despite Pao’s lower-court defeat, has already thrust the notoriously secretive VC industry into a highly unflattering spotlight.

Hessan, a veteran entrepreneur who founded the digital marketing company Communispace, thinks the cultural tide is turning.

“If somebody says ‘Well, you know, the problem is we just can’t find qualified people of color,’ I think in 2015 the response is, Really? How hard did you look and who did you ask?” she says. “Because that’s bullshit.”