Brokering Diversity in London’s Tech City

A magical all-white startup scene is not the TechCity that I know.

by Miyanda Nehwati on January 13th, 2014

The Stars of Tech City Billboard

The amorphous ecosystem of 1000+ start-ups clustered in one of London’s most diverse boroughs was recently championed with a large billboard, posted right above Old Street Roundabout, taken for a Guardian article on “the stars of Tech City”. The image signposting the success of silicon roundabout belly-flopped on to my Twitter stream, cheer-leading the achievements of entrepreneurial bright young things.

Actually being in TechCity doesn’t feel like I’m in an exclusion zone. But walking past its billboard above Old Street Roundabout, I couldn’t understand what the photo represented. A magical all-white startup scene is not the TechCity that I know.

The photoshoot for The Guardian was itself a hastily arranged moment. Chatting with the one of the organizers later, I learned that the planning behind it was absentminded, framing what was, in my mind, a massive oversight. In her words: “We can do better,” and I agree: it was a missed opportunity.

I pitched at StartupABC the weekend before The Guardian photoshoot, and of the eight pitches voted up for the weekend bootcamp, three, including mine, were lead by women. Only one of them might have ticked White on a census form. The room was mixed, diverse, colourful… and that didn’t feel at all unusual. In contrast, the TechCity image was a like a foghorn to be mindful about being sublimated and I wondered about other people of colour who had been left out.

Sean Obedih laughs when we discuss the celebratory billboard. Founders Hive, the start-up incubator he founded, has a diverse team, 5000 members and often holds events at Google Campus – the epicentre of TechCity.

“If you look at all the incubators, Founders Hive was the only one that actually did what we did and was run by black people, and quite a few other people thought we should have been in that, but weren’t,” he says.

On reflection, my disquiet was bound up in what that photo suggests to me about inaccessible networks – not just for me personally, but for anyone who looks like me. I’m not the only black woman in London launching a startup. Yet, if the functioning reality implied by that photo is a closed network of highly connected white folks, then the challenges I’ll face as a startup founder just coalesced around another nugget of complexity.

In the eight months that I’ve been on my startup grind, I’ve rarely experienced the marginalising phenomenon that was such a flavour of my career in the public sector. In those systematically unequal spaces, I was a rarity as a manager who isn’t white. I often found myself marooned, bemused at having to translate the hidden meanings in a group that didn’t know how to let me in.

It is not an experience I expect to relive. But whether we are folks driven to pursue entrepreneurship or employees in a work network, we cluster around similarity – it’s comforting, and has its rewards as we build reputation and value within our group. Dynamic Social Impact Theory is a way of viewing the social influence that flows within these clusters and Bibb Latané’s research identifies the patterns that can manifest inside and outside a network group.

One of the reasons why inside track and outer circle communities can be impenetrable is that when individuals sharing similar opinions build up a shared history that incorporates anecdotes, moments, language and events, the view for an outsider is a culture self-contained behind a paywall.

Access requires translation or brokerage, and I guess even for an established entrepreneur like Sean, who is well connected and visible, there is an added dynamic that is very nuanced.

“I’m invited to as many events as possible, I get invited to different things and there are wonderful people in this space. But these are not the issues that they face or actually see on a daily basis. The issues that we see are not the ones that they see.”

There is some interesting research on network science that has me thinking about why connecting beyond my own networks isn’t just desirable, but essential for what success would look like for me.

Ronald S. Burt is the Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business where he is a leading thinker in network science. Discussing the inner workings of clustering in Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantage Local and Personal, Burt hones in on the formation of insider dynamics that are seeded within a group, as described in this article from Capital Ideas:

“Over time, the tacit knowledge that is meaningful to insiders becomes more complex, making knowledge more difficult to move to other groups. Information becomes ‘sticky,’ such that holes tear open in the flow of information between groups. These holes in the social structure of communication are what are known as ‘structural holes.’”

The communication aspect interests me as a way to facilitate inclusion by valuing difference. Professor Burt’s findings point to the benefit in brokering between structural holes: an increase in the efficiency of the network as new ideas are introduced and calcified ways of operating are transformed.

“Having well-connected friends has little value per se. Rather, having diverse networks is advantageous because exposure to different views makes one a better, broader thinker,” says Professor Damon J. Phillips in an introduction to Neighbor Networks.

I learnt quite early on in my start-up grind the value of validated learning, yet it strikes me loud and clear that for all my experience and shared conversations, I have no documented evidence to support what I’m thinking and seeing. Whenever I go to a meetup and there’s a feedback form afterwards, I’m never asked any questions around diversity – whether I’m a man or a woman (and this is when I’m generally one of a handful of women to pitch), what my ethnicity might be, or whether I have any disabilities. So I wonder: how do we even know what the true picture is if it’s not recorded?

This is a gap in tangible metrics that Sean Obedih recognises. This year he is producing a diversity report to be released in the summer, a report that highlights the reality of what it’s like in the midst of the community where cultures and identities are so varied.

It will be validated learning that is trustworthy, that has credibility, that is legitimate. Unless it’s being measured you can’t improve upon it, improve upon it until we are all better at being inclusive. Diversity is good for everybody.