Tristan Walker: The tech world has implicit racial biases. Here's how to overcome them.

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on June 11, 2014

From The News Desk

When Sarah Lacy did her big profile last January on Tristan Walker, a man who wants to build the "Procter & Gamble for people of color," she opened with a particularly candid line. “I almost hate to ask Tristan Walker about life as an African American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley,” Lacy said.

Walker’s answer was so insightful that at Southland yesterday the duo revisited the issue.

“People want to think Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, Lacy says, "and certainly many of the biggest companies were started by immigrants. But frankly both women and African Americans have not done well in Silicon Valley as a whole." She went on to explain that every VC claims they're not racist or sexist and would love to fund more black entrepreneurs or women, but not enough come through the doors.

Walker paused a moment and then explained why he thinks there’s a disparity between investors' words and their actions. He believes the conversation needs to be framed differently: “When people talk about it, they talk about it in terms of explicit bias. This person is black, this person is white, I don’t discriminate, I’m meritocratic," Walker says. "But no one ever talks about implicit bias. It’s rampant and real.”

One time, these implicit biases worked in Walker's favor. He and his wife had bought a home and the mortgage broker filled out documents for him after chatting to him on the phone. “I’m reviewing it, and it gets to the point about race. He had checked white caucasian for me,” Walker says. “I really just showed me how much implicit bias still exists, because he just heard me on the phone. I got a good mortgage rate, but that’s beside the point."

Unfortunately, when those who control the majority of funding are implicitly biased toward people who look and sound like them, it winds up shutting out a big portion of the population. Walker's perspective echoes a similar story that Julep’s Jane Park told Pando about raising funding early in Julep’s history. Despite Julep having good user traction, VC after VC passed on investing. One of them finally admitted that although the metrics looked good, he prefers to invest in companies he can personally connect to and care about. As a male. A nail polish subscription service didn't fit the bill.

Thankfully, those sorts of implicit biases aren’t impossible to overcome. At Southland, Tristan Walker explains how he believes systems can fix that.

As an example, he cites a monthly update email he sends to all his investors. He always asks for engineer recruiting help, but tells his investors that before they send him names they should think of people of color or women who might be good for the job. Then if they can’t think of any of those, they can send on less diverse names. Walker believes that most people aren’t willing to make simple fixes like that.

His perspective echoes the ethos of the Lean Startup Conference, run by author and consultant Eric Ries. After a few years of running the conference chock full of the typical white males, Ries and his partner Sarah Milstein decided to try to change the system and see if they got a different result. It took multiple trial and error efforts before they learned some life-hacks to convince more diverse applicants to apply: promising speech coaching to those selected, asking for “stories” instead of “experts,” and publishing a disclosure admitting the selection process in the past wasn’t meritocratic.

Once Ries and Milstein nailed the formula, they were able to make the conference represent a far wider array of perspectives.

To support the likes of entrepreneurs like Tristan Walker, there need to be far more people in Silicon Valley thinking about implicit biases and figuring out how to overcome their predilections.