Women and founders from underrepresented minorities face significant hurdles when trying to launch a startup — here's advice for overcoming them.

cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough episode 116 featuring a discussion about diversity in spinouts

Diversity is not just about making sure more women and underrepresented minorities are on founding teams. When they do create businesses, they are typically ignored by venture capital investors who look for the same type of founders that have previously made money (creating a vicious circle). In the US, female founders raised just 2% of the VC money in 2023, and in Europe it was even less at 1.8%, according to PitchBook.

In terms of spinouts, these founders not only face this bias in fundraising but even when it comes to negotiating with tech transfer offices. Often, they sit at the negotiation table in front of a white man, as was the case for serial entrepreneur Allison Byers.

Byers has learned to fight back — she helped pass a California bill that will force any VC active in the state to disclose diversity numbers for their portfolios from 2025.

She tells us more about that work on this panel discussion, the second in our miniseries on startup teams and hosted once again by Imperial College London’s director of enterprise Simon Hepworth. Rani Saad, founding partner of Apex Black, and Jo O’Leary, head of equality, diversity and inclusion at UK Research and Innovation, also offer actionable insights for founders, universities and investors.

This episode was recorded in partnership with TenU, a collaboration of tech transfer offices in the US and Europe.


  • All Raise, an advocacy group for female and non-binary founders and funders
  • No Limits, a platform by UKRI to connect researchers to new opportunities
  • Narrative CVs, a tool by UKRI to help researchers build better resumés
  • Peer Exchange Platform, a collaborative take on narrative CVs by the Marie Curie Alumni Association
  • The USIT Guide, a template for life sciences spinouts


         Audible logo           


Please note that the introduction and end credits have been omitted.

Simon Hepworth: Welcome everyone, good afternoon. I’m Simon Hepworth. I’m director of enterprise at Imperial College London, and I’m your host for this TenU Hosts session. And it’s the second in our mini-series on what makes an ideal startup team. Last time we talked about how to build skills in startup teams, recognising that building startups from science is in the super hard territory. This time, we’re gonna focus on how to build diversity into startup teams.

According to a recent article from Forbes, diversity in teams increases creativity, it improves decision-making, and it fosters a positive work environment. Boston Consulting Group report said that companies who embrace diversity generate almost 20% more innovation revenue. So by leveraging diversity, startup teams can be better prepared to solve challenges and identify new market opportunities.

We have three insightful speakers today that are gonna help us understand just how that can happen. So Jo O’Leary, would you like to introduce yourself and your role at UKRI?

Jo O’Leary: Yeah, hello everyone. My name’s Jo O’Leary, and I’m head of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy Team at UKRI. UKRI is the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK.

Simon Hepworth: Thank you very much, Jo. Next, I’d like to come to Rani Saad. Rani, tell us about yourself.

Rani Saad: Hi, yes, Rani Saad. I’m a serial entrepreneur and investor. I’ve been investing and building ventures for about 25 years. Currently acting as founding partner at Apex Black, an investment fund, and co-founder of the Stanford Angels of the UK. We have a very strong focus on diversity and inclusion. The majority of our investments are actually in founders coming from underrepresented backgrounds.

Simon Hepworth: And Allison Byers, would you like to introduce yourself?

Allison Byers: Sure, hello everyone. I’m Alison Byers, and I’m a thought leader and champion for equitable access to capital. So I do a number of things. I’m a two-time startup founder myself, which I know we’ll talk a lot about today. I am also a policy advocate and have worked on some bills and laws here in the United States. I am an angel investor myself, and I’m co-chair of the Boston chapter of a national nonprofit here in the US called All Raise, which focuses again on equal access to capital.

Simon Hepworth: Thank you all. Let’s dive straight in with our first question, which is how can we support and engage founders of diverse backgrounds? Allison, I’d like to start with you on this. You’ve just said you’ve been a founder a couple of times. Can you tell us a bit about that experience, going right back to the point when you were in university and thinking about bringing this startup to life?

Allison Byers: I’ll try to keep this story short and hit on a couple of very relevant points. I was a tech operator for about 15-plus years before I got into entrepreneurship. And when I did, I joined a team of scientific founders to spin a medical device company out of MIT in a hospital system here in Boston, where I am. So I was the business one on the team, doing all the things from incorporating the company through negotiations and overseeing clinical trials. We were a class two medical device here under the FDA, and our fundraising as well. So that company did raise almost $10m through a series A-prime.

With that medical device company, I did experience a large amount of gender bias and systemic bias in the fundraising process, in the negotiation process of spinning out the technology from where it was developed. It had been developed over the course of a decade at those institutions.

And it really did inspire what I do now, which we can talk about perhaps a little bit later, but working with hundreds of underrepresented entrepreneurs, helping them better navigate this process, because it was a shock to me, even after being a woman in tech for over 15 years, it was different when it came to these negotiations and the fundraising process.

So Simon, are there other specific things that you’d like me to give a little more detail around?

Simon Hepworth: In a situation where you encountered some form of bias from the people you were dealing with, would there be any recommendations for others on how they could perhaps take that journey in a smoother way, perhaps with support around them?

Allison Byers: Yeah, there are a number of learnings and things, and I think it’s probably no surprise, or hopefully it’s not to many who are listening, and I know it’s certainly not for those on the panel, that there are incredible systemic biases throughout the process of building a startup and funding a startup. And in particular, in the life sciences and scientific fields, it really is more pervasive than I think most would appreciate or understand.

So right away, it’s just whatever role you’re in, being intentional and looking for where these might pop up throughout the process. So for instance, in our negotiations of licensing out technology into a for-profit company from academic and medical institutions, as a woman leading it, and it was working with a team of women, we experienced a lot of bias through that process, and it was unclear how to proceed, and this was even independent of the fundraising, which is a whole other can of worms to talk about.

But there’s a lot that the institutions can do to evaluate what does that process look like when researchers or academics or these company teams are coming in? Is it collaborative or is it prohibitive? Because it’s in everyone’s best interest to have successful spinouts. And so really paying more attention to the processes within those offices or negotiations and looking at the diversity statistics of who is spinning innovation out, and is it skewed? And then working backwards to say, well, again, independent of the capital access, even within our own negotiation process, are there areas where we can be more collaborative and where we can offer protections for those who might find themselves in challenging situations?

Simon Hepworth: I think there are two aspects there that you mentioned. So first of all, the universities in this case doing a better job of, as you say, providing more of a collaborative journey than a prohibitive one on spinning out. And that’s certainly something that we as universities are paying attention to. The backdrop of that is something that needs improvement. And we’ve worked certainly in the UK with things like the USIT Guide to try and change the tone of those conversations, but work still to be done on that.

The second point you made was around providing assistance in that pathway. Do you think in a sense that’s kind of compensating for something in the system? Do you think that’s something that adds value as well?

Allison Byers: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you think about who is spinning out these innovations, when I was doing it, my company actually had a very strong advantage in me joining, having a business background, and I still encountered this incredible friction. But most of the time it is an inventor or a scientist or an academic who doesn’t have the business background and all of this is new. And then you go into what is a very heavy business negotiation where people might have competing interests. Whereas you were part of a university to begin with, now you’re negotiating with that university and with someone who knows how to negotiate this is their job.

And a lot of times that turned entrepreneur, or especially if it is a woman or a person of colour, they find themselves alone in that now business context with what was their collaborator and anything that can be done to help educate them about what is the process going to be like, previewing it with them, having somebody along with them if they don’t have someone from their own team or the knowledge of who even to have in the room, providing that resource along the way, I think would be immensely helpful.

Simon Hepworth: I could see a lot of sense in that and so it’s a kind of previewing aspect, having guidance out there that tells people what to expect and that journey being a lot more transparent about what the process is, what we’re trying to achieve, what each stakeholder is trying to achieve across the stack of university innovators. Yeah, I can see that makes a lot of sense.

Allison Byers: Exactly, just like we educate entrepreneurs on what investors are thinking because it is opaque for them. The same is true when you’re having these spinout discussions or licensing negotiations. It’s not clear what the other side is thinking. It’s opaque for the entrepreneur most of the time, their context switching their own profession. And so like you said, that education and that transparency really helps alleviate a lot of, again, that friction that can happen.

Simon Hepworth: If we are truly to maximise the potential of university innovation, it is reaching a much broader set of entrepreneurs than we do today across all characteristics. And so this makes this an even more important aspect to get right.

If we talk about the next stage, ’cause I know you had some interesting insights as well as the company grew, so it’s now left the university and you’re seeking to grow it. Can you just tell us about some of that journey?

Allison Byers: I’m sure it was quite a journey. There are many aspects to talk about there, but I think perhaps more relevant is the capital journey and how did we fund the development? Because again, in medical device in particular, it’s extremely capital intensive, right? There’s software, there’s hardware, there’s regulatory concerns. We were running human clinical trials, which a lot of times people are as well. And all of that, again, is likely new for the entrepreneur who’s spinning out, unless they’re a serial entrepreneur, but in the case of a first time, it’s all new. And you need a lot of capital to access that.

I’m a very data-oriented person. I speak a lot publicly about the statistics and here in the US, which I think is represented pretty much globally, women get 1.8% of venture capital dollars and that’s gone down year over year. We’re at a historically low rate right now.

And so understanding the environment that you’re heading into is extremely important. I did not know these statistics when I was raising for my last company, for the medical device company. And I don’t say it to be discouraging to people. It’s not that you can’t raise and you shouldn’t try, but you should definitely know what you are going up against and you should understand the landscape and the numbers so that you don’t take these challenging circumstances and interpret them internally. Because that is something that I did at my last company. I thought that I had failed the company when I was unable to raise the larger round, a series B. We did end up going to early acquisition. Because of that, I thought it was me. Now I understand it’s a systemic issue because the statistics say so. So I’m on a different journey outside of life sciences now, but that piece of it I think is so important, particularly for life science spinouts where it’s run by an underrepresented founder. You have to understand the fundraising context, just like you understand your own science or your own technology to really appreciate the best route forward.

Simon Hepworth: Let’s come back to that investment scene in a little while as well. I want to turn to Rani now, ’cause I know Rani you’ve supported investments with many underrepresented founders and indeed defining a new market segment around diversity. So could you tell us a little bit about some of those investments?

Rani Saad: Yeah, absolutely. Can I provide a backdrop first? My journey and what developed my thesis around this kind of investigative methodology. So over 25 years, I moved from the Middle East to the US, East Coast and then West Coast, and then back to UK and Germany and now in the UK. So I’ve seen multiple ecosystems and it was very clear to me that ecosystems that were more open and inclusive had orders of magnitudes better talent, were able to attract much better incoming thought leadership and innovation and had higher growth and more opportunity. And even within the same countries, so even comparing East Coast to West Coast, I found the West Coast, especially the Northwest, much more inclusive in the US to the East Coast and Allison’s points are well noted here.

And generally speaking, closed systems, even in physics, have increased entropy. So things start to break down when the system is super closed because from a human standpoint, there’s more group think, there’s sort of amplified bias, echo chambers and so on.

So from a business standpoint, you want to try to build in ecosystems and on a micro level, your own company in a diverse fashion. So being in a place where you can get the best talent out there, as well as trying to build a dynamic within your company, whereby you’re attracting the best talent, reduces risk, increases chances of success. So from an investing standpoint, even if you look at all asset classes, from hedge funds to public equity, to private equity and venture capital, when you find investors that are of the same ilk, the same background, there’s much higher biases, much higher failure rates. And sometimes the risk is actually out of whack with the reward. So LPs, even those that are investing in these funds don’t do that well. But those that actually invest with a broader mindset, typically do better.

And here’s why I think that’s the case. Diverse founders actually have a higher hill to climb. And I’ve seen it firsthand coming in from the outside, sometimes with a heavy accent when I was still coming out of my early schooling, into very different environments. Some environments accepted me, some environments found me a bit weird and took a while for me to ramp up. But what I found is that folks with diverse backgrounds, be them gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, et cetera, they could have unique insights. And this is the number one thing in my mind that would increase the chances of success for a founder and for a venture, is those unique proprietary insights.

Now, not all investors would be willing to bag these unique insights because of a human tendency to go for what we perceive as less risky. So you find folks investing in other people that are like them, and this perpetuates these kind of very skewed statistics that Alison was referring to. So those coming in from a different background or underrepresented backgrounds, I think they need to take an extra step in de-risking the pitch or de-risking the approach that they have. So this approach to de-risk and this communication of how to de-risk, so basically identifying the risks and then basically looking at the mitigants in a very methodical fashion, would allow also the investor or the clients to switch from system one to system two thinking, as you might know in behavioural sciences, where instead of relying on your impulse, you’re starting to actually go into your analytical side of the brain. And that actually would allow you to also stand out from the rest of your competition or other founders, because you’re actually taking the extra step of being not only very bullish on your idea, but also being very circumspect on all the risks and how to de-risk them.

So you have the advantage of having unique proprietary insights, potentially. If you take the extra step of understanding how to de-risk these and in a methodical fashion, I think the chances of success are higher.

I would say two more things. Those coming from underrepresented backgrounds, less privileged backgrounds, have the reputation of being hungrier, to use a street term. They are willing to work harder because they have something to prove and sometimes they have nothing to lose, really. They wanna work harder, they wanna succeed. They don’t have privilege. They don’t have this cushion to fall back on. So that’s also a plus, just to be also somewhat encouraging.

And the last thing I would say, and this is something that really helped me out at the start of my career, and I don’t know if Allison or others on the panel have found this to be useful, I would say: mentors, mentors, mentors. If you can get a really strong mentor, they don’t need to look and sound like you. Ideally, they would, but they don’t have to. But as long as they believe in you and they champion you and they understand how the system works and they can explain to you how to navigate that, that is worth its weight in gold. And to get that mentor, if you need to work for free someplace, to get closer to that person that you think will really help you, I think it’s worth it, to be honest.

Simon Hepworth: You’ve made some really interesting points there around, first of all, people of diversity might have a higher hill to climb, which is a sad reflection, but an honest reflection. And then to be successful, you’ll believe they need to focus more on de-risking. I think that that’s really quite an interesting approach, as is your comment that they’re climbing up the hill, they take with them some momentum and that will enable them to outperform. And perhaps this is some of the rationale behind why those investors that are heavily biased are not performing as well as those.

Sani Raad: And the numbers show that, absolutely, yeah.

Simon Hepworth: Yeah, thank you. I want to come to Jo, very different context. Jo, you cover a huge scope in terms of research and innovation, but I know there’s some interesting tools that you have worked on within that scene. So I wonder if you could tell us about one of those.

Jo O’Leary: In UKRI, when we think about diversity, we think about it in really broad terms. So people, ideas, places, infrastructure, perspectives. And one of our key things is about how do we create the conditions for people and their ideas to thrive and be successful so that we can deliver public good and societal good and change within the UK and our investments. And in thinking about that, we think about the research and innovation community as being all of the people who contribute to research and innovation. And so what we’re really interested in is how people’s skills and expertise are recognised and rewarded and how we might describe those skills and expertise in different ways.

So of course, many people on the line will know that a traditional academic CV tends to be chronological and tends to relate to your positions and the publications or the patents that you’ve produced. But we know that there’s much greater richness in all of the people who contribute to research and innovation.

So one of the tools that we’ve introduced in our grant funding is called a narrative CV, or we call it resumé for research and innovation. And this tool enables people to describe the contributions that they’ve made to research and innovation in different ways. So whether that’s contributions to new ideas, new technologies or methods, the contribution to knowledge, how the individuals have developed people in their teams, how they’ve contributed to societal developments, to the research and innovation community and to wider communities and audiences. So it’s really helping us to see how we might shift and think about diversity and inclusion in different ways and support and enable people to be more mobile within the research and innovation system and participate in a variety of different ways.

Simon Hepworth: I have not heard of narrative CVs until recently before we had a chat about it. And so I’ve done my homework and seen them and I saw this fantastic graphic of an iceberg where you had kind of like the traditional metrics of performance per se that we might have. And so in an academic community, that might be things like number of highly cited publications in world-class journals, research funding brought in. And then you have this whole huge piece underneath the surface in terms of the things you’ve mentioned around contributions to community, training others around you, building wider relationships. That sounds very holistic to me.

And do you get a sense of adoption for this? Do you know any regions of the world where this is being adopted in the kind of recruitment and presumably the promotions processes?

Jo O’Leary: Yeah, so we’ve been working collectively with the research and innovation community, both in the UK and internationally. And there are a number of funders and agencies that are starting to adopt this. Together with Universities UK, we formed a group which has a number of participants and organisations involved in it who are thinking about this, not in terms of just research grant funding, but in terms of recruitment and promotion criteria as well.

And one of the key things associated with this is a set of tools and resources and also an evaluation framework so that we can start to understand whether this is an effective tool and the difference that it makes.

And then just recently, the Marie Curie Alumni Conference launched what’s called a Peer Exchange Platform, which is starting to provide guidance and information to kind of mentor people through this process. So we hope that this becomes a kind of real movement for change.

Simon Hepworth: Really exciting and great to see that innovation coming through. Let’s move on to the investment scene. We talked a little bit about this already. There are some quite startling statistics out there. We mentioned less than 2% of the US venture capital goes to female founders. Less than half a percent goes to black founders. So there’s some real kind of underrepresented communities there. And I think there are more. So Rani, I’m gonna come to you ’cause I think you’ve got experience that says actually this is a wider issue than that.

Rani Saad: If we look at all the different, if you will, groups that are somewhat underrepresented or minority, we see this kind of underrepresentation in investments as well. But also I’m starting to see some concerning trends. For example, recently in the past few years, there’s an increase, a market increase, that’s very public in ageism in early stage, especially in Silicon Valley, where it is very explicitly told to these founders that, you know, once you cross 40, if you were in your 30s or 20s, we would have backed you, but we’re not interested in older founders. They cite it as one of their filter criteria that you wouldn’t imagine them saying something like this around other groups.

But the issue is that investors sometimes are forced, even if they don’t believe it, to start, you know, basically expanding the scope of investments into other groups because of their LPs, you know, those investors that are investing in them from endowments to pensions, et cetera, asking them to get better on ESG criteria. But what happens is they go by the book. If something is not mentioned in there that cannot be measured, they think it’s okay to perpetuate bias or discrimination in those nonspecific areas.

So what we have is sort of a broader problem where we still go back to the first point, which is a lot of times in investments, they try to go after those that look like them or speak their language, so to speak, and could be because they’re looking for patterns in their head of things that they saw work in the past that they want to replicate. And if something is new, they don’t have a mental model of the success patterns in their head, so they would sort of discount it because they’re getting so many opportunities to look at. They would just basically go for the things that are more pattern match or more familiar or what they perceive as lower risk.

So I think there are two ways around this. You know, one way is the founder-led approach, which I mentioned earlier. That’s part of the first question. The second approach would be investor-led, where the investors would be very conscious of these biases. They would broaden out the diversity within their investment pool, but they would also have specific mechanisms and frameworks internally to actually try to neutralise biases in the evaluation criteria.

Simon Hepworth: You mentioned conscience there. So we’ve got a whole sector here that has got some quite startling performance levels. How do we shift that? Allison, I think you’ve got something to say about this on something you’re trying right now in terms of moving us forward.

Allison Byers: To pick up on what Rani was saying, what’s really interesting about the evolution of the venture capital industry, and right now we’re really talking about venture capital, there are many other sources of capital. Venture is just one way to fund your company, and it actually is not an appropriate way for the majority of companies. It actually, the business models don’t align most of the time. But as Rani said, investors approach their analysis always from a place of risk assessment. How risky is this that I can get the return that I want at the end of the day? But at the same time, they are relying on a signal processing method of evaluating what is more predictive of being successful.

And those two things are not aligned because something might be inherently less risky, but in a market that they have not invested in before or in a founder that does not look like a founder they’ve invested in before, and they’re using signal processing and actually working against the risk assessment approach to investing. So there’s a lot of really competing dynamics that underlie this inherent bias and systemic bias that we see in these incredibly skewed numbers. And it’s an evolution of the fact that it’s a homogenous data set they’re looking for these signals in. You automatically are not going to match the signal processing if you do not come from that homogenous demographic, even if you are much lower risk in what you are building. I just think that’s an important dynamic for people to understand.

Simon Hepworth: Tell us about some work you’ve done on policy ’cause I know you’ve got a really exciting initiative here that you pursued and is very close to roll out in California regarding policy. Please tell us about that.

Allison Byers: In terms of how do we make a difference? What can we do in this space? I do believe that it is going to take a multi-pronged effort in private. So I have my own startup that I can talk more about too that has an approach to a solution here in terms of shifting the signals that we look at and the types of capital that we are seeking. And then on the policy side, we need public policy as well. As we’ve all said, if you can’t measure it, how are you going to know what will be effective to change it? Even when you’re building your own company or you’re in a scientific pursuit, if you can’t measure the progress toward a goal, how can you ever get there?

And so if we want to increase the representation of equal access to any resource, whether it’s capital or whatever it may be, you have to know what the state of play is. And there, unfortunately, are very few. We actually got past the first, but there historically has not been regulation for the venture capital industry in terms of where they are putting their dollars or who they are investing in or what their processes are to ensure that it does not include discrimination. All of these things do not exist in that industry.

So in California, we recently got passed some really groundbreaking legislation where I helped write the bill. I was part of a small bill team and testified for it and supported it and pushed it through. But starting in March 2025, any venture fund that has a nexus in California — this is a California state bill, but it will have a global impact — has to publicly report diversity metrics about their prior year’s investments. So we can start actually gathering this data and have a basis. Even the numbers we cite today, it comes from private companies. It comes from PitchBook and Crunchbase and they are not comprehensive and nobody has to report to them. So this law, because it’s California, that controls 36% of all venture capital dollars will impact funds around the world who invest in California companies or take California public money from pensions or endowments or whatever it may be. And we’ll really start getting a baseline. And I’m working with a number of other states on similar legislation. I’m also very actively involved in a bill in Massachusetts right now, where I am, that will extend discrimination and harassment protections to the entrepreneur fundraiser relationship where currently none exist.

Simon Hepworth: Amazing, Allison, and congratulations on your success there. And if I play it back, then this new piece of legislation will require funds with links to California to disclose each year the diversity data in terms of who they make investments with. That’s the premise for the legislation.

Allison Byers: Yes, exactly. So we’ll get both percentages and dollar values and it will shine a light. It’s not telling anyone what they need to do. It’s not telling anyone where they need to invest. It’s no mandates, but you have to report this information and the public has access to it.

Simon Hepworth: It’ll be fascinating to see that data and then also how that data changes over time and whether we’ll see some level of competition towards a more diverse future across different sectors.

Allison Byers: Exactly, and we have seen this work in other areas where there was unequal access or representation and we’re extremely hopeful about policy work that will come out of this. And I’ve actually heard from a number of people in Europe as well, who are looking to pursue similar legislation.

Simon Hepworth: Thank you. I’m gonna move on. Jo, I’m gonna come back to you. So I’m thinking now about the wider role of government and universities in fostering diversity in startup teams. And I know there’s some interesting work going on around career pathways and porosity for scientists and academics. And I’m wondering if you could just explain to us a little bit around that and some of the thinking and the goals of that work.

Jo O’Leary: We often end up talking in academia about pipeline, an assumption that you kind of are only successful if you can go from being a PhD student all the way through to a professor. And then we talk about kind of leaky pipelines. And we’d really like to change this narrative. There may be barriers that people encounter, but there are also opportunities and the great opportunity for people to use their skills and experience and knowledge in different ways. And so one of the things we’re interested in is how do we support people to be mobile within the research and innovation system and really recognise that big diversity of roles that exist.

So whether that’s thinking about how we fund using kind of team science approaches, really recognising that wider team and moving away from the idea that you have a principal investigator leading a research grant that is a kind of lone genius. We know that that isn’t the case. You know, there is a big team that supports people around this, and that includes the people who are professional services staff, participants in research, all of the people. So that’s an area of real interest for us. And so what are the mechanisms and barriers that we can help to do that? And so we can do that through collaborative training approaches, through the way that we provide our training provision for doctoral students, for example, but also through mechanisms that we have in kind of recognising and rewarding and valuing that wide variety of roles. So some of our work kind of centres on what we call a people and teams plan, which really links to some of the concordats in the UK that are about postdoctoral researchers and technical staff, but wider than that, really recognising this as a shared endeavour.

And then there are some other newer programs that have been launched by UKRI. So Innovate UK has launched a platform called No Limits, which is part of a big, wider skills and talent programme, helping people to match up people with ambition, skills, and talent with the support, advice, and funding that they need to succeed as innovators. So this is a new scheme and a new platform for us, but it’s really starting to help us think about how do you access research funding and talent and skills, and how do you match people up and support that porosity and mobility across the system?

Simon Hepworth: I think the porosity there is a really nice term to talk about the interface between universities and all of the stakeholders around them and how we encourage people flow across those to promote understanding. And I think that has got a significant role to play on also making our environments more diverse.

Okay, what can people do to change the system, the approach? Just a few takeaways before we move to Q&A for things that people could do today or Monday on making a difference here. I’m gonna ask all three of you, just your thoughts on this. One of those kind of micro pivots that people could make in their day-to-day lives. And Rani, I’m gonna start with you.

Rani Saad: Thank you. I would say two. One is from the transmission angle. The other one is from the reception angle. So if you are coming from an underrepresented group and you’re trying to reach a certain objective, be it to get funding or to build a company or to get a big client, et cetera, I think it’s really important to try to understand the mental models, the quote-unquote currencies, the language at the nomenclature of those on the other end. Sometimes I’ve seen very, very intelligent founders not able to communicate in the manner that would allow investors to get comfortable or allow really senior execs to join them or advise on their board or get big clients to buy into their solution. And I think that is easier said than done because those are soft skills. And sometimes also the information is not necessarily available. You have to get it through relationships. This is why I mentioned mentorship, et cetera. So my point is try to immerse yourself in the mentality, in the ecosystem of the people you’re trying to make a connection with, win them over, because that goes a long way. Yes, you might actually be coming from a different background, but if they see that you’re on the same wavelength, it really breaks barriers very quickly.

On the receiving end of things, I think we should start getting comfortable being uncomfortable. So this idea of trying to get decisions based on previous pattern matching, or as Allison said, sort of like signal processing based on whatever is available in your neural network, I think that forces you into bias just in its own nature. So we end up going for the familiar, as I said before. What we should do is try to question that and challenge ourselves to accept maybe candidates or investees that might make us feel uncomfortable, but not for quantitative reasons, maybe because of certain feelings in one’s gut. And we should question those, challenge those, resist those.

And I would say if one is able to do that, I think that could be a very good way to neutralise biases, reduce risk in a portfolio from an investment perspective, increase also returns.

Simon Hepworth: The rule of being uncomfortable. I think that’s a great take-out. Thank you for that, Rani. Allison, same question to you. What are those snippets of advice that can really help people move us forward?

Allison Byers: I love the approach of looking at both sides, but I think for both, it’s auditing your process on both sides and implementing measurement. So if you are running a licensing office, if you are an investor, whatever it may be, audit your process and what can you measure in terms of demographic diversity or regional… however you define diversity. You need to start seeing what’s coming in to recognise if there might be a systemic issue. And then you can go search for, well, what signals are we matching against? Or what patterns are we looking for? But you can’t know any of that if you don’t know what’s going on.

And it can just be simple, make a simple spreadsheet. The people who are coming into your office, who are they? Who gets a next meeting? Who gets a next meeting? Who gets a deal at the end? And if you don’t have those numbers, you can’t base any really sound judgment off of anything.

If you are the entrepreneur, a huge part of auditing the process is to help yourself recognise if you are the recipient of bias or discrimination, because it is not always evident. And it wasn’t for me for a long time, again, because I didn’t understand the system. And there are simple things even, there’s some great research out there about the types of questions that entrepreneurs are asked based on their gender. Men tend to be asked more promotive questions. How big is this opportunity? Or always talking about the upside. And women are asked more prevention-oriented questions. Well, how are you going to defend yourself? What’s your moat? Why couldn’t someone else just do this? And it actually has a direct impact on how that meeting goes and the dollars that you’re able to secure, or whether your negotiation is from a point of strength or a point of defence. And we teach a lot in our own platform at my company, at Scroobious, how to recognise those and how you can control that narrative, right? So a really simple, not simple, but an immediate thing that you can do if you’re an entrepreneur listening is train yourself to recognise, is this question I’m being asked promotive or preventive? And if it’s preventive, you use the strategy of, I think what you’re asking me is this, and ask it again in the promotive and answer that. And that will really provide you a lot more confidence.

Simon Hepworth: That’s a great answer, Allison. Thank you for that, both on the measurement side and also that reflection on how the question is being asked. Again, it’s kind of, it’s a sad reflection that kind of behavioir exists, but nevertheless, that’s reality and having tools to deal with that.

Allison Byers: And it’s not always, I just want to say, it’s not that investors are all bad or people are all bad. A lot of the times they don’t even realise that they are having gendered questions. So you’re just controlling that, but you have to be the one to recognise if you’re on the receiving end of it.

Simon Hepworth: And a shout out to your startup name, Scroobious or “screw bias”, however you want to interpret it, but it’s great. Same question to you, Jo. What are the pieces of advice that are actionable that people can work on?

Jo O’Leary: So the thing I wrote down was to be curious. And I think that both Rani and Allison have both covered that. So kind of be curious about your processes, your decision-making, the questions you’re asking, who you’re including, who you’re excluding. And I think this is part of our everyday practice to be more inclusive, because it’s really easy to be quick in our decision-making and not always be reflective or promotive, as Allison has been talking about. And so I think these are really small changes that we can all make, but these small changes are really important to create a much more inclusive and therefore likely to be much more successful research and innovation system.

Simon Hepworth: One of our prior conversations, we talked about job descriptions. And so when you’re hiring, resisting from just carrying over the old job description and actually really thinking about, are those criteria really what we need? And could they be written in a more open way that may well play to the narrative CV approach as well?

Thank you, panelists. We’re gonna open to Q&A, and I’m gonna go to the one raised by Mairi, which is how did the systematic bias in the institutional process manifest itself in your founder experience? So I think, Allison, this is down to your experience when you were spinning out. So could you give examples of what you experienced there that made you feel it was a biased situation?

Allison Byers: Sure, so I can share some personal experiences. There are a wide range from, you know, micro biases to really explicit that. I’ve experienced a number along that spectrum, but, you know, if you are heading into this situation, I would encourage you to speak to a number of other founders who are women or people of colour, whatever you identify with, and ask them for their specific examples, because it will help you recognise.

I can tell you for myself, I experienced a number of them in the negotiations with the institution to spin out the technology, and I experienced a great deal with investors in the fundraising process. Some of them were those types of prevention versus promotion questions. I didn’t realise when I was being put on the defence constantly, and I didn’t know how to turn them around. Oftentimes, the investor would talk to my white male CFO who was sitting next to me and not to me, and that was pretty jarring.

Rani talked about ageism. If you’re a woman, there is no right age. I either was perceived as too young and was called young lady, even though I have children, and I’m not a young lady, and I’ve had a career, and, you know, now I am on the other side of 40, and I’m too old a lot of the times. There’s no right age to be, and you field it more if you’re a woman, so it can get pretty egregious. There are some really horrific examples of bias, but oftentimes, it’s the smaller to middle ones that you don’t realise how big of an impact it actually has on your progress to negotiate, and it’s not easy for everyone.

For me, I am a strong personality, and I will speak out, so if it gets to a point where it’s really blocking progress, I have always spoken out in very uncomfortable situations, but knowing when you’ve hit a wall because of bias is really important to identify.

Simon Hepworth: What’s interesting there is perhaps reviewing, then, how I work in a university innovation office that is asking these kind of questions, but perhaps reviewing how we ask those questions and just examining, are we being biased in the way that you’ve described, and perhaps go for a more standardised approach to make sure we provide the same experience for everybody, and not one that is biased.

Allison Byers: Yeah, and who’s on the other side as well, right? I was only ever negotiating with men, whether it was in the licensing office or it was with investors, it was always men, and even that alone can be very difficult if you are a female entrepreneur hitting a lot of walls and experiencing bias to never have someone with your lived experience on the other side of the table, so if you are running a department, looking at your own diversity as well, who’s on the staff?

Simon Hepworth: It’s really interesting as well, isn’t it? I mean, some of the larger teams is their ability to actually have different people from the team work together on those particular conversations. Yeah, I don’t think that’s something that we… certainly I’ve not thought about how we would do that. I mean, in terms of, we work hard to make sure we have representation of communities within everything that we do, but when it comes to those individual conversations and negotiations, just how do we match up in that? Yeah, an interesting idea.

I would like to thank our speakers once again for your time today and all of the work you do to support diversity. I think it’s wonderful. You’re shining a light for us and introducing lots of fresh ideas. So thank you to Rani, to Jo, and to Allison.

In terms of takeaways from what we’ve seen, I think making data publicly available to shine a light on practices, I think that’s a fantastic way forward. Exploring how we can make university innovation offices just that bit better to engage with everybody, regardless of background and characteristic.

The one that struck out for me is just thinking about what makes a CV and what makes a job description and are there ways of describing success in those in different ways that we perhaps don’t do today.

Thanks everybody for joining us today. We’re back soon with another TenU Hosts session on Startup Teams, this time thinking about international. I hope you can join us for that one too. Bye for now.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).