Kevin Withane is the founder of Diversity-X: a community to help underrepresented founders who are trying to make a positive impact in the world thrive, scale, and grow.
Chad talks with Kevin about giving underestimated founders connections and access, creating a venture fund, and creating a platform via DiversityX.
- Follow City DiversityX on Twitter.
- Follow Kevin on Twitter or LinkedIn.
- Follow thoughtbot on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Become a Sponsor of Giant Robots!
CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Kevin Withane, founder of Diversity-X. Kevin, thanks for joining me.
KEVIN: Chad, thank you so much for having me on this show.
CHAD: Kevin, I know you have deep expertise and background in law and ethics and compliance, particularly when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. And that has led you to create Diversity-X. And so what is Diversity-X?
KEVIN: Diversity-X is a community for underestimated founders trying to make a positive impact in the world. We're working on creating a VC fund for it. And also, it's an ecosystem to support those underestimated founders and help them thrive and scale, and grow.
CHAD: That's great. What kind of support and community are underestimated founders lacking, and how does Diversity-X fill in that gap?
KEVIN: I think it's a mix of connections and access. I use the term underestimated rather than what many people term as underrepresented because there are plenty of people of color founders, plenty of LGBTQ+ founders, plenty of female founders, disabled founders, veteran founders. There are lots of them in the world, so they are represented.
They're just underrepresented in the equitable allocation of capital and particularly venture capital at early stage, which sees many of these founders not necessarily succeed or have to work that little bit harder just to get a starting place where many others get funding a lot earlier and a lot easier in their journey. And I'm not saying raising capital is easy at all for anybody, but it's easier for certain groups of people than it is for others.
CHAD: What makes it easier?
KEVIN: I'm going to be candid in my views. I think it makes it easier if you're a white male; nothing against white males, but it's easier. There's that privilege. But also, you look, sound, probably have a lot of similar backgrounds to the people who are allocating the money who have control over whether they invest or don't invest in the startups. And I think; also, they tend to have better connections or better ins. It is a generalized statement, but data shows that 93% of VC money typically goes to white male founders. So it's backed up by data to an extent.
CHAD: Right. And it doesn't even need to be ill intent. In some cases, there might be, but it doesn't need to be. So much of the VC world is about connections, and what you've done previously, and who you know, and the intro you're able to get. And then, when you finally get the meeting, if you're out pitching something that just isn't even on the radar of the typical VC, they're not going to connect with your idea in the same way that you do.
When we're building products, having a diverse team of people allows us to see all the different aspects of that product and have people saying, "Well, what about this? From my background or my perspective, I understand that this is a particular concern for women around the safety of this," or something. And people say, "Oh yeah, I didn't even realize that."
KEVIN: Yeah, that's a great point. Within the Diversity-X community, very early on, I realized one of the probable flaws for VC is, let's be honest, it's a very male-dominated industry. I think they are making real strides to change it, make it more open, more accessible to females and people of color. But essentially, for the most part, it is people who look and sound the same and typically are a white male.
And there's no disrespect, but sometimes you can get a pitch about femtech. And while she may go, "Yeah, I can see that this could be a problem," you don't know because the fact is you're not a woman. You just don't know. And I experienced that very early on speaking to a female founder who's part of the community, and she's really trying to do some amazing stuff. But at first, I was like, "I can empathize with the issues you're trying to address here and the problem, but that's as far as my knowledge goes."
And it made me wonder if VCs who are getting this sort of pitch will probably turn them down. They can't understand the problem. So, therefore, they can't understand what the solution that the founder is trying to come up with is really trying to address. And so pushes it by because they don't have that expertise, and that's not their fault; it's just there's a lack of diversity in the VCs themselves to be able to address that.
But then you hear these stories about male founders coming with a femtech solution almost on the back of a cigarette packet. And they're getting X amount of dollars to go and do some research and try and start building a product around what their idea is. And yet many of the female founders are scratching their head; well, we didn't have an in to that VC, so we never got in. And yep, so we don't get funding for what is a problem that we actually experience ourselves, and we're trying to address.
CHAD: This conversation reminds me of a conversation that I had in 2018 in Episode 279 with Alex Friedman, the co-founder of LOLA, which is a feminine products company. And she talked about how it was clearly uncomfortable for the people that they were talking to to talk about these kinds of things.
So even that can have an aspect to it where like...and then men may be more comfortable talking with men about feminine products than they are to women about them. And it just permeates the whole conversation when you're trying to launch a product that you need money for if it's uncomfortable, or it's foreign, or all of those things.
KEVIN: Absolutely. The industry needs to change in a couple of ways, I see. There needs to be greater emphasis on VCs building networks and connections into the communities and to the founders that are underestimated people of color, female from different socioeconomic backgrounds that may not have been able to afford to go to MIT or Harvard but super-smart people solving real-life and real-world problems.
And VCs themselves need to look at their own diversity, like, it is not diversity just for the sake of well, we need X number of women now with investing power, or we need more people of color to invest. It's because those people bring their lived experiences, which is the same for any business.
It's no different if you're a big corporate. The reason for diversity is the same. It's to get that cognitive diversity, that cognitive difference of lived experience, which in the end, bring into your field. It's something as human beings we can't detach ourselves from. We can't detach ourselves from our lived experience. We take that everywhere we go.
CHAD: So what's involved in creating a venture fund?
KEVIN: A lot more work than I thought.
KEVIN: I don't have a venture background, so I'm already 700 steps behind everybody else that is doing it. Even the good guys who are trying to actually address this problem, many of them actually come from a venture background. But I'm looking out there, and I'm seeing people like Matt the VC, Arlan Hamilton, and they inspire me that I can do this. Because, ultimately, I had a soft conversation with a family office just to try and explain what I'm doing and see if there'd be interest. And they actually liked the idea.
But they said to me, "Who are your competitors out there?" And I said, "Look, you can think of me as naive, but the reality is I don't think I have any competitors." And the reason is because we have a mission. Our vision is a world where you don't have underestimated founders.
Our mission is to grow the world's biggest community of underestimated founders and support those that are VC-ready and the right fit for funding that are going to be successful with capital. And whilst there are other companies and funds doing this, they have niches where they focus on certain areas. We're much broader.
But ultimately, no matter how much I raised in the fund, it's never going to be enough. It's never going to be enough to meet the gap that there is right now and the opportunity. So when you say competitor, every time an underestimated founder gets funded and gets given the opportunity to really address the problem that they're trying to tackle, that's a win for me because it's helping my mission and the vision. So that's the way I look at it.
And yes, that is a little bit naive, maybe. But you look at Elon Musk, and you look at founders who are trying to do amazing things. And you don't really knock them down for their grand visions. You have to aim high, and that's what we're trying to do at Diversity-X.
CHAD: So I noticed that you are particularly focused on the UK and Europe. And in my experience, the investment community tends to be different between the United States and Europe. How have you found that, and has that been adding a challenge on top of a challenge?
KEVIN: Yeah, it is adding a challenge on top of a challenge. It is different. I think the U.S., in some senses, is much more progressive, much more open. It's funny, I was talking to a friend, and I was saying...I can't really talk numbers because I don't want to get in trouble with the FCA. But I said to him, "This is the sort of size of the fund I'm looking to raise." And he is an American. And he just looked at me and said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, you need sort of skin in the game. You need this, this, and this."
He looked at me and said, "You are the skin in the game. Your passion comes through." Guys in America, people will be looking at you, saying, "You're way too small. You need to go much bigger than this." And I said, "But skin in the game, skin in the game, skin in the game." He said, "Don't tell me about that. Go big and see if people will buy into it." And that's I think much more of the view across the pond. There's much more appetite.
And I think for European VCs and particularly those probably starting out trying to address some of the issues that Diversity-X hopes to address, we've got to move probably and work hopefully in tandem with the more progressive, more open, more solution-oriented VC funds that are coming from the U.S. Because quite frankly, they are coming here now. They're coming to UK and Europe. But the reason I wanted to start in the UK and focus on the UK and Europe is that's where I'm based. That's where the best part of my knowledge is. Although interestingly, I guess my network is probably from the LP side, probably stronger in the U.S. So we'll see how that pans out.
CHAD: I assume that there are some legal requirements to starting a venture fund. Or can anybody do it, I guess is the...[laughs]
KEVIN: Maybe this is part of the problem as well as, the bar for entry just to start a fund is high, and it's expensive. So I guess I'm blessed that I've had the opportunities I've had in the past to be able to build something to be able to start this. But yeah, it's a myriad. And as a lawyer and someone who's even done transactional work on private equity and even helping some startups on fundraising and seeing how it works, it is very difficult. And you could be dealing with multiple jurisdictions depending on where your limited partners are. So there's a lot to factor in.
And then it's not just the legal fees; it's the fund administration and the fund management. For instance, in the UK, are you going to be regulated if your fund doesn't need to be regulated? Or are you going to be authorized on your own, or are you going to use an umbrella? What does that mean? So it's a real steep learning curve.
And I've got to admit, in my personal journey, there have been too few who have responded to my request just for help and advice, including what I would consider...I use this as the good guys, but the people trying to address the same problems that I am either focused on female. You reach out, but there's no return call. But there is one person who's a traditional fund; he is a white male VC. But honestly, he came back. We had a call. We talked about stuff. He said, "Keep in contact. Let me know how it's going," and he's tried to help me.
A couple of weeks later, I didn't hear from him, and then all of a sudden, an email popped up, or a message popped up saying, "Oh yeah, sorry it's taken me a couple of weeks to get back to you. But I just wanted to make sure that here's an introduction. This could be the partner you're looking for blah, blah, blah." I was blown away by that, that kind gesture. Somebody who just literally could have had a call with me said, "Yeah, not interested in this, never going to go anywhere. Why exert any effort?"
CHAD: That's great. You mentioned it is difficult. It's always difficult to start something new. But you're doing it alone. You don't have a partner.
KEVIN: No. I'm on the hunt for a partner. It's like dating, I guess. You keep trying to kiss a lot of frogs to find that person. Ultimately, knowing that I'm going to get challenged, rightly so, on track record, I would like to find a partner who has VC experience, who buys in deeply to the concept, and the mission, and the vision that we have and is looking to build a VC firm, not a fund, i.e., this is not a one and done exercise. This is about creating over multiple funds and, hopefully, generationally growing this to something really special.
CHAD: Well, if you're listening, and that describes you, get in touch with Kevin. [laughs]
I wanted to tell you all about something I've been working on quietly for the past year or so, and that's AgencyU. AgencyU is a membership-based program where I work one-on-one with a small group of agency founders and leaders toward their business goals.
We do one-on-one coaching sessions and also monthly group meetings. We start with goal setting, advice, and problem-solving based on my experiences over the last 18 years of running thoughtbot. As we progress as a group, we all get to know each other more. And many of the AgencyU members are now working on client projects together and even referring work to each other.
Whether you're struggling to grow an agency, taking it to the next level and having growing pains, or a solo founder who just needs someone to talk to, in my 18 years of leading and growing thoughtbot, I've seen and learned from a lot of different situations, and I'd be happy to work with you. Learn more and sign up today at thoughtbot.com/agencyu. That's A-G-E-N-C-Y, the letter U.
CHAD: In the meantime, while you're working on building this venture fund, you said, okay, I'm going to start building a community right away, right?
CHAD: And when it comes to platform, how are you doing that? Are you using something off the shelf? Are you piecing it together? How's it going?
KEVIN: It's such hard work. Who would have thought? My wife laughs at me because since she's known me, every time we go into a town, or a village, or a shop that has a community board, I'll stop and read it. And she would laugh. She's like, "It's such a geeky thing to do." And I was like, "I love community. I like to know what's going on, what's happening."
I presumed that it's, therefore, relatively easy to build one. Then I was very nervous, and I was like, I don't know how to get started. And somebody who's in the community but also just an amazing person, Amy, she said to me, "Dude, just get started. Stop procrastinating. Just start a WhatsApp group," so I did.
And then I invited a couple of friendly faces, i.e., friends, and said, "Please, can you join this group?" And then I invited a couple of founders that I had just connected with and just started having conversations with. And from that moment...and this was early October, and then my son went into hospital. But from that moment, it started growing. So beginning of October 2021 to date, we have about 60 founders, which I think is not bad. And we use a WhatsApp group.
Then I had some conversations and got some feedback from the founders. And they said, "Look, we need some more organization because our feed is blowing up with the amount of traffic going through it. So we need some sort of structure. We need some resources and different things." So I was looking around, and I was like, by the end of day, what can I get for free? Because I'm not making any money on this. And what can I get for free? So we moved it...we didn't move it. We set up on Slack.
But I've got to say despite having more organization, the bulk of the activity still works around WhatsApp. But I will say this; I'm not a tech person, so I do need support on this. So if there's anybody who wants to volunteer to give me some advice, or help, or just come onboard maybe in some capacity, I am trying to build a platform that's web-based, maybe even app-based, that can help facilitate conversations, learning, investor matching.
Because part of what I'm doing, whilst I haven't raised a fund yet, is that there are members in this community who need support right now, financially. I can't give that to them, but there are good people out there, good angels, or even some of them, probably VCs that would. And so it's trying to create a platform where we can connect those founders, those underestimated founders, and I think predominantly angels.
But if any VCs want to join, that'd be great too, just to help these guys get started. They need to start moving forward, and they can't wait for me to get a fund up and running. So whatever I can do. So I am looking at building a platform. It's just in the question of how do I do this? And is there anybody to help me?
CHAD: If you're a founder who wants to get involved in this community and think it would be beneficial to them, where do they go to do that?
KEVIN: I'll say reach out to me either email me firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on LinkedIn, two best Places. We'll chat. But generally, the community is open. If you're an underestimated founder, if you just tick that box, you're in. Come and learn, grow, support, be supported. You'll see that.
We've had some new members in the last week who have just said, "This is a really interesting community." And I spoke with one today that said, "I'm generally very wary, particularly about being around people who have similar businesses to what I have, you know, competitors." And I said, "Why? Why are you scared of competitors?" And she's in a field which relates to sustainability.
I said to really deliver the sustainability you want to deliver, it's about collaboration, and that's what this group has. It has that in spades, people working together, people supporting each other, e-platform. They are going gangbusters on sharing information. This is what we use. This is a great book. This is a great resource. These are great people to go and speak to. And so it takes the pain and reduces the stresses of being a founder, which you've got to do so many different things. And generally, you've got to do all of those things on your own with a very few number of people supporting you.
CHAD: And I imagine that a lot of the people in the community so far are people who invite each other in.
KEVIN: Yeah, and there are other people that I've met who have contacted me and said, "Look, we've got this startup. We're looking for an advisor, or we're just looking for a bit of support," or even someone saying, "We're looking for investment." So I'm very upfront where we are at the stage we are. But I'll introduce him to the community, and they start embedding themselves in it. And it's growing. As I said, the mission I don't know if it's bold enough, but I think it is bold.
KEVIN: It is to be the world's largest community of underestimated founders. And I actually asked a question with the group yesterday was, "How do I go from, say, 50 to 500 in a few months but real genuine people that want to be community members like actually contribute and be active?" I'm still waiting for the answer to that question. I'm hoping it's going to come next week. [laughs]
CHAD: [laughs] So I'm curious, given your work in, and correct me if this is wrong, but I would say a more corporate space, in your work in international law firms and global public companies and that kind of thing. How has that experience either been different or the same as what you're trying to do now? And how do traditional companies approach issues like this?
KEVIN: So I get to work with...I have a day job, as I call it, but Diversity-X and supporting diversity is my passion. To address some of the passions that I have, the reality is not every workplace can or chooses to allow that to happen for employees. In certain companies, your role is your role. And if you want more, then go outside.
So for me, there are things I wanted to do that I don't get the opportunity to do in my workplace or in the way I want to do it in my workplace. So I started looking outside; well, who can I help that needs someone like me to help them with this sort of thing? And that's how I fell into helping startup founders. And that's where I found this absolute passion.
I think everybody who works with founders and startups is always energized in a way that incorporates the energies that sits in pockets in my experience. And you don't tend to see huge organizations. And this is not to say they don't exist; there are some that do but who are energized and focused on a purpose.
I think those that have purpose that's really, really clearly defined and embedded do have this energy of drive and innovation and disruption and even go as far as trying to have radical change. Others are trying to learn. And to be fair, to many organizations, some of this stuff is new to them. And they're learning, and it takes time, and you have to give them time, and you have to give them the opportunity to fail and make mistakes.
So there are a lot of companies that are trying to do the right thing, trying to be better, trying to embrace their people and the issues, and the things that their people care about but as well as balancing with the wider stakeholders because they have multiple stakeholders; it's not easy.
It's a tough balancing act for anybody in a leadership position in the corporate to say, "Well, look, we've got to deliver financial results. But also, we've got to think long term, but we're measured on short term." How do you do that? It takes a lot of work and effort, which is why I see the opportunity for startups, in particular, to operationalize this stuff early on. So that becomes embedded because retrofitting is very expensive and very time-consuming, and resource-heavy.
CHAD: Having lived and worked in the UK, China, Hong Kong, Russia, The United States, how are things different in all those places when it comes to work and issues like this?
KEVIN: Let me just quickly ask you a question see what you think. Where do you think was the hardest place of those locations to live and work?
CHAD: Hmm. Russia?
KEVIN: It's interesting.
CHAD: I don't know.
KEVIN: No, no, no. People would usually say, and people do say to me, "Oh, China must be really hard, or Russia must be really hard."
CHAD: Well, I went to visit China about two and a half years ago. And it completely changed my perspective on what China is like, and so that's why I didn't answer China. But I don't want to invalidate your perspective if China was the most difficult place for you. [laughs]
KEVIN: Actually, no. The United States was the hardest place, which is why in 2020, we made that decision, for multiple reasons, to return home back to the UK. It's the land of opportunity, but it's slipping by. They've got so much resource. They've got so much of everything. But there's such disunity in my perspective and in my lived experience.
But if you're an American, you might see it differently. If you're someone, an immigrant who got naturalized there, you may see it differently. But in my personal experience, and that's all I can talk to, was that this is a deeply divided country that's frittering away the opportunity to truly be the greatest country in the world.
And they talk about being the land of the free. I used to joke with my Canadian colleagues because I was in Detroit, so you look north. You look south, sorry, you look south to Detroit, which is the only place...and I use this as my pop quiz question of it's the only place in America, I believe, that if you look south, you're looking at Canada. But I used to say that's the land of the freer because truly, I actually felt more strict in the United States than living in Russia or in China.
You get told what to do. It's just done in a different way in the United States, and that's just my experience. But look, I lived there for three and a half years. It's not a lifetime by any stretch of the imagination. And it was a time when I guess many of the people I love and care about in America probably said, "Kevin, you are here at the worst time to be here.
CHAD: [laughs] Right.
KEVIN: And this is not the real America." But unfortunately, that was the America I experienced. So it was the hardest place for me.
CHAD: I think that that's actually where America gets into trouble is by continually saying, "This isn't the real America." And you can only say that for so long when we've been saying it for a long time. And so I think it's important to ask ourselves, isn't that actually the real America then? Sort of to your point of the VCs and not changing the demographics despite saying something is a problem and working at it over time. And, oh, we've made a percentage point of progress means that you're not really working on the problem or willing to change because you're probably not focused on the right things.
KEVIN: Yeah. And you think about the United States of America it's funny, the house I'm living in is 172 years old. It is older than so many places in the States, and yet I remember someone saying, "Oh, you're living in a 1950s house. That's a really old house." [laughs] It's like, it's almost a new build in the UK. America has this rich history to still create.
CHAD: And I think that's what lends us to being more aggressive when it comes to investment and more willing to take risks. So like you said, there are tons of opportunity and some tons of potential at the same time as there are probably real big problems.
KEVIN: You know that saying about the rising tide benefits all?
KEVIN: I think in VC, it has had a negative connotation because from the industrial gaslighting is yeah, there has been an increase in funding, but everybody got it. So the percentages of allocation didn't change. But also, America has that opportunity, in my view, to really rise everybody. Just take the education system; it should be the greatest education system in the world, bar none. The resources are there, the talent is there, the people are there, and they're hungry for that education. Heck, people from other countries scramble to get America to have a piece of that. But why is it not?
And I think it's because there's too much protection of certain groups and an unwillingness to be more open. But the more open you are to the different ideas, to the different viewpoints, to then finding the best place for us, I think it presents America with a huge, huge opportunity. So, you know, I'm probably [inaudible 29:14] [laughter] because really you should be the best. You say you're the biggest and the best, but people don't care about the size of your army, really. The everyday Joe in the UK, we don't think about that. I grew up thinking America was paved with gold, and I got there, and it's like, this is not quite the way I grew up. [laughs]
CHAD: Well, inside of America, there's a lack of that perspective, though, because when you can self believe that that's the case. And because you don't have a perspective on what it's actually like elsewhere, it's very easy to say, "Oh, we are the best."
KEVIN: Yeah, that's true. And look, who cares what country is the best in reality? [laughter] Sometimes I like to think I've got these three children. Right now, as children, they don't care. They just want to get on with people and have more friends and more relationships, and that's what they care about. But at some stage, I don't know where it starts or how it starts; we lose that. We lose that.
But you see that in founders, this ability to get past that, and they're trying to address it. At least the founders I'm trying to support they're really trying to break past these barriers of we're different, and we need to remain different to we are different. Let's embrace that. And how can we use that to our advantage?
CHAD: Yeah. And I think that to take a step back, I'm a big believer in continuous improvement and always trying to be better. And I think that when you find yourself in a position where you've stopped doing that, it's no good for anybody. And it's very clear to me that there's the next frontier for improving ourselves, and the companies that we work at, and the world in which we live is all of these things that we've talked about today. And so I really wish you the best with Diversity-Xand with what you're trying to do. And please keep in touch, and we should talk further, maybe offline after this recording, about how we might be able to help more.
KEVIN: Brilliant. And thank you so much for having me on this podcast. I'm so, so grateful. Thank you.
CHAD: Kevin, if folks...you said your email address before, but do you want to say it again or other places where people can reach out to you?
KEVIN: Yeah, so it's kevin.withane that's W-I-T-H-A-N-E @gmail.com. Or you can find me on LinkedIn. I'm very visible there.
CHAD: And you can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a transcript of this entire episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at email@example.com. And you can find me on Twitter @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.
ANNOUNCER: This podcast was brought to you by thoughtbot. thoughtbot is your expert design and development partner. Let's make your product and team a success.Support Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots