Nishat Kurwa on Friday, Sep. 7th
San Francisco Bay Area residents, techie or not, are swimming in the wisdom of startup culture, with its cognescenti profiting handsomely from the books and blogs that form the canon in their industry. But the organizers of a conference held this week in San Francisco are betting that there are a lot of tech entrepreneurs who could use more high-touch exposure to that advice, and in turn, that the industry will benefit from engaging those same startup founders.
The “Ideas Are Worthless” conference was launched by the Black Founders organization just this year, says co-founder Nnena Ukuku, drawing on the projects and services of colleagues like Women 2.0. “People would come up to us and say, ‘I have this idea, I have this idea, I have this idea.’ Our goal was to take them from idea to execution,” she explained. “How do you do customer acquisition, how do you raise money…do you need to raise money? All of these are things that companies need to start grappling with for them to actually build a sustainable business.”
Most Ideas Are Worthless attendees are tech founders, and their mentors at the conference range from venture capitalists, to successful entrepreneurs, to lawyers. One-on-one mentoring sessions are combined with panels and small workshop groups, some small enough that a lawyer can give individualized advice during the Q&A section.
Many of the issues being discussed here are familiar to anyone who follows Silicon Valley startup sagas: lack of focus on product; how to protect your trademark, and perhaps more crucially, a trade secret; and what does a trade secret even consist of? However, this isn’t your standard professional development conference. The subtext here is that there’s a workforce problem in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
“If you look at job boards like Indeed and Venture Loop, there are about a thousand jobs a week being added,” said Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, who judged an Ideas Are Worthless pitch panel. “And it’s not like we don’t need great people. We don’t have enough applicants to begin with. This is a huge opportunity for minorities and women to pick a career path themselves.”
Winblad said the conference provides wraparound support for people of color and and women who are already interested in technology, and want to build businesses around it. She rattled off some of the issues being covered, and the list is heavy with Silicon Valley maxims. “You prototype your way to great innovations versus have some grand theory that you hide away for a couple of years and try to make work. This is very different from anyone who’s worked in a traditional company, where there’s five year plans, theories that need to be solved,” Winblad said. She continued, “You need to be a collaborator versus just an individual achiever, and we can all be part of your network.” And of course, she mentioned a piece of Valley gospel that seems to go hand in hand with “Fail early and often,” — “You have to be seeking risk, instead of focusing on safety.”
That last one isn’t as simple as it sounds for communities that have historically had reason to be risk-averse. Intel Capital Associate Investment Director Marlon C. Nichols says the dearth of minorities in tech boils down to something even more fundamental: absence of knowledge and lack of legacy. Put another way, you don’t know what you don’t know. “If you’re growing up in a neighborhood and all you see around you are blue collar type of jobs,” Nichols said, “and you turn on the TV and you see doctors, lawyers, but there aren’t many TV shows about someone who started a company, you don’t know that it’s something you can aspire towards.”
There are several groups in the Bay Area like Black Girls Code and the Hidden Genius Project addressing that absence of knowledge for kids. For adult technologists, a conference like this serves as a powerful startup boot camp. But crucially, it also offers high profile networking that’s elusive, if you’re on the outside of what one mentor here called Silicon Valley’s “mirror-ocracy.”
Attendee Carla Mays works with a startup for social innovators and investors, and was an enthusiastic booster of the conference, waving off the notion that the material it covers is already accessible to Bay Area techies by way of cultural immersion. Some of the lessons offered here, she suggested, a founder might not even confront until they’re on their second or third startup venture. “They’re really talking about the lay of the land, and what it’s like to be a person of color in Silicon Valley, and needing to know what is it that is expected of me. Over and above, what’s in say, Eric Ries’ book, or something else.” Mays said the conference provides an essential service by bringing attendees into “a group where everyone’s kind of bouncing ideas off of each other, talking about the inside track of Silicon Valley.”
Organizations like the Black Founders are few, but they are busy — trying to make that inside track feel less distant to those who aren’t already insiders.