September 08, 2020

Four Steps to Develop A Race-Conscious Diversity and Inclusion Strategy

When I joined venture capital firm GV in January as the firm's first diversity and inclusion partner, I was excited by the opportunity to help with one of the industry's biggest challenges: ensuring underrepresented and underestimated founders gain access to capital. Currently only 1% of VC funding goes to Black founders and 2% to Latinx founders. Women earn 26 cents to the dollar that men earn in stock assets.

I knew that GV had been intentional about investments in underrepresented founders—including $200 million invested in Black, Latinx, and women founders in the previous 18 months—and that they were working to improve diversity across internal teams. I was hired to help steer these efforts, expand investor networks, and coach GV portfolio companies on diversity-related issues. I was eager to get started.

Six weeks into my new job, COVID-19 hit. We're all now in a completely different world. The pandemic has changed our lives in countless ways. Against a backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, systemic racism is in the news, and racial justice protests are in the streets. The companies I was hired to help—some of which might not have sought such advice a few months ago—are now looking more closely at how they can develop a race-conscious equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) strategy, as well as connect more effectively with diverse customers and clients.

When I counsel our portfolio companies, the process of moving toward a race-conscious equity strategy tends to span four phases:

Phase 1: Draw A Line in The Sand

As an executive or manager, this might be the first time you've thought about how your company formally addresses systemic racism. Maybe you shared a corporate statement about #BlackLivesMatter, or made a corporate donation to a racial justice group. Beyond these gestures, you're getting tough questions from employees about what your inclusion strategy (or lack thereof) looks like.

At this early stage, my advice is that you focus on your own team, and not the outside world. This is your most important audience. Have a real conversation with your team: Explain why you're talking about these issues, acknowledge the problems you see, listen to employee feedback, and make sure people understand your perspective as a leader. Be candid, and be very clear about what you hope to achieve.

These internal conversations can be fraught with emotion and intimate personal stories the group has never discussed before. It's a good idea for leaders to check in ahead of time with employees from marginalized groups beforehand about how they're feeling, and even if they'd like to attend. These are the people who may suffer more emotional labor reliving traumatizing experiences of institutional racism in both personal and professional experiences.

Phase 2: Create More Nuanced Conversations

You've had your first org-wide conversation on racial inequality. Now it's time to move to ongoing education. Create a regular cadence of meetings that provide a safe space for honest exchanges about antiracism and what you're learning along the way. The executive team should participate in—but not dominate—these conversations with humility and openness. Be honest about what you know and don't know. Participate in the conversation and be vulnerable with your own stories.

I've seen this done well in both large and small formats: at a monthly all-hands meeting, through a dedicated working group, and in smaller learning circles that meet frequently. Guest speakers, video talks, book discussions can all be useful.

I recently led a session for CEOs and chief people officers in GV portfolio companies, and most attendees told me their organizations are in this phase. They were eager to sustain the momentum they've built and move to more long-term impact.

Phase 3: Make a Plan and Set Goals

This is the action phase. First, you should form an executive diversity council or working group as an accountability body. It should include the CEO, chief people officer, diversity and inclusion executive, and other strategic decision-makers, such as the head of your largest team. The executive team commits to a race-conscious equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy with the top three to four pillars you intend to tackle, and shares these with the entire company. (What might this look like? Crunchbase offers this good example of an antiracism action plan.) The pillars will have measurable goals for the quarter, half-year, coming year, and the next three years. At the board level, you add more diverse representation.

Many companies in this phase hire a head of diversity, but don't expect this person to shoulder the responsibility alone. The CEO must be a core part of this work and a key partner to this executive.

At this point the company might have an employee resource group (ERG) or several, which typically consist of employees who want to identify with race, gender, sexual orientation, or age, to name a few. They might be frustrated, because they want change more quickly than you can manage it. Stay close to them, keep listening, and demonstrate that you are moving forward. It's important to have a plan, be transparent about what your plan is, and keep people updated on your progress and how you're tracking.

Phase 4: Move Diversity and Inclusion into the Core of Your Business

We've arrived at the phase where your equity strategy is no longer just about internal talent and culture; now it is reflected in your business model. At some point, at least one of the pillars is your product or market. Done well, inclusion and equity are baked into your product decisions, the services you offer, your brand, and the way you think about your customers. If yours is a life sciences company, perhaps equity is an element in how you conduct clinical trials, or how you consider the impact of socioeconomic status on access to care. In enterprise, you want to think about empowering businesses from underrepresented communities. In consumer companies, you want to create forums to address systemic racism with your customers.

Diversity and inclusion work is never "one and done," any more than motivating employees or striving for excellence is. These are, and should be, drivers every day, and you must put the same strategic oversight in place for D&I that you would for any other business strategy. True operational diversity doesn't happen overnight, and there can be painful missteps along the way. As I remind our GV portfolio founders grappling with these issues, no matter what phase you're in right now, this is hard work, but it could be the most meaningful work you ever do.

This post originally appeared in Fast Company.

August 25, 2020

Lessons in Entrepreneurship from Stanford University's Chris Ré

GV General Partner Dave Munichiello in conversation with Snorkel AI Co-founder Chris Ré.

Eight years ago, I was spending time at Stanford to explore some hypotheses about emerging technical trends when I first met Chris Ré, MacArthur Genius award winner and associate professor of computer science. I quickly came to appreciate his sharp wit and ability to cut to the chase. In his work with Stanford DAWN and the Statistical Machine Learning Group, Chris has spent countless hours studying how software and hardware systems evolve in the era of machine learning (ML). His work gives him a unique lens on the impact ML will have on business processes and the broader application of AI, and this has led him to co-create AI-enabled inference engines and faster AI systems.

I've been fortunate enough to invest in three companies that Chris co-founded: (acquired in 2017), SambaNova Systems, and most recently Snorkel AI. From a significant acquisition to building a multi-billion-dollar business, Chris may be the most successful AI startup founder that you've never heard of. Not only is he successful, and not only does he have deep technical chops; Chris is hard-working, intensely focused, and humble. He runs away from hype, and you won't find him indulging in self-promotion (or even the promotion of his companies). Instead, he's at Stanford's AI Lab, where he's quietly doing what he loves: recruiting a diverse A+ team of academic superstars, fostering their growth, supporting their explorations, and furthering his academic work through myriad technical projects.

Chris and I sat down recently to discuss the launch of Snorkel AI and his adventures in serial entrepreneurship. He offered some key advice for founders:

  • Seek long-lasting relationships. Chris cautions against viewing relationships as transactional. Whether it's customers or partners, try to cultivate long-term partnerships that can help you refine and understand your ideas better.

  • Hire diverse teams. Recruit a diverse set of people with different viewpoints. A diversity of experiences and opinions positions you for success when you need to solve vastly different sets of problems. Technical success doesn't exist in a vacuum— you need the right team and people to bring your ideas to life.

  • Find investors and advisors who will challenge you. Look for investors who aren't just cheerleaders, but who will intellectually engage and challenge you. Investors you trust can provide honest feedback on new ideas and product directions.

Chris is the kind of entrepreneur we love at GV. He's inherently curious with a passion for learning; he prioritizes what matters and has the self-confidence to stay focused. He deliberately tests hypotheses and evolves his understanding of changing markets. We look forward to many more years of teaming up with him.

August 03, 2020

A Conversation on The State of Mental Health in 2020 

As a psychiatrist, I've seen how mental health struggles can affect someone's job performance, their productivity, even their ability to engage with their team. To help our portfolio teams manage worries and uncertainty amidst both COVID-19 and a growing awareness of racial injustice, I hosted a panel last week on mental health. We examined ways to cope with quarantine-related anxiety, family issues, the variety of losses many of us are experiencing, burnout, and social isolation. You can watch the full session below:

Accessing mental health help has been made easier by recent changes in regulation. By taking advantage of an unprecedented number of online resources, and focusing our attention on what we can change instead of what we can't, we're better equipped to solve problems during crises like this. For this conversation, I was joined by three talented therapists: Dr. Sheri Kirshenbaum from our portfolio company Quartet Health, and Joe Grasso and Danielle Cottonham from Lyra Health. We discussed the pressures many of us may be facing now, and shared long-term strategies for getting help, and getting better. Here are some highlights.

How to Avoid Burnout

Sheri Kirshenbaum, Ph.D., Clinical Director, Quartet Health:

A common concern among many working people right now is how to avoid burnout, especially during a time when there's less of a boundary than ever between "work" and "rest of life." Sheri explained that there is often an inherent tension between our desire to succeed on the job, and our overall well-being. It's essential that we learn to recognize the signs of burnout, which can include emotional and physical exhaustion, feelings of negativity, and reduced productivity. She offered some tips for avoiding burnout:

  • Acknowledge your experience. The first step is acknowledging a tremendous sense of pressure over work tasks and output. It's okay to not be okay, and to recognize that. Ignoring burnout will only make things worse, which could lead to more serious work performance issues or depressive symptoms.

  • Start with the basics: People forget just how powerful self-care basics can be in helping us feel grounded. Get good sleep, eat healthy, and stay hydrated. Develop coping strategies that work for you.

  • Reach out for help: If you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help. Talk to your manager or contact your EAP. Schedule an online therapy appointment. Call a friend to talk it out.

  • Stay informed without "doomscrolling." We all want to stay informed, but Sheri advises against the all-too-common "doomscrolling." Set limits around how much news and commentary you are consuming, which is a first step to reducing anxiety.

  • Evaluate your work routine. Create boundaries (physical if possible, but psychological in any case) between work and home life. Build in breaks to your day, focus on priority tasks, and take scheduled time away from work.

Steps to Cope with Race-Based Stress

Danielle Cottonham, Ph.D., Clinical Quality Lead, Lyra:

In addition to the pressures of burnout, we are seeing heightened awareness of, and stress over, racial injustice, and we may need ways to alleviate that. Danielle enumerated a few steps to take care of yourself in relation to these critical issues.

  • Validate your response. For those who identify with people and communities being targeted either by direct or systemic racism, it's normal to experience numbness, anger and grief. Work to acknowledge what may be intense, contradictory and confusing feelings rather than suppress them.

  • Knowledge is power. Being able to identify racism, and name it, as being traumatic is a powerful step.

  • Connect with others. Make sure you're not just working from your own feedback loop. Talking with other people can help alleviate isolation. Danielle encouraged people to connect with others and find ways to participate in local activities and programs. The power of human connection is a huge part of coping --- and overcoming.

Actionable Ways to Be an Ally and Build Resilience

Joe Grasso, Ph.D., Clinical Director of Partnerships, Lyra:

Many people also want to understand how to be better allies, and actively anti-racist, but don't know where or how to start. Joe outlined steps on how to be an ally:

  • Do the internal work. Before you can take actions to support others, understand your own biases and ways you could reflect on your identity and privilege.

  • Educate yourself. Take advantage of all the resources available to learn more about actively becoming anti-racist.

  • Take action. Action can take many forms such as joining support groups online or offline, making donations, and following political candidates whose positions on racial justice align with yours.

  • Recognize the journey. Joe noted how important it is to understand that being an ally is a lifelong journey. It requires an ongoing commitment to challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions.

At the end of his talk, Joe offered a message of hope: Resilience isn't something we're naturally born with; it's learned. Here are three ways to build resilience.

  • Start with self-compassion. When we face setbacks, we often criticize ourselves. Show yourself the kindness and compassion you would show to a friend or family member when you're going through a hard time.

  • Lean toward optimism. Take a realistic assessment about where things are now instead of where you fear they will go. Don't assume the worst, and focus on the small positive steps you can take - the things that are in your control.

  • Build social support. Having social support from others is a strong predictor of good mental health, and it's important to find ways to connect with other people. Be willing to reach out to others for support when you need it and let people know the specific ways they can support you, whether that's by offering an empathetic ear, providing advice, and giving you a helping hand.

All of these things take practice and patience to build. Now is a good time to lean towards empathy and compassion, and show our humanity. By taking these kinds of steps to avoid burnout, to practice good self-care in the face of race-based stress, to become a better ally for racial justice, and build resilience, each of us is stronger, and we'll be better together for weathering whatever life brings us.

July 22, 2020

Encoded Therapeutics and the Drive to End Pediatric Epilepsy

When a parent learns their newborn child has epilepsy, the first questions are almost always, "Why did this happen?" and "What can we do?" As a physician and relative of a child with pediatric epilepsy related to a genetic disorder, I've seen the anguish of pediatric epilepsies firsthand. Parents do their best to manage their child's symptoms through frequent (and often stressful) visits to the clinic for treatment, but in the majority of cases, there's no way to fix these disorders at the root.

A husband and wife team of neuroscientists from MIT are on a mission to change this. Dr. Kartik Ramamoorthi and Stephanie Tagliatela co-founded Encoded Therapeutics six years ago to target the underlying mechanisms of pediatric genetic disorders, starting with a push to end a devastating form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome.

Encoded Therapeutics cofounders Dr. Kartik Ramamoorthi and Stephanie Tagliatela Encoded Therapeutics cofounders Dr. Kartik Ramamoorthi and Stephanie Tagliatela

First appearing in infancy, Dravet Syndrome affects 1 in 16,000 babies worldwide. Children born with it have uncontrollable seizures, ataxia, and significant developmental delays. Many do not make it to adulthood: tragically, sudden unexpected death during an epileptic seizure strikes 15-20% of patients. Those that survive and live into adulthood remain with cognitive, behavioral, and often physical disabilities.

When I first met Kartik at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, he spoke passionately about using gene therapy to solve childhood epilepsies. Imagine if patients could trade their regular, often ineffective treatments for a "one-and-done" single injection that ends their epilepsy for good. Using a gene therapy approach with a combination of genomics and computational technologies, Encoded is working to fix the malfunctioning cells that form the root cause of Dravet Syndrome.

If they succeed, their approach to gene therapy will not only rescue families with Dravet Syndrome, but may lead to solving other pediatric genetic diseases.

My GV colleague Brendan Bulik-Sullivan and I chose to lead Encoded's Series D funding because Kartik and Stephanie's team is making noteworthy progress using a remarkable approach. Here's how it works: as any high school biology student knows, we all have two copies of every gene. In Dravet Syndrome patients, epilepsy occurs because one copy of a particular gene, the SCN1A, is broken. The Encoded team has found a way to enhance the second, normal copy to work better, restoring the gene's function. Long-running experiments in animals show that Encoded's approach reduces the frequency and severity of seizures, and lowers the risk of sudden unexpected death.

Nothing in drug development is a sure bet, and there's still a lot of work to do. Yet by exploiting this haploinsufficiency — making one copy of the gene do the work of two — Encoded seems to be on a path that has the potential to erase these genetic epilepsy disorders. If they succeed, their approach to gene therapy will not only rescue families with Dravet Syndrome, but may lead to solving other pediatric genetic diseases. It's valuable work, and we look forward to partnering with the Encoded team on their journey.

July 16, 2020

Relay Therapeutics: The 100-Year Race towards Better Drug Discovery

In 1915, X-ray crystallography was the basis for that year's Nobel Prize in Physics. From the 1990s, this process has been used in the pharmaceutical industry to create static snapshots of proteins, and is still used in drug discovery today. One hundred years after that Nobel Prize was awarded, an eclectic symphony of computational biologists, scientists, and drug development experts came together to explore a different kind of drug discovery process that isn't based on static protein snapshots — it's based on the movement of proteins. This group co-founded Relay Therapeutics, and they are determined to transform drug development.

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