Two Wharton graduates and Wharton Dean Erika James discussed how to combat racism in the industry in the first lecture of Wharton's Beyond Business series.
Spurred by protests against racial injustice this summer, the Beyond Business lectures are an expansion of Wharton's Tarnopol Dean's Lecture Series and aim to address the impact of racism on business. Wednesday's event, titled "Race and the Entrepreneur," featured 2007 Wharton graduate Chris Bennett and 1993 Wharton graduate Josh Kopelman speaking to James and Wharton Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Karl Ulrich with an audience of nearly 2,000 attendees.
Bennett and Kopelman both pursued entrepreneurship at Wharton and after graduating. Bennett is currently the CEO of Wonderschool, a nationwide network of childcare programs that he co-founded. At Penn, Bennett founded Liquidbooks, a textbook drop-off service, with a classmate. The company made $50,000 within a year, Bennett said.
Kopelman is a managing partner of First Round Capital, a seed-stage venture capital firm that he co-founded.
Kopelman said that although entrepreneurship is associated with seeing trends early and creating solutions to problems, the industry must reckon with its own racism.
“When it comes to racial equity, the venture industry has been a lagger, not a leader,” he said.
Bennett said that by growing up in a diverse neighborhood in Miami and attending Penn, he thought that America was mostly integrated. It wasn’t until he moved to Chicago that he said he realized how segregated American society is.
“The color of your skin plays a big role in the types of experiences you have from an economic and a social mobility standpoint,” Bennett said.
When Bennett started Black Founders, a non-profit that provides mentorship and funding to Black entrepreneurs, he said people told him the company was self-segregating.
“But I think that sort of thinking within the community is starting to change,” Bennett said. “And that’s being driven by what’s happening across the nation.”
Kopelman and Bennett agreed that the way to create long-lasting change in the venture capital industry is to invest in people of color and hire them. Kopelman said it is critical to prioritize diversity in building a company from the start because it is hard to change a homogenous hiring network.
“We all need to get comfortable recognizing that the way we make decisions is based on our experiences, life stories, and biases,” he said.
Kopelman added that the best way for companies and funders to mitigate bias is to follow a mechanical process rather than intuition. He shared that at First Round, right after listening to a pitch, his team evaluates the ideas based on criteria determined in advance to avoid their own biases.
Kopelman said that although there are more seed funds than ever to raise money for entrepreneurial endeavors, it is still challenging for people who lack connections and a safety net to get started in business.
“There is also a clear and long standing evidence that women and people of color oftentimes don’t have the same access to the networks in [venture] capital,” James said.
Bennett said that more privileged people in venture capital can combat discrimination by using their power to speak up for somebody who doesn’t look like them in meetings, hiring, promotions, and mentoring.
“The ultimate form of privilege is being able to only think about race and racism when it’s convenient to you,” Kopelman said. “And what could be the most powerful thing to do is not to take advantage of this privilege, not to check in when it’s convenient, when it’s in the moment, but it’s actually doing the work that is necessary to leverage your platform and network to make change when it’s not in the headlines and when it’s not convenient.”
1990 Wharton graduate and founder of Spanning the Globe Tours Gai Spann attended the event because she was interested in the degree of diversity in venture capital firms.
Spann said that she was touched by the speaker’s stories of acknowledging how challenging it is to be an entrepreneur, especially for a young person, and how important it is to bring change when you have an opportunity.
“I'm very much looking forward to participating in other discussions,” Spann said. “The series is a great series. It's a very prescient topic and it's on time for what's going on in the U.S. right now with issues of racial disparity.”
The next Beyond Business lecture, titled "Race and Corporate Power," will take place in November.