And I thought I knew what diversity in tech was

Funny things happen when you make a drastic life change. The life change on my case was relocating across the world from Seattle to London. The funny thing was this epiphany about what diversity is. I always considered myself a person who understood and appreciated diversity. But London has opened my eyes to a few new things.

Just to catch up (ICYMI-version), the world is bubbling in conversations about diversity and inclusion, but it tends to be primarily in two axes: gender diversity and race diversity. And, it’s true, there is an enormous lack of gender and race diversity.

First a-ha: On Seattle.

I don’t have to tell you that London is a very global city. Walking just two blocks around London, you’ll hear a half-dozen different languages being spoken. You’ll pass by two women in hijab, a guy with a kippah; a model wearing an outfit right out of Fashion Week; the Englishman in a perfect three piece suit with Italian leather shoes; and the guy with the Mr. Robot hoodie.

Yeah, you have a pretty good diversity in Seattle, but not at this level. Even at San Francisco, you don’t get this level of diversity. New York is the one that comes the closest.

You can feel the impact of that diversity in the startups around town. There are so many (thousands) that it’s hard for most of them to break through the noise, but they tend to be on a much wider spectrum than in Seattle. Seattle has a narrow range of innovation. You’ll meet with three startups in the cloud automation space, and they look very similar to each other. Here in London, the same three startups are completely different. Two of them are stupid; one is brilliant. It’s just impossible to know which one is which.

So my first a-ha came when I realized that Seattle has a hard time building truly disruptive consumer startups because it lacks high-beta factor in the variance of ideas. The uniformity of thinking and behavior is so high that it’s not an environment that will help entrepreneurs think (too) differently. Not only that, but the population might not be receptive to the new idea. If Snapchat or Twitter started in Seattle, they wouldn’t have survived.

It’s also a problem of population density, more specifically, segmentation density. If you need 3,000 users of critical mass to jump-start a new service, you can only do that in a city with more than 120K potential users (see technology adoption lifecycle).

Second a-ha, on the Tech Industry

I had a second a-ha recently, and it’s more a broader observation. We suck — emphasis on suck — at diversity and inclusion. Not the women/minority inclusion only. The inclusion of people who think differently from us or came from a different socio-economic background.

Imagine you walk into a wine store, and they have 300 unique bottles of wine. You are impressed by it, but you notice they have just one Cabernet and just one Rosé. You know the percentage of Cabernets and Rosé is just not being well represented at the store. The store just a few miles away has 3,000 unique bottles of wines, including lots of Cabernets and Rosés. You are flabbergasted! And the next store they have 8,000 different types. Mind blown! Now, that’s what you’d call diversity, huh?

Wait! What about beer? Scotch? Gin? Rum? Well. It’s a wine store. Do you expect to find those at the wine store?

Yes, we lack women in tech. We lack race diversity in tech. Let’s fix that. But we also lack diversity of thinking in tech, primarily because we shut the door to the non-techies and this is where London has a long game advantage.

If you pick a group of 100 random tech entrepreneurs in Seattle, 60 of those came out of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Expedia. Another 30 are serial tech entrepreneurs, or tech-investors turned entrepreneur. Of the remaining ten, eight are CS grads just coming out of college and two, just two of them, came from some other industry like health, education, insurance, aviation, sports, etc. Oh, and all (or nearly all) of them have a CS, an MBA or another engineering degree. Silicon Valley won’t have a much different split.

People who are from the tech industry trying to disrupt the fashion industry will have a different lens on the world than people who are from the fashion industry building a tech company. You can even argue that it’s much harder to disrupt an industry if you are an insider; to think outside of the box. In Silicon Valley, that’s gospel. You must be a younger outsider to create something truly new (despite all the anecdotal stories to dispute that myth). But, what about the person who works in the movie industry and wants to disrupt fashion through tech?

None of that in San Francisco. None of that in Seattle. None of that in our “tech industry.” You won’t be given the light of day if you are a Doctor that decides to do a travel startup trying to pitch to VCs, or if you are a restaurant manager and want to create an educational startup. We do not accept it! Go away! I don’t have time for this! You don’t know tech, and you don’t know the industry, what do you bring to the table?

Well, they won’t have a chance to answer that. We don’t blink an eye to the theory that ideas from one industry applied to another can create whole new markets and opportunities; we just don’t like non-tech people doing that kind of stuff. All hail King Elon!

I’ve seen things like that in London. I used to hold my breath not to tell these entrepreneurs to quit and go back to something they know. But now, I’m starting to see things differently. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about the healthcare industry and if you also don’t know how to build a tech product. You’ll face a different set of challenges than someone who knows how to navigate healthcare or who knows how to create tech products. However, what matters is if there is a demand in the market for what you want to make. Prove there is, and you don’t have to explain who you are or where you came from.

We need to figure out how we can listen more and incorporate more divergent ideas and diverse people into the fold. I believe there are a lot of competent people out there that can’t break through and a lot of good ideas that are not being given enough credit as an experiment.

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Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.