As the #MeToo movement gained momentum in the US last year it was only a matter of time before the venture capital industry had its own reckoning. Branded with its own hashtag, #MovingForward was founded by entrepreneurs Cheryl Yeoh and Andrea Coravos, and software engineers Ginny Fahs and Tracy Chou, as a response to the sexual harassment they had seen and experienced while navigating the tech industry.
Its work focuses on not only shining a light on sexual harassment in the industry, something that was prevalent yet hugely underreported, but also engaging with VC firms and funds to post their harassment and discrimination policies publicly, and softer training around diversity and inclusion and how to spot unconscious bias.
In the US, 120 or so funds have now signed on to post their policies, and since launching in Europe 30 have done the same across the region. One of those firms is Entrepreneur First (EF), the talent incubator which takes on cohorts of talented entrepreneurs before they even have had an idea for a company.
Founded in 2011 by Matthew Clifford and Alice Bentinck, it has since expanded globally and produced high-profile exits, such as when Twitter purchased EF alumni Magic Pony for a reported $150 million. The programme has also produced plenty of female-founded startups, including insurtech Brolly and Neptune Robotics, as well as two all-female founding teams at Vine Health and Qflow.
Despite a smattering of press at the time, the #MovingForward launch in the UK under the leadership of entrepreneurs Harriet Wright and Rosie Allott (who is currently participating in an EF cohort), has got little widespread attention.
"I think we are at the whim of the press to some extent," Bentinck told Techworld when we sat down with her at EF's Bermondsey headquarters last week. "#MeToo had a lot of coverage in 2018 and I don't know if it will necessarily in 2019. Now, just because the press isn't covering it doesn't mean it's not happening and doesn't mean that good work isn't happening either."
EF ran a workshop of its own in March, where around 25 representatives from European VC firms attended to learn about writing a policy and the right things to include. The only critique Bentinck has so far is that many of these funds are outsourcing the task to junior, and often female, staffers.
"At EF I have led this and actually wrote a lot of the policies. I think it was important that it came from me, it was in my voice and tone," she said. "I think the challenge is if you have a lot of male [general partners], you actually need one of those male GPs to champion this, because it needs to come from senior leadership.
"So I think there still is a lot of work to be done and we're talking about a major cultural shift and major mindset shift and shift in an industry that has behaved in a certain way for very long time. So we're not going to see change overnight. But I don't think that belittles or obscures the work that is going on. I think there is now a real group of both men and women who are really passionate about making this change."
So how did EF go about writing policies to ensure a diverse and inclusive space for its cohort members?
"We've always had a code of conduct for our cohort," Bentinck explained, "but we've never really thought about what is the process, procedure, policy in place for harassment of any level."
Bentinck draws a line between what is considered "the really serious criminal stuff" to sexist comments and the entire grey area in-between.
That's when she came across the work being done at #MovingForward. "We were trying to come up with these policies and processes and it has amazing guidelines on how to do this stuff properly," she said.
"I suppose what I was really keen to surface within the EF community was I actually want to know everything," she said. "I want to know the small sexist comments. I want to know if somebody is not working with someone because of their gender. As we're going through this process of trying to put these policies and procedures in place, part of the underlying principles was: how do we make sure that we know about everything?
"So now we're actually trying to, and this could be interpreted badly, but we want to see the number of reports each year increase. So it means that we know that it's happening and respond to it."
According to #MovingForward, one firm it works with said it received three reports of misconduct within a week of publishing its policy.
"We've seen reports really go up. What that means is it's allowed us to kind of jump in and make changes and give warnings to people in the cohort who are behaving inappropriately, remove people if they are behaving inappropriately," she said.
Now EF has these policies published and also runs talks when people join the programme. "The more that me and Matt can talk about this, both internally and externally, the more it makes it very clear to the community that when there is a problem, they need to say something, they can come and say something and it will not fall on deaf ears," she added.
Bentinck also recognises the need for cultural awareness when writing any policies or guidelines, especially now that EF operates cohorts in Germany, France, Hong Kong, Singapore and India.
"We have six locations across Europe and Asia and we've seen reports come in from most of our sites, which means that the message is trickling through," she said. "Most of the stuff is very low level, and I suppose the reason why I like that stuff coming through is because we can then do talks with the cohort about certain grey areas where it seems like we're not all on the same page.
"Each of our cohorts brings together lots of different nationalities, most are only about 30-35% of the local nationality, so you do have lots of different cultural norms coming together. So basically what we are saying to people is whether they believe this to be true, let's park that for a moment, this is what we believe at EF and the culture that we want to create and if you will be part of it you have to sign up to that."
Driving diversity at EF
Bentinck has long thought about how to drive diversity and inclusion not just within EF but across the UK. She is the cofounder of Code First Girls, which has trained more than 10,000 women how to code already, with another 10,000 in its sights for the year ahead.
EF was also one of the first European tech incubators to offer cohort members a stipend to help with living costs and attract entrepreneurs from less privileged backgrounds.
"When we first started EF, because we had no money, we gave no money or investment or stipends to the individuals coming through. Actually, they were a very privileged bunch, and I think, largely supported by their parents. So one of the things that we wanted to do was try and challenge that and make entrepreneurship more accessible to a larger group of people," she explained.
She has also implemented an active approach to sourcing under-represented candidates for cohorts.
"Because we're in six cities across Europe and Asia, it would be very difficult to have a hard and fast kind of quota in each," she said. "So what we do is we try to reflect the diversity of the city that we're in. We believe that there are levers that you can pull to change the diversity of a cohort."
In practice this means the talent team at EF keeps track of incoming applications to see what the ratio is in terms of aspects such as gender and background.
"We then do active sourcing for underrepresented groups," she explained. "To fill your white male quota of sourcing is pretty easy, to fill your minority women part is much, much harder. That means you just have to source a lot more people. So you're sourcing 2x or 3x the number of people that have that background. It doesn't perfectly fix things but I think it's just acknowledging that the way that you change this is by committing more resources and putting more legwork into changing it."
She also believes other VC firms often lean back on the excuse of saying "we want the best people" instead of taking an active approach to find the best people that might not reside in their traditional networks and along their tried and tested recruitment paths.
"The onus is on you to go out and seek out and build relationships with those communities, and source those individuals," she said. "So if they're using and leveraging their network, they should be using and leveraging their network, not just to find the typical white male 25-year-old, but to find other profiles as well. So they probably need to look at who their sourcing network is."