The Media Double Standard Surrounding White and Minority Founders
In the world of startups, the media coverage tends to focus on founders who are white and often men. A lot of the time, this pushes the stories of nontraditional founders to the sidelines. When there is news involving a founder who is anything other than a white man, their stories are often pushed to the “women” or “diversity” section because they aren’t treated like legitimate business stories.
The pandemic, the fight for racial equality and other world events highlight the need for representation in all aspects of business and the need for equitable coverage. When we look at founders who receive media, it’s easy to see that white founders receive less scrutiny when they make mistakes, while founders of color are crucified for normal fumbles. The few founders of color who do receive coverage are propped-up and held to an untenable standard, and if they slip are mercilessly torn down.
For example, in 2020 Quibi, the video streaming app that raised $1.75 billion, led by founder Jeffery Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman, folded. Much of the coverage on the company’s demise sought to excuse the total failure by blaming the pandemic for its lackluster performance and inability to reach its goals. Somehow the founder and CEO were exempt from scrutiny, though in reality they did not accurately assess the viability of the company and failed to steer or pivot toward successful outcomes. The executives were excused from the cut-throat coverage that many founders of color receive when they experience a public misstep.
There should be equal footing in terms of how individuals are covered within the same publication. The facts are that these two individuals wasted millions of dollars and faced little blow ack. If the roles were reversed and the people steering the ship had been a minority, they would have been torn to shreds by the press. The truth is, they wouldn’t have received over $1 billion to start the company to begin with, but on the unlikely chance they had, they would never work again if they had failed so stupendously.
Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton has had a string of articles written about her successes and failures over the last couple of years. Arlan started her company in 2015, and her story of going from a homeless entrepreneur to running a successful venture fund began to receive attention in late 2016. The initial articles focused on her as a black, LGBTQ founder were often written by the diversity reporter for the publication. Where else would it go? As a minority, her story could only be written by a reporter who covers VC investing by/for people of color as a novelty — not the norm.
That's the problem. Instead of seeing a founder as an innovator, the whole thing is minimized and reduced to nothing more than a minority story. It's more about sensationalizing a story than acknowledging accomplishments. When Arlan hit bumps in the road, it was easy to simplify her experience and imply that she had only garnered investments because of her differentness and investors' thirst for it. White counterparts who fail don’t traditionally receive the same level of attacks on their abilities and bounce back quickly.
If you need another notable example, Elon Musk was on "The Joe Rogan Experience" and was filmed smoking marijuana. He has since said the move was "not wise." But the fact that he could inhale without fear of repercussions is a flagrant show of privilege. Thousands of people of color are sent to prison for possession of marijuana.
A founder of color would have certainly faced the wrath of the media. Elon did not. While smoking marijuana is legal in California, the problem here isn’t the act itself but the double standard for minority and white founders. Had it not been a white man, the questions of fitness and even removal of a CEO would have ruled the headlines and started conversations among board members. People of color have always been, and continue to be, held at higher (if not impossible) standards.
During a 2019 public relations campaign, I worked to announce a $27 million raise and began pitching the story to national reporters. After initial outreach, no one would take an interview even though this was a hefty raise for the space. I’d seen white founders be covered for smaller raises of $1 million to $5 million. Part of the appeal to this story was that it was one of the largest raises by a Latina CEO. Yet no one would agree to an interview.
Strategically, my team wondered if we removed all gender pronouns from the pitch, would it gain any traction? We tried it. It did. Once reporters agreed to receive more information about the announcement, we were able to reintroduce those pronouns and tell the larger story. The victory of getting in the door was short-lived, however, as we were then again pushed to the diversity or women sections of the publication. This was a legitimate business story with real business implications. But, because the founder was a woman of color, they wouldn’t treat it as such. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for founders of color.
Recognizing bias and inherent prejudice is important and has only been highlighted through the reporting on recent racial tensions. It’s critical to hold reporters accountable in order to create a representative press and an equitable society. I didn’t write this article to bash or chastise anyone, but to bring awareness that this is happening and that it shouldn’t. Only by bringing this problematic behavior to light can things actually begin to change.