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Lauren Maillian on Diversity, Inclusion and Professional Parity

The CEO of digitalundivided sat down with Worth to discuss the achievements of female founders of color, while acknowledging that progress is still slow and many barriers remain.

It’s hard to imagine Lauren Maillian ever sitting still—she exudes an energy and a drive that’s infectious and at times hard to keep up with. Maillian is the CEO of digitalundivided, an incubator for Black and Latinx female entrepreneurs. It’s a perfect fit for Maillian, who’s both founded her own businesses and been an active investor in startups for years. An astute, candid observer of the business landscape, Maillian celebrates the achievements of female founders of color, while acknowledging that progress is achingly slow and that many barriers remain.  

Q: Tell me broadly where you think America stands today in terms of diversity and inclusion, compared to five or 10 years ago.

A: I think that we have not come very far in five or 10 years. And you’re speaking to someone raised in New York City at a time when there was no conversation around diversity. So that means you’re also speaking to someone who is a little numb to the conversation. And I’m now a parent in this conversation as well, seeing how far we haven’t come. I think that in these last 12 months, the conversation on inclusion and diversity has become a very black and white conversation where I think there are still so many scales and hues in between that need to be acknowledged and nurtured, discussed and appreciated before we can ever get to real diversity.

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What’s driving that conversation?

I think the conversation is being driven by the racial reckoning we experienced in the summer. It is unfortunate, and very disheartening to me, that that has to be a series of events that take place in real life. And we still didn’t have the social change! So the totality of the cost is still TBD as far as I’m concerned, because people are dying every day, it just doesn’t make the news. I think the conversation is also being spurred by conscious consumerism and by people of color finally saying, “no, we’re actually not going to do this.” It’s an old school mechanism to show your power. 

I wanted to talk about the ProjectDiane 2020 report and the findings about who’s getting funding and how you look at this report today, versus a couple of years ago.

I think the importance of the report is to underscore the disparities, the impediments and the contributions to the successes of women of color in spaces of innovation and in entrepreneurship. I think that the report initially was more of a signal and talking piece to open the door to the conversation around inclusion, in technology and innovations for women of color. I think it succeeded at doing that. And then I think that the purpose of the report moved from empower-and-inspire to track/analyze.

And then, that’s when the data came in: let us prove our worth. Let us prove out that we are scrappy with money. Let us prove out that we can get to beta testing. It’s now about changing the numbers that we do see because for a long time, there weren’t many numbers to be had to track.

So how do you see the numbers? You could argue, on the one hand, we’re still talking about a fairly small slice of all venture capital going to these women, right? On the other hand, the numbers are up and the funding numbers are up. I’m curious where you come out on that.

The numbers are up, but we still don’t have parity. Are we doing better than we did yesterday? Sure, but is the rest of the world being measured by the same measuring stick? The problem is not that we aren’t seeing progress, it’s that the progress is slow. And then in addition to that, the progress is especially slow in comparison to non-minority counterparts, who are able to leapfrog ahead at the same times where we’re looking at our progress as something that isn’t even something to celebrate, because it’s still a snail’s pace compared to everyone else.

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Can you say a little more about your concept of parity?

What cripples most women of color is that you have a piece of the puzzle, but you never have all the pieces of the puzzle at the same time so that you can actually move. I think that having more fund managers who are people of color and women of color will also lead to that professional parity, because there are businesses that some people just simply don’t understand. I think the way that the funding disparity plays out can be dangerous when it becomes racially charged. And when we see a very clear demarcation in winners and losers, or those who can be perceived to be the ones who succeed and the ones who failed.

To me, professional parity is being able to win and succeed by similar standards, to be judged based upon similar standards. I know that women of color do not get to fail the 2.5 times on average that a non-minority male founder gets to fail. We don’t get those escapes. We just don’t. And so that’s what professional parity is for me. I want that treatment to be similar because when women of color fail, our failure marks us.

Do you see change happening at the VC firm level? Are we seeing more female partners? Are we seeing more partners of color?

I think we’re seeing more women, absolutely, in VC. But I’m not seeing many women of color—not any new ones. I have not seen many black women step into that role. And when they do, it’s often to launch their own thing, to go out on their own.

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How much do you expect the change in the administration in Washington and the change in the Senate to create improvement in the diversity? Or do you think this is systemic, and so it doesn’t matter very much who’s in power? 

I think the issues are systemic. I think that who’s in charge and who has the ability to fix the system that we live within is exactly how we’re going to get to both professional parity, and any sort of social change that can be sustainable and inclusive. So I think it’s up to the administration to make it a point, and so far, we’ve seen some executive orders pointing in that direction already. It’s still unfortunate to me that we had to make a rule or a law that says “Black people don’t have to ride in the back of the bus anymore.” So maybe we just need more rules. As a little girl, eight, nine, 10 years old, I remember my dad telling me he had to drink out of another water fountain. He had to ride the back of the bus. That was the life my parents lived. Luckily it’s not the life my children live, but I don’t know that their experiences are any less traumatizing in their own way to them as well.

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