Straight, white, cisgender males tend to dominate the dialogue at tech, innovation and entrepreneurship conferences. But Tuesday morning at the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, women of color took the stage in back-to-back-to-back presentations to talk about their work.
UC Berkeley alumna Ulili Onovakpuri, now a partner at Kapor Capital, a venture-capital fund focused on social good and based in Oakland, started off by remarking about the comfortable mise-en-scène onstage. “You guys had nice chairs like this in grade school?” she jokingly retorted. “We barely had enough seats for students at my school!”
Kapor Capital, whose founder, Mitchell Kapor, also founded the corporation that developed Lotus 1-2-3, a precursor to Microsoft Excel, focuses on investments that address the needs of low-income communities — preferably projects dreamed up by diverse leadership.
Onovakpuri summarized her modus operandi as such: “I tell people that I want to find a company that can help buy me a yacht, but I want to feel good while I’m on the yacht.”
Sharing the stage before and after Onovakpuri was Eleanor Chang, executive director of investments at Tencent, a large China-based company, and longtime president & CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries Constance Lau, who remarked “I didn’t expect to be the third woman of color at this forum.”
“Maybe the world is, indeed, changing,” she said.
Diversity of race and gender wasn’t the only form of diversity emphasized at Cleantech Forum, which began Monday and will run through Wednesday at The Park Central hotel. Diversity of thought and subject matter was front-and-center, too. The forum spotlighted topics ranging from education and healthcare to energy and transportation.
Chang, for example, talked about an investment her firm made in the German company Lilium, which builds electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft for potential commuter use to ease traffic congestion in urban areas.
She also talked about a partnership her firm made with a Dutch university in researching artificial intelligence (AI). Researchers there found that AI performed better than humans did in a trial production of cucumbers in indoor greenhouses.
Onovakpuri echoed the sentiment of support for this kind of bleeding-edge tech research. She said her company wants to use AI and blockchain technology for “social good,” such as to close gaps of access for communities of color. For example, her firm invested in a start-up called Via, which recently launched a pilot program that will connect workers in Los Angeles who live outside the bounds of public transport to major transportation hubs.
She said her other goals include making it easier to find substitute teachers in public schools, as well as funding projects that will make buildings more energy-efficient.
But even getting involved in this kind of work is challenging for those from certain disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Venture capital, as it currently stands, is not a very welcoming environment,” Onovakpuri said. “I think even job descriptions tend to be closed-door. You know somebody who knows somebody; it’s kind of like the mafia, a bit.”
She continued, “We think that dismantling the current structure of venture that prevents people from different backgrounds — the folks who didn’t go to Harvard or Stanford — from entering the industry is something that needs to be done so that more people have a seat at the table.”
But “getting high off of diversity” isn’t enough, Onovakpuri contends. The goal is to have more representation so more ideas can help the larger communities in society, not just the rich ones that already have easy access to high tech.
“I think a lot of times, there’s lip service made to diversity. It looks good when you are building a diverse team,” she said. “But for us, at the end of the day, are you recognizing the economic value of diversity? Are you recognizing the knowledge that people bring to the table who have lived experiences?
“If your team is not diverse, it’s not complete,” she continued.
As tech becomes more ubiquitous, those who come from more indigent backgrounds are at risk of being left behind. That’s where diversity provides a safety net.
Onovakpuri said her firm is interested in creating “more technology that is at a price point that is accessible so that not just the more well-off individuals get access to cutting-edge technology.”
Because, she said: “Everyone deserves clean energy.”