The Media Feedback Loops That Shape Entrepreneurship
One of my most vivid childhood memories involves a movie. I was probably seven or eight years old when my parents and I found ourselves glued to the TV, captivated by the story of two young men whose rivalry and vision would come to define the digital revolution. One of them was brash, with long, brown hair and a penetrating gaze that instantly commanded respect. The other was quiet, with big glasses, and dressed like a 1970s version of my dad. Yet, he was no less determined. Both of them seemed to see something no one else saw and their eyes would light up whenever they saw random-looking sequences of zeros and ones. They knew they were creating the future. It was exciting, inspiring, and I instantly knew I wanted to be like them.
The movie was Pirates of Silicon Valley. It follows the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as they set out to put a personal computer in everyone’s home.
In the years that followed Jobs and Gates became my heroes and role models. Hearing their names associated with defining the future was exhilarating. By the time I graduated from college my list had expanded to include people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Larry Paige.
This time also coincided with the seeds of a cultural shift: Ellen Pao was suing Kleiner Perkins for sexual harassment, data around VC funding for women was becoming available and many seemed to think that the gap was related to lack of female role models in tech. It was at that point when it hit me: none of the people I looked up to looked like me.
Hearing the stories of these founders told countless times in multiple media outlets had inspired me to pursue a career as a tech entrepreneur. But for every girl who was inspired there were countless others who got a different message: “you don’t belong here”.
The stories that have come to epitomize entrepreneurial success usually center around the same type of character: young, an Ivy League or Stanford dropout who can code in their sleep, most often white and male. Founders who fit this archetype have received disproportionate media attention over the years, oftentimes becoming household names in the process. This has inspired countless young people—mostly men—to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.
This raises the question: how can we create equally powerful role models for women and people of color?
The stories we tell have the power to shape our world. They can inspire, empower and motivate us. Creating notable role models who don’t fit the aforementioned archetype starts with storytelling. If we heard more stories about successful founders who don’t fit the Silicon Valley mold, we could inspire a new, more diverse generation of entrepreneurs and create wealth for communities that were previously left behind.
Becoming a Household Name
Once upon a time, before social media became ubiquitous, founders had to rely on traditional media coverage in order to share their stories with the public. Repeated media coverage meant that the public heard about their company and vision, elevating the founder to a household name status.
While the rise of platforms like Twitter has allowed founders to accelerate this process and control the narrative around themselves and their companies, social media by itself is not enough to make one a household name. Oftentimes it serves as an entryway that allows a founder to build initial recognition within the tech community, before they start receiving interview requests from podcasters and tech writers. The resulting media coverage further amplifies the founder’s brand, leading to more interview requests, usually from larger publications whose audiences reach well-beyond social media. The cycle then repeats itself until the entrepreneur becomes a household name, whose social media presence can steer news cycles.
This means that media coverage is still instrumental in making an entrepreneur a household name.
Amplifying the Voices of Underrepresented Founders
Despite the fact that social media has given founders of diverse backgrounds the chance to tell their stories, the ones who are receiving the most media attention are still those who fit the Silicon Valley archetype. While it is true that the majority of VC-backed startup founders are male—as is Twitter’s user base—female founders still receive surprisingly little coverage. In the rare cases that they do, the coverage often skews negative.
This is representative of a larger trend. According to the World Economic Forum, only 24% of news sources are women—a number that’s barely increased since 1995 when women accounted for 17% of news sources. In fact, women are much less likely to be the subject of the story (26%) or serve as an expert for a story (19%).
So, it’s hardly surprising that the stories of women founders are largely absent, despite the fact that more than 25% of US-based startups have a female founder. In fact, the female-founded companies that attract the most media attention are usually the ones offering an e-commerce product to an exclusively female demographic. Incorporating feminist rhetoric into their marketing has usually garnered these startups a lot of press, but has often also been the reason for their founders’ downfall. The negative media coverage these women received may have led a number of female entrepreneurs to shy away from press, even if their companies have very different products and branding. Moreover, some have suggested that the public teardowns may further inequalities and fail to inspire positive female role models.
This problem is not isolated to women entrepreneurs. African American entrepreneurs also receive less media attention. Given that Black founders receive only 1.2% of VC funding in the US, they are much less likely to garner recognition around a funding round they raised or have access to people interested in telling their stories.
The stark imbalance in the media attention received by underrepresented founders leads to a lack of role models for a significant number of people. While some will undoubtedly be inspired by the stories of people who look different, for the majority the maxim “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” will likely hold true.
Media Coverage and Social Change
The lack of powerful role models who don’t fit the Silicon Valley archetype has deep societal consequences. Research suggests that by 2044 people of color will make up more than half of the population in the US. If fewer people, from a relatively small set of backgrounds, are inclined to follow an entrepreneurial path, the result will be a net loss of innovation and wealth creation. Moreover, the majority of the wealth generated will become concentrated in an even smaller subset of the population, widening the racial and gender wealth gaps. To prevent such an outcome, we need to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Media coverage can be a powerful driver in this shift. Amplifying a founder’s voice helps their business attract more customers, employees and investors. The more (positive) press a company receives, the easier it is to grow, which attracts more press, and the cycle repeats. The opposite is also true. A founder who is not a subject of media coverage will likely experience slower growth and will be at a disadvantage compared to one who is.
Since underrepresented founders are less likely to receive media attention, this creates another obstacle for them. The lack of exposure often makes it difficult to attract high-caliber talent and investors, which can result in slower growth and less wealth creation. This has implications beyond the monetary outcome a founder is able to create for themselves. Given that underrepresented founders are more likely to build diverse teams, the impact is likely to be felt across the entire company. For example, if a company is perceived as less valuable, the financial outcome for the founder and their team will be much more limited. As a result, less wealth will be generated and distributed among groups that are already at a disadvantage. This can create a vicious circle that not only perpetuates, but widens the racial and gender wealth gaps.
While media coverage is not a silver bullet, it can certainly help create a more equitable world. Society has a lot to gain, if we elevate the voices of underrepresented founders and put them on the map. If they are given more opportunities to share their stories with a broader audience, their businesses will benefit from the exposure. The increased access to capital, talent and customer demand will accelerate growth and wealth creation for the founders and their teams, which in turn will attract more exposure, which will send the flywheel spinning.
My mom never quite understood my fascination with tech or the men who built it. When I was in my teens, she would often say: “Don’t forget you’re a woman”. I always brushed it off. It didn’t matter. Gender was irrelevant; great ideas could come from anywhere. Technology was about invention, challenging the status quo and creating something that would change people’s lives for the better. Gates and Jobs were brilliant, but they were people. They had flaws, just like me or anyone else. There was no reason I couldn’t be like them.
It took years and countless data for the magnitude of her words to sink in.