Practical solutions and case studies to propel all dimensions of diversity and inclusion throughout organizations in life sciences.

5 ways that venture capital investors can drive diversity in biotech

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Over 800 biotech professionals from across 34 countries gathered online for the virtual BioPharm America Digital conference, which took place as part of Biotech Week Boston in September 2020.

In an on-demand panel discussion, ‘Fostering diversity in and through biotech investment’, the panel members put forward a variety of best practices by which their organizations were driving diversity in the workplace and throughout the biotech sector.

Among them, Sara Nayeem, Partner at NEA, described the initiatives that were being carried out through her company, an active venture capital business within the biotech sector. Within this, she highlighted key responsibilities that venture capital firms and investors should adopt to address institutional discrimination and biases within the industry.

1. Hire internal staff through recruitment firms instead of word of mouth

As a way to increase workplace diversity and combat institutional bias in VC firms, Nayeem stressed the effectiveness of using recruitment agencies for hiring new staff. “That initiative itself is important within the venture capital industry,” she said, adding that “word of mouth [delivers] people that are already known to someone within the firm... We should all be pushing to make our searches more broadly known and that often means involving a search firm.”

2. Anonymize case study applications for investment pitches

“Many firms utilize a case study process and we do as well for our junior-to-mid-level hires, and so we anonymize that” said Nayeem. She explained how in this process, names and any other identifiable details are removed from submitted case studies before they are put forward to the investment team. “I think that’s important, because we all go in with biases and these are all pretty much subjective.”

3. Meet entrepreneurs earlier in their development

Nayeem referred to BLCK VC, a venture capital non-profit which draws attention to the lack of access to capital among black and ethnic minority-led companies. “Venture capitalists need to make sure they’re more accessible,” said Nayeem, emphasizing the importance for investors to extend their contacts to people who are at earlier stages in their career.

She suggested getting into the habit of going to events, dinners and meetings involving people in mid-level management roles. “The folks who are at the mid-level today, in a few years they are often the ones going out and trying to found companies, and if they haven’t had access to any investors along the way, they’re going to be less successful at that.”

'‘Fostering Diversity in and through biotech investment' at BioPharm America Digital
Sara Nayeem, Partner at NEA, speaks as panel member of '‘Fostering Diversity in and through biotech investment' at BioPharm America Digital

4. Create a standard way of assessment that doesn’t discriminate

“We need to look at how we interact with people across the spectrum, regardless of their background and how the pitch came in to us,” said Nayeem. She flagged that VCs and investors can sometimes base their acceptance or dismissal of a pitch on a ‘feel’ about a particular entrepreneur, while using insubstantial words in feedback, such as ‘energy level’ or ‘cultural fit’, and these habits invite their personal bias into the process.

To combat this, she suggested “coming up with a standard list of metrics and questions that you evaluate the companies against, and really trying to make sure you're being consistent [from] company to company.”

5. Find out more about institutional biases

Nayeem described how NEA has begun a program of internal training sessions incorporating outside insights on the topic of implicit bias. She referred to Dr. Dana Kanze’s Ted Talk showcasing research on gender bias towards start-up founders.

Recommending this initiative to other players in venture capital she said, “it’s important that we educate ourselves as investors. We are in a position of influence in terms of how we take pitches, the types of questions that we pose to people and the way that we evaluate them, making sure that there’s a level playing field.’

Learn more about what the biotech industry is doing to invest in diversity by joining us for ‘Investing in Diversity’, a on-demand open-access session as part of Biotech Showcase Digital on January 11-15.

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