A VC unicorn: Candice Morgan on being GV’s first diversity partner

How Candice Morgan advises both startups and investors on creating a more equitable world in tech.

Candice Morgan

Candice Morgan is GV's first equity, diversity and inclusion partner.

Photo: GV

Candice Morgan holds one of the most unique titles in venture capital: GV's equity, diversity and inclusion partner.

"I didn't have a Rolodex of people to call," she told Protocol about taking the role last January. "I'm the only one as far as I know."

She joined GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, for the chance to shape the role and scale the work she'd been doing as Pinterest's head of DEI to a larger constellation of startups big and small. (She said she couldn't comment on allegations of racism and sexism at the company lodged by several women, noting that they surfaced months after she had left the company.)

Only a few months after Morgan arrived at GV, George Floyd was murdered and the tech industry faced a reckoning over the lack of racial diversity at companies. Companies realized they needed to do more than just have a few employee resource groups driving strategy. That's where Morgan got to help startups go beyond bias training and build out more equitable and inclusive companies and products.

On Thursday, Morgan and the firm are unveiling GV's first-ever "Champions of Change" list to highlight leaders in startups who have made a difference to their company's DEI efforts. The list includes leaders like Aledade's Dr. Kisha Davis, who serves as the health care startup's head of health equity, and Lovevery's CEO Jessica Rolph, who set up external DEI councils so that its products help raise antiracist children. The list also represents the range of work Morgan does in her role in the venture industry, from discussing skin tones of baby dolls to helping connect life sciences startups with experts on diversifying clinical trial populations.

Already, GV increased the number of underrepresented founders who received funding by 50% year-over-year, resulting in over $250 million deployed into those companies, Morgan said. But there's still work to be done.

"I'm always paranoid about momentum and losing momentum, so I won't sleep until we continue making progress," she said.

In an interview with Protocol, Morgan talked about the rate of change in the venture industry, why it can be too early to hire a head of diversity and how the venture industry can hold itself accountable beyond just talent metrics.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Last year, I wondered in my newsletter whether the murder of George Floyd and subsequent pledges from the tech industry would end up changing the industry forever. Now we're a year past that moment, and I'm curious: From your vantage point, do you think the venture capital industry is working toward change?

I think that the venture capital industry is attempting to work toward change, but I think that we don't know yet, to be honest, how lasting those efforts will be. I think that it's happening for a couple of reasons. One, we don't exactly know what to do, so people are trying a number of things — there's a little bit of an approach of throwing spaghetti at the wall. We've definitely seen the emergence of a number of funds dedicated to underrepresented founders, and I think that that's an excellent thing because it's capitalizing founders who otherwise prior to June 2020 would not have, or would have struggled, to get capital. I think that there are pros and cons to the ways that this is being done that we don't fully know yet.

What's an example of a pro?

So a pro is: people who would be a first-time founder, or a first-time Black or Latinx fund manager, getting a meeting with an LP that they might not have gotten before because of the realization that people need to open their networks more. Historically in venture, like many industries, who you know is very important, and the onus a lot of times was on people coming into firms to find the contacts that they needed. I think now you see an effort from firms to be reaching out and a recognition from firms that their networks need work, that their networks are missing swaths of people in the population who could be building some of the greatest next businesses, and therefore more discussions, more meetings being taken.

What we don't know yet is — I'm calling it a con, but it's more like a jury's still out — what we don't know yet is, are these meetings going to lead to more capital? Are people going to think about the criteria that they use to make decisions about funding to possibly make some changes to their model and what they call signal longer term? We don't know that yet.

Worst-case scenario is lots of meetings, no change in funding and perhaps a perception that some of the declarations or the measures taken are performative. I don't think people set out with that intention, but that doesn't mean that good intentions will turn into things that are fruitful.

You're in a unique position because not a lot of firms have heads of DEI, so I'm curious why you made the leap into the venture capital space.

Yeah, I didn't have a Rolodex of people to call. I'm the only one, as far as I know.

I'd never seen a role like this before, quite frankly, and I saw an opportunity to really scale the impact of what equity could do for a young company. I feel like my entire career I've gone from working with very large Fortune 500 companies; then went to Pinterest, [where] they were sub-700 people and then went through IPO; and now at GV, our portfolio is so broad, but we've got some companies that we're incubating so it's one person, and then we've got companies that are thousands of people. Being able to sit across the table, or being able to sit on a [video conference] with founders that literally will go, "I want to build equity from the start. Candice, where should I start?" is a really profound and awesome opportunity.

I also should add that I love the way that GV structured this role because it wasn't just about just 100% focus on the portfolio and [helping] them build. It wasn't just help advise GV on what we should be doing in terms of our own talent strategies and our own internal equitable strategies, but it was also deliberately part of the role to work with our investing team on diversifying their networks and ultimately the founders they fund.

So, you are unique in your role. What does that look like then for your day to day?

No sleep — just kidding! My days are so varied, which I love, but that means that any given day, some of the day, I am on the phone advising founders in the portfolio. That advisory looks very, very different depending on if it's a life sciences company or a pharmaceutical company where we're talking about diversity in clinical trials, for example.

If I'm talking to our payer provider companies, then we'll be talking about which populations these organizations are serving. So for example, with a mental health company, I connected that company with a group called Native Son that is focused on the Black gay community and the specific mental health needs of that population, including a portion of the population that has HIV.

We have one consumer company that's focused on child development and brain development in babies through toddler age, and they're actively trying to create a way that parents can raise antiracist children. I was on a meeting with [that company's] product team producing baby dolls, and going over skin tones and widening the range of skin tones for the baby dolls, which is super cool.

So that kind of variation [in my day] is really cool. It is also attending lots and lots of our investing team meetings, and really working with that group on some of the investment theses and the potential deal flow that they can build by partnering with other funds, including funds led by Black and Latinx fund managers.

We're also doing a record amount of hiring this year so I'm in a lot of hiring discussions, which is awesome because we literally just worked on revamping our entire hiring process, starting with our investor hiring process. I worked with a group of GPs and our HR partner on that, which we rolled out in November of last year.

What does that work look like inside a venture firm?

You have to have an environment where your investing team is working closely with your operating team across your leadership team and with various other teams in the firm. You have to have a good synergy there, because otherwise it can become tricky. I bring my knowledge to the table, they bring their knowledge to the table, and together we build that network.

The best way that I can describe how that work is catalyzed is that I've been working very closely with Krishna Yeshwant, one of our managing partners who leads our investing team, and I actually started working with Krishna before I officially joined, as I was finishing up my last job. A lot of that was just to understand where the team was on these conversations, how involved the team felt, what were their fears around this topic, what did they know around this topic, and then my early months were just really building relationships, building trust and understanding how they made decisions around how they built their networks and what that looks like for an investment. It was very important to focus on that initially, then to come into those meetings, having a seat at the table at those meetings, was really important. I have a separate sync with a number of our GPs that lead some of our different practice areas across consumer enterprise and life sciences, specifically on diversifying their networks.

By the end of last year, the team and I came up with metrics around how we were going to measure the efficacy of diversifying our actual investments, including thinking about how involved we were with our companies that were led by underrepresented founders or CEOs, what's our ownership, how many dollars that we deploy, how are we supporting them once we've made the investment, how are we continuing that relationship. I think that's a big, important learning over the years.

And then, probably one of the things that [head of communications] Jodi Olson and I are proudest of is that we saw an increase year-on-year of the amounts of investment and the dollars deployed into underrepresented founders. We increased the underrepresented founders who received funding from GV year-on-year by over 50% and that resulted in over $250 million deployed into companies, led by women, Black or Latinx founders. So there's still so much work to do, but it does feel like a partnership with a team of people who were responsible for identifying companies that have an awesome track record and will be incredibly successful, also deliberately diversifying their networks to do so.

You are now 18 months in and you guys are releasing your first Champions of Change list. It seems like this is kind of the first big capstone of your work?

If we were patting ourselves on the back, even about the increase in the investments and the dollars deployed just 12 months in, we'd be doing something wrong. I would always [say] when I was a consultant at Catalyst that it takes three years or so to create the kind of culture change that will lead to long-term results.

But I am excited to use our platform to amplify these 10 individuals within our portfolio who have been pioneering equity, diversity and inclusion work. A lot of them have been doing this for several years, quietly working away, but several of them really stepped forward to shine last summer and lead their company through how to navigate this very difficult reckoning.

What's an example of a person who came forward in this time who stood out to you?

So I mentioned before that we work with a company that focuses on childhood development as a consumer tech company. They're called Lovevery, and I've just been so impressed by the way that they have managed this moment. I wrote an article sometime last year where I talked about how to create long-term change. A lot of companies get stuck: They have an [employee resource group], they do unconscious bias training, have some reflection sessions and then they go, "Where do we go from here?"

So Jessica [Rolph, Lovevery's CEO,] took that mission very seriously and what she did was she formed an executive EDI council and then she also worked to create an external council. They also have acquired a company that focuses on diversity in childhood development out of Canada. They focused on educating parents on raising antiracist children.

I do need to give you one more [example] on the life sciences side. One of our pharmaceutical companies, Aledade, is focusing on value-based care in the Medicaid population, and they have a VP of health equity, her name is Dr. Kisha Davis. She is particularly working on eliminating health disparities and engaging health centers to increase access to health care for low-income Americans on Medicaid.

One thing I hear a lot from startups is that, "We're too small, we don't have the resources to divert to this right now," but it sounds like there are a lot of companies that are hiring people who are focused on it, like the example of the VP of health equity. Is there a stage where you think startups should have a dedicated person versus relying on external advice?

I can't say an exact number because it depends on the industry and the company, but I usually say sub-200 people [is too early]. Basically there is a point at which it is too early to bring in a senior leader who is focused on equity because there is the risk that the rest of the leadership team will say, "OK, cool, we got someone to handle that." If it is not coming from your CEO and senior leadership team, there is a problem. And if you do bring someone in early on, be very careful not to put it all on their shoulders, which can happen especially in a very high-growth startup. I'm pretty bullish about executive involvement and doing work and forming your own council and being part of the strategy.

Do you recommend other firms hire a head of DEI? Do you think there's a firm size or type where it fits?

The size thresholds for a firm are totally different. I don't think it's bound to 200 people, obviously. So I think firms can bring in folks earlier, especially firms that are very small, or have an external advisor that they work with very, very closely and we've seen that model with some firms as well.

It's net positive for the industry, it's net positive for the founders, it's net positive for funds that are tapping into new customers and markets. However, the fund has to be set up in a way that would make this person successful: that means that they cannot be a performative role, and it cannot be a "let's focus on philanthropy and events" role, which sometimes happens in other diversity roles as well. If you can't bring this person to the table with the leadership team, then you probably need some more time developing that accountability.

I think that's one of the big fears from this last year: Is this going to end up being a performative thing for the venture industry? Tech companies have been releasing diversity reports since 2014 and the numbers haven't changed all that much seven years later, either. So will we see real progress?

The significant increase in the amount of underrepresented founders that we deployed capital into, and the amount of capital itself of course, being a substantial amount, $250 million — that's the kind of thing you want to see sustained year-on-year. Some markers that indicate it's actually happening in terms of culture shift is ideally you see those deals coming across the fund: You don't see it concentrated with one investor, you don't see it concentrated across your underrepresented investors, you don't see it concentrated in your junior investors only.

I'm always paranoid about momentum and losing momentum, so I won't sleep until we continue making progress.

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