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Talk of the workplace: What’s our responsibility in this struggle?

A flood of outrage over systemic racism and violence suffered by black people has overtaken the business world, and investors are wrestling to come to terms with their proper role to address the issues.

A flood of outrage over systemic racism and violence suffered by black people has overtaken the business world.

It will be some time before we know whether this high-stakes moment will amount to just another tense period or a watershed event that ushers in true change.

But in the meantime, there are signs everywhere that public anger over injustice and inequity has led to an extraordinary—and anguished—wave of introspection in many quarters. Rank-and-file employees. Investors. Boards of directors. Marketers. CEOs. What can we do, many are asking, to take measure of social wrongs and to try to make things right?

Inevitably corporate and financial players who are grappling with that must also tackle a daunting question that, in a sign of the changing times, takes on special urgency today: Exactly what responsibility do we have in this struggle?

For investors and companies they back, the answer likely will depend on what mandate or mission their organizations set for themselves. In the data-obsessed times we work in, metrics take priority but key performance indicators on societal issues don’t come easily to a lot of companies. That’s especially true for most private-capital investors (excluding groups like social impact funds) with a mandate to maximize their ROI.

“Historically the only color that venture capital cares about is green,” said veteran investor John Vrionis, who left Lightspeed to found Unusual Ventures three years ago. “Maybe that’s changing, I don’t know.”

Countless executives and companies have come out publicly to condemn police misconduct, racism and inequality. Many (including PitchBook Data, Inc.) are donating to advocacy groups that promote diversity, opportunity or advancement for people of color. Still others, such as SoftBank and Andreessen Horowitz, have dedicated new venture funds to invest in minority-led startups.

When Unusual Ventures raised $560 million across its first two early-stage funds, Vrionis and partner Jyoti Bansal aimed to make a positive societal impact by helping endowments of historically black colleges and groups like UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) tap into the wealth of the VC ecosystem. Those groups have seldom invested in alternative assets but are now among the main limited partners backing Unusual Ventures.

Private firms and other companies seem to be voicing an unprecedented level of alarm at failings to tackle issues from diversity to social justice. Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, told The New York Times that for the first time he’s seeing a commitment by corporate chiefs to act on their outrage, rather than just speak out.

It is commonplace for Silicon Valley investors or their firms to be outspoken on social and political issues, or to donate to their favorite causes. But most VC or PE firms, along with their LPs, don’t formally work such considerations into their investment criteria, citing their mandates as fiduciaries, while the impact-investment scene usually claims that role in the market.

But today’s atmosphere is raising the stakes with some new forces at work. In particular employees of companies, many taking their views to social media, are pushing their employers to demonstrate a genuine commitment to change.

“There’s a realization that’s landed hard and deservedly so, hopefully with everybody, not just the startup and VC community but everybody,” Vrionis said. “The question is what are they going to do about it.”

Featured photo of a protest in Washington on Sunday by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

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