Diversity in Tech
Nasi began his career as an aerospace engineer. He then transitioned to
developing renewable energy power plants across Sub-Saharan Africa. From there, Nasi worked as a sustainable infrastructure investor and developer with a leading South African private equity firm.
Nasi's latest adventure is a tech start-up called Umwuga; a social network that helps semi- and mid-skilled workers turn their skills into lucrative and longstanding careers. Nasi is a proud pan-African and is passionate about helping people gain access to infrastructure and opportunities.
The lack of diversity in the tech industry has been a sore topic for decades. Sore in the sense that it has widely been acknowledged by the people who have the power to change it and yet, year-after-year, they have made very little effort to effect change. It took particular prominence in 2020 as the Black Lives Matter movement put the tech industry under social pressure to respond.
As an African black male, I have never been shy to speak about structural disadvantage but today my words fall on less-deaf ears. Studies have shown that professional industries subconsciously favour certain physical profiles over others with these affecting issues such as likelihood of getting hired, getting promoted, getting heard, receiving investment, etc. If there were to be a scorecard, the tall, educated, handsome, male would receive a perfect score. For my purposes, I am fortunate to be male, and have a great resume but my race and the strength of my networks have counted against me in my career.
So, what is the issue? The modern-day tech industry (both on the start-up end as well as investor) is predominantly led and run by white male professionals. In the early stages of building a business, founders often hire their friends and people within their networks. This rapidly instils a culture and an organisational DNA that mirrors that of the founders making it difficult for people who don’t resemble the founders to thrive in the company as it grows.
Why should you care? The world is a diverse place and a business sells products or services to this world. It makes sense to me that the ideas and feedback loops that fuel your innovation engine should represent your customer base. We’ve all seen the disturbing stats of how little investment is received by black-owned, woman-owned, and black-woman-owned businesses. Many of these businesses are incredible commercial opportunities that are held back by a lack of access to capital. More importantly, any investor that does not spot and support these opportunities for superficial reasons is neglecting their fiduciary duties to their limited partners and shareholders.
My first attempt at a start-up was in 2016 with an “Uber-for-X” business in South Africa for which we struggled to complete the built of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This was mostly due to my shortcomings as a founder at the time but I also struggled to make progress in the a business environment that wasn’t start-up friendly. I recall a pitch with an angel investor where we were looking to raise ZAR100k (±£5k) and he quipped “for that amount of money, I’d have to ask for an 80% equity stake). Without enough money saved up to bootstrap, I didn’t have the kind of exposure, friends and family support, or networks to raise enough money to prove my business idea.
With a bit more grease on my elbows, last year I launched my first tech start-up Umwuga. While still early stage, my journey this time around has been far smoother. With the benefit of an LBS (London Business School) MBA education and experience, I have a stronger set of skills and confidence to take a chance on something difficult and risky. More importantly, I have a far stronger network which has helped me bring helpful people along for the ride.
What will I do to be different? I care deeply about diversity for all the reasons above as well as the fact that it’s the right thing to do. The right thing being that, with all things being meritocratically equal, I should hire the more historically disadvantaged candidate for the job. With Umwuga being a social network with an initial focus on emerging markets, my workforce for each region in which we launch will need to represent the customers we seek to serve. It is important that I constantly pay attention to the mix of my teams across racial, gender, age, sexuality, and other lines and ensure that our workplace and culture accommodate them all equally. This also means that every employee must have access to the opportunities, pay, and perks that are relevant and appropriate to them, and fair across the company.
Being black doesn’t absolve me of any biases and, to overcome them, I will need to surround myself with the right people and empower them to check me when I fall short. As a start-up founder, being black allows me to learn from my experiences, and those of others I can relate to, and endeavour to be better than what I see around me. I proudly take on the responsibility to create an example of how a tech business should look, act, and feel, regardless of how we are perceived when pitching traditionalist investors.