Building Good Soil

A note of context:

The blog that follows was originally written as an email to my colleagues on the GAN team. It was my response in a conversation we have been having regarding recent events and DE&I in our company, our community, and our work with startups around the world. The team asked if I would be willing to share my thoughts publicly. I am doing so here, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that this is a moment for grieving – both the particular and the historical legacy of it.

Our eyes are opened afresh or perhaps for the first time to the fact that much is not as it should be.

No one should die as George Floyd did; as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others did.

No one should endure physical or emotional abuse, especially not repeatedly.

Access and ownership should not be restricted to or even made more readily available to one group of people in preference to others.

I am sad that such murder, abuse, and systemic preference exists today. I am sorry that I have too often have done little or nothing to rectify it. I acknowledge that as a white affluent American male I live a privileged life and can hardly fathom the experience of many who live around me. So I sit in this moment and I offer these humble thoughts about the organization I help lead, the work we do, and the ways we seek to grow.

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I’ve been meditating on soil recently. Good soil contains nutrients and moisture, optimal conditions for growth. But these crucial ingredients can be depleted by poor farming practices or may not exist natively in certain locations. In these cases, intentional work must be done to restore or introduce fertility to the soil. One cannot just wait around for the land to heal itself, because it rarely will without intervention. However, informed and careful hands may nurture fertility into existence.

Our work at GAN, GAN Ventures, and GSSN is similar. We often take for granted that dense networks of angel groups, universities, corporations, accelerators, and studios provide a healthy ground in which to plant and grow a startup. Ask one of our accelerator Managing Directors about the work of building an angel network where one has never existed. GAN and the ecosystems we represent did not spring up overnight, but are the result of decades and layers of systems built with care.

Yet still today many communities lack these ingredients altogether. There are many founders who don’t have friends or a family from whom they could borrow a couple hundred dollars, much less solicit thousands or hundreds of thousands in investment. There is no purely meritocratic path for these entrepreneurs because there hasn’t been a single person in their neighborhood or family who owns a home, much less a business.

Startups cannot grow where the “soil”, or the ecosystem in which they would be started, has not been nurtured. Devastatingly, in many places, broken systems have actually depleted the very resources entrepreneurs need. There isn’t fertilizer or miracle-gro that can instantaneously improve these conditions. Good soil is built over time. To truly change this requires the long and hard work of building layer upon layer of the ingredients or systems on a local level.

This current moment has been a long time coming, and GAN is uniquely positioned to address it. Building systems that allow all startups to thrive has always been our mission, and GAN’s community of local leaders is well-positioned to address the associated challenges and inequalities along the way. We’ve made an imperfect start and are dedicated to continue the work and be better.

We’re facing a nasty, entrenched set of inequities. They won’t and even can’t be fixed overnight. But the encouraging thing to me is that soil is built by a series of healthy choices and actions. We all have a role to play, and we’re committed to making a difference in our spheres of influence. As an example, GAN Ventures can’t change the entire venture capital landscape, but we can be more intentional about with whom we invest or spend time.

Really working with soil isn’t a one day or one season thing, nor is it a new thing. It’s a year-round endeavor that requires attention and intention. The perfect set of rules about how to farm or garden doesn’t ensure healthy soil. Educated, caring work and a bit of help from the weather does that.

We’re after equity, which is both ownership and access. We need counsel and leadership from all voices, but especially Black and minority leaders. We hope to build a coalition where the collective knowledge and wisdom of GAN is leveraged by a group of loving individuals who use it to carefully build soil one community at a time. Because our dream is that no founder lacks access to the human and financial resources they need to create a meaningful impact wherever they call home.