With White House Demo Day, Obama takes aim at tech’s diversity problem

It's meant to underscore the need for diversity in tech.


Selena Larson


Published Aug 4, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 5:43 am CDT

President Obama recognizes that diversity in the technology industry is abysmal. That’s why the White House hosted its first-ever “demo day” on Tuesday, inviting startups, entrepreneurs, and investors to Washington to promote inclusion and tech investment in underrepresented groups.

Unlike traditional demo days, where startups pitch to mostly white, male investors, 30 teams shared their own personal, diverse startup stories and talked about their early- and mid-stage companies. Attendees included a Ugandan-born founder working on HIV testing technology and the team behind Pigeonly, a startup that helps prisoners stay in touch with loved ones.

The White House Demo Day was aimed at reducing the alarming imbalance that is the current state of the tech industry, specifically in venture capital. Three percent of VC-backed startups are led by women and only 1% by African-American entrepreneurs. That number is almost as surprising as the fact that only 4% of VCs in the U.S. are women.

Exclusion in tech goes beyond startups. Diversity numbers from companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo show that the majority of their employees are white and male. The imbalance is especially notable in engineering. The conversation around improving diversity efforts has increased in recent years, although major tech companies’ efforts have yet to make much of a difference.

In conjunction with the president’s demo day, 40 VC firms pledged to improve diversity in their organizations by participating in a survey that will measure the demographics of the current startup ecosystem, introducing HR policies that “foster respect and dignity for all,” and “commit[ting] to visible leadership.” Those firms involved include 500 Startups, Intel Capital, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The lack of diversity in tech fields was obvious even at the demo day. Attendees pitched their stories to “Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship” and other business leaders selected to participate in the event. But of those 11 ambassadors and leaders, just three were women.

Photo via Serge Melki/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 4, 2015, 3:55 pm CDT