Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune
May 16, 2022
by Neil Senturia
Wow! And now let me be perfectly clear — wow!
Recently, CONNECT put on its first Inaugural Innovation Day. Cool companies, a broad range of sponsors, technology information booths and about 3,200 people packed every part of Petco, except the field, to showcase San Diego and its innovation ecosystem. The event was staggering in its scope and magnificent in its presentation. This was a big deal.
This thing called entrepreneurship is more than just alive and well in our city. It is explosive. And a key theme of the event was diversity and inclusion. The main poster at the front said it all, “Diversity unlocks innovation and drives economic growth. Inclusion is a state of being valued, respected and supported.” Them’s fighting words and more power to them.
I am a true believer with a clear understanding that the commitment to diversity and inclusion spans the spectrums of color, gender, socioeconomic background, physical challenges — in other words, the broadest canvas for giving a chance to all to participate in this economy.
But to understand the present, you always study the past. In the beginning days of CONNECT, in the era of Bill Otterson and Barbara Bry, 1986, it was a struggle to get even 40 VCs to an event here in San Diego. We were a technology backwater, an afterthought to Silicon Valley, who complained bitterly at the time that they would have to get on an airplane to come here. The number of local angel investors at that time could have been counted on two hands.
The CONNECT event featured 100+ VCs, 200+ angel investors, and more than 100+ venture-backed CEOs.
So I went looking for some diversity. I found a venture-backed woman Kerri Leslie, CEO of Verity, a company that makes customized, sustainable metal packaging as an alternative to single-use plastic containers. The company was backed by a women-run venture fund, Crescent Ridge. Score one for the good gals. Crescent has invested in four other female founder companies.
I was on a roll. Next, I found Data Zoom CEO Diane Strutner. I knew both the VCs that had invested in her. They were strong and local Southern California. A wasteland no longer.
And now let’s be fair. I did not do a complete search of the room. I am sure there were other women CEO, venture-backed companies, and so progress is being made. There was a fancy room on the plaza where the CEOs hung out. But the room was predominantly white men, not enough women, and for sure, only a very small smattering of Black, Latino and Hispanic individuals. I only saw what I saw, and I admit I may have miscounted, but the overall theme is that there is room for improvement.
It is easy to call it out and be critical. I will not do that. But I also need to be sure that we don’t break our collective arms patting ourselves on the back.
What I can say with a loud shout is that the presenting companies, their products and their ideas were off the chart fantastic. As an investor, this is what makes picking hard. If a restaurant only serves burgers, it’s easy to order lunch, but if the menu extends for eight pages, not including the wine list, you could starve to death before you make up your mind.
Now all these great companies have to come from somewhere. Please meet the next generation of entrepreneurs, The League of Amazing Programmers. For 15 years, the League of Amazing Programmers has been teaching professional level Java to middle and high school kids in San Diego. The executive director is Sarah Cooper, and the co-founders are the husband-and-wife team of Vic and Diane Wintriss.
The League is a nonprofit, public benefit institution and says that it is the only school in the country that offers an Oracle professional programming certification to its graduates. About 200 kids attend 1.5 hour, weekly, after-school classes. For kids starting in the fifth grade, it takes four to five years to complete the 10-level program. Finally, almost 50 percent of the students come from underserved communities and attend free of charge. Diversity and inclusion!
Rule No. 713:
The time is now