“You feel you have to be a model minority, the best Black person,” said Sykes, who now works at a fashion startup in San Francisco. “If you mess it up, you ruin it not just for you but for everyone who looks like you.”

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the renewed attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, at least one Black VC decided it was time to speak up to the firm’s White and Asian partners about race. The person, who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations, questioned in a videoconference the paltry number of Black-founded companies the firm had backed and recommended they fund these startups at an earlier stage to make up for the absent family-and-friends round. The partners responded by saying Silicon Valley didn’t have a systemic racism problem -- pointing to the success of Asian immigrants in the industry -- so the firm didn’t need to do anything proactive to help Black entrepreneurs.

The Black VC explained how the African-American experience differed from that of immigrants and, gradually, the partners committed to investing in startups earlier. But they’re trying to work with other venture firms to find a systematic approach to the issue, so little has changed so far.

A number of VC firms have said they want to create a more inclusive industry and have taken concrete steps, like unveiling standalone funds focused on people of color. In early June, SoftBank Group Corp. created the $100 million Opportunity Growth Fund to invest in Black- and Latinx-founded companies, and Andreessen Horowitz unveiled the Talent x Opportunity Fund, which started with $2.2 million in donations from the firm’s partners. Ben Horowitz and his wife, Felicia, pledged to match as much as an additional $5 million in donations.

Some Black VCs say that isn’t the right approach.

“We should be well beyond this idea of separate but equal,” Monique Woodard, a VC who created Cake Ventures, which puts money into early-stage companies, said during a videoconference hosted by BLCK VC. “But in venture it seems as if we are moving right back there. Black entrepreneurs don’t need a separate water fountain. You have to fix the systemic issues in your funds that keep Black founders out and keep you from delivering better returns.”

That videoconference, held June 4, was an opportunity for Black VCs to convene, discussing their collective grief over the losses of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and their frustration about racial problems in their industry. There was an audience of 4,000 people that tuned in, including White VC workers and Black tech employees.

Shauntel Garvey, who co-founded Reach Capital, also has been reflecting on her VC firm’s lack of investments in Black entrepreneurs.

Reach, an education technology firm, has extended more than 50 investments, with 40% to a founder who is a person of color. But none had a Black person on the founding team.

Garvey is conducting an audit to find out why that is, looking back at the times a Black founder met with her or one of her non-Black partners to see why they passed on an investment and how the startup has fared since Reach turned them down.

Garvey remembers speaking with Ruben Harris in July 2018 when he was looking for funding for his startup, Career Karma, which helped helped match computer-coding bootcamps and applicants who want to become software engineers. Garvey turned Harris down. She didn’t like the business model, in which Career Karma was paid only when there was a successful match, and the valuation of the Y Combinator-backed startup was a bit steep for its progress, she thought.

But Garvey said, in retrospect, she realized she hadn’t spoken with Harris enough about the broader vision for his company. Some Black founders are reluctant to over-promise results, she said, so they focus more on the current states of their companies.

“I undervalued him as a founder,” Garvey said. “If you believe in the product and secret sauce, the business model takes a back seat. If he has a vibrant community there, then there are different ways to monetize that. I did not do that work the first time.”