What does unconscious bias mean for entrepreneurs, investors, and the tech community?

Guest blogger – Rory Gerberg, Partner at Refound

Bias at work

Every second your brain is flooded with 11 million bits of information, but it can only process 40 bits consciously. To cope, the brain uses mental shortcuts to instantly identify which 40 to notice and remember. These mental shortcuts function like a newsfeed algorithm that filters your lived reality: there’s way too much information out there, so rules of thumb determine what comes on your radar in the first place.

These mental shortcuts or rules of thumb let you focus on the job. But the drawback is that they can cause you to miss important information. This is why after an investor meeting, one investor confident in an entrepreneur’s capability is ready to invest, while another concerned about market prospects isn’t ready to jump the gun. The same goes for entrepreneurs pitching to investors–you might think you nailed your pitch, but your co-founder thinks it didn’t go so hot.

Bias about people

For teams, the most detrimental category of biases are your beliefs about people.  Your ability to communicate and collaborate at work is hampered by how you see social identity groups. Social identity groups include gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, religion, age and class. These biases filter what you notice, hear, and remember–and what you don’t. When a person’s actions are consistent with your bias toward that group, you are actually more likely to remember it. For example, given the bias that women are ‘less financially savvy’, an investor will more vividly remember a woman entrepreneur’s discomfort with her financial models compared to a male entrepreneur in the same position. When both Joe and Barbara are confused by the numbers, Barbara’s confusion will remain etched in your memory.  

For colleagues on the receiving end, biases can create experiences of exclusion. This exclusion decreases the likelihood that excluded colleagues will be creative, speak up in a meeting, or take professional risks. They’re bad for company culture, and they’re bad for your bottom line.

Internal organizational dynamics

Unconscious bias is everywhere. By definition, startups endeavor to create innovative solutions to problems, disrupting the status quo. Given the startup ethos, it is tempting to conclude that startups must be ahead of the game in tackling bias. But in fact, the opposite is the case: a startup’s organizational structure–or lack thereof–makes it even more prone to bias. With few, if any, established standards for conducting business, there is greater opportunity for bias. Bias is more likely to occur in situations of ambiguity, where employees either have increased discretion or are applying a set of rules for the first time. Without established rules of thumb that indicate how to act and respond at any given point in time, biases can inadvertently become a fallback for team interactions.

Questions to ask to start uncovering unconscious bias in your organization:

  • Onboarding: How do you welcome a new member of your team? When does an employee feel like a “culture fit”?
  • Team bonding: How do you bond with your team? What activities or locations do you frequent?
  • Daily decision-making: Who do you consult when making decisions? Who takes the most air time in meetings?


Investors aren’t immune either from unconscious bias faux pas. Initial meetings between investors and entrepreneurs provide only a bird’s eye view of a startup’s team, business model and product.  Investors must make an evaluation based on highly limited information, and often that information is based on uncertain financial data and market conjecture. In early stage investing, there is a strong role of intuition: their “gut feel” about entrepreneurs, the market, the product. In the end, a significant part of the decision to invest in an early-stage startup is the decision to invest in the founding team. And that isn’t an objective evaluation. Rather, it opens up space for investors to fall back on biases. Investors can be influenced by biases about the entrepreneur ranging from salient social identity categories, to seemingly irrelevant characteristics like the geographic distance between the startup and the investor. Generally, the need to make hasty decisions based on limited data leaves investors in a situation ripe for unconscious bias.

Additional questions investors should ask before deciding on a second meeting:

  • What are your biases about the entrepreneur’s social identity group?
  • How has the entrepreneur demonstrated preparedness, commitment, and trustworthiness?

Both entrepreneurs and investors need tools to bust unconscious bias at work.


How do you bust bias in your organization? Find out at the Unity Inclusion Summit (Get 15% off with RoryVIP) for a chance to meet 1:1, or learn more about Rory Gerberg’s work on unconscious bias here.


rory-refound-professional-headshotCreating diverse teams and inclusive organizations is at the heart of Rory Gerberg‘s work. At Refound, Rory designs and facilitates unconscious bias workshops for clients across all sectors—from tech startups and large corporations to nonprofits and public sector agencies. With a master’s degree from Harvard, she has also advised educational institutions and foundations on gender-sensitive program implementation and sexual harassment response strategy. Originally from New York, Rory moonlights as a salsa dancer and looks forward to her next backpacking trek.  Follow Rory on twitter

Can Muslims in Tech Fight Rising Islamophobia in the United States?

Guest blogger – Dustin Craun, Founder and CEO of Life Beyond Borders

As we enter a new political era built on a combination of misogyny, racism, and fear-based politics, I think of an unlikely hero, Muslims in tech. Muslims in tech in the United States and around the world is one of the biggest stories not being told. Muslim technological talent, founders, and venture capitalists play a central role in the majority of tech ecosystems around the world. This is true of the tech ecosystems in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Atlanta.

There are an estimated 300,000 Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area, and according to one study upwards of 20% of them work in the tech sector. According to research that we will release in the coming months via Ummah Wide, a digital media company I started to tell stories that transcend the borders of the global Muslim community, hundreds of Muslim founders across the world (the majority in the United States) have raised billions of dollars in venture capital investments for their startups and exits worth tens of billions of dollars. Despite these numbers, as well as the fact that Muslims make up large populations at every major tech company in the US, Muslims in tech still face discrimination on a daily basis. Even microaggressions, like questioning people’s faith or asking inappropriate questions regarding terrorism, have a profound affect on the Muslim community. Because of these discriminations, Muslims feel the need to hide their identity as a Muslim (even at the founder level), often times can’t find a place to pray at work, and Muslim women feel unsafe wearing and keeping on the hijab. Publicly hiding one’s Muslim identity can also take the form of people changing their names at work. Muhammad becomes Mo, or in the case of the owner of the NFL franchise the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan becomes Shad Khan.

At another level of the discrimination conversation has been the recent discussion around whether tech companies would help build the proposed Muslim registry being talked about by the incoming administration. With push from groups like MPower, and Color of Change the majority of major tech companies (excluding Oracle) have responded that they would not.

One of the craziest things to me about all of this, as someone who has lived in Muslim-majority countries around the world, is that for American companies, this is not a population they want to discriminate against. In fact, American companies are already making billions of dollars off of Muslims globally. Muslims today make up nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, and by 2050 (according to Pew Research data) there will be nearly 3 billion Muslims, totaling 30% of humanity.

With my company, Ummah Wide, we publish an annual story on the 50 top global Muslim Startups. This story has resonated so deeply with Muslims that it has been translated into six languages and republished around the world. The global Muslim market is one of the largest emerging economies in the world with current spending equaling $1.8 trillion dollars and expected to grow by 5.8% on average over the next 5 years, according to the research firm Dinar Standard.

A recent Mashable article about the United States based Muslim startups explores how “ignorance and fear are big obstacles for Muslim startup founders.” While this may be true for US-based venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and beyond who are missing opportunities to invest in Muslim company’s, Muslim startups are finding major funding around the world led by venture capital funds in Malaysia, the Gulf, and Singapore. This is a quickly maturing startup space with innovative young entrepreneurs as well as seasoned serial entrepreneurs building companies that are growing across borders and developing this global Muslim market. Recently US based Affinis Labs, joining with Elixir Capital (US), and MAVCAP (Malaysia), announced a $250 million dollar global VC fund targeting the Islamic economy. For Silicon Valley, the time is now to play catch up with global firms as the 500 Startups partner Khailee Ng stated recently about Muslim startups in South Asia, “I need to be very interested in investing in Muslim tech startups to be a good investor in this region…If anything, I’m just playing catchup.”

While there is growing investor interest, this is a complex, global emerging market representative of both local economies and diasporic populations who live across borders and whose reach can allow products to grow beyond traditional markets. To best articulate the scale of the emerging global Muslim startup ecology it is best to break it up into 4 areas:

  1. Muslim leadership is prevalent in global tech ecosystems

Muslims entrepreneurs play vital roles in regional startup ecologies around the world from Silicon Valley to Istanbul, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Bangalore, Singapore, Jakarta, London, Berlin, New York City, Casablanca and in dozens of other cities and startup communities. In Silicon Valley alone there are tens of thousands of Muslims embedded in every layer of the tech and startup community, including entrepreneurs with major exits like Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai, as well as major players in VC firms, like Mamoon Hamid, co-founder of the VC firm Social + Capital, Qasar Yunus, COO of Y Combinator, and Omar Hamoui, Partner at Sequoia Capital.

  1. Companies and startups that focus on Muslim majority populations and use Muslim-centric branding win

Companies around the world know the importance of creating products for and catering to Muslim markets. Uniqlo created a modest fashion line designed for the Asian market, Marks & Spencer introduced the burkini, and Dolce & Gabbana launched the abaya. Whether it’s creating modest fashion options, or developing advertising campaigns for Ramadan, this is, simply put, a market that can not be ignored by global companies. However, this isn’t new – local companies in Muslim majority countries go above and beyond to market to Muslims, like Careem for example, the Dubai based Uber competitor, who offered free rides to the Mosque in their cars during Ramadan in 2015. The US is the one that needs to play catch up.

  1. Muslim startups should focus specifically on Muslim consumers

This is the area we focus on in our 500 Startups article, where we look at Muslim-centric products that can be created by any entrepreneur, regardless of faith, who sees the global market opportunity. While many of these companies show the real potential for what companies in this space can grow to, it can also be one of the hardest types of startups to get funded. As of today, the largest companies in terms of investments and growth are modest fashion companies like Modanisa (Turkey), Hijup (Indonesia), and Fashion Valet (Malaysia), as well as Halal food companies like Saffron Road (US) and The Halal Guys (US). We believe a third major sector will emerge over the coming years in Islamic FinTech, with early stage companies growing in the space like our company Salaam Bank (US / Malaysia), Finocracy (Dubai), Investroo (US), and Ethis Crowd (Malaysia).

  1. Social enterprise products are rising in Muslim majority countries that use aspects of Muslim branding focused on western markets

There are also an emerging set of companies who are making an impact on Muslim majority markets where products are produced, branded, and sold in Western markets with positive representations of Muslim cultures and values. A great example of this is Port of Mokha, the coffee company founded by Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who is focused on transforming the coffee industry in Yemen, and who recently had their coffees featured at Blue Bottle. Other examples of this include the wide range of social impact companies focused on global refugees like Rumie and Techfugees.

If the tech community wants to stand for the values it preaches, it must take a collective stand against Islamophobia and racism broadly, while also recognizing the major role Muslims play in Silicon Valley and Tech ecosystems around the world. This can take many forms ranging from blocking government requests for data that could be used to police Muslim and other vulnerable communities. To companies conducting research and reviewing hiring policies with special attention paid to how interviewers are responding to job candidates who wear hijab or who are visibly Muslim. Tech companies must also make training on religion and multifaith dialogue a central part of their larger diversity training and discuss issues of Islamophobia in the workplace as a major component of this.

For Muslims in the tech ecosystem in the United States and around the world, the value we bring must not continue to be under-appreciated. In the political era we are entering Muslims in tech can play an important role in combating Islamophobia not only within the tech community but rather within society at large. To do this we must not be afraid to be unapologetically Muslim and have the hard conversations that are necessary for creating a more just, unified and inclusive society for all.


Learn more about being Muslim in Tech at our upcoming event: Unity & Inclusion Summit Los Angeles with 500 Startups & Microsoft. Get 15% off with “DustinVIP”


Dustin Craun is a social innovator, writer, digital strategist, community organizer, and educator. His writings on race, philosophy, and Islamic spirituality have been published in academic journals and popular publications.

He is the founder & CEO of Life Beyond Borders a digital production studio focused on product development, content and digital strategy, design, and video production. With LBB Dustin has launched three portfolio companies: Ummah Wide, MPower Change, and Salaam Bank, an Islamic finance and banking FinTech platform. Follow Dustin on twitter
*header image courtesy of Samuel Corum – Anadolu Agency