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Undercover-chella: A Brutally Honest Look Behind Coachella's Velvet Rope

Culture

I've lived in Los Angeles for 5 years, and have gone to Coachella - both weekends - for 4 of those. Am I crazy? Yes, obviously.

I've experienced every type of 'Chella possible: GA, VIP, with Artist bands, as Staff, No-Chella (AKA just attending the parties), paid full admission, got in free, camped-glamped-crashed-and-mansioned, planned it, and gone on a whim the day-of.


So what is it that brings me back each year? Ironically, the music festival takes a backseat to what in my opinion is the crown jewel of the desert: the parties.

Weekend One of the festival is the IT weekend: celebrities, YouTubers, Instagram models, influencers, socialites, fashion bloggers, professional partiers and the press go Coachella-adjacent: descending on the desert and turning it into a multi-page fashion spread. It's the weekend where pasties are acceptable outfits, Drake is most likely within 100 feet of you at all times, and you discover what the term “gifting suite" means.

Let's stop and talk about gifting suites for a hot second. At a party that shall-not-be-named, I was mistaken for an influencer (does it count if my mom tells me I'm special?) and invited into a mysterious room.

Let's call this room “Christmas Morning" because it was a pop-up store with gorgeous designer clothing, where I was given a shopping bag and instructed to grab whatever I wanted. I'm sorry, what?

"At a party that shall-not-be-named, I was mistaken for an influencer (does it count if my mom tells me I'm special?) and invited into a mysterious room."

Do you remember watching the Toys R' Us “Super Toy Run" on Nickelodeon as a kid? It's like that, but better. As an adult, you're able to appreciate how much these items cost as you dunk them into your hemp tote, shielding tears of joy behind those dope new sunglasses they gave you. I tried to cover it up like, “Don't worry, it's just sweat… dripping from my eyes." From swanky shades, to haute accessories, to perfumes, apparel, souvenirs, and flower-power-anything, it's 50 Shades of Swag. All day, erreday. Well, Friday through Sunday.

But why? Well, brand sponsors are willing to bet that if the right people are seen using or wearing their product, it'll be making a cultural splash big enough to trickle down in sales for the rest of the year. So do complimentary henna tattoos and mani/pedis at the Rachel Zoe party, or Quay sunglasses at Revolve and Forest Grant's at Poppy, or Batiste Dry Shampoo at Neon, or free rides from Fiat and Body Glove, and luxury cannabis giveaways at The Chroncierge mansion powered by Greenrush really do the trick??

Besides all the PR they get from people like me mentioning them, it actually does! Much of what influencers touch turns to gold. Even the CEO of Revolve said that, "This was our best week ever: Monday [before Coachella] beat our Cyber Monday," and that's because Revolve has Coachella down to a science. This year, they rented out an entire hotel just for influencers, flying them out from around the world and dressing them up in #instagrammable outfits that have the rest of us like, “Damn, where can I buy that?"

"The thing is, there's so much to see and do at Coachella W1 that it's impossible to do it all."

But ugh, even as am I'm writing this -- and having attended some of the most exclusive parties myself -- I still have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The thing is, there's so much to see and do at Coachella W1 that it's impossible to do it all. I take that back. It's impossible... unless you have a helicopter like Lil Wayne who literally flew from party to party to perform this year, skipping the godforsaken road closures and miserable traffic.

Like any music festival, the traffic at Coachella is the worst. If I could go back in time, I'd ask Steven Hawking to lend his genius to figure it all out.

We live in a world with self-driving cars and seedless watermelons, but it seems that nobody can figure out how to stop carmageddon every weekend. This year, it took me 2 hours to get to the Poppy party, which was about “15 minutes away" from our Airbnb in Bermuda Dunes. Luckily, the good parties don't stop until 4 am, but there's nothing worse than being stuck in the back of an Uber while receiving texts about how much fun the fiesta is. Thus confirming my “fear" that I was indeed, missing out.

"Besides the mandatory photo ops (duh) it gets wild."

OK so besides the free gifts and food and drinks and music, what's it like inside the parties?

Besides the mandatory photo ops (duh) it gets wild. At the Revolve Festival, they had an actual carnival ride from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, but I've seen cool activations like: nursing stations where they administer IV's and vitamin B shots in the booty, massage stations, choose-your-own-flower-crowns, braid and glitter bars, makeup touch-ups, a crane-game machine where you can win a BMW at Poppy, dirtbikes and a bouncy house slide at FentyxPuma, and so much more. Dammit, I'm getting FOMO again just thinking about it.

But while I'd love to keep gushing about how wonderful of an experience it all was, I can't skip the arduous process of figuring out how to gain access to these coveted events. All the “free" comes at the price of working hard to hustle your way onto the list.

Even with Coachella being about 150 miles away from Los Angeles, you'll find that #HollywoodRules still apply: you gotta know someone to get in. Whether it's a gatekeeper (the PR person), the talent (bonus points if it's a musician), someone who has a plus one (start sucking up months in advance), an influencer or the goddamn line cook for all I care, you gotta know someone! If you're feeling lucky, you can also send a blind RSVP to the email address on the event invite and pray you get in. It does work… sometimes.

But one party that it definitely will not work at -- the event that deserves a paragraph all on its own -- is Neon Carnival. Known as the star-studded extravaganza of the weekend (maybe even the year) Neon attracts celebs like: Leonardo DiCaprio, Chance the Rapper, Diddy, Amber Rose, Paris Hilton, Logan Paul, Lele Pons and so much more. I'm pretty sure whoever coined the term “Disneyland for Adults" was referring to this event. With bumper cars, carnival games, a ferris wheel, an epic stage and dance floor, and beautiful people to enjoy it all with, it's is surreal AF. If you're ever in a situation to trade your left kidney for a party, do it for Neon Carnival.

All in all, I hope reading this has ignited enough curiosity (and FOMO) to convince you to make the pilgrimage to Coachella Weekend One next year. It sometimes feels like more of a glitter safari than a music festival, but it's well worth it!

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Business

Dear VCs: Making Pledges Won't Close The Funding Gap



Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.

Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.

Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.

Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?

Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.

It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.

The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.

The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.

In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.

With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?

According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.

“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."

Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.

Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."

Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."

Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.

Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.

While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.

The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."

Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.

“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."

To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.

While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.

When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."

Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.

This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.

As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.

When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.

Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.

Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.

“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."

Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.


This piece was originally published in 2018.