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Conference Aims To Jumpstart Tech Founders, and Industry Diversity

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By Nishat Kurwa

San Francisco Bay Area residents, techie or not, are swimming in the wisdom of startup culture, with its cognescenti profiting handsomely from the books and blogs that form the canon in their industry. But the organizers of a conference held this week in San Francisco are betting that there are a lot of tech entrepreneurs who could use more high-touch exposure to that advice, and in turn, that the industry will benefit from engaging those same startup founders.

The "Ideas Are Worthless" conference was launched by the Black Founders organization just this year, says co-founder Nnena Ukuku, drawing on the projects and services of colleagues like Women 2.0. "People would come up to us and say, 'I have this idea, I have this idea, I have this idea.' Our goal was to take them from idea to execution," she explained. "How do you do customer acquisition, how do you raise money...do you need to raise money? All of these are things that companies need to start grappling with for them to actually build a sustainable business."

Most Ideas Are Worthless attendees are tech founders, and their mentors at the conference range from venture capitalists, to successful entrepreneurs, to lawyers. One-on-one mentoring sessions are combined with panels and small workshop groups, some small enough that a lawyer can give individualized advice during the Q&A section.

Many of the issues being discussed there were familiar to anyone who follows Silicon Valley startup sagas: lack of focus on product; how to protect your trademark, and perhaps more crucially, a trade secret; and what does a trade secret even consist of? However, this wasn't your standard professional development conference. The subtext is that there's a workforce problem in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

"If you look at job boards like Indeed and Venture Loop, there are about a thousand jobs a week being added," said Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, who judged an Ideas Are Worthless pitch panel. "And it's not like we don't need great people. We don't have enough applicants to begin with. This is a huge opportunity for minorities and women to pick a career path themselves."

Winblad said the conference provides wraparound support for people of color and and women who are already interested in technology, and want to build businesses around it. She rattled off some of the issues being covered, and the list is heavy with Silicon Valley maxims. "You prototype your way to great innovations, versus have some grand theory that you hide away for a couple of years and try to make work. This is very different from anyone who's worked in a traditional company, where there's five year plans, theories that need to be solved," Winblad said. She continued, "You need to be a collaborator versus just an individual achiever, and we can all be part of your network." And of course, she mentioned a piece of Valley gospel that seems to go hand in hand with "Fail early and often," -- "You have to be seeking risk, instead of focusing on safety."

That last one isn't as simple as it sounds for communities that have historically had reason to be risk-averse.

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