Philly Startup Leaders exec steps down; group pledges more diversity

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Tayyib Smith, Yuval Yarden (center) and Liz Brown participated in a panel discussion that turned heated at last week’s Black & Brown Founders Conference.

Yuval Yarden has stepped down as executive director of Philly Startup Leaders following a controversial panel discussion last week at the Black & Brown Founders Conference over the lack of diversity in a growing, largely millennial segment of Philadelphia’s economy: tech start-ups.

PSL board president Robert Moore and chairman Rick Nucci made the announcement Saturday on the organization’s Slack and Google group channels, writing that Yarden “exemplified behavior and made statements … that were disappointing, inappropriate, and unacceptable. We are sorry.”

“While the statements do not represent the values of our organization, the fact that this occurred at all is a reflection of our poor efforts around diversity and inclusion. We have serious work to do. Now.”

Yarden, hired as PSL’s first full-time employee in March 2016, declined to comment Sunday, saying she’s working on a statement.

“It’s been a really difficult week,” she said in a text.

Yarden and panel member Tayyib Smith got into a somewhat heated debate at Tuesday’s conference. Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative and Pipeline Philly, was pointing out the shortcomings of diversity efforts in the tech community and at one point said Yarden was “whitesplaining.” That caused Yarden to choke back tears.

“It is extremely difficult walking into a room where you’re really one of the only white people,” Yarden said later in the discussion. “I feel like I’m walking on such thin ice because anything I say or anything that I plan to be helpful, the response is that I don’t get it.”

Moore told the Inquirer and Daily News on Sunday that Yarden is “one of the most prolific and successful connectors of people and creators of good content in the start-up community” and said she’d be an “amazing hire” at many companies.

But, Moore said, PSL’s growing base requires an executive director with CEO-level experience and judgment and the ability to handle a broader portfolio of responsibilities. Formed in September 2007, it started as a “ragtag group of aspiring entrepreneurs that would get together for happy hours and commiserate,” Moore said in an April interview when the serial tech entrepreneur was named PSL’s president.

The organization has since evolved into what Moore called “a force multiplier” for the community by providing mentoring, access to resources, and education “to help make sure we are building as many amazing companies here in Philly as we can.”  Its email listserv has more than 3,000 subscribers, Moore said Sunday.

Yarden’s comments on the panel drew some bad press for PSL, including from Philadelphia Magazine business editor Fabiola Cineas, who on Friday called it a “sad and frankly pathetic exchange that demonstrates that the organization, as it stands, should no longer be regarded as a beacon of representation for Philadelphia’s tech community.”

Moore said Yarden resigned Thursday, and that the decision was not in response to any negative publicity. He acknowledged, however, that PSL has “a lot of work to do in taking input from the community around our diversity dinner event specifically and our efforts around diversity and inclusion in general and being held accountable.”

Webjunto co-CEO Liz Brown, who was on Tuesday’s panel with Yarden and Smith, said Sunday that while she disagreed with the way Smith made his points, she had recently been in touch with Yarden and her team about improving the 2nd Annual Philly Startup Leaders Diversity Dinner on Oct. 25. Brown said they were receptive to her feedback. The event is billed as “an opportunity to address the diversity gap in Philadelphia’s tech community and within the nation. This dinner is an opportunity to talk about the challenges, share best practices, and celebrate the positive aspects of being an underrepresented group in the tech world.”

“I do feel Yuval was trying her best and meant well, but was maybe not prepared for that kind of panel and those kinds of questions,” Brown said.

In their letter Saturday, Moore and Nucci said they will “recommit ourselves to ensuring that all of PSL’s signature events and activities are executed with a model and lens that increases diversity and inclusion and creates a stronger start-up community.”