The Ed-Tech Entrepreneur Diversifying Silicon Valley

Imagine you’re a black woman pitching a startup. You look different. You talk different. A table of white investors has never seen someone who looks like you and who’s been successful before. All these things are working against you. Do you let that stop you, or do you just say so what?

That’s what I train entrepreneurs of color to think about. When I first got to Silicon Valley, I was just like them. My idea of pitching was basically Shark Tank. Then I met with Mitch and Freada, at Kapor Capital, and we sat around a table, just having a conversation. They invested in my ed-tech startup and eventually hired me to help founders make their companies more inclusive. I’ve navigated this world from multiple angles. I’ve had to adapt, to learn this group’s language.

People of color always have to adapt, to code-switch. That’s part of winning over investors. It’s a personal decision: How much do you compromise your culture, your norms, to play into their norms, their culture? Some will say it’s selling out. This will be a little controversial, but I say you can affect the situation. You can learn the rules, study how funding works, even just research investors’ likes and dislikes. That said, it’s vital to not just put the burden on underrepresented founders. The system isn’t fair. Only something like 1 percent of VC-backed startups are led by black founders. VCs must be challenged to change their rules.

Sure, some VC firms are diversifying. Except then, guess what, many of these new hires leave. It’s not just about who you hire. It’s about who you invite over for Sunday brunch, who you follow on Twitter. Who follows you on Twitter. How can you see the value of an idea pitched by an underrepresented founder—an idea for their community—if you have no context for their experience?

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Much of this world isn’t a meritocracy. It’s a mirror-tocracy—the people who make it tend to look like the people who’ve already made it. So a white man comes in to pitch his startup. He’s a dropout from Harvard. “Wow, look,” investors think. They see a smart kid building a company. They may not see that Jamal, a black man, came from a poverty-stricken environment. Do these VCs have any idea how many obstacles he’s had to overcome just to sit across from them? That should count. Distance traveled. Not just pedigree and where you went to school and what degrees you got. Distance traveled. —AS TOLD TO JUSTICE NAMASTE

This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.

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