During the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee convened a panel discussion on diversity in the technology sector, “African Americans: Joining the Leading Edge of the High Tech Boom.”
This first-ever CBC convening of tech entrepreneurs and thought leaders was designed to identify strategies to open up “a whole new area of job growth and wealth creation for our communities.” Jackson Lee said, “The whole industry has moved and the question is: Where are we? We have no time to wait.”
Since the problem is all too familiar, the panelists focused on solutions to break down the barriers and boost the pipeline of future workers and entrepreneurs. Startup America Partnership CEO Scott Case facilitated the conversation that featured:
§ Rep. Jared Polis, Co-founder, ProFlowers.com;
§ Ben Horowitz, Founder and General Partner, Andreessen Horowitz;
§ Charles Hudson, Venture Partner, SoftTech VC;
§ Alfred C. Liggins III, President and CEO, Radio One, Inc.;
§ Pauline Malcolm-John, Executive Vice President of Global Sales, WeeWorld Inc.;
§ Tristan Walker, Director of Business Development, Foursquare;
§ Regina Wallace-Jones, Service Engineering & Operations Management, Yahoo Inc.; and
§ Amos Winbush III, Founder and CEO, CyberSynchs, LLC
Winbush, 2010 Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30, used social networks to build his team and grow his business. Founded in 2008, CyberSynchs has grown from two employees to 15 employees. The company is expected to grow to 30 employees in the next six months.
From $2 million in revenue in 2009 to a company now valued at $20 million, CyberSynchs has experienced “hockey stick growth.” Winbush said “think global. The U.S. market is over-saturated. There are billions of people with disposal income.” While you don’t have to be a technologist to be a disruptor, it’s important to “surround yourself with really great people.”
Rep. Polis, a co-founder of TechStars, sees opportunities in disruptive services and products. The value proposition is the new efficiency the idea introduces in the economy. But keep in mind investors fund the team not an idea. “They’re funding the team rather than a great idea because an idea can change depending on the market reaction.”
To be successful, you must know the language and culture of the industry. Polis said, “It’s a different language that these people speak. It’s the language of capital and entrepreneurship. You need to study the language so that you speak the language of venture capitalists.”
That doesn’t mean you have to go to business school. In fact, most founders don’t. You must know the basic principles of finance, including your ABCs – Series A, Series B and Series C funding rounds.
You also must learn the culture. So mind your Ps and Qs and dress for success.
While networks matter, Polis observed: “It’s not an old boys’ network. It’s a young boys’ network. When you have a young boys’ network, it’s easier to break into…You still have to build the networks.”
Polis added that “a VC’s job is to make investments. That’s what they’re there for; to make investments every six months.” If investors don’t know where you are, then find people who know people with access to capital.
Case underscored that VCs want to show you the money. “We always try to find a way to say yes because everyone here was helped by a whole bunch of people who helped us.” He observed one pathway into the tech space is to be part of a founding team.
So where do we go from here? Jackson Lee said the country’s changing demographics are a “call to action.” But government alone is not the answer. She wants to “generate the right kind of partnerships” and use the bully pulpit to shine a light on the problem so that “someone will notice there’s a group missing out on the opportunities.”