To Break Barriers, Know Your ABCs and Ps and Qs

by Faye M. Anderson on October 14, 2011

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.”

Where are we? African Americans make up 1.5 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce. Black founders represent one percent of VC-backed startups.

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.

Informational meetings like those organized by NewMe Accelerator and Black Founders are good pathways to build the networks and make the introductions.

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.”

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    • Anonymous

      The fact that this industry is a young boys network means that its still a “boys” network, a male dominated space. Considering the disproportionate performance outcomes between males and females among African-Americans specifically this is probably the biggest obstacles for African-Americans. 

      You mention that:
      “To be successful, you must know the language and culture of the industry. And that, “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.”
      It is very ridiculous to me that the comment about “learning the culture” and “learning the language of venture capitalists” is followed by a comment that one does not need to go to business school. The fact is, maybe you dont NEED to go to business school it would be nice if you dont have any ready access to these social circles. Studying up is great, but out of context this message could be taken to mean that the information curve is not steep and it is steep. This is particularly true if you are not part of the tech or finance communities in other ways, i.e. if you do not come from a tech savvy educated family, or that you have access to people with advanced knowledge of finance and the culture.

      I would say the fact that its a young boys network means that people of color might think about starting super early and widening your social circles (outside of racial group affiliations) and orienting oneself or ones children early on. I would think you couldn’t be an outsider or someone who has no “street cred” or technical skills to build out a network in these spaces. Of course, they dont call me optimist for nothing…

    • http://andersonatlarge.typepad.com Faye Anderson

      TechStars co-founder-now Rep. Jared Polis said one does not have to go to business school to succeed. Given the givens, it’s clear Polis knows what it takes to succeed as a startup.

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