Now before I go further, it’s important to back up and say that the first, second and third opportunities (and duties) I have with Localeur are to transform the way people travel (from reviews from strangers to recommendations from locals), then to turn this idea into a startup (done) and grow it into a business (in progress), and lastly to turn this business into something that provides substantial financial rewards for my co-founder and team of investors and employees who’ve counted on me to be a good steward of this unique opportunity.
But I do think a lot about what Localeur could mean for the overall landscape for blacks in technology.
There’s been a mini-wave over the last few years encouraging blacks to get more involved in technology. Conferences have been popping up. Minority incubator programs are appearing in various cities. CNN said something. SXSW seems to be interested. There have even been a couple of black entrepreneurs – like Sheldon Gilbert with Proclivity and Tony Gauda with Bitcasa - to get a decent amount of attention in recent years. Tristan Walker was made an entrepreneur-in-residence at elite venture firm Andreesen Horowitz, which is mighty impressive.
Still, the main things that are lacking to really turn this moment into a movement are the following: 1) a much needed reduction in risk aversion tendencies by black professionals and 2) more familiarity and credibility with black entrepreneurs from VCs and angel investors. Some people may say that a third issue exist in that there aren’t that many black engineers or black people in tech overall, but I think that’s missing the point: the reason there aren’t that many black people in tech is because of the first two points there. Once Jackie Robinson broke through – and showed how talented he was – several other blacks were given the shot they deserved at the big leagues.
Technology is rooted in hacker culture. That right there is a risky proposition. You’re probably doing something that you’re not supposed to do (i.e. Sean Parker with Napster or Mark Zuckerberg with Facemash). Once you get past that part, you’re still in the midst of an industry that is rooted in a belief that it’s best to try something no one else has done rather than to simply follow what others have done.
That’s not a behavior you’re going to see in a lot of the professions black professionals choose because we’ve been programmed - through years and decades of striving for upward mobility – to think that we just have to follow the script to get ahead at the office or in a particular industry. The risk of veering off the course for blacks is much more severe because our opportunities are limited whether your biases or ignorance allow you to acknowledge that or not.
Many black professionals pursue academia, law, medicine and politics not because these are easy professions, anything but, but because they have been the source of financial and societal approval for decades if not centuries. Technology, meanwhile, has really only just become a leading source of financial windfalls for thousands of individuals (largely through acquisitions and IPOs) each year.
So to ask large quantities of black teenagers – many of whom are the first in their families to graduate from college, like myself – to pursue degrees in technology is still a tough proposition because there’s even less awareness of the financial benefits, the professional accomplishments and the societal impact one can have through this industry.
You think it’s hard being the next Jay-Z or LeBron James? Try telling some kid he’s going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. That’s way harder for a black kid to relate to if they didn’t go to Exeter Academy or some other Ivy League feeder school.
So there’s a risk aversion amongst educated black folks that has slowed the migration of college graduates from degrees in accounting, African-American Studies, kinesiology and marketing to degrees in business analytics, computer science, information technology and management information systems.
But this part is being attacked head on as part of the S.T.E.M. movement to get more minorities – blacks and women, especially – into courses and career paths for things like engineering and math. I fully support such endeavors because looking back I would have more aggressively pursued something more deeply technology-enabled than public relations.
Note: One of the few industries where I’ve noticed less risk aversion amongst black professionals is investment-based finance. Private equity, derivatives and securities, hedge funds, investment banking, you name it. I know a number of black men who’ve come from UBS or Goldman Sachs and launched very successful careers in technology. Rob Reffkin, the CEO and co-founder of Urban Compass, is just the most recent example, but there are plenty others who now have director and VP-level gigs at successful tech companies in New York and the Silicon Valley.
So the quickest path to entry into the technology industry for blacks has seemingly become switching from investment-driven finance because it's another risk-based industry. I liken this to switching from being on the defensive side of the football (maybe as a linebackers coach) to being an offensive coordinator. It’s not the easiest switch, but it makes a hell of a lot more since than say switching from being a baseball manager to being a head football coach. Why? Because the risk propositions in finance investments and technology investments are at least somewhat similar. If a quarterback only completed one-third of his passes like a great baseball hitter connects on maybe one-third of their at-bats, we’d consider that quarterback a disaster. He’d be outta the league.
Now the second part is a bit harder. A lack of familiarity and credibility of black entrepreneurs by venture capitalists and angel investors. I say this because getting a degree in computer science is actually much easier than convincing someone that you can use your degree (and their money) to turn an idea into millions or billions of dollars in value.
As previously mentioned, one path to establishing more credibility as a black entrepreneur is to come from the investment/finance industry because it shows that you’ve worked in environments where you're trusted to advise on or handle millions of dollars passing hands where a high level of risk was present.
Another route is to have been an executive, engineering leader or product manager from a successful tech startup – preferably if its in the same industry. My tenure at Bazaarvoice as its director of operations and strategic initiatives and then as the director of market planning (focusing on travel) is helpful, but perception-wise its not as helpful for three reasons: 1) Bazaarvoice is on the B2B vs. consumer side, 2) I wasn’t on the product side of the business (where the mobile engineers or product managers were; as an example, the former mobile architect for Bazaarvoice, Joe McCann, is now leading technology for mega-influential creative agency Mother New York and former product manager Santiago Alonso-Lord is now director of product management for The New York Times), and 3) I wasn’t there early enough to say I was instrumental in the startup’s success. While I was helpful in the IPO phase for the company, that was only after the company had grown steadily for five years.
Still, another path to credibility exists. You could go and get an M.B.A. from an elite university like Wharton (UPenn), Stanford or Harvard. This was an option for me, but what I found was that most of the guys at these schools actually were only in school because they wanted to get the kind of business chops that I already had from creating Sneak Attack and Style X. Brett Hurt, the founder of Bazaarvoice, actually reinforced this to me when he told me I’d get a better tech education by joining his team than going to Wharton, his alma mater, at the time.
This is pretty much where things get fuzzy for me. I didn’t come from Goldman Sachs or another financial institutional background. I wasn’t an early-stage exec or engineer at a tech company like HomeAway or Yelp. Nor did I pick up an M.B.A. from an elite university (or any university for that matter), which also helps legitimize one’s self with potential investors (for some reason, although folks like Gates and Jobs and Zuckerberg and David Karp at Tumblr are actually high school and college dropouts).
Which leaves me right where I am today: trying to do the unthinkable from a starting position of unfeasible in an industry that many think is impossible to win in.
I say unthinkable because you’re not really allowed to tell an investor you’re building something that could be bigger than Yelp or TripAdvisor, two publicly-traded companies that are worth billions. I say unfeasible because no black man has ever been the founding CEO of a consumer tech company that went public (the highest ranking blacks in tech are probably David Drummond, General Counsel for Google, and Ursula Burns, Chairman & CEO of Xerox). I say impossible because no first-time tech entrepreneur in Austin without an Ivy League degree, finance or executive background has taken a consumer tech company public.
I love my odds because I see the aforementioned angles somewhat clearly (I'm not walking into these meetings blindly), which gives me an opportunity to play to all of their weaknesses:
- No, I don’t know finance: I spent my time learning content, marketing and social.
- No, I didn’t go to Ivy League: I went to an elite public university with 50,000 students: University of Texas in Austin (home of SXSW and a growing tech scene).
- No, I’m not starting a software company where I need a ton of dev or sales experience.
At least this is what I have to tell myself whenever I walk into a meeting with a VC or angel investor who I know is enamored with Localeur (how couldn’t you be), but really really wants me to say I went to Stanford (I’m smart) or I developed the source code (I can build it myself) or I used to work at Goldman (you can trust me with all your money) or something similar.
Regardless, I know I’m going to win with Localeur and my team is going to win despite my perceived gaps to build this company because I know what it will mean for travelers around the world to #experiencelocal, I know what it will mean for my co-founder Chase (it’s his original idea, after all), my early investors and employees who’ve entrusted me to figure things out, and ultimately I know exactly what it will mean to the larger community of blacks in tech who’ve never seen a startup run by a black CEO do anything close to what the guys at Twitter or the guys at Google or the guys at Yelp have pulled off.
There’s a familiarity gap that only takes one mega-successful company to help reduce enough of the perceived extra risk to unlock dozens of opportunities for people like me (the same people I was trying to help when I wrote Real Role Models) who love technology but don’t have all the typical resume bullet points to validate their abilities to the industry’s gatekeepers. For people like us, we have to continously show and prove.
I’ve been doing that my whole life.
Motivation: "Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week." - Jay-Z