Opinion: ‘The startup world wasn’t made for someone like me.’ This black entrepreneur has some choice words for the tech bros of venture capital.

The year 2009 was very, very good for me. Six years earlier I had turned my love of discount shopping into one of the first lifestyle blogs called The Budget Fashionista. The site had grown into a seven-figure media empire. As a side note, I became an online influencer before Instagram and TikTok even existed. My first book was picked up by a major publisher and became a hit, I got a monthly slot on NBC’s The Today Show, and my blog landed six-figure endorsement deals from TJ Maxx, Tide, and other brands. I even lived in a luxury apartment in heaven in New York City.

life was good That is, until I decided to join an incubator program in New York. As a black woman starting her second business before the word “startup” had an entry in the Urban Dictionary, joining an incubator should give me the opportunity to connect with other startup founders, to be in a space, where entrepreneurship was celebrated and to seek advice from the people who built successful businesses. An incubator should have curricula that guide entrepreneurs through the stages of building a business and match founders with experienced mentors.

I had a killer idea. I wanted to leverage my blog’s 1.1 million weekly unique visitors to create and market a beauty subscription brand for black women. There was me, a Yale-educated scientist running one of the most popular lifestyle websites in the blogosphere. I thought that with these credentials, the startup world would welcome me with open arms.

I was wrong.

I didn’t know it then, but the startup world wasn’t made for someone like me. In fact, it was not created for the more than 233 million Americans – and the billions around the world – who are not white males. This was especially true for the New York startup community of the early 2000s. I was confronted with the harsh reality of pattern matching. Because of this, some groups (Tech Bros) find it easier to get the funding and support they need to grow their businesses than others (everyone else).

The theory behind pattern matching is this: Since many of the “successful founders” in the startup space were white from Stanford University, MIT, and Harvard University, it is hypothesized that all future successful founders will likely be white from Stanford, MIT , and Harvard. As Paul Graham, founder of powerhouse incubator Y Combinator says, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.”

Never mind that the obvious but often overlooked fallacy of pattern matching means that the majority of failed founders were also white from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. Anyone whose identity is outside the pattern would be considered a “risky” investment because we are “unknown”.

The startup world is super lazy when it comes to dealing with real people.

If you scratch the thin surface of this veneer, you’ll find that the startup world is super lazy when it comes to dealing with real people. The majority of the investors who decide who gets opportunities have graduated from elite institutions and have a very protected worldview. Instead of challenging themselves to expand their networks, they remain in place and operate within this closed system. As a result, they tend to give opportunities to people like themselves. You can’t see people who are different because everyone and everything around them is the same.

I volunteered to give my elevator pitch at the incubator’s weekly investor pitch session.* I walked to the front of the large gray conference room where we held our weekly meetings. I glanced at my husband, the only other person of color in the room, and he grinned at me and said, “Show them exactly who you are.”

i know how to speak I know how to get people on my side. So I put on my Minnesota smile and pitched my pitch for a beauty subscription company that caters to black women. I outlined the size of the market and discussed how I would market my products to my existing audience of over 1 million visitors every month. I explained that while black women make up about 6% of the US population, we buy nearly 50% of all hair care products in this country, a $2.5 billion market. And that only applies to shampoo and styling aids. When you include styling tools like flat irons, weaves, hair accessories, etc., the market grows to an estimated half a trillion dollars.

I brought this group of mostly white guys into the wonderful world of ethnic hair care, the world of weaves and sister curls and edge gels. And I did it in 10 seconds in my three minutes allotted time.

Be silent. Which made no sense, especially in this group of super high achievers who never missed a chance to prove their intelligence. The first person to break the silence said, “That was one of the best elevator pitches I’ve ever heard.” Others then chimed in with praise and questions about the idea and next steps. I was told that I got the best feedback from everyone in the group.

As an above-average Black woman, I knew I was the best, especially because as a smart Black woman in a room where you’re the only one who meets that criterion, you have no choice but to be the best. It’s a burden on every smart black, smart native, smart latinx* Person, smart Asian person, and every smart woman wears them from the first time they show their full brilliance to a group of people ready to dismiss them immediately.

You quickly learn how to calibrate your responses to idiocy to protect your humanity. You do some quick mental calculations and think, “Is today the today I’m totally dumping?” Or am I bringing my humanity into my ‘sunken place’ because to submerge would mean that I, and consequently other black people, would never be allowed back into the room?”

A famous tech god told me my business model was excellent, but he “don’t make black women”.

Here’s what happened next. The cohort leader, a progressive white guy who really needed to make sure I knew he was here to “help me” before dismissing me as well, turned to get feedback from the entire audience. A famous tech god told me my business model was excellent, but he “don’t do black women.” To this day I have no idea what that means. The brother of the head of the incubator, the most serious of the serious white tech guys, told me he didn’t think I could “relate to other black women” because I have an accountant. One person asked me if I even knew any fashion bloggers, and another asked if women were a “real” customer base online.

The “feedback” continued as tech brother after tech brother came up with narrow-minded excuses as to why I wasn’t succeeding. And like many of us who have been marginalized, I felt angry.

I was furious at being asked stupid questions by people who were having a hard time reconciling what they thought I was (kinda inferior) with who I actually am (100% “that bitch”). Furious that the very industry that prided itself on being able to “see around corners” failed to see how their own prejudices were limiting success for 75% of the world. These are the same people who defy the laws of physics by landing a rocket upright, but they can’t see women as customers online? You run companies that make billions of dollars off memes made by black people, but can’t see how black women can build companies?

I made an appointment to speak with the incubator’s founder, Voldemort of Venture Capital (VVC), during his office hours. His “office” was actually a small room in the midst of the larger office space of a failing startup.

I restarted in a pitch for my company. After that, VVC sat back in his chair, which cost more than my rent, and said, “Great idea, and obviously you can do that.” Then he leaned forward and said, “But I’ll be honest. I don’t know of any investor who has invested in a black woman. I’m not saying you won’t receive any investments, it’s just highly unlikely that you will.” He then got up and walked to the door, signaled that my time was up and said, “Hold me current,” which would be like saying, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you” in the start language.

portfolio

I was eventually forced out of the incubator for reasons that are still unclear to me. I didn’t pursue the idea of ​​revolutionizing the black beauty industry. Not because of my experience in the incubator, but because The Budget Fashionista – which I 100 percent own – grew by leaps and bounds. So I kept building my own damn thing, The Budget Fashionista, and ended up selling it for a hefty sum in 2012.

Read: “They broke barriers”: On Wall Street, black and Hispanic billionaires and people of color are running the new largest private equity firms.

Since then I’ve built several damn things including Digitalundivided, a pioneering social enterprise that forced the exclusive world of venture capital to have a moment of recurrence in relation to their institutionalized racism and sexism. And now Genius Guild, a visionary venture studio where I invest in black-led startups. In a moment that comes full circle, I’m a lead investor in Health in Her Hue, a startup led by a black health professional.

For builders like me, the ability to create a life in our control is worth the risk of failure. The opportunity to create a legacy is so great that we choose to leave the wake of a traditional career and become entrepreneurs. Imagine creating something you truly believe in, watching it succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and then getting paid for the value you create. That’s the promise of building your own damn thing.

This article is an excerpt from “Build the Damn Thing: How to start a successful business if you’re not a rich white guy“ (Portfolio, 2022), by Kathryn Finney. Finney is Founder and CEO of Genius Guild and General Partner of The Greenhouse Fund. Finney is the former CEO of digitalundivided, a pioneering social enterprise focused on creating a world where black women own their work. She is also the founder of The Budget Fashionista (TBF) and became one of the first black women to have a seven-figure startup exit with the sale of TBF.

More: ‘If we hadn’t done it, nobody would’: Suzanne Shank paves the way for companies to empower women and people of color

Also read: The long history of racism haunts black professionals, and America’s best employers recognize and respect it

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-startupworld-wasnt-created-for-someone-like-me-this-black-woman-entrepreneur-has-some-choice-words-for-the-tech-bros-of-venture-capital-11654765718?rss=1&siteid=rss Opinion: ‘The startup world wasn’t made for someone like me.’ This black entrepreneur has some choice words for the tech bros of venture capital.

Brian Lowry

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