The startup founder journey in America is unique for minorities in various ways. It has become one of the most common questions and inquiries I get from many black and Hispanic founders and some white, Asian, and other founders across the racial spectrum. As part of my writing, I want to share insights about my journey to help navigate building a company, getting funding, hiring, etc., from my perspective as a black male founder in the United States. And highlight the benefits of being a minority-owned business. It is critical to acknowledge that every human journey is unique regardless of race or gender. Assuming that having a similar shade of melanin with someone means I fully understand or have the right to speak to their unique journey or that I have more to impart than a white or female founder is foolish.
For some background, my experience is particularly unique because I was not born and raised in the United States. I immigrated to the US in my late teens. Hence I’ve experienced life both as a member of the majority and now as the minority. I grew up in a country where most people looked like me, which profoundly impacts how one (especially a child) views the world and one’s place in it. Not being a minority for the first eighteen years of my life probably helped me. Everyone I knew, from the scientist to the janitor, to the President, mostly looked like me. Nothing unique or implied needed to be deduced about my person, whether negative or positive. I didn’t grow up walking into a room feeling like I didn’t belong because of my skin color or having to deduce what others in the room thought about me. That’s a new American experience for me that, thankfully before my startup journey, had not taken hold in my subconscious enough to erase many years of upbringing in what, by the time I left for the United States, was an upper-middle-class household.
However, my startup journey in America still did begin as that of a minority black male with a funny name, trying to build a SaaS startup in an industry I had no established credentials or deep experience. My first fundraising took eight months to the first check and ultimately came from sources that decided to take a bet on me because they had known my previous work, known me personally, or someone they trusted vouched for me.
Along the way, some people gave lip service to helping and did nothing, but I’m forever grateful to those who said they would help and make a difference. Here are some core principles that helped me on my journey, and I hope can help others.
Don’t See Being a Minority as a Negative
The journey to success starts with the right mindset. The right mindset leads to the right action, right thinking, and effective relationship building. As a founder, seeing your racial status as negative doesn’t bring positive energy to your efforts. You belong in the room as much as anyone else. Walk into any scenario with your head held high.
I get it. Taking on a self-assured attitude is not a guarantee of success. When rejected, you have an extra burden that non-minority founders don’t have: the question of whether the rejection is because of your idea or the color of your skin. The weight of this uncertainty can be exhausting, and it’s unfair that minority founders have to face it. I would not say it hasn’t crossed my mind in some of my experiences. However, in my journey, at no point did I conclude that any difficulty with raising funding or building my startup was due to my race. I think that helped my execution in terms of hiring great talent, asking for terms that were fair and favorable to both sides and confidently getting the results I wanted. My advice when facing rejection is to take the question out of your mind. Not because racism is never the issue, but because you have to put it aside and not let it impact you. Don’t take that thinking into a pitch meeting; don’t let it affect your attitude or confidence. Lean into the process – talk to a lot of people, and keep pushing forward.
As a founder, I must remind myself that I belong in the spaces where I find myself. This is a mindset that changes how you play the game. Do not walk into rooms – even when they are overwhelmingly white – thinking you are at a disadvantage. You belong in those spaces you walk into because you’re building something you care about. Remember your vision for the future and remind yourself that you’re willing to walk through walls to make it happen. That attitude will be evident from the outside. To be clear, I’m not saying to walk around thinking you’re better than everyone else – that attitude is self-destructive. But, you should push back on the idea that you aren’t a capable founder because you are a minority. Remember the core values driving your company, and act out of the certainty that you’re building something that matters. Also remember, just because you didn’t get what you want, doesn’t mean it’s because of your racial status. A lot of things go into funding decisions.
We Are In the Beginning Phase of A Positive Movement
There is now an increased awareness in society about the funding gap, making me very hopeful that we’re entering a changing landscape. The awareness has led to many funds and companies actively looking for great minority-led companies to back or partner with. I don’t think anyone should financially back a company simply because a founder is a minority, but I do think this helps reduce the chance of not backing a company simply because the founders don’t fit the traditional mold of what a founding team looks like.
The summer of 2020 brought new attention to just how persistent the gap is, and shed light on corners where we still have a lot of work to do. Many companies and individuals publicly and privately committed to increasing funding diversity and supporting minority founders. It’s too soon to tell whether this has manifested itself in a true long-term shift, but I believe everything compounds on itself.
The reality is that several non-minority founder communities have had years and years of compounding resources, experiences, and support – the kind of opportunities you have in life because of where you are born and, in some cases, how you look.
So even with a changing narrative around minority founders, we’re not just going to suddenly have the same level of resources as other groups. However, this moment gives us a chance to start compounding positive outcomes. I believe we’re going to begin to see a rise in minority founders with better and better ideas launching better and better companies. We can approach things in an out-of-the-box way because of our unique experiences. As resources and support compound, this will yield additional success for other minority founders.
My friend Jewel Burks Solomon with Collab Capital, is a great example among many of someone who has taken advantage of the changing moment to further the success of minority entrepreneurs. Her firm, Collab Capital, has successfully raised significant funds and invested in a strong portfolio of Black founders. I had the opportunity to speak at a retreat for Collab Capital founders, and these founders’ resilience and innovation inspired me. Ventures like this give me hope for the future of minority founders.
It can all seem overwhelming when you sometimes feel like you’re living in an unfamiliar world. I’m here to tell you most people on your journey want you to succeed. Before now, many may not have exerted themselves beyond the normal to see it happen for you, but they still want it to happen for you. Those who may be out to get you are not the ones you need to worry about. The ones who count want you to succeed. This won’t make the journey easier, but that understanding matters.
Finally, your experience is an advantage when it comes to diverse thinking and hiring. Your unique experience of finding your place, adapting to environments, and cultivating relationships outside your zone of comfort can be translated into a positive force. Tap into that.
Face Reality and Be Prepared
My success has also put me in enough rooms and deals to know the experience can be different for minority and female founders. I’ve been in the rooms where the diligence for a funding or acquisition event is going a little longer and much deeper than what I know similar companies would go through. In some cases, I’ve had to openly question why a party is exercising so much extra scrutiny versus similar deals and try to help quench whatever concerns are driving it.
It is in our nature to look for patterns. It’s how we survive. It’s even more critical when it comes to financial risk. When something is out of the pattern, there is a perceived increase in risk. The way to move faster is to derisk yourself for your potential partners by being very prepared. Know your numbers, know your market, know your strategy, and practice the art of processing feedback to your advantage. Learn to control the space between action and reaction. That’s where your power is. These are critical skills for anyone but will even help set you apart when you don’t fit the pattern.
Find Your Learning Circle and Upgrade Yourself Constantly
I am a child of parents who didn’t attend college or university. They and the society I grew up in sparked the fire of entrepreneurship in me, but they didn’t have anything to offer me when it came to the language of funding, or building a high-growth technology startup. I had to upgrade myself through self-learning, peer groups, and direct or indirect mentorship.
Entrepreneurship is a game of risk. You are less risky the more you know the game and the more you know the language. No matter how passionate you are about your idea, the risk threshold you are asking funders, potential hires, and partners to cross may be too high when you can’t speak the language, understand the concepts, AND don’t fit the pattern. Align yourself with people and resources to set you up for success. Emulate and adapt the learning and operational habits of those who have succeeded at what you are attempting to do. You’ll likely have to work as hard as them to get to where they are. Get ready, but maybe you can pick up some skills to accelerate your learning and journey.
I hope this gives you some insight into my experience and mindset as a minority founder. I recognize that each person’s situation is different and I never want to discount the lived experience of others. I hope that my experience encourages others and offers a different mindset that further propels us all, minority or not, to continued success.
Let me know what you think of this week’s newsletter on Twitter @sotulana.