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These Black Founders Succeeded In Spite of Silicon Valley

The best ideas win. Sometimes. The numbers tell us that Silicon Valley prefers helping largely white, male, urban-centered companies achieve billion-dollar valuations, lucrative exits, and mass political influence.

That’s a problem for founders and technologists who are Black. Fewer than 1 percent of venture-backed companies are led by Black people and fewer than 5 percent of employees at many top tech companies are Black.

Race and opportunity are front and center following the killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests over police brutality. As tech’s elite voices publicly decried racism, #BlackTechTwitter and others highlighted the scarcity of Black employees and executives at these same companies. Some venture capital firms issued statements, but don’t list any Black investors on their fund management teams.

Yet some Black entrepreneurs manage to thrive despite indifference or hostility from Silicon Valley's biggest backers. Three Black founders have found success by tapping alternative funding sources or their own resources to nurture their ideas.

Take, for instance, the brains behind an artfully designed automated calendar tool that makes scheduling meetings less cumbersome.

Babatope (Tope) Awotona launched Calendly in 2013 in Atlanta, using funds from his 401(k); the following year, he raised seed money from Atlanta Ventures. But as the money ran low, so did Awotona’s patience with the discrimination he perceived in venture capital as he sought to raise more.

“I had a working product, and customers using it, and everyone said no. Meanwhile, I watched other people who fit a different ‘profile’ get money thrown at them for shitty ideas,” Awotona told Inc. in 2019. “Those VCs were ignorant and shortsighted. The only thing I could attribute it to was that I was Black.”

Undeterred, Awotona stretched every dollar until Calendly was able to turn a profit with paying subscribers in 2016. By 2018, with a team of almost 200 employees working out of the company’s Atlanta headquarters, Calendly hit 1.3 million users. Few of them knew that a Nigerian-American entrepreneur was behind the tool keeping clutter out of their inboxes.

According to a spokesperson for the company, Calendly’s users doubled in 2019 and in June topped 5 million. Today, Awotona’s struggle to raise funding works to his advantage. With few outside investors in Calendly, Awotona remains majority shareholder of one of few software-as-a-service companies run by a Black founder.

A large ownership stake is also important to Aisha Bowe, a former NASA aerospace engineer. Bowe is the founder and CEO of STEMBoard, which provides IT services, including data analysis and analytics support, to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. In 2013, Bowe sought out investors to help build her company, but found them reluctant to make the plunge.

“Venture was one of several sources we explored. Being turned down inspired us to adopt a more self-sufficient financing route through bootstrapping,” she says. Bowe used personal savings and money from engineering consulting contracts to start the company. The business took off when she gained certification as an economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business, helping her land government contracts.

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Seven years later, STEMBoard has generated more than $10 million in total revenue, and employs a small team of full-time workers, plus contractors. In June, the company launched a new line of business: Lingo, a kit teaching teens the fundamentals of hardware and software design, by helping them build a backup sensor used in autonomous vehicles and the code needed to make it work.

“Having full control of my company may have been the best thing coming out of the significant challenge of raising money while Black,” explains Bowe.

By the time Awotona and Bowe had tried to raise capital, entrepreneur Heather Hiles had developed thick skin to arm herself against the indifference she faced trying to raise money for an education venture in Silicon Valley.

The Bay Area native, now in her early fifties, was no stranger to the invisible line dividing people by the type of skills they had the privilege to acquire, which then grant access to circles of innovation and economic mobility. She cut her teeth as a student at Berkeley in the late 1980s, working for youth and education nonprofits, including one led by former members of Oakland’s Black Panther Party that fed and tutored kindergarteners. She later earned an MBA from Yale and built a successful career in financial services, education, and philanthropy.

In 2012, Hiles launched Pathbrite, which offers an online portfolio tool for students to showcase their work for schools and potential employers. But as she worked to get her company off the ground, Hiles had trouble persuading her donors and philanthropist clients, many of whom were successful technology entrepreneurs and investors, to view her as a capable entrepreneur worthy of investment.

Hiles recalls thinking she could attract investors because "dammit … they're all white and went to school at Stanford, and I've worked with them in philanthropy and they let me in the door to do that." But she was disappointed. "I wasn’t the type of person they were writing checks for, and I’m still not. We’ve created these barriers unnecessarily.”

Spurned in Silicon Valley, Hiles instead raised more than $11 million in New York City, from edtech investment firms including Rethink Education, college and career assessment nonprofit ACT, direct selling company ACN, and Cengage Learning.

Pathbrite was sold to Cengage in 2015 and is used in over 900 academic institutions. Hiles stepped down from her role as CEO after the company was acquired and served as deputy director for postsecondary success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She then served briefly as president of Calbright community college—California’s online-only community college—before stepping down earlier this year. Today, Hiles runs Imminent Equity, a growth equity fund, and continues to serve as an adviser at Cengage.

In recent weeks, some venture funds, including SoftBank and Andreessen Horowitz, created funds aimed at Black founders. But Hiles believes the ultimate path to support for Black entrepreneurs remains cooperative economics across Black ecosystems. This means greater expansion of firms led by Black investors like Lightship Capital, Backstage Capital, Collab Capital, Impact America Fund, Precursor Ventures, and others that have launched in the past eight years.

“We have to have our own funds and invest in ourselves,” explains Hiles. “We have to be the [partners] and make the decisions for ourselves.”

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