Climbing the Mountain: Or, Life as a Black Founder in Tech


Please give me a minute to talk about diversity in tech, even though I know whenever anyone talks about diversity in the tech industry, there are two types of responses I typically hear:

The first is tokenism or the defensive argument. People will usually point to one example of the “diverse” person they hired, funded, served on a team with, or someone they consider successful like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook or David Drummond at Google. “Hey, I’m not racist, look at my black friend.” That’s what this argument sounds like.

These people must’ve missed the published stats of companies like Google, LinkedIn, or Yahoo—each of which clock in at 2 percent of employees being African-American. Or maybe they haven’t looked around their own offices much. For example, when I worked at Bazaarvoice, the company employed as many as 800 people before its 2012 IPO and I was the only black person with a director-level or higher position. It was an amazing place to work, but I often felt like that Southpark character, Token.

The second response is usually rooted in a false sense of meritocracy or what I consider the idealistic argument. The tech industry likes to ignore its roots in Ivy League schools and early access to computers from upper-middle-class upbringings—“What is this digital divide you speak of?”—in order to buy into the fallacy of equal opportunity. Truth is, industries like government and media are far more likely to take in a black kid from the public school system’s free-lunch program as evidenced by the stories of everyone from Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey.

So Tumblr founder David Karp can be a high school dropout and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of Harvard, but I’m less sure that someone like Tristan Walker with Bevel would have been able to take a similar non-traditional path to get where they are today.

Being an entrepreneur, particularly in technology, is a lot like climbing Mount Everest, and being a minority of any type is like doing it under storm conditions. Investors want confidence that you can make the climb and their confidence scales based on how familiar investors are with “someone like you” having done it before. The more people like you who’ve done it, the better the weather conditions. If you’re a serial entrepreneur or have an Ivy League MBA, you have an inherent advantage because VCs have seen “that” done before.

If you’re a first-time entrepreneur, the climb is more difficult. If you’re in Austin and trying to build a consumer startup, the climb is even more difficult. And the degree of difficulty is multiplied exponentially for blacks and women because we didn’t start Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

So being a black person in the tech industry is like climbing Mount Everest under non-ideal weather conditions not as the adventurer, but as the pioneer climber who journeyed up without the best equipment, without the luxury of first-class comfort, and likely without the funds (from investors) to try it again if I failed the first time.

To this point, my own startup’s biggest weakness thus far—and my biggest weakness as the CEO—has been fundraising, which is all my fault. We’ve raised around $750,000 from angels and friends, half of whom are minorities themselves, but all of it in very small increments over the past 18 months. Yes, fundraising each and every month for 18 months straight is a very painful life experience, in case you’re wondering.

So my hope is that this “fault” of mine in fundraising is not in any way connected to my race, though I often question it. After all, even private equity titan Robert Smith told The New York Times that he believes certain people won’t invest in his billion-dollar funds even though his funds have outperformed Warren Buffett’s for years. Why? Because of his race.

And although my credentials don’t … Next Page »

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Joah Spearman is the co-founder and CEO of Localeur, a community of locals who share their favorite places to eat, drink and play. Follow @joahspearman

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5 responses to “Climbing the Mountain: Or, Life as a Black Founder in Tech”

  1. Man Joah. I am an entrepreneur on vacation, trying to actually have a vacation and not read more (digital elite) articles while I broaden my reading horizons. But the headline of your post sucked me in, as did your superb ability to bring your sherpa experience to life. I hope the VC’s you are pitching will read this with open minds…I agree that navigating life the way you have, against the odds and without the props of insider advantages, is a better predictor of entrepreneurial success than any other, for a founder.

  2. Brian Marshall says:

    Well said Joah. Having worked in the Tech industry for over 15 years being the “only one in the room” was a big adjustment for me. Also, to your point regarding blacks in tech and finding your voice and place in an eco-system that is held together by either white or Asian relationships, you speak for many dealing with this issue. One thing I will note, is that we need more like you!! You have been a huge inspiration to my son Austin who needs role models like you to take those huge chances. As an entrepreneur myself with a focus on helping minority, women and veteran businesses get an opportunities with major tech companies like Dell, Google, Apple and Facebook the work is never done. Regardless of how I the mountain, you MUST continue to climb!! Remember Matt Henson the famous black explorer of the artic. Talk about being the only one. But he continued regardless of what he was called and the price he had to pay both personal, mental and physical.
    Bottom line, press on! And remember, it is not the load that brings you down my friend, but how you carry it.

  3. lorac says:

    This is a subject that needs more discussion and exposure. Thank you for speaking out. Good luck in your endeavours.

  4. Chris Senga says:

    This post had me saying “Amen” all the way….Especially the losing ‘a wife’ part, there’s nothing more crushing to see someone that had unlimited faith in you & then it all disappear to the point she just doesn’t believe you anymore.

    In regards to the core of the article, I truly believe that minorities(blk, Hispanic, women) should have a reliable inner network we could fall on not just to get funded but for any purposes. It’s true we have blk friendly ventures such as Karpor, Anderseen Horowitz…The truth is our experience differs and most of the time it’s hard for VC to relate to our realities. I always like to use the Hip Hop analogy where if it wasn’t for Def Jam we wouldn’t have a known a lot of act which are considered mainstream today. Hell.. if it wasn’t for ROCA FELLA we probably wouldn’t have heard of Kanye West the rapper. He produced a lot of track for artist under that label but it took Dame & Jay to literally take a Chance on Mr West without a PMF or any type of attraction for them to produce his 1st album. I believe the concept is the same for us nowadays, we’ve got a bunch of successful blk executive, VC, and CEO who have done it. A venture run and directed by them could be helpful for any upcoming founder/CEO.

    At the end though, I think we as blk founder just have to step it up in terms of how we’re executing our ventures. We’re in a position where as you’re reaching PMF you need to know already how you’re going to monetize with a low overhead. It’s almost like you’ve got to take all the risk and even if you reach PMF(Like Localeur has done) it’s not enough. You must know everything not just because you could impress the VC(which you still need to do) but for survival purposes. Survival/Desperation brings creativity and makes you a really good manager of time& money, but sometimes even that isn’t enough. I always wonder if “Rap genuis” & “Yo” were founded by blk founder would they have received any type of funding?

    I love Localeur the only beef I got with it is that I can’t use it on my Note 3..When Are You dropping an Android version?