“Young black intelligent, this is not a first
But it feels like it’s curse and it weighs like a elephant
Heavy on my mind, ‘cause I feel so irrelevant
Heavy on my heart, it’s like I’m smart for the hell of it“
Masta Ace - Y.B.I
To be a black man in the technology sector is to be invisible.
Occasionally seen. Noted for novelty. Rarely authentically revered.
We struggle to gain relevancy in this ecosystem of startups and technology, attempting to translate the struggles of folks we know to people we don’t know. With a venture industry that is predominantly run by white men who are older, it is painful to have to be a cultural translator to convince those in power to bear witness.
We bear burdens that nobody recognizes, soldiering on in silent solitude, hoping to get one step closer to opening the doors for those who come behind us. Today I break my silence on some of these experiences, in the hopes that some of you find a way to truly be allies and provide the help that people of color have earned.
"Alls my life I has to fight, nigga
Alls my life I
Hard times like, yah!
Bad trips like, yah!
Nazareth, I'm fucked up
Homie, you fucked up
But if God got us then we gon' be alright" - Kendrick Lamar on "Alright"
My ethos comes from my grandmother. She is an incredible woman, who’s contribution to society cannot be spoken in words. There should be statues of this woman and all that she has done for the country of Guyana. This is also the story of a family of achievers. It is a lot to live up to, but I honor the challenge, as a failed human that continually strives to improve. Whatever arrows come my way, let them flow.
NO PLATFORMS TO EXPLAIN IT
“Know he a genius he just cant claim it
Cuz they left him no platforms to explain it
Frustrated, so he get faded
But deep down inside he know you cant fade him” - Nipsey Hussle on "Dedication"
I was at salt lick with my main advisor Devin Baptiste right before SXSW was about to start. March was always a funky time for Devin as it was fundraising time, and he was in the midst of closing new funding for his business groupraise. Being a black man that raised $1mm in funding is rare air, so rare that i cannot find any articles listing black men.
We were talking about the progress on his round when a young woman came up and started talking to us. She and I coimisserated over our shared experience of pitching two of the most high profile investors in the industry and being fully blown off (me with one of the investors literally walking out as I started to pitch, her with them lauding praise but not investing). We got to the topic of fundraising and she said something that stabbed me so far in my gut that I would never forget it.
“You men are going to have a tough time! We have so many networks and resources for women now, its gonna be hard for yall to raise.”
It pained me, as she could only see me as a man, and not a black man. Should I laud her for her ability to “not see color”? Should I be angry that my lived experience as yet another black man who wasn’t able to raise venture capital is so foreign to her that it didn't register as even a possibility? Should I be mad at myself for not trying harder and having a better pitch? These are questions I have no answers for.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
“And forever be in debt, and that's never a good thing
So the pressure for success can put a good strain
On a friend you call best, and yes it could bring
Out the worst in every person, even the good and sane” - Jay-z on "Black Republican"
For many years I tried to follow the advice of investors and positioned myself to the world they presented to me. The advice came fast and furious, and the whiplash of that advice was hard to reconcile. Stay lean, don’t say lean. Raise a large amount, raise a small amount. Make sure your unit economics are strong, get scale so you can raise the next round. All advice is contextual but this makes it hard for any entrepreneur to understand what the right steps are.
But of course, what investors say and what they actually do are two very different things. When I would meet with investors, after following their advice and showing progress, they would hem and haw about the industry I’m in, probing to find a good reason to say no, using their own narrow world view to dictate the future of everyone. Even investors who gave me the original idea for my business wouldn't invest in their own ideas. There is a joke in there for anyone who hasn't experienced that.
Achieve More Together Conference 2 (full video). Its my way of explaining things
What was clear to me through these interactions consistently was that my worldview was foreign to them. The view on business, on profitability, on things that matter was shaped by a different upbringing, of different cultures that shaped me. I struggled to gain their support, as my story didn't look like any of the stories they were looking for.
The ability of investors to support companies is clear, but the power to destroy people and companies is also abound. Leaking information to the press, assassinating someone’s character, spreading messages to the network behind the scenes to blackball people are techniques as old as the day is long. In this day and age, social media and public opinion are a new court all its own, with the power to remove your financial freedom without any due process, and it is duly weaponized as such.
Founders are not empowered to speak this type of truth, because of this backdoor backlash. I have seen this firsthand and I hope other founders can someday feel emboldened to speak their truth as they see it. We all know the playbook of building people up and then enjoying the show as they are torn down, and this industry is no different.
As god as my witness, I have done my best in my life to serve others. I have certainly failed: made people feel uncomfortable, said the wrong things, misinterpreted intentions, hurt people unintentionally. At any time I have done so and realized it, I have done my best to rectify things and move forward, which is all you can ask for any flawed human. So nobody can bully me and stifle my voice. Only god can judge me, and I thats the only judgement I fear.
All other founders are hereby granted the permission to speak their truth, without fear of what the "industry” in their backroom whatsapp groups will do to you.
““A therapist? The fuck I’m gonn–?”
You know what I mean?
Typical black male.
My problems are my problems.
They’re nobody else’s business.
I got this shit. “ - Ben Gordon for The Players Tribune
While the outside pressures take its toll, the silent internal struggle is the battle that most founders can connect on. For me, it comes down to my struggle with bipolar disorder that I was diagnosed with at the end of college.
I’ll write fully about this sometime but I spent much of my mid twenties in and out of hospitals as doctors gave me the wrong medications which stunted my ability to keep a job or think freely. It was a maze and felt like I was in the movie "M E ME M E N T O", trying to figure my way out.
When I finally got myself into the startup community, through networking I struggled to understand if I was in the right or wrong with the companies I wanted to work on. Any honest person has to ask themself the real questions:
If 300 investors tell you they won’t invest, am I the dumb one?
Should I stop and do something else?
Would a job be better?
What will people think of me of I stop?
Will my failure reflect on all black founders coming after me?
I had increasing revenue, so something inside told me that I was onto something. Unfortunately, I couldn’t raise the funds (after many attempts) and didn’t have enough family wealth (as most black families don’t) but the struggle to keep myself emotionally afloat was the biggest struggle I faced as an entrepreneur.
The struggle to stay positive in the face of adversity is a tough strength to build up. This shared pain of a founder is one of the things that bonds our community together, as it never gets easier, no matter the amount of “success” is seen in the public. We should never compare our pains against each other, but recognize the unique pains that each of us has to endure.
“Back in the landlocked eighties, Dave Barry offhandedly wrote something pretty insightful about the nature of revisionism. He noted how- as a fifth grader- he was told that the cause of the Civil War was slavery. Upon entering high school, he was told that the cause was not slavery, but economic factors. At college, he learned that it was not economic factors but acculturalized regionalism. But if Barry had gone to graduate school, the answer to what caused the Civil War would (once again) be slavery. Now, the Civil War is the most critical event in American history, and race is the defining conflict of this country. It still feels very much alive, so it’s not surprising that teachers and historians want to think about it on disparate micro and macro levels, even if the realest answer is the simplest answer. But the Internet allows us to do this with everything, regardless of a subject’s significance. It can happen so rapidly that there’s no sense the argument has even evolved, which generates an illusion of consistency.” -But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, Book by Chuck Klosterman
In times like these I call on the thoughts on those who came before me and their wisdom. One of those men is Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Some of his writings are much angrier and daming than the common I Have A Dream quotes that are generally shared. When you think through the context of what it was like at the time, he was one of the most despised public figures at the time, with a 75% disapproval rating. They are much more potent and true to the experiences I have now.
From “The Measure Of A Man” :
“Some years ago a group of chemists who had a flair for statistics decided to work out the worth of a man’s body in terms of the market values of that day. They got together and did a lot of work, and they finally came to this conclusion: The average man has enough fat in him to make about seven bars of soap, enough iron to make a medium-sized nail, enough sugar to fill a shaker, enough lime to whitewash a chicken coop, enough phosphorus for about 2200 match tips, and enough magnesium for a dose of magnesia. When all of this was added up in terms of the market values of that day, it came to about 98 scents. Now, I guess, the standards of living are a little higher today, you could get about $1.98 for the average man.
This is interesting. Think about it. Man’s bodily stuff is worth only 98 cents. But can we explain the whole of man in terms of 98 cents? Can we explain the artistic genius of Michelangelo in terms of 98 cents? Can we explain the poetic genius of a Shakespeare in terms of 98 cents? Can we explain the spiritual genius of Jesus of Nazareth in terms of 98 cents? Can we explain the mystery of the human soul in terms of 98 cents? Oh no. There is something within man that cannot be explained in terms of dollars and cents. There is something within man that cannot be reduced to chemical and biological terms, for man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling exertions. He is more than a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of god…..Man is god’s marvelous creation, crowned with glory and honor, and because of this you can’t quite hem him in. You can put him in Bedford prison, but somehow his mind will break out through the bars to scratch across the pages of history a Pilgrim’s Progress. You can bring him down in his wretched old age, with his body broken down and his vision all but gone, and yet in the form of a Handle, he will look up and imagine that he hears the very angels singing, and he will come back and scratch across the pages of history a Hallelujah Chorus.“