(Photo courtesy of Luke Cooper)
George Floyd’s untimely death was about much more than busted policing practices.
It was an event of epic martyrdom in the fight toward equal treatment. It was a painful reminder of the questionable comments, discriminatory behavior and prejudiced belief system black people endure daily.
If we can all agree that being black is not easy, we should similarly agree that being black and being a founder is at least twice as hard. Here’s why. As an entrepreneur, one of the most challenging aspects is the constant struggle to explain how racial biases challenge your experiences, particularly with fundraising. The offenses aren’t as clear as being choked by police as George Floyd was, or hunted down as Ahmaud Arbery was, or even profiled as Christian Cooper was in Central Park by Amy Cooper. But they are there.
Nearly all of my investors are white, and most have no understanding of my background and how it shapes my thinking and decision making. Even worse, they don’t have to work to understand the full context because their hard-earned and well-deserved wealth affords them privilege. It’s a privilege that comes with a diamond-plated invite into a world where there is no need to process racial dynamics or how they play out in the context of an investment. I don’t have that luxury. My invite was not diamond, silver, or even bronze-plated, but rather encrusted with a variety of daily interactions in which failing to understand the full context can be the difference between life and death, for yourself, or your company.
I once had an investor offer $250K, shortly after saying Baltimore has the worst talent, deal pipeline, and tech ecosystem of any of the major cities. As a black man in a city that is 65% black, how should I process that? As a founder who is supposed to have a single-minded focus on growth, shouldn’t I just say thank you, pick up the check and walk away? That doesn’t have to be the way. Needless to say, I declined that much needed money. For black founders that might struggle with these decisions, or how to politely let an investor off the hook, I’ve included a copy of my original email below, with names redacted.
Not every moment is big, complicated or even clear. The majority of what you endure constitutes tiny interactions that you walk away from feeling really bad about yourself. Like when an investor spends the first 10 minutes with you talking about your height, physique or physical strength. I’m 6 feet and 195 pounds. Not that interesting.
And it’s not just on investor calls. When I’m out walking my beagle mix Annie and there’s a blind corner, I slow down to a crawl to make sure I don’t startle anyone that might see my brooding presence as threatening. It’s an action that most black men incorporate into their way of being because we have always known there can be a range of possible reactions. My good friend and author Wes Moore recently wrote a piece in The Washington Post on this very issue expressing how he dresses on his morning runs to avoid potential conflict.
Or, consider this last example. I founded Fixt (pronounced fixed) in 2014, and since then I’ve grown revenues by more than 300% year over year while servicing massive customers like NYPD, U.S. Cellular, Apple and AT&T. We have better margins, service quality and technology than our three closest competitors, all of which happen to be run by white males.
They have collectively raised more than $300M, while we’ve struggled mightily to raise $7.5M. It’s not because of education. I have a law degree from Syracuse University and an MBA from Babson College, which has been the top-ranked school for entrepreneurship for the past 25 years! And it’s not because I don’t have experience leading a company. My first tech venture was a cybersecurity software company, which the founders and I led to a $55M exit on a $200K investment. It should be hard to raise money. But given these facts, not this hard.
Now, surely there are valid reasons why an investor would choose an investment in one idea over another. But when the outcomes are consistently so disparate, we should all reflect, investigate and take action to fix it.
That’s what the protests are all about: Taking action. No more performative allyship. No more quick LinkedIn notes with BLM banners. No more panel discussions on what privilege means.
As a black man, an American citizen, father and founder, I have felt a range of emotions over the past few weeks. I’ve gone from excitement for a new day in which I don’t have to process racial dynamics hourly… to deep sadness that it took all of this for others to finally see us… to surprise that my 9-year-old brown boy Lucas understands this moment and is adapting well. We should be deeply concerned for the future all of our children will inherit, but we should not let that momentary fret keep us equipoised as we wait for Godot, rather reflect, investigate and take action.
I am so proud to be an entrepreneur and an American, and remain hopeful that our country will emerge from this moment united in a shared understanding of our collective failures regarding race, as well as a shared commitment to treat one another with respect, compassion and true equality.-30-
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