Allies aren’t born, they’re created. So how do we create more? - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Apr. 5, 2021 8:04 am

Allies aren’t born, they’re created. So how do we create more?

In a guet post, Baltimore entrepreneur Luke Cooper tells the story of how a customer became an ally. To address racial inequality in entrepreneurship, "intentional interventions are required," he writes.
Luke Cooper.

Luke Cooper.

This is a guest post by Baltimore entrepreneur Luke Cooper. His latest venture, No Mud • No Magic, seeks to bridge the gap between high-potential Black start-up founders and technical training, seasoned founders, investors, and corporate M&A.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for allies in the fight against racial injustice, and that’s true in entrepreneurship, as well. It’s something I learned firsthand while leading Baltimore startup Fixt. Today, I want to share my journey with a key partner-turned-investor to illuminate what real allyship looks like.

I got to know Tom Quinn, Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at T. Rowe Price, through what started off as a customer relationship. Fixt had a long-standing service relationship with T. Rowe Price to offer enterprise device management services. The CIO had asked him to visit our office to do security analysis of our technology. He reviewed our security protocols and delivered his feedback to the CIO — one of likely hundreds of these types of requests he gets each year. What started as an otherwise mundane diligence exercise turned into an ongoing personal friendship. We developed a collaborative, mentoring relationship – sharing industry trends, catching up over coffee, and exploring potential new use cases for Fixt’s technology. Tom took a genuine interest in the business and my personal journey as an entrepreneur of color.

After three years as a service provider, T. Rowe Price went a different direction with their device support. But Tom remained a personal friend, mentor and ally. That proved to be vital at a critical junction for Fixt. It was early 2019, we were running out of money and still a ways away from our next funding round. I shared this with Tom, and he told me he’d be open to a personal investment. Even the best ally doesn’t know your specific needs, so it’s vital to socialize your problem to seek out diverse perspectives. Prominent investor Ben Horowitz said it best in his book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”: “All bugs are shallow given enough eyeballs.” Knowing the potential of the company and believing in my vision, Tom, along with his wife, invested in Fixt. That investment, at a critical milestone on our growth journey, gave me the late-game confidence to complete the mission. From that point, we continued to grow the business. Tom’s investment gave us much-needed breathing room to secure what would become our largest customer. In the end, it was that customer that helped carry us to profitability.

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At this point, you can likely extrapolate how the investment story turned out. In August 2020, Fixt was acquired by Assurant for 11x revenue and all employees were retained. Tom, along with other investors, earned a respectable return on investment, with time-adjusted rate of return many hundreds of a percent. It was a great outcome for him, for Fixt and for the acquiring company. Tom and I remain close friends, and I look forward to the day we can collaborate together again.

Tom demonstrated allyship in a key moment. He was willing to invest when no one else was even looking. While it earned him a return, it was also a risk borne of our relationship.

I talk a lot about the need for resources, tools and investments to level the playing field for Black entrepreneurs. I often get the question: How do we work together to achieve equality? What does allyship look like in practice? Admittedly, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to explore and ask the tough questions.

Ignoring inequality is no longer an option.

Intensified attention around racial injustice has likewise spurred conversations about inequality in entrepreneurship. These conversations have highlighted long-standing racial disparities (well-known to communities of color, yet often overlooked by other segments of society), energized calls for dismantling age-old systems that maintain or promote inequality, and catalyzed companies to get off the sideline to act. Ignoring inequality is no longer an option.

While collective discussions and the launch of initiatives are signs of progress — and should be celebrated  — intentional interventions are required to facilitate a paradigm shift across the entire entrepreneur and venture capital ecosystem. The Tom Quinn investor scenarios need to become the norm, and not lucky exceptions. We must hold each other accountable so these initiatives are not reduced to empty promises, PR campaigns, failed corporate initiatives or glossy marketing buzzwords around DEI.

So what was it about Tom that made him such a powerful ally? Tom approaches things with open eyes and a supportive voice to amplify ideas. Support for a bootstrapped company can be as simple as a seed round of funding to get from a few paying customers to a scalable solution. Introductions to key partners at critical junctions. Mentorship, collaboration and the opportunity to bounce ideas back and forth. The space to fail, pivot, and keep growing.

I remain cautiously optimistic that this time is somehow different, and that calls for equality of opportunity turn into actionable change. This isn’t about taking capital away from other founders; it is about increasing the size of the pie so everyone can participate fully and equitably. That is the only way American innovation can maintain and grow its talent and leadership position. Removing the bias so we can compete, fail safely, and generate impressive returns is a firm step in the right direction.

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