Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Could Brownsville be the next startup hub?

With the Brownsville Start Fund, rapper Lupe Fiasco and Waze exec Di-Ann Eisnor are putting their money and energy into making it happen.

Lupe Fiasco and Di-Ann Eisnor of the Brownsville Start Fund.

(Courtesy photo)

How do you help a neighborhood with high crime, crumbling infrastructure and high levels of poverty? One answer comes from a famous rapper and a Silicon Valley executive, and the answer is: startups.

“So, one goal is that we really want a $100 million company coming out of these neighborhoods,” Di-Ann Eisnor explained in a recent interview with Technical.ly Brooklyn.

"I judge all kinds of pitch competitions in the valley and the ideas here rival anything I see there."
Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze

Eisnor, who is the head of growth at navigation app Waze, teamed up with Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco to make it happen. “There’s plenty of help for small businesses but there’s not a lot of people helping to make big things work,” Eisnor said. “We need some really big stories, some really big wins to come out and I think that will lead other things to follow.”

Eisnor and Fiasco have created the Brownsville Start Fund, a kind of venture capital fund exclusively for the neighborhood. They put out a call for pitches in October and received more than 200. They’ve picked their 10 finalists and this Friday they’re holding a pitch competition at the Dream Big Foundation, in Brownsville. Winners will receive $5,000 to continue with prototyping, as well as the in-kind services of a development studio to bring the idea to life.


“All the ideas that came out used technology and none of them were technology ideas,” Eisnor said, explaining one major difference between Brownsville and what she usually sees in Silicon Valley. “Here we have really credible businesses where the technology is just a tool. I judge all kinds of pitch competitions in the valley and the ideas here rival anything I see there.”

Eisnor met Fiasco as fellows with the Henry Crown Fellowship, which is part of the Aspen Institute. The fellowship is essentially a two-year program for successful people to interact with each other, read classic texts and think about how they can make the world a better place. Eisnor and Lupe were in the same class and hit it off.
It’s a blast [working with him]. He always finds a different perspective from what you would imagine,” she said. “And he’s pretty playful as well so it’s a lot of fun working with him. And he works hard. Hard, hard.”
Eisnor also made the point that Silicon Valley and Manhattan have no monopoly on entrepreneurship. The skills and talents that make one a good entrepreneur exist across all strata of society, though the barriers to entry are certainly different in different places. She and Lupe have put together a million-dollar fund from their own money and from friends to back the winning project.

“In Silicon Valley and New York you have these good on-ramps where if someone’s willing to take the risks, they can really engage,” she explained. “Entrepreneurship is really supposed to be about scarcity and solving problems. There are different kinds of entrepreneurs and we have to get back to solving problems. And there are plenty of people who have already identified problems but they don’t have a way to do anything with that.”

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