Professional Development
Accelerators / DEI / Delaware / Q&As / Venture capital

From Brandywine to Bronze Valley, this VC found his passion in helping founders

Darren Stephenson always wanted to drive change. The investment world gives him that opportunity every day.

Darren Stevenson at Bronze Valley's inaugural Delaware demo day. (Technical.ly/Holly Quinn)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

Growing up, Darren Stephenson’s childhood dream was to become an attorney.

“I was fascinated by the idea of practicing law, advocating for justice and navigating the complexities of legal challenges,” he told Technical.ly. “However, life has a unique way of unveiling paths we never anticipated stepping onto.”

Today, Stephenson, 29, of Wilmington, Delaware, is immersed in the world of venture capitalism and far removed from the legal career he once envisioned. He is the director of the Bronze Valley VentureLab, the accelerator from the Black-owned, minority-focused VC firm and CDFI  out of Birmingham, Alabama that launched its first cohort in Delaware last spring.

We asked Stephenson a few questions about where he started and how he got to where he is now. Here’s what he said, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What was the moment when you knew you wanted to be in VC?

My journey into venture capital was serendipitous. It all started when I attended an event hosted by HBCUvc, a fellowship that piqued my curiosity about the vast opportunities within the VC industry. The energy, the innovation and the potential for impactful investments resonated with me on a level I hadn’t experienced before. Encouraged by my family and friends, I decided to apply, spurred on in particular by my Aunt Kimmy. Her belief in me and her encouragement to face my fears and seize this opportunity were instrumental in my decision to dive into this unfamiliar world.

The decision to apply for HBCUvc was a pivotal moment that changed the trajectory of my career and life. Being admitted into the fellowship marked the beginning of a new chapter. The more I learned about venture capital, the more I realized how much it aligned with my intrinsic values and aspirations to drive change, foster innovation and support emerging entrepreneurs. It’s a field where I feel I can make a significant impact, much like I believed I could in law.

While my career as a venture capitalist might not directly align with my childhood dream of becoming an attorney, the essence of what I wanted to achieve remains intact. I’ve always aspired to be in a position where I could influence positive change and support others in realizing their potential. Venture capitalism has provided me with a platform to do just that, albeit through a different medium than I originally imagined.

Reflecting on my journey, I realize that the dreams we hold as children often set the stage for our ambitions, even if the roles we end up playing as adults differ from those early visions. My path from aspiring attorney to venture capitalist has been unexpected but deeply rewarding. It’s a testament to the fact that with the right support, an open mind and a willingness to explore new opportunities, we can find our true calling in the most unexpected places.

What was your education/training journey?

My education and training journey began with my graduation from Brandywine High School in 2012, where I developed foundational skills and a keen interest in economics and finance. This interest led me to Morehouse College, where I pursued and completed my degree in economics in 2016. Morehouse was instrumental in shaping my analytical and critical thinking abilities, especially in understanding economic theories and their real-world applications.

Upon graduating from Morehouse, I embarked on a career in management consulting, spending approximately seven years working with Fortune 100 companies. In this role, I was tasked with implementing a variety of software solutions to address specific gaps and needs within these organizations. This experience allowed me to apply my economic knowledge in a practical setting, honing my skills in problem-solving, strategic planning and technology implementation across diverse industries. It also provided me with invaluable insights into the operational challenges and strategic considerations of large-scale enterprises.

Darren Stephenson, program manager for Bronze Valley Venture Lab

Darren Stephenson (Courtesy)

Seeking to deepen my expertise further in the venture capital and finance sectors, I became a senior fellow at HBCUvc, a program dedicated to increasing the representation of minorities in venture capital and entrepreneurship. My time at HBCUvc was transformative, providing me with not only industry-specific knowledge but also a strong network of like-minded professionals and mentors.

I also joined VC University’s Class 13, where I gained comprehensive insights into venture finance, deal structures, and the intricacies of venture capital ecosystems. The curriculum equipped me with the tools to evaluate and invest in startups effectively.

Additionally, as an alumnus of Laconia Capital Cohort 5, I was exposed to hands-on investment strategies, portfolio management and the nuances of early-stage investing. This experience was pivotal in understanding the challenges and opportunities within the VC landscape. Throughout this journey, my education and training have been a blend of academic rigor, practical experiences and professional development. Each step has been crucial in building my expertise in economics, management consulting and venture capital, preparing me for the complexities and dynamism of the finance industry.

Who have been your biggest influences?

When asked about my biggest influence, I like to joke that I often look in the mirror for inspiration. After all, who better to compete with than the person staring back at me? But jest aside, my journey has been far from a solitary endeavor. It’s been more like navigating through life with a compass provided by a village of mentors, each contributing to the direction and distance I’ve traveled.

At the core of this compass are my mother, father and grandparents, who have been unwavering beacons of guidance, teaching me the values of resilience, empathy and hard work. Their lessons have laid the foundation upon which I’ve built my aspirations and achievements.

In the realm of personal and professional growth, G. Stephen Williams has been a pivotal figure, instilling in me the values of integrity and commitment. Alongside him, my uncles Ronnie Paden and Bishop David G. Evans, as well as Terrance Cobb, Hodges Redd, Larry Stephenson and John Monroe, together with Willie Thurman and the Honorable Shepard Garner II, have each, in their unique ways, contributed significantly to my understanding of leadership, service and community impact.

The world of venture capital, a field I am passionately immersed in, presented a steep learning curve. Yet, it was made navigable through the guidance of visionaries like Hadiyah Mujhid, founder of HBCUvc. Hadiyah opened the door for me to explore and learn the intricacies of VC, embedding in me the value of diversity in investment.

Shadowing Urvashi Barooah during my time at Redpoint Ventures offered an unparalleled window into the world of venture capital. Working alongside their growth and early-stage teams, I gained firsthand insights into the critical evaluation processes, investment strategies and the nurturing of startups from inception to market leader.

Neill Wright, the founder of Bronze Valley, not only provided me with an opportunity to hone my skills but also to contribute positively to my community, reinforcing the principle that success is truly significant when it uplifts others.

This tapestry of influences extends further, woven with threads contributed by many more family members, friends and mentors, each thread representing lessons learned, support received, and love shared.

In reflecting on these influences, I am reminded that while I may joke about being my own biggest influence, the truth is far more communal and profound. My achievements are not solely my own but are the fruits of collective wisdom, encouragement and faith vested in me by an extraordinary village of mentors.

What does a typical day look like in your position?

Morning:

  • Review industry news and trends: Start the day by catching up on the latest news in the tech and finance sectors, including market trends, emerging startups and any significant moves by key players in the industry. This keeps a VC well-informed and prepared for the day ahead.
  • Internal meetings: Morning briefings with the team to discuss portfolio companies, review the status of current investments and strategize on upcoming decisions. These meetings can also involve reviewing deal flow, i.e. potential investment opportunities that have been identified.
  • Emails and communications: Respond to emails from founders, investors and other stakeholders. This could include scheduling meetings, providing feedback on pitches or discussing terms of potential investments.

Throughout the day:

  • Pitch meetings: Attend meetings with founders seeking investment/accelerator support. These are opportunities to evaluate new startups, assess their team, business model, market potential, and decide whether to proceed with further diligence.
  • Networking lunches: Lunches are often networking opportunities with other VCs, entrepreneurs or industry experts. These interactions are crucial for building relationships, exchanging insights and staying connected to the broader ecosystem.
  • Portfolio support: Work with existing portfolio companies, providing guidance, mentorship or strategic advice. This could involve helping a startup prepare for its next funding round, strategizing on market entry or connecting them with potential partners or customers.
  • Industry events: Attend demo days, panel discussions or networking events. Such events are vital for discovering new startups, meeting founders and staying visible in the VC community.
  • Learning and personal development: Spend time reading books, taking courses or listening to podcasts related to their field, business strategies or personal growth to enhance their skills and knowledge.
  • Reflection and strategy: End the day by reflecting on the day’s learnings, adjusting strategies or planning for future engagements.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to do what you do?

In navigating the path toward a career in venture capital, a field as dynamic as it is rewarding, the best advice I can offer is multifaceted yet straightforward. Firstly, immerse yourself in research about the industry. Venture capitalists and industry insiders frequently share invaluable insights on platforms such as Twitter and Discord. These nuggets of wisdom are crucial for staying abreast of trends and understanding the undercurrents shaping the future of technology and investments.

The dreams we hold as children often set the stage for our ambitions, even if the roles we end up playing as adults differ from those early visions

Moreover, active involvement is key. Make your presence felt by participating in demo days, hackathons and other tech-related events. These venues are not just opportunities to learn; they’re your gateway into the tech ecosystem’s vibrant communities. By engaging, you position yourself to meet like-minded individuals, potential mentors and even future collaborators.

Joining organizations dedicated to laying the groundwork for success in venture capital is also vital. Institutions like HBCUvc, Goodie Nation and VC University are designed to equip you with the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to thrive. They offer networks, resources and education that can significantly accelerate your journey.

Lastly, dare to dream big — so big that it scares you. Then, chart a course toward realizing that dream. Devise a plan of action and commit to seeing it through, step by step. Remember, the journey towards achieving your aspirations is fraught with challenges and setbacks. Yet, it’s important to understand that even if you have to start over, you’ll be armed with experience and knowledge that will propel you further on your next attempt.

In essence, the venture capital world is one of constant learning, networking and perseverance. Embrace every failure as a lesson and every success as a stepping stone to greater achievements. The worst outcome is not failing but failing to try. So, venture forth with determination, and let your journey be guided by knowledge, engagement, and an unwavering pursuit of your dreams.

Series: How I Got Here
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