When Stacy Brown-Philpot joined Google back in 2003, she was one of only about 1,000 employees at the time.
She “took a chance on a company” — something that not every Black person in tech gets to take, she said. And while there, she built the Black Googler Network, an employee resource group cultivating Black leaders at Google and in the tech sphere.
Brown-Philpot is the recent former CEO of TaskRabbit who lead its acquisition by Ikea in 2017. The Wharton School alumna sits on the board of HP and Nordstrom and is a founding member of SoftBank’s Opportunity Fund.
It’s safe to say Brown-Philpot knows a thing or two (or a hundred) about corporate innovation. She sat down with Wharton Venture Lab Executive Director Trang Pham for a conversation about how to scale innovation during the business school’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference on Feb. 19. Here’s what we heard about launching something new, selling a company and creating the $100 million fund:
“We were not trying to make this huge impact, we just wanted to organize the world’s information,” Brown-Philpot said of when she first joined Google.
She’d just finished grad school at Stanford University when she joined the Bay Area tech company, and in her nine years with Google, she would work on the team that launched Gmail and Chrome. You have to be willing to really go for the big idea, she said. At the time, nobody was even asking for a faster browser.
“But you have to be able to see the future and know that there’s something people don’t even know they want yet,” she said.
In 2005, she also set her sights on creating the Black Googler Network with support from Sheryl Sandberg, then the company’s VP of global online sales and operations, who was working to get more women into the company. Brown-Philpot said she didn’t think there was a desire to not have diversity, but that everyone was so focused on getting the work done that it wasn’t exactly a priority. (The company has come under fire in recent years — and in recent weeks — for its lingering lack of diversity.)
But in addition to her job as the director of sales and finance, Brown-Philpot created a budget that would support the creation of the BGN. The goal was to create an org full of “people like me” at Google, she said.
“The more I surrounded myself with people that looked like me, I felt more comfortable being my true and authentic self,” Brown-Philpot said. “Growing up through Google, I realized that would be important to me.”
On selling a company
The marriage of Ikea and TaskRabbit is easy to understand — one company sells furniture that comes in approximately 400 pieces, and the other sells you someone who will put it together.
But the ease of the partnership wasn’t the biggest aspect pulling these companies together, Brown-Philpot said. The American and Swedish companies sealed the deal in 2017, and a big part of that came down to understanding each others’ values.
“She told me about the founding story of Ikea, how they think long-term,” Brown-Philpot said of a meeting with an Ikea exec. “They thought long and hard about innovation. And I realized this deal isn’t about how successful our business has been, it’s about why. Why we’re here.”
Being neighborly is a large part of those values, and that played out during the pandemic, Brown-Philpot said. The company grappled with whether to keep its platform open in the early days of the global pandemic, when sending a “task rabbit” to someone’s home meant potential infection. So the company provided PPE, and created contactless arrangements and virtual tasks.
“To get through a period of growth, we had to be grounded in our values and what we wanted to do,” Brown-Philpot said. “I wanted nothing more than to see people get help with the things we need.”
That $100 million SoftBank fund
The idea for the SoftBank Opportunity Fund, which provides funding to Black, Latinx and Native American founders who are largely left out of the VC ecosystem, was born just days after the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police in May 2020.
Marcelo Claure, CEO of SoftBank Group International, had begun a conversation after Floyd’s death about how the fund could create space and funding for founders of color — and “in 48 hours from that initial WhatsApp conversation, we announced the fund,” said Brown-Philpot, who’s now one of the fund’s founding members.
A lot of the funds that existed for founders of color at the time were much smaller, or more targeted. The group knew that about 1% of all VC funding went to Black founders and that only 3% of VCs are Black. Representation and the idea of “you can’t be what you can’t see” were central to the creation of the fund, as was the potential to change the face of wealth creation in society, she said.
“It was also a response to what was happening,” Brown-Philpot said. “We felt we had done a lot to advance equity, and yet this man was murdered in broad daylight.”
Thrilled to be a part of the founding team of Softbank’s Opportunity Fund. This is only the beginning! https://t.co/J72hGw3RwS
— Stacy Brown-Philpot (@sbp04) October 29, 2020
The next generation
“Find a rocket ship and get on,” Brown-Philpot said would be her advice to a young engineer looking to climb in the world of tech. Personally, she’d keep her eye out for the next Google — “easier said than done,” she admits. But it boils down to finding a company with a lot left to build and that gets you excited.
Similar advice applies to the founders she seeks out for the fund. It really boils down to three key things — does this person see the world a bit differently and have the passion and conviction to make it happen? Can they establish a team around them?
“And third,” she said, “do you have the grit, perseverance and self-awareness for what might lay ahead?”
Knowledge is power!
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