'I Don't Live in a World Where Fairness is an Option': Navigating the Venture World as a Black VC
Rachel Uranga covers the intersection of business, technology and culture. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.
Entrepreneurs usually fall over each other for the chance to meet with people like Kobie Fuller, a partner at Upfront Ventures, one of Los Angeles' oldest and most prestigious venture firms, and a former investor at Accel, one of Silicon Valley's most well-known early-stage firms.
But Fuller, who is black, had become used to being overlooked at parties and mistaken for junior-level staff.
"I have been at network events where people don't know who I am, they assumed I was a random moron," he said. "They treat you like you are not in the room or you are some wait staff."
Fuller said as his profile has risen, he's encountered fewer slights. But the experience is shared by other black venture capitalists who work in the mostly white, elite world of high-stakes capital, where there are few people of color.
The venture world, along with the rest of the United States, has been reckoning with the aftermath of the George Floyd killings and the deep inequities it exposed.
dot.LA talked to more than half a dozen black VCs, most in Southern California, that say they are constantly navigating the issue of race. The burden is often compounded by the fact that they are often the only black person in the room.
"Saying the same thing over and over again is exhausting, but I think what that represents is a bigger issue of feeling like you are the one that always has to do it," said Sydney Sykes, a co-founder of Blck VC and a former analyst at NEA who has been advocating to diversify the ranks inside firms.
"Think about walking into a boardroom. A black person walking into a boardroom is really going to notice they are the only black person in the room. The white person maybe will notice there's a black person in the room, but they will be like, 'oh, I don't see color' and they will feel pretty good about that."
"But the truth is we need to walk into every room and be aware when black people don't have a seat at the table," she said.
Earlier this week, the National Venture Capital Association announced a $5.5 million effort to add diversity to its ranks. The effort is an acknowledgment that venture, which fueled the modern tech industry by pouring boatloads of cash into aggressively growing startups, has failed to diversify. Only 3% of investors at firms NVCA surveyed are black, though most firms didn't reply to it, suggesting the true number may be much smaller.
That has consequences beyond venture firms and for the culture at large, as those dollars rarely trickle down into communities of color. To see the connection between venture and the wealth gap, Harvard professor Paul Gompers said you can turn to places like Silicon Valley where largely white founders and investors have quickly become millionaires and billionaires and exacerbated income inequality. Across the U.S., white families on average are ten times wealthier than black families, according to the Brookings Institute.
"Part of the reason these communities have seen the income gap grow is because they've not sufficiently been part of these two sectors," he said. "It doesn't explain everything, but certainly it is a contributor."
On one side are founders who raised $133 billion last year and often come from other entrepreneurial companies like Amazon or Google that have historically lacked diversity.
On the other side is the mostly white venture industry made up of around 1,300 funds that relies on personal networks which often don't extend beyond elite schools or the coasts.
Gompers adds the most successful venture funds tend to be self-replicating, attracting a top-flight but homogenous group of entrepreneurs who in turn make them more money.
Trying to crack into either world is tough.
Brentt Baltimore, an investor at Greycroft, said he broke into the industry largely because he found a mentor who helped him learn the unacknowledged code that exists.
"Somebody sat me down and helped me understand this game," he said. "There's a certain way that you move and shake here. That's not something you can learn online."
He and others like Sykes are trying to figure out how to make the industry more accessible for others.
"It's one thing to get in the door," he said. "It's another thing to build structure in the space."
Even when black investors are hired, there're often entrenched racial assumptions.
"When I am in the room, sometimes it's assumed I am the assistant," said Jawhara Tariq, an investor at Moonshots Capital. "I don't know if it's the racial angle or the gender or both."
It's happened enough times, she said, that she begins to question herself.
"It's not like the first person who has done it, but the tenth," she said. "It makes me start to feel like I shouldn't be there."
The cumulative effect of those situations is to place on her a mental burden that her colleagues don't carry. Crystal Clements, a clinical psychologist, said that being the only black person at a company is challenging. "There are common themes that tend to surface," she said. Some black people assimilate into white culture while others push toward perfectionism in order to overcome negative stereotypes. Others ignore the microaggressions, despite the sting believing the merit of their work is the most important metric of success.
But it doesn't erase the fact that some people just don't see black people as investors, a bias that isn't just shaken overnight.
Austin Clements, a partner at early stage venture firm OPV and the managing director at Grid110, said he has chosen to ignore much of those experiences.
"I don't live in a world where fairness is an option," he said. "I am certain that over the time in my professional career there are things that have made it difficult as an African American. I have put so little time in acknowledging those instances because that's what I expected."
But that milieu may ultimately hurt venture's bottom line.
Gompers, who looked at the performance of venture portfolios that had more diverse teams, found they achieved better returns than homogenous teams.
"The importance of diversity is all about making better decisions," he said. "If you all look the same and have the same experiences, you are gonna make the same mistakes."
That's been Fuller's operating assumption. Last year, he launched a social networking platform for black professionals, Valence, with the idea of building them more access and eventually more wealth.
The idea came to him after he was sought out — for the umpteenth time — by corporate ventures and others looking for black founders.
"People build their own personal network that mirrors who they are," he said. "People would say, 'Kobie, you're black. You must know some black people'."
"I would be lying if there wasn't a bit of tokenism," Fuller said. "But, diverse organizations do perform better."
Illustration by Candice Navi
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In a rural town just across the California border from Reno, Nevada, in the northernmost portion of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Genius Fund set up an outpost in early 2019 called Nature's Holiday. There, the company planned to grow 1,000 acres of hemp — which executives wanted to be the largest such farm in the state — for use in CBD products, according to former employees, corporate documents and the company's website.
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Images from Plumas County Sheriff's Dept.
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