Debra Lee Leans Into Project to Help Black Women Founders, Funders
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.
Former BET Networks chief Debra Lee found it lonely at the top as one of the only women of color in the C-suite, so more than a decade ago she created Leading Women Defined.
After leaving the Viacom-run network in 2018, the executive leaned into her project. And she's looking to expand the invite-only gathering of powerful women that draws players like Michelle Obama and Hillary to a larger pool of founders, funders and others.
Lee hosted on Tuesday the first fireside chat at Blackbird, a new co-working space for women of color in Culver City, where two top female tech executives talked candidly for an hour about their journey from humble roots to executives, investors and founders.
"The demand for leading women has grown, we want to provide opportunity for connection, action and elevation among black women and our allies," Lee told the more than hundred women gathered. Lee, who is based in Los Angeles, suggested last month at the Upfront Summit in Pasadena that was exploring an investment fund to support women of color in tech. She has declined to elaborate further on those comments, but similar events could help develop a strong network for her efforts.
The event dubbed "Tech Femme Supremacy: The intersection of innovation and advocacy," offers some insight into the direction she may be heading. The chat between founder and chief executive of tEQuitable, Lisa Gelobter, and Tekedra N. Mawakana, chief operating officer at the former Google self-driving car project Waymo, was as much about dispelling some of the mystery around venture capital as it was a discussion about self-worth.
For an hour, the two talked candidly about their own struggles to redefine themselves in a rarefied venture world often populated by white men of means.
Mawakana, a former eBay and Yahoo executive who now is a limited partner at the Operator Collective, admitted that for several years she was handing over investment funds to ventures that didn't align with her values. Often tapped to consult for venture firms, she found that she wasn't reaping the full benefits of her work.
"I was like, 'Why do I keep doing these meetings?' I'm doing the meetings as a favor to the venture people. But the reality is I'm setting myself up to be a dooer. And what I want to be is an investor, who gets paid when the organization that's looking for my help succeeds. And so I pivoted," Mawakana said.
"I realized that nobody was going to change the way I valued myself, that I was going to have to change the value to myself," she said.
Gelobter, who served a stint as Chief Digital Service Officer for the Department of Education in the Obama administration and later helped launch Hulu, said she didn't realize it was all about raising capital when she entered accelerator Y Combinator. The two found a receptive audience in a room largely filled with black women, including investors from top flight firms and founders looking for funding.
Many identified with Gelobter and Mawakana, who often found themselves dealing with issues their male or white counterparts didn't have to.
About $136.5 billion in U.S. venture funding was spent last year. All female founders claimed only 2.6% of that, according to PitchBook. And the number for women of color was even slimmer.
Gelobeter said that growing up she didn't know or understand that investment and entrepreneurship were about wealth creation. "From where I come from, that's not a thing that I knew or had an understanding and the truth is like, I'm still struggling with it," she said. "That's not why I got into this, I wanted to make change."
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Andrew Peterson<p>Andrew Peterson is the co-founder and former chief executive of Signal Sciences, a web application security platform that he founded in 2014 and <a href="https://dot.la/signal-science-snapped-up-for-775m-in-big-l-a-saas-exit-2647256430.html" target="_self">was acquired in 2020 by Fastly in a $775 million deal</a>. Signal Sciences protects web applications from attacks and data breaches for clients like Duo Security, Under Armor and DoorDash.</p><p>Prior to starting Signal Sciences, Peterson worked at Etsy, helping the online marketplace with international growth as a group project manager. Etsy <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3056900/how-three-ex-etsy-employees-turned-their-old-employer-into-a-consumer" target="_blank">reportedly became </a>one of Signal Sciences's first customers. Peterson has also served stints as health information management officer at the Clinton Foundation and as a senior product specialist at Google.</p>
Ara Mahdessian<p>Ara Mahdessian is the co-founder of ServiceTitan, a SaaS product for managing a home services business.</p><p>The inspiration for ServiceTitan, Mahdessian's first company, came from watching his parents start their own businesses in building and plumbing, only to struggle with the logistics behind keeping them running, he <a href="https://www.inc.com/magazine/201906/emily-canal/servicetitan-immigrant-inclusion-diversity-best-workplaces-2019.html" target="_blank">told Inc in 2019</a>. Mahdessian and his co-founder Vahe Kuzoyan met while in college, and worked on several consulting projects before starting ServiceTitan, in hopes of aiding small business owners like their parents.</p>
Evan Spiegel<p>Evan Spiegel is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Snap Inc., the Venice-based company known for its app Snapchat. He's also one of the youngest billionaires in the world, launching Snapchat while still an undergraduate at Stanford. </p><p>SnapChat, the company's app, has recently been taking on rival TikTok <a href="https://dot.la/snap-spotlight-2649022645.html" data-linked-post="2649022645" target="_blank">with a new feature</a> and a program meant to attract creators to its platform. And it is been at the center of a larger national debate on the power of big tech. </p>
Spencer Rascoff<p>Spencer Rascoff is the founder of several companies, including dot.LA. He started his career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, later leaving to co-found travel website Hotwire. After serving as vice president of lodging at Expedia, he went on to found Zillow, an online real estate marketplace that went public in 2011.</p><p>Rascoff's most recent project is Pacaso, a marketplace for buying, selling and co-owning a second home.</p>
Tim Ellis<p>Tim Ellis is the co-founder and chief executive of Relativity Space, an autonomous rocket factory and launch services leader for satellite constellations. He is the youngest member on the National Space Council Users Advisory Group and serves on the World Economic Forum as a "technology pioneer."</p><p>Before founding Relativity Space, Ellis studied aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California and interned at Masten Space Systems and Blue Origin, where he worked after graduation. He was a propulsion engineer and brought metal 3D printing in-house to the company.</p>
Travis Schneider<p>Travis Schneider is the co-founder and co-chief executive of PatientPop, a practice growth platform for healthcare providers. He founded the company with Luke Kervin in 2014. <br><br>The two have founded three companies together, including ShopNation, a fashion shopping engine that was later acquired by the Meredith Commerce Network.</p>
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