Here Are the 20 South LA Companies Selected for PledgeLA's First 'Founders Fund' Class
A new Fund for South L.A. Founders announced their first class of 20 Black and Latino entrepreneurs this week. The class represents a cross-section of tech-inspired entrepreneurs from bakers to social media purveyors. The cohort was selected from a pool of about 200 applicants, many of whom struggled during the pandemic era downturn.
The fund was created by PledgeLA to address racial inequity and the economic decimation among communities of color. The monies were awarded to rising, innovative entrepreneurs of color. Also, unlike some accelerators, the fund does not take equity in exchange.
"We want to hear the narrative of how they are building their communities," said Austin Clements, a partner at Slauson & Co., an early-stage venture capital firm "driven by its mission of intentional inclusion."
The program is a 12-week accelerator that begins in January with virtual weekly gatherings, including meetings, lectures and conversations with mentors as a way to help them define the direction of their business goals. Participants get a $25,000 grant.
The businesses involved will be tracked past the initial meetings to measure how many jobs were created and how much money was raised after their initial participation.
"The financing is great," said Craig Bowers, who — along with Samuel Chawinga — grew up in the area and whose South L.A. Beverage Company was picked to be part of the 20 businesses. "But bringing viable businesses to communities such as South Los Angeles is also a way to uplift people who live there. Seventy-five percent of our employees will be from our immediate local neighborhood and we want to provide livable wage jobs."
Bowers and Chawinga's company will ultimately house a craft beverage incubator, a production and packaging structure in South Los Angeles in a 24,000-foot-square facility. Sales from their first beer will go to purchasing Chromebooks for students in South Central, Bowers said.
PledgeLA's Fund for South LA Founders www.youtube.com
PledgeLA's new Fund for South L.A. Founders is a project of AnnenbergTech, the L.A. Latino Chamber of Commerce, SLATE-Z and other community partners with startup capital funding Black and Latino founders based in South Los Angeles who have promise and have not raised much outside capital, according to Clements.
The first cohort of 20 businesses include 24 entrepreneurs, all of whom identify as either a person of color or a woman, according to a spokesperson with the Annenberg Foundation. Nearly 60% of businesses were founded by a woman, and all have connections to South Los Angeles.
The mentors of the program include CEOs of companies like Everytable, FabFitFun, Tala, and The Bouqs — they will provide feedback to support the entrepreneurs achieve their goals. The AnnenbergTech initiative is also funding the 12-week training program with Grid110, a nonprofit accelerator known for serving female entrepreneurs and people of color.
A panel of judges from L.A.'s tech, venture capital, and social impact sectors interviewed the finalists. The 20 businesses receiving the grants and final cohort include:
Coffee Del Mundo: Founded by Jonathan Kinnard, Coffee Del Mundo is a Black & Afro-Latino owned, vertically integrated specialty coffee company based in South Los Angeles.
ComplYant: Founded by Shiloh Johnson, ComplYant is software that helps entrepreneurs manage all of their tax requirements from one dashboard.
Esqapes Immersive: Founded by Micah Jackson, Esqapes allows people to reap the benefits of a mini-vacation by utilizing virtual reality, automation and traditional wellness practices.
Everlaunch: Founded by Michelle Heng and Alma Cook, Everlaunch is an interactive web app helping first-time entrepreneurs overcome fundamental challenges when starting their business.
Fun-Diggity Funnel-Cakes: Founded by Cheyenne Brown and Bernard Nicholson Jr., Fun-Diggity specializes in gourmet funnel-cakes made affordable and accessible all year round.
Guardian Lane: Founded by Kristina Jones, Guardian Lane is the world's first video-sharing platform for children's grief counseling with tele-counseling services for additional support.
GTLA Apparel Development Inc.: Founded by Guadalupe Tlatenchi, GTLA Apparel Development Inc. is an all-phase apparel manufacturer, capable of taking fashion designs from concept to completion.
Guided Compass: Founded by Creighton Taylor, Guided Compass is a comprehensive project and work-based technology platform for education providers and workforce development organizations, helping them onboard career-seekers to fulfilling careers.
JUMPWatts Inc.: Founded by Bryan Ovalle and Arun Gunasekaran, JUMPWatts has developed easy-to-install remote repositioning and parking compliance technology kits for shared micro-mobility vehicles.
La Create Space: Founded by Terell Johnson and Marisa Johnson, La Create Space is a creative co-working, production and meeting space located in the heart of Inglewood, CA.
On The Go LA: Founded by Gabriel Gamez and Enrique Loyola, On The Go LA is a full-service food truck rental company that offers daily rentals, access to high-traffic stops and operational support through an easy-to-use online platform.
Ownors Technologies Inc: Founded by James Jones Jr., Ownors Technologies Inc is an AI-powered analytics marketplace matching top entertainment industry executives with creatives for 1:1 live sessions and managed micro-advances.
Reparations Club LLC: Founded by Jazzi McGilbert, Reparations Club LLC is a retail and community space curated by Blackness, POC and a few good allies in L.A. - radicalizing retail through community and creativity.
Ride FRSH: Founded by Trey Brown and Garrick Mitchell, Ride FRSH is a subscription and retail-based air freshener brand that weaves iconic song lyrics about driving into their designs.
SKNMUSE: Founded by Ezinne Adeoye, SKNMUSE is a premium skincare brand that elevates the beauty experience for Black women.
Snojo: Founded by Nadiyah Ward, Snojo is an on-demand lesson management platform for skiers, snowboarders and mountain resorts.
South Los Angeles Beverage Company: Founded by Craig Bowers and Samuel Chawinga, South Los Angeles Beverage Company is a craft beverage incubator, production and packaging facility.
SÜPRMARKT: Founded by Olympia Auset, SÜPRMARKT is a low-cost organic grocery, making it easy and affordable to eat well in South L.A.'s food deserts.
Tea Botanics: Founded by Denise Pines and Dr. Pei Vuong, Tea Botanics creates premium high-performance life-stage specific, medicinal tea-based beverages and supplements that address what the body and brain needs, focusing on men and women's key concerns associated with aging.
The Honey Block: Founded by Branché Foston, The Honey Block is an online wellness education platform and community for and by Black, indigenous and people of color.
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Culver City-based Maestro, a platform used by pop star Billie Eilish and other entertainers to stream their performances, has landed $15 million in a Series B round.
It was backed by industry heavyweights from Sony Music Entertainment to Twitch's co-founder Kevin Lin, who are eying digital concerts and live streamed shopping as future revenue hot spots.
The interactive video platform lets creators like Eilish make money from ticket sales, subscriptions and even streamed ecommerce events. The company touts a long list of artist and industry partners, including Epic Games, Shopify, Microsoft, Adweek and Universal Music Group.
Tuesday's announcement comes after a year of steady growth for Maestro. The company said in a statement that revenue tripled in 2020. In the past six months, its team has grown five times over.
And since May, when the company launched its monetization features, creators on the platform have secured "millions of dollars."
Maestro's interactive video platform lets creators make money from ticket sales, subscriptions and even streamed ecommerce events.
Especially during COVID-19, platforms like Maestro have opened up new streams of business for celebrities. Music streaming companies like Wave, Mandolin, Veeps and Looped Live have become more attractive to investors as creators find new ways to tour virtually. But it's unclear whether these sites will hold onto viewers post-pandemic.
"Maestro gives artists greater flexibility and control to build the most engaging and customized events for their fans, allowing creators at any stage of their career to put together a world class live stream event," Sony Music Entertainment's Dennis Krooker said in a press release.
"We serve the creator as a partner in their journey and the achievement of their dreams," founder and CEO Ari Evans added.
The Series B bumps Maestro's total funding to $22 million. NetEase, Acronym Venture Capital and Michael and Amy Morhaime, former executives at Blizzard, contributed to the round.
A list of existing investors — SeventySix Capital, The Strand Partners, Stadia Ventures, Hersh Interactive Group, and Transcend Fund, and early Zoom employees Richard Gatchalian and Aaron Lewis — also participated.
Francesca Billington is dot.LA's editorial fellow. She's previously reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. Before joining dot.LA, she served as a communications fellow at an environmental science research center in Sri Lanka. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.
NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are a novel form of ownership that could rejigger the financial landscape for creators. Even if the market for some of them proves frothy, this blockchain-based technology presents a unique way for artists to make money and engage their fans. With experimentation already underway, the gates are open for them to do what they do best: get creative.
Several startup founders and musicians are looking to this incipient market not just as a means of selling digital collectibles, but as a unique way to offer fans exclusive, paid experiences.
"Any new avenue of potential profit is exciting in the music industry, considering the lack thereof from streaming and [the need to rely on] touring," said Brian Spencer, one half of the L.A.-based musical duo FINKEL.
There's nothing new about creators offering fans exclusive perks. What is new is that they can now be linked to an NFT that also functions as a "key" or "passport." Many artists are hoping this linkage can stoke demand for perks, thanks to the innate human attraction to ownership.
"There's a lot of psychological evidence that owning things matters a lot to people," said Valentin Haddad, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management who studies how and why people make financial decisions.
He pointed to the so-called "endowment effect," which, research has suggested, makes people value things more when they own them, simply because they own them. Since NFTs are a certificate of ownership, linking them to an experience – like a backstage pass, or a producer credit – should boost the value fans see in those experiences, Haddad said.
"I think the idea of tying some experiences, tying something more special, to the object [underlying the NFT] is going to increase," he said. "We're going to see lots of creativity."
Illmind is auctioning 10 NFTs linked to audio files he created that owners can use royalty free.
Rikin Mantri's recently launched NFT-minting and -trading platform, Curio, has sold about $130,000 worth of tokens tied to graphic novel characters the company licensed, and it plans to expand soon into other IP, including music. Mantri sees the eye-popping prices capturing headlines as indicative of a bubble, but thinks NFTs have enduring potential.
"We think NFTs have a strong use case in building digital collectible collections and offering experiences around those collectibles," he said. "It's a completely new incremental revenue stream."
Kings of Leon, the Grammy-winning band, released their new album last month alongside a series of NFTs, six of which were high-end "golden ticket" versions that granted token owners lifetime front-row concert tickets. In February, 3LAU, a DJ, auctioned off a topshelf NFT that entitled one fan to creatively direct a new composition.
Rapper Post Malone is planning to sell an NFT linked to a private game of beer pong. Illmind, a Grammy-winning DJ, is auctioning 10 NFTs linked to audio files he created that owners can use royalty free. Electronic musician Aphex Twin recently turned an NFT into a digital scavenger hunt. And Logan Paul, a YouTuber, linked an NFT to the opportunity to watch him unbox rare Pokémon cards.
Other creators are taking a less experiential and more charitable approach to offering NFT products. Street-artist Shepard Fairey, best known for designing the Obama "Hope" poster, is working with East Hollywood-based Verisart to auction off a digital artwork as an NFT, and donating the proceeds to Amnesty International. Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock group led by activist Nadya Tolokonnikova, recently minted four NFTs tied to a video produced by young AR pioneer Asad Malik of La Cañada-based Jadu, some of the proceeds of which went to a shelter for domestic abuse survivors.
Meanwhile as the metaverse inches closer, the range of perks and experiences that can be tied to NFTs is growing. One sign of things to come is Decentraland, a virtual world with its own blockchain-enabled currency that has hosted digital parties that require NFT-ownership for entry.
The same technology that enables these unlockable perks, whether digital or in-person, also allows artists to retain a financial stake in all future sales of the NFTs they issue. Stipulations like sending 10% of the price paid for an NFT to a specified bank account can be executed automatically: thus the term "smart contract."
Smart contracts are one element that distinguishes the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFTs run, from the blockchain that underpins Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies.
They're also what could make NFTs helpful to smaller artists in particular. Since smart contracts can theoretically automate tasks like preventing fraud and scalping, they open up new opportunities.
"It's giving artists lots of access to ways to share experiences and share things that big artists could always do [but] small artists couldn't," Haddad said. "The benefits are likely to accrue to the top, but I think it will benefit everybody by creating a better way to exchange with your fans."
Artists' NFT Concerns
One downside to NFTs is the high volume of electricity they use, which can harm the environment. That's turning some artists away from them for now.
FINKEL is unlikely to pursue NFTs until the environmental concerns can be addressed, Spencer said.
One way of doing so could be a shift in how the blockchain works. Validating who owns what on a blockchain has largely relied so far on a method called "proof-of-work," which requires intensive computation that uses an immense amount of electricity. Some observers say an alternative method, called "proof-of-stake", would require less and could be less environmentally harmful. Although proof-of-stake has not been widely adopted, Ethereum has publicly stated it wants to transition to it, in part because of its environmental benefits.
Beyond environmental concerns, some artists bridle at NFT perks because of their inherent exclusivity and transactional nature.
Rebecca Arango, aka Oddnesse, thinks the tactic could perpetuate what she views as a deeper problem underlying the tenuous financial situation that many musicians find themselves in: fans have lost the human connection they once had with the artists behind the music they love.
"It's like the music just comes and goes and it'll always be there, and if one artist goes broke and gives up, there's always another one where that came from," she said.
But she concedes she may be fighting an uphill battle.
"I'm still going to advocate for the [intrinsic] value of the songwriting and the records," said Arango. "[But] if people are really into owning these digital tokens, I'll have to get with the program."
Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake