When we started this podcast, people asked if we'd run out of guests after a year of weekly episodes with Los Angeles VCs. Not even close. For this week's episode of L.A. Venture, we hope you enjoy a few highlights from the show.
- Kara Nortman
- Deb Benton
- Mark Suster
- Peter Lee
- Scott Stanford
- Alex Gurevich
- Eric Pakravan
- Jesse Draper
- Courtney Reum
- Arjan Schutte
- Michael Tam
- Dana Settle
- Marcos Gonzalez
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Women entrepreneurs, especially those of color, don't have the same buy-in from investors as their male counterparts, but that shouldn't deter them. That's the advice of four women startup founders and investors during a panel on equity at The dot.LA Summit.
"We can't let the data stop us, especially as women," said Morgan DeBaun, founder and CEO of Blavity, who said she hit roadblocks six years ago when trying to get her media company geared toward Black millennials funded.
The panel, "Locked Out in Lockdown," also featuring Bonfire Ventures principal Jennifer Richard, Halogen Ventures General Partner Jesse Draper and Suma Wealth co-founder and CEO Beatriz Acevedo, explored the deep inequities that remain for women.
Earlier this week, dot.LA's Tami Abdollah, who hosted the event, reported that VC investment in female-founded companies in Los Angeles dropped 70% in the third quarter compared to last year. Meanwhile, all male-founded companies saw a bump of 385%.
"As our country is going through a movement, after Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, there has been a much bigger emphasis on diversity of race," Richard said. "Of course I want more women to have access to capital, but when you look at the access to white women versus Black women, it's still very different. There's no equality until everyone is getting it."
The investment world is largely dominated by white men and has been under fire for failing to diversify. Pitchbook has no data on people of color, a point panelists said underscores just how far female founders and investors of color are from reaching equity.
Draper, who invests in early-stage, female-funded tech companies, said backing diverse companies is a smart investment that few firms are making. In September, she published published an article on Medium called "Investing in Women Isn't a Fucking Charity."
"VCs are all out there to make money," she said. "We're greedy, greedy people. If you want to make money, invest in women."
Draper said although she wants to see more investment in women-led companies, she realizes that this is a hard road for anyone and that founders need to be ready for rejection.
"I often do have CEOs come pitch me and say, 'Well everyone said no already'," Draper said. "Well who's everyone? Go pitch 100 and come back to me. If you're a startup founder, you have to keep going. It's a grind."
Acevedo said she often found herself pitching to investors who hadn't been exposed to the Latino community from which she comes. She said she often finds herself explaining her experiences to them. But, she doesn't view it as a negative, rather she sees an opportunity to expose investors to the community that she wants to serve.
"I thought, 'there's no one like me'," she said. "Nobody knows what I know better, nobody has my upbringing. Being me is my superpower. My experiences, my immigrant status, what my parents went through with their finances that now I'm trying to solve for my community. Be proud of everything that others might perceive as a weakness."
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In these pandemic times, people are more isolated than they've been in our lifetimes and more dependent on technology for everything from work to entertainment to food. So you'd think that L.A. company Shipsi Inc., which is dedicated to connecting businesses across 700 cities to its last-mile delivery networks of one million drivers, would be experiencing a boom.
Spoiler alert: It's not.
In fact, the roughly 40-person company founded in 2017 has laid off half its staff as a "cautionary measure" after non-essential company closures, with Shipsi's remaining 20 or so employees now taking everything from partial to full furloughs to limit the bleeding. The company has also refined its technology to help make operations more automated and cut back on customers that require significant support or resources.
"We took some pretty drastic measures initially, because no one really knows how long this is going to continue," said CEO and co-founder Chelsie Lee. "We had to make some really hard decisions."
Shipsi is hardly alone.
It's been a brutal year for retail, and for the technology platforms that support them, unless your business is related to food and beverage stores. According to the most recent monthly numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau's retail trade survey, retail trade sales were down 6.2% from February 2020 and 3.8% below last year. Food and beverage stores were up 28% from March 2019, while clothing and clothing accessories stores were down nearly 51% from last year. There's little indication that their next report, in May, will be any better.
But the company has worked hard to rise up to the challenge, whether through diaper deliveries, helping farmers who no longer have restaurants to deliver their goods to, or by launching a new less expensive product Tuesday that neighborhood stores can use to help with product delivery amid it all.
Shipsi, which is backed by Halogen Ventures, had seen strong growth prior to this, with month-over-month growth anywhere from 60 to 350%, said CEO and co-founder Chelsie Lee. Lee's company works with some major brands, including longtime California surfboard and surfwear brand, O'Neill, the retail chain Party City, and had started a pilot program with Brooks Brothers before the pandemic hit home. It's unclear what will happen with any of these arrangements once the dust settles.
Founders are "proving in this moment whether they'll make it or they won't" said Jesse Draper, founding partner of Halogen Ventures, the L.A.-based early-stage venture capital fund that invested in Shipsi and generally invests in consumer technology companies led by women.
Out of the firm's 60 portfolio companies, Draper said in a recent interview that companies have on average laid off 10 people, with as few as one to as many 60 people being laid off.
"A lot of them are doing it because they need to increase their runway," Draper said. "Some are doing it fully to restructure (because) they needed to restructure anyway. It kind of forced them into action. Most of it is just in case, these guys need to figure out if they don't have runway for 12 months they need to figure out how to have cash for 12 months.
"Even some of the ones who were doing well, had just closed a round, they were like maybe let's lay off one or two people."
For Shipsi, which had just hired additional staff at the end of 2019, the decision required Lee to reevaluate her workforce, cutting employees with a more focused skill set and betting on those who "had more depth and more breadth of skill that we could utilize in other areas," Lee said. She also weighed the fact that for some, letting them go would enable them to reap additional unemployment benefits while those benefits last.
Many of Shipsi's big retail clients are businesses that aren't providing "essential" products and so their shops that operate as distribution centers temporarily shut down. But the company has been working hard to innovate quickly to face the challenge of COVID-19 and also to help.
It's rapidly built and is deploying new products, including an instant delivery portal, so that companies that might not have the budget to pay to integrate with an e-commerce site or don't have one, can merely have customers go to a portal instead and request delivery in an hour or at a time of their choosing, as easily as if they were calling an Uber.
Courtesy of Shipsi Inc.
Their technology automatically provides shops with customer service and real-time tracking services, plus the ability to rate shops, Lee said. So far, at least 10 entities have signed up on their website to trial a new beta version of their technology, which officially launched Tuesday.
Shipsi plans to also release in May an e-commerce integration that allows for stores to provide curbside pickup rather than just delivery.
The company has also moved into areas it never imagined, including helping the local community deliver supplies to families and babies in need by facilitating the delivery of more than a million diapers. The company is also working with local farmers who traditionally sell to restaurants who aren't able to do so right now, and don't have a website or the means to sell their goods.
"Really it's a matter of selling something or nothing for our current customers, which is why we developed a newer, lightweight version of our product to be able to offer it to the shop around the corner," Lee said.
Shipsi is also trying to batch orders to help drivers and stores more cost-effectively staff deliveries.
"You know, there are things we're learning through this, but it'll only make us stronger in the end," Lee said.
Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my Signal.
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