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With New ‘Friends & Family’ Program, Grid110 and Slauson & Co. Want to Level the Startup Playing Field
Before pitching to investors and venture capital firms, some founders will scrape together capital from people they know—a category of early-stage funding known as the “friends and family” round.
But most founders—especially those from communities that are underrepresented in tech—don’t have access to such a moneyed personal network. For those without backing from friends and family, getting that initial investment can be a grueling, sometimes impossible, task.
Grid110, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, wants to help level the playing field.
The incubator launched its first national “Friends & Family” cohort this month for 20 early-stage startups through a partnership with Slauson & Co., an early-stage venture capital firm based in L.A. and focused on economic inclusion.
“We felt that there was an opportunity to kind of reframe this concept of ‘friends and family,’ and not just from a capital standpoint,” Grid110 CEO Miki Reynolds told dot.LA. “The capital is very much needed, but there’s also this access to networks and resources and education.”
Neither Slauson nor Grid110 will take equity in the 20 startups. Instead, they’re giving each founder a $20,000 non-dilutive cash grant, with the chance to earn more throughout the 12-week virtual program. The accelerator will provide the cohort’s entrepreneurs with mentorship and coaching from executives including Sequoia Capital partner Jim Goetz, former TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot and Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed’s co-founder and CEO.
A map of the startup companies in Grid110 and Slauson & Co.’s ‘Friends & Family’ program.
Geotz, Ron Conway of San Francisco-basd seed fund SV Angel, the Annenberg Foundation and the Schultz Family Foundation all donated capital to finance the cohort. The program received nearly 600 applications from 38 states, making it Grid110’s first national cohort. It is also an exceptionally diverse cohort; each company has a founder who identifies as Black, Latinx, Asian or Pacific Islander, while 75% have a woman founder.
“There’s so much under-accessed value in some of these communities that, if given the right investment and guidance, you can really see the return a lot of VCs are looking for,” said Kibi Anderson, whose startup Wordsmyth—which helps media, film and advertising firms hire writers of color—is one of five L.A.-based companies in the program.
Not every member of Grid110’s cohort is necessarily tech-focused. Other L.A. companies include the South L.A. grocery market Hank’s Mini Mart and Thimble, a brand of numbing patches designed to reduce patients’ pain and anxiety during procedures involving needles.
“There’s a lot of pressure to raise from VCs,” said Thimble CEO Manju Dawkins, whose company raised pre-seed funding late last year. “That’s good for a lot of companies, that may be good for us, but it’s difficult.”
A look at the statups in Grid110's 2022 cohort
Here are the startups in the Friends & Family Winter 2022 cohort:
- The app 1000 MORE helps users track upcoming bills, contact their local representatives and crowdfund advocacy efforts in disenfranchised communities.
- Beautiful Curly Me designs toys and accessories and sells books and other content for young Black and brown girls.
- The paper goods company By Ms James sells greeting cards, art prints, posters and other home and office decor.
- Cadenzo’s web-based platform connects local musical artists to venues where they can set up bookings.
- CEREMONIA is a lifestyle brand selling handcrafted home decor and accessories using natural and locally-sourced materials.
- The online marketplace Church Space helps churches earn income by renting out their buildings as on-demand event, worship and meeting spaces.
- El Camino is a travel company offering group tours for women.
- FELOH [Fell•Oh] is an online beauty community and digital marketplace for inclusive beauty brands.
- Fil2R makes sustainable, reusable water filters for home use.
- Gen Z-focused FRONTMAN sells cosmetics and skincare for men.
- Hank’s Mini Mart is a family-owned market in South L.A.’s Hyde Park using food and art to engage with the local community.
- Otis Dental offers subscription-based oral care that lets customers make impressions of their teeth at home for custom night guards and whitening kits.
- The beauty brand Peculiar Roots sells products for natural hair.
- Revival helps users buy back their debt at the same rates that they were sold to debt collection agencies.
- The men’s grooming brand Sons of Hollis sells grooming tools and haircare products for men with coarse, curly, kinky or wavy hair.
- The Black-Owned Market is a curated online marketplace to shop and interact with Black-owned brands.
- THIMBLE develops anxiety- and pain-reducing products like numbing patches for common needle procedures.
- Unoma Haus is designing and building off-grid van conversions for rent or purchase.
- Direct-to-consumer design service WESTxEAST makes custom-fit South Asian clothing.
- Wordsmyth is a tech platform enabling companies to hire writers of color, as well as an online community for those writers to connect with one another.
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Why Amazon's Former Consumer Boss is Obsessed With Bringing Back US Manufacturing
When Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon Consumer Worldwide, made the surprise announcement in August that he was leaving, he said he felt it was time to do something else.
"Time for me to take time to explore personal interests that have taken a back seat for over two decades," Wilke wrote in a heartfelt letter to Amazon's 1.13 million employees.
Wilke has been vague about what those interests are until he recently sat down for an extended conversation with dot.LA. (He also shared his views on Amazon, which you can read here.)
While Jeff Bezos, who announced his own retirement as CEO in February, is focused on space exploration, Wilke's interests are decidedly less celestial – investing in underrepresented founders and restoring American manufacturing.
It is full circle for Wilke, who grew up in Pittsburgh where he saw once-prosperous factories shutter their doors.
"I watched the decline of industry and the effect that it had on the people of Pittsburgh and it really left a mark on my life," he said.
Initially, Wilke went about as far from the rust belt as one can get. After graduating from Princeton with a degree in chemical engineering, he went to work at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) writing software. The job paid well but Wilke found it unsatisfying.
"I got to a point where I decided I couldn't keep doing what I was doing," he said. "I needed to make a career change."
He went to get an MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, unlike most of his colleagues who were focusing on finance and consulting, he enrolled in the Leaders for Global Operations program. (He served as co-chairman of the program's governing board for over a decade.)
After graduation, he worked in plant operations at the industrial conglomerate AlliedSignal – which was later absorbed by Honeywell – before being poached by Amazon at the age of 33 to be vice president and general manager for operations.
Wilke said he was attracted to Amazon after reading Bezos' now-legendary 1997 shareholder letter, which stressed the importance of investing for the future.
"I loved the focus on long-term free cash flow instead of the quarter-to-quarter financial targets which drive most public companies," Wilke said. "And I loved the idea that success at Amazon would likely depend on both computer science and operational excellence."
In a Wall Street Journal article announcing the hire, Amazon's then-president Joe Galli said he was counting on Wilke to take the company's nascent network of distribution centers "to a whole new level of productivity and excellence."
It is safe to say Wilke got the job done, helping Amazon go from $2 billion in revenue in 1999 to now more than $1 billion a day.
Now he is deploying some of his wealth as an angel investor in startups including Fernish, Pacaso, Dolly, SparkToro, Convoy, Lockstep, Cyrus Bio, All Voices, Pure Watercraft, Alpine BioSciences — and most significantly — Re:Build Manufacturing.
Here is the second part of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. Read part one here.
I'm interested in what you've done in manufacturing. What do you see as your role?
Jeff Wilke: When I showed up at Amazon in 1999, I had created a playbook for operational excellence, built on these experiences and leveraging what had been built through lean manufacturing in the auto industry and other places. Starting in 2000, we applied it in retail for the first time and that was a terrific experience. But after I had made my decision to leave Amazon, I started to have some conversations with a friend who is a grad school classmate, Miles Arnone, and is now a co-founder of Re:Build Manufacturing about what more the U.S. could do to make sure it would remain competitive in this vital industry. We decided to build a new American manufacturing company that would ultimately build U.S. factories and hire U.S. workers. We decided to start with some acquisitions of existing companies, but the goal over time is to build new operations. We're hoping with the right mix of technology, skilled people, long-term focus, the right leadership principles – that the U.S. can successfully compete in manufacturing once again.
When you say 'compete,' what does that mean? You know better than anyone that this is a globalized economy. Consumers want cheap things shipped to them overnight and it's cheaper to make most things overseas. So can the U.S. really be a manufacturing powerhouse?
I think it can. I don't think it's going to be able to do it by copying what happened in Asia over the last 30 years. We can't have factories filled with unskilled, low-paid workers. But I think we can have the right hardware technologies alongside humans who are higher skilled. And you mentioned a key word, which is consumer desire for speed and speed isn't just a consumer thing. When you think about a lean process where you take as much time out of the process as you can, producing things in Asia thousands of miles away is not lean. Lean would be having production close to customers so processes can react faster.
Do you think we'll see iPhones or Kindles produced here?
I don't think you could do that overnight. But, I think that over time we'll build up the multiple tiers of suppliers that are necessary to build something like an iPhone and, maybe even one day, a version of that kind of complex consumer electronics product here in the U.S.
It's interesting because the logistics jobs at places like Amazon have actually replaced a lot of manufacturing jobs...
There have been millions of jobs created as a result of companies like Amazon. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that delivery in some sense replaces your labor, which was unpaid, to get in your car and drive somewhere to buy something and come back. And those are new jobs that are created in the economy as opposed to shifting from one thing to another. Certainly in a bunch of towns in the U.S. where manufacturing withered, they were very grateful that Amazon built the fulfillment center that paid really well and offered people who didn't have great skills the chance to improve their lives and I think that trend will continue. The kinds of jobs that I think we're going to build at Re:Build Manufacturing will be typically higher-skilled jobs and, consequently, higher pay.
It's unusual to hear people in tech talk about manufacturing. Tech is usually seen as part of the problem...
I think that a software-only economy is more fragile than an economy that also embraces the complicated dance between software and hardware. My experience over the last 21 years helping to build Amazon was one where that dance was critical to the success of the firm. Amazon is a great software company, but it had to learn to be a great operator in the physical world, too.
You also said you had other interests you were going to pursue. What are some other things you're excited about doing that?
If you go back to May, I came to a conclusion that really changed the way I was getting involved in activities that were making a difference in DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion]. I admitted that I had subscribed to this idea that just facilitating achievement would solve racial inequality; If I just help the smartest people of color to get into a good school or to get a good job, that everything else will take care of itself. But it's not enough. So one of the things I started to do is think about my investing choices and which firms that I backed with my own money and my own time. And the truth is until recently all the firms that I would have listed had the advantage of privilege. So my friend Ron Conway [Founder & Co-Managing Partner at SV Angel] called months ago to ask if I would invest my money and time helping two guys named Austin Clements and Ajay Relan to build an L.A.-based fund called Slauson and Co. Normally I wouldn't have looked at something that was really new where they had no track record. But, if everybody is making that decision and that's how we're allocating capital, we're never going to overcome the inequality that has compounded over all these years.
You've been splitting your time between Seattle and in L.A. How come?
I decided to start spending some time down here as my wife turned her writing skills toward scripts. She's lately been working with a composer who's in L.A. on a musical. There's such a creative vibe here in L.A and I think for us, spending some of our time here has been really good for her. And if you spend any time in Seattle in the winter it's easy to understand why you might want to get a little bit more sun in the winter months.
Is she going to be doing any projects for Amazon Studios?
(Laughs) I don't know. I don't have any kind of "in" at this point so it's up to her, but she'll certainly pitch every great studio and Amazon is one of them.
What are you reading on your Kindle right now?
I am reading a Churchill biography. I've tended to read leadership biographies and I find it interesting to focus on both the superpowers that make leaders successful and especially their humanity and all the weaknesses that they have to overcome. And every one of us has both. I think sometimes when we look at history we tend to want to polish away humanity and weakness and focus just on these superpower things. Well, I don't think there are any superheroes. There are only real people who have devoted themselves to great causes.
Part 1: Jeff Wilke's reflections on his time Amazon.
Lead illustration by Eduardo Ramón Trejo.
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LA Venture Podcast: Meet Austin Clements and His New Fund for Black Entrepreneurs
On this week's episode of the L.A. Venture podcast meet Austin Clements, co-founder of Slauson & Co, a L.A.-based pre-seed and seed-stage venture firm focused on sustainable economic inclusion. The firm is backed by PayPal, Ashton Kutcher, will.i.am, True Capital Management and Alpaca VC. Previously, Clements was at TenOneTen Ventures. He was also the founding chair of Pledge L.A. and the managing director of Grid110 South L.A.
Clements has created his newest endeavor with Ajay Relañ, founder of #HastagLunchbag and co-founder of Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen. Relañ has previously partnered with Issa Rae, creator of HBO's hit show "Insecure" and the musician Nas.
Their fund aims to invest in founders from underrepresented backgrounds, tools and platforms that support small businesses and culturally relevant tech. As Black co-founders, it's important to Clements and Relañ to create community for underrepresented groups in the VC space, and they do so by leading investments on startups run by Black and Brown creators.
Hear Austin talk about how race impacts his business models, how his previous work has prepared him for this role, and how he hopes to make an impact on people of color trying to break into the venture industry.
"I feel like there's just some misconception. Like people feel like if you're doing this or looking at founders from underrepresented backgrounds, that it's charity work. And and I was trying to make the argument that it's not. It's an opportunity. And what I think will ultimately happen is firms like mine will produce really great results and then ultimately inspire other people to get involved."
Austin Clements is the co-founder of Slauson & Co, the founding chair of Pledge L.A. and was the managing director of Grid 110 South L.A.
dot.LA Engagement Intern Colleen Tufts contributed to this post.
Want to hear more of L.A. Venture? Listen on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
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