Last fall, Fika Ventures partner Eva Ho and LATech.org Executive Director Sean Arian helped lead entrepreneurship programs for preselected high school students in working class and immigrant communities in the San Fernando Valley.
What they quickly discovered was that the existing type of entrepreneurship programs and coding bootcamps lacked an exposure to all the non-computer, science-based career offerings in the tech industry.
Many students were uninterested in tech because they didn't know enough about it.
"I also grew up in the same community. I grew up low income. My parents were immigrants from Africa. There was nobody to help me decide what kind of career I would do," Ho said. "I don't think I would've landed in tech without mentors. I didn't know how to network or the opportunities."
The predominately white male tech industry has been under pressure to diversity its ranks, with companies like Snap Inc. and others issuing annual diversity reports. According to their latest diversity report, 84.6% of tech executives are white, and 84.3% are men.
So Ho and Arian regrouped and they came up with a concept: Why not broaden the program to include elements of the tech industry beyond computer science? They also decided to focus on students beyond high school.
Last fall, the duo created the Fika Accelerator, a sort of short apprenticeship with the aim of offering students a paid opportunity to develop skills, understand the tech industry and get a shot at an internship at some of the region's best known tech companies like Snap and Cornerstone OnDemand.
Primarily funded by Los Angeles County, the 120-hour course runs over a seven-week period, after which Fika will evaluate their job readiness and recommend students to selected companies for internship interviews.
The first two weeks of the program will focus on product design, the third and fourth weeks will focus on marketing, the next two weeks on sales, and the last week on career development. Students are required to develop a product, then a marketing plan, then sales plan and lastly a final project.
"I'm about to graduate so I'm trying to figure out other ways to go around the education system," said Trinity Willard, UCLA fourth year with a double-major in Public Affairs and African American Studies.
She developed an interest in product development after working on her Fika Accelerator capstone project.
"They go into so many different parts of the tech space that I learned product development's behind the scenes and brainstorming work is the stream within tech I'm most interested in," said Trinity. "It's the foundation for everything."
The pipeline for internships narrowed last year as most companies either reduced or shut down their internship programs during the pandemic,. Fika aims to open those opportunities back up for its students.
Cornerstone OnDemand, Blackline and Snap, Inc. are just a few of LATech.org's member companies that have taken interns from past programs, along with smaller companies like Q&A and Open Path.
Ho and Arian envision a long future for Fika Accelerator.
"If L.A. were a nation, it would be the 19th largest economy in the world. We could be doing this program for all ages ranging as young as a 6th grader all the way to graduate students," said Ho. "The potential to impact thousands of people is real. We have big dreams for this. This is just the start."
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There is a common credo in tech that one should work 20 years as an operator before switching over to the VC side. The young investors you are about to meet flip that assumption on its head as they bet big on everything from livestream shopping to online therapy services.
We asked the region's top VCs in our dot.LA sentiment survey to identify the top investors under 30. Their picks include former investment bankers, consultants and entrepreneurs. Some of the investors are native to Los Angeles while others hail from the Midwest and abroad. All have a vision of Los Angeles as a center of tech.
Among the top talent was Abha Nath, a 25 year-old investor at Wonder Ventures, who invested early in WhatNot, a social ecommerce company that aims to change the way users shop through live video. She's a big believer in the L.A. tech scene.
"This market is well-positioned for success because of its diversity in industry and diversity in thought – something that is demonstrated by the composition of L.A.'s population," said Nath.
Eric Pakravan, a 29 year-old investor at TenOneTen, first got acquainted with L.A.'s tech scene working at the mobile game unicorn Scopely. He has his eye on industries traditionally "underserved by tech, namely hospitality, wholesale and logistics."
Almost all the investors said they're not just looking for the right idea, but for the right founder.
"I hope to increase early stage funding access to startups founded by BIPOC in Los Angeles," said Jawhara Tariq, 28, an investor at M13. (Black, Latino and Latina founders have received just 2.6% of all venture capital funding in 2020, according to a Crunchbase report.)
Below are the top ranked investors, ordered by the number of mentions they received from the VCs we spoke to:
Abha Nath, Wonder Ventures
Abha Nath is a 25-year-old investor at Wonder Ventures, rounding out seed firm's nimble two person team. She started her career in the Disney Accelerator Program, investing in later-stage companies, including Epic Games, Kahoot!, Brit+Co, and Hoodline. "I largely attribute my break to great timing and luck," she said. She met Dustin Rosen, managing partner of Wonder Ventures, several years ago and the two kept in touch before she joined in 2018. Nath says she is most excited about Whatnot, a social commerce company that is changing the way users shop through live video.
Eric Pakravan, TenOneTen
Eric Pakravan is a 29-year-old investor at the software focused TenOneTen. His experience working at Scopely during its early days piqued his curiosity about what made successful seed companies."That experience opened my eyes to the emerging tech scene that was beginning to take shape in LA.," he said. "I very quickly knew that I wanted to be a part of it. And the greatest perk was that it meant I could build a career in tech, and do it in L.A." The experience also inspired him to start LavaLab, a student-led incubator at USC. The LA-native, joined TenOneTen Ventures last year. He invests in sectors he considers have mostly been underserved by tech – namely hospitality, wholesale, and logistics. His investments include Selfbook, a booking experience for hotels, as well as Candid Wholesale and Optimal Dynamics.
Adriana Saman, Clocktower Technology
Adriana Saman is a 28-year-old investor at Clocktower Technology Ventures, which focuses on early Fintech startups. Saman started her career as an Investment Banker at JP Morgan. Originally from Ecuador, she is focused on increasing global access to financial services through fintech and other instruments. "I aspire to make a meaningful difference in the democratization of financial services in Latin America – we've started strong with a dedicated vehicle, but there's still lots to get done," she said. She said her values have led her down this path. "I think the prior steps I took in my career, pursuing a genuine interest to make a difference in global access to financial services, made it easier to bond with the Clocktower team, as they shared a similar vision", says Saman.
Brittany Walker, CRV
Brittany Walker is a 28-year-old investor at CRV, which invests in enterprise, consumer and biotech. A former Deloitte consultant, Walker holds an MBA from the Wharton School, where she sourced investments for the Dorm Room Fund. Tackling gender parity has been a priority for Walker. She co-created Interchange, the first free job board focused solely on L.A. startups. Its aim is to make the industry more accessible to diverse candidates. "I'm trying to get more female founders funded in enterprise and help more women start enterprise companies," said Walker. Among her investments is Storyboard, a platform for privately sharing podcasts and audio.
Alaina Hartley, Greycroft
Alaina Hartley is a 25-year-old investor at Greycroft. She says she landed the job without connections. "I didn't have existing networks in venture capital – I actually first connected with Greycroft by sending a cold LinkedIn message requesting an informational interview," she said. She came from Bain & Company, where she consulted across private equity, technology and media and retail practices. Previously, she worked on brand strategy initiatives for Snap Inc.'s first hardware product, Spectacles."My objective is to identify emerging leaders in the consumer and consumerized enterprise spaces and to provide them with actionable insights and support to accelerate the realization of their visions," she said. Hartley is excited about one of her recent investments, Haystack, an intranet platform that centralizes company communications.
Connor Sundberg, Amplify
Connor Sundberg is a 26-year-old investor at Amplify. He says his move from Chicago to L.A. was motivated by seeing the success of Ring, Snap, Scopely, and Dollar Shave Club. Previously, he worked in banking, but decided he was more interested in VC. "I've always believed in paying attention to where the people you respect are spending their time, and all roads kept leading to the LA startup ecosystem- from friends bootstrapping projects of their own, to others joining companies," he said. His investments include startups that could change how care is coordinated, delivered, and paid for such as: Advkekit, Honeybee, and SafeRide. Sundberg hopes to make Amplify a first-check platform that works for L.A. companies, specifically by creating a support system beyond capital and building founders up.
Jawhara Tariq, M13
Jawhara Tariq, a 28-year-old investor at consumer-focused venture firm M13. She began her career working in nonprofits and philanthropy before she decided she wanted to try making an impact through capitalism. Previously, she was a venture capital associate at Moonshots Capital, where her investment profile included: Nok, Steereo, and Copper Labs.
"I am looking for founders who are unstoppable forces; the entrepreneurs who have the audacity to dream up a world that looks, feels, and operates differently than the one we live in today."
The L.A. native hopes to facilitate access to funding for BIPOC-led startups and continue to back LA's rising entrepreneurs.
Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect that one of the investors recently moved out of L.A.
Lead image by Ian Hurley
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On this week's episode of Behind Her Empire, I sat down with Divya Gugnani, the CEO and co-founder of Wander Beauty. Her latest company is a cruelty-free, clean beauty brand, designed to be the ultimate on-the-go beauty essentials.
Gugnani began her work in finance at Goldman Sachs, where she says she learned the important of being a team player.
"I believe that investing in people and investing in relationships would always be the best thing for me, both personally and professionally," she said. "And I learned that in finance you work hard, you work a lot of hours and you work on teams."
After dabbling in personal equity and then getting her MBA, she worked on weekends to create an auto parts company with her boyfriend, which she says gave her quality hands-on experience.
Reflecting on the venture, she said, "I think it's great to have very strong relationships, but I do believe they should be based on skillset. They shouldn't be based on your personal chemistry. I think that the biggest mistake is getting involved in business with someone that you're emotionally involved with, because the emotions come at work, the work comes at home and plays into the emotional relationship. That for me was the biggest mistake I made."
After launching two other businesses and becoming a mother, Gugnani started Wander Beauty. Her experience as an entrepreneur and as a mother inspired the company. She said she wanted to look done-up, despite the limited time she had in her day. Wander's first product was a double-sided makeup stick that works as a blush, highlighter, lipstick and eyeshadow.
Since then, the startup has won over 30 beauty awards in five years, including an Allure '"best of beauty" award. Wander has become a favorite of reviewers, influencers and customers alike, and has won its share of celebrity devotees, including Heidi Klum, Emma Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker and Molly Sims, among others.
Listen to the episode to hear firsthand advice from Gugnani on starting a business, what she's learned about building her teams and how to enter the industry at the right time.
"I've been in four different industries with four different startups and I've learned them all along the way. You learn it all. Be a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all." —Divya Gugnani
Divya Gugnani is the CEO and co-founder of Wander Beauty.
dot.LA Engagement Intern Colleen Tufts contributed to this post.