This Startup Accelerator Is Searching for ‘the Next Google in South LA’

Harri Weber

Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to

Plug In South LA
Courtesy of Plug In South LA

Diversity pledges are increasingly ubiquitous in tech, but venture capitalists—whose checks underpin the industry’s runaway growth—still chronically overlook entrepreneurs in Black and brown communities.

The glaring fundraising disparity drove marketing strategist Derek Smith to found Plug In South LA, a startup accelerator based in South Los Angeles, in 2015. Focused on tech startups targeting health care, climate and sustainability, and advertising and media, Plug In is currently in the final stages of a search for a new cohort. Applications for its latest program, which will run from March through May, close on Feb. 3.

While the seven-year-old accelerator hails from South L.A., early-stage Black and brown founders based anywhere can apply to the program. Unlike some larger incubators, Plug In doesn’t take equity or collect fees from its accelerator participants. It also doesn’t fund companies directly—though that could change as soon as this year, according to Smith..

‘How to Play in Startup-Land’

When Smith returned to his hometown in 2015 after a 15-year stint in New York, he began hosting lunch-and-learns to help founders around his neighborhood.

At the time, “L.A. was a really hot tech ecosystem,” he said in an interview with dot.LA. “Ring, Bird, Snap—all these really cool things were happening” But in communities like South L.A., coworking spaces and other incubators for tech and startup talent were absent.

“The whole point of the work that we’re doing is to correct some of the flaws in the market to prepare, educate and inform the talent that’s there,” Smith said. Plug In’s goal, he added, is to help Black and brown founders “really understand how to play in startup-land and venture capital-land and all of these other sectors and spaces.”

Those early meet-ups eventually snowballed into the 13-week program that Plug In offers today. Among its perks, Plug In promises to connect its spring cohort with partners and mentors at the likes of Disney, New York-based venture fund CourtsideVC and prolific VC industry law firm Gunderson Dettmer.

Plug In South LAPlug In South LA founder Derek Smith (fourth from left) with a recent cohort of startup founders.Image courtesy of Plug In South LA

Devin Dixon, an Atlanta-based founder who joined the accelerator in search of product market fit, said Plug In helped him find his company’s “true north star.” During the program, Dixon’s startup, BingeWave, evolved from a tool for film festivals and filmmakers into a metaverse app builder, he told dot.LA.

After the program, Dixon went on to join Launch House’s accelerator, which he described as comparably less structured and more networking-oriented. By contrast, Plug In “focuses on how you become an actual business, versus just venture raising,” he said.

“That is good for underrepresented founders,” Dixon added, “simply because we typically struggle to raise capital.”

Bridging the Funding Gap

For an industry bent on breakneck growth, progress toward racial equity in the insular world of startup fundraising is moving at a glacial pace. The vast majority of venture capital dollars still go to white male founders, while leadership roles at VC firms remain overwhelmingly occupied by men.

In the U.S., only 1.2% of VC dollars went to Black founders during the first half of 2021, per Crunchbase. Likewise, a separate full-year report from the data firm also found that Latinx founders secured just 1.2% of U.S. VC dollars raised in 2021.

Female-founded companies are similarly underrepresented, with a 2% cut of total venture dollars raised last year, according to Pitchbook data.

Well aware of these disparities, Smith says he is exploring raising an early-stage fund of his own to invest in underrepresented founders, potentially as soon as this year.

“We’ve talked about what our fund would look like and it’s something that we are looking to pull the trigger on,” he said, noting that he would look to invest “somewhere in the ballpark of $50,000 per startup.”

Ultimately, he added, “the 20-year plan is to see the next Google come out of a place like South L.A.—founded by Black and brown co-founders.”

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.