My journey is complex. I lived in two worlds growing up. My mother is a Christian evangelist for a well known church in Milwaukee, WI (the worst American city for Black people) and my father (who wasn’t a father at all) was a drug dealer who was entrapped by his own trauma. Growing up, Sundays were strange. I would mingle with self made millionaires, lawyers, politicians and clergy in the morning due to going to church with my mother. By the evening when I went to see my father, I would have seen drug addicts, murderers, gang members and prostitutes. On the way back to my home one night, I even saw a dead body in the middle of the street. During junior high school, I found crack in my jacket pocket while in section at a Lutheran school that I had to hide until I saw my father. Even in a Christian home with my mother, grandmother and aunt, the secular world was less boardroom or trustees and more jungle or survival of the fittest. Where I come from, parking your car may end up with you shot in the head. (This really happened to an old neighbor of mine.)
Considering this, take a guess at how much interaction I had with startup founders who exited? Or VCs who could explain what due diligence was? Or even millionaires who could teach me why it’s important to have an EIN number or how to do financial projections? In the 8th grade, I started teaching myself about stocks and how to create websites using HTML. It was empowering, life changing and amazing for me to be able to interact with a global economic system and create websites that could be seen by the world. Due to life and trauma that was taking place, I didn’t continue to pursue because money now was more important than a self created tech hobby that I had no mentor for. I called people mentors because they exposed me to equipment and experiences but they couldn’t continue to pour from an empty pot in many respects; I had to hustle and get knowledge on my own. When my father was raided by police, it left me fragmented as I also had a little sister who was being abused by him and a little brother becoming hard hearted due to the abuse he faced. We were all physically abused by him. Keep that in mind when you ask women or men why they don’t smile because perhaps, they suffered trauma. Black people by and large carry trauma in their DNA in general, from birth, due to slavery rearranging our generic structure as well as the systemic racism that is endured in America to this day. It’s funny how people speak of long suffering or grit or endurance in the business world. It‘s almost comical to consider these things as add on attributes that are optional mentions during corporate breakout sections for the sake of business but grit was something all my siblings developed due to survival.
As I grew, I wanted to carve a different path and I started my first company at 18 years old. I offered photography, film, spoken word voice overs and creative consulting. Over the years I’ve worked with amazing corporations such as the Milwaukee Bucks, the Milwaukee Brewers (via voiceover), the Milwaukee Art Museum, Cousins Subs, ESPN3 by way of CI Design, etc. I was self taught due to not having a true mentor for business and made a lot of mistakes as well as a lot of progress. Before I grew my dreadlocks, I had a short cut due to wanting to be viewed as approachable and non confrontational. I was often the youngest in the room or even on boards that I sat on and where people spoke from comfort, I always spoke from hunger because they drove while I caught the bus back to the North Side, the Sherman Park / Uptown area. Or even when I drove, housing was spotty. I was homeless sleeping in my artist studio and having to secretly wash up / brush my teeth by the screen printing set up. In the midst of this time, I learned of blockchain technology. I had a time where I worked for AT&T and Apple while Steve Jobs was alive so the technology side of me was still alive but I needed to feed it. Blockchain became the spark for me to go back to the tech side of my brain. After doing a collaboration with 23VIVI where I put a collection of my fine art photography on the blockchain, I learned about Bitcoin. It immediately made sense to me in concept but I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills, let alone invest in 2016. Then 2017 came. I devoted myself to learning everything I could about cryptocurrency. Then an idea began to form.
I met with a gentleman who was a businessman. He and his wife offered me $10,000 for 51% of my company that was going to be formed. When I spoke about paperwork and lawyers, he was very reluctant. However, he did aid me in flying to Malta to meet with more blockchain / cryptocurrency astute investors and to pitch for €100,000. I was in the idea stage of my company so after pricing out everything, I pitched for $111,000,000 to develop everything at once. I didn’t win but I had a lot of people interested in the idea and they said I was very bold. I also was told that I spoke well, which often insinuates that they view black people as people who don’t always speak well. I made contacts and came back to the States empty handed other than creating contacts all over the world. There is a lot to unpack here.
Black founders who come from the bottom have to learn quickly. Very quickly. Some people who even look like us won’t invest in us because of the old mindset of “figure it out like I had to” or they’ll “help you” then hold it over your head. When entering circles where you are truly the minority, your efforts are always gaslighted. After savings, credit scores and housing have been affected due to the inactions of others and circumstances beyond my control, I had what I thought was an investor. One businesswoman stated that she would be willing to invest $1,500,000, which would have completed my seed round. The deal fell through in March of 2020 due to the pandemic and her investments being tied up in real estate but told me to check back in July. I heard nothing back from that person regarding investment after I checked back. Black founders often have to fight for equity percentages, meetings and to make their valid findings understood. There are some like me who may be diamonds in the rough yet that does not make them charity or invalidate their ideas. If you are white and a male, you can have a SoftBank / WeWork experience where it seems like you’re rewarded for burning through millions by being given more while Black founders are reaching out to get a response regarding a decision for $100,000.
As I close, I want to speak to investors and to entrepreneurs. Investors, if you really want to help, then help. It’s very simple. If not, do not lie to us or yourselves. Some founders, like myself, have literally put everything on the line for our dreams and companies. Some of us will not have fully fleshed out teams due to environments that are volatile and toxic so developing a quality team may be harder than most. Some of us will be a few weeks away from being homeless, especially due to the pandemic and how it’s affected people’s money. Bootstrapping can be next to impossible in environments like where we come from so it’s either take out a high interest loan based on collateral, use savings (if that’s even an option) or seek capital from other legal sources. Some of us may have very viable business models yet because we have melanin in our faces, the presentation will not be received the same. It’s a harsh reality. Investors, if you find a diamond in the rough or a well polished gem, move on it quickly and surround them with support because they, we, I, need it. Personally and professionally, I’ve gotten the most support, be it introductions or connections or networking opportunities, from complete strangers. Be like the Good Samaritan that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. Understand that we are not seeking handouts but opportunities to rise to the occasion with unique skills, to scale visions and to create positive outputs for communities that we need. Remember this. While you contemplate and go to your board and speak the tongues of those who can afford the luxury to banter in comfort, people are literally dying on a daily basis where we come from for a myriad of reasons so who would know how to attack issues better than people who have overcome it? Investors, invest, support and let us take it from there. You will gain tremendously. Trust me.
Entrepreneurs, understand that even after all of what I said, many still won’t get it and you’ll still be black. This means, like always, you have to learn quick and be sharper, earlier, nicer and more knowledgeable than white counterparts because the stage is set for them by and large, not for people who look like you or I. Utilize free resources when possible. Watch pitches. Learn how to structure your company. Study the leaders and the competitors of your choice industry. Revise your business plan as you learn. Make the numbers in your financial projections make sense because although investors speak online about having a heart, they are interested in growth not just a story. The story draws them in but the numbers make them send a term sheet. Speaking of which, unless your seed round can be closed with a non dilutive grant, learn the lingo of what investors will want. Things like TAM, SAM, SOM, ARR and the like are important to know. When creating a team, make sure the vision aligns, the values are understood, strengths and weaknesses are communicated and the hunger is there. Do not announce a thing until you are able to launch a product, even in beta, that can make money. If you do not have a product making money, having people metrics where you can show impact per impression is key too. This is how influencers are able to create revenue due to the people that engage with them. The power is in the people.
Also, ask yourself do you really need venture capital or angel investment. Is it right for you? It may be better to do without it if you can because venture capital funds are looking for one thing: acquisition or exit by way of going public via an IPO. Is that your vision? Do you want to run a company until the end of time or be acquired as soon as possible? Also, making a partnership with the RIGHT investor is key. I’ve learned that not all money is good money. Once contracts are signed and a board is organized, your board can be your greatest compass or your plank that you walk off of into the sea. This is important. Lastly, don’t give up. No, they don’t understand that it’s hard to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you don’t even have boots. No, they don’t see your sacrifice. No, they don’t understand that you could be murdered by cops who don’t like your tone during a traffic stop while they will get back to you in a few weeks. No, they don’t get it. It’s on us to do what we have to in order to keep lights on, food hot, water cold and beds warm because the homeless entrepreneur thing is not fun to live out. Yes, like Shark Tank, they will want you to be full time with this but weigh your options. Do what you can with what you have and grow every day. There is no excuse.
Entrepreneur posts on Instagram won’t empower you like a book, a talk, a podcast or even launching something will. If you are able, connect with someone who has done it or even someone who has gotten farther than you. You can learn from anyone. Watch for snakes and wolves. This is important. I had to learn that people may find value in your idea but generally, they will not steal it. There are some Zuckerburgs out there but then you can become a Winklevoss after lawsuits. Investors don’t care about ideas. They care about milestones and execution. They care about runway and profit. They care about scaling. Ideas are meaningless without execution yet make sure you incorporate and add your company and year of incorporation to your pitch deck. Here is an example.
There are ways to protect your idea even where you are at and platforms that will offer free trials for bookkeeping, creating a cap table, speaking with lawyers, human resources and the like. They say it’s not the destination but it is the journey. For us, it’s the destination. The journey began before birth. During the Middle Passage. During Jim Crow. During 2020. But like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream that my dream will be a reality where I can create a unicorn company that will be multinational yet sensitive to the needs of our markets, with a specific focus on minorities. I’m in the midst of my seed round now so I’m marching with you because at the end of it all, revolution is co-operative, systematic & economic. Who is ready for a revolution?
P.S. I’m here to share what I can. Contact me at email@example.com with inquiries, questions or responses. Shalom.