Being a Black founder in Silicon Valley after George Floyd: 'I honestly feel more safe'
This is part of CNBC Make It's series on what it's like to be Black in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has long been a culture dominated by white men, with a fraught record of following up on commitments to fix its race problem, from major tech companies that have barely moved their numbers on diversity to a lack of funding for Black founders. Here, CNBC Make It spoke with Black professionals to hear their experiences.
Chris Bennett moved from Miami to San Francisco to take his entrepreneurship journey to the next level. He had already started a company in college called Liquid Books with a classmate and "we were doing pretty well financially from that," so the West Coast tech mecca was a dream destination.
That was a decade ago. "I've been here for a long time," says Bennett, now 35 and founder of Wonderschool, a tech company that connects families with educators and child care providers.
Over the years, as a Black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, Bennett has often felt the discomfort of being the only Black person in the room. "That happens a lot," he says. "All the time. It's pretty normal. It's like every day."
But being Black in Silicon Valley is "objectively better" now than when he arrived, he says. "I'm not saying [diversity in Silicon Valley] is solved," he says. But "it's a lot more common to meet other black founders today."
Change in Silicon Valley
Early on, Bennett was a part of an accelerator for Black tech entrepreneurs called NewME. "I remember it being pretty controversial," Bennett says.
People questioned, "why join an accelerator for Black folks" when other accelerators like Y Combinator and 500 Startups already exist, Bennett says. "At the time there wasn't a strong representation of underrepresented minorities in those accelerators. That's changed — they are pretty diverse now. But at the time, that definitely wasn't the case."
(A spokesperson says Y Combinator says it funded seven companies with black founders before 2015. For context, Y Combinator started small in 2005 but has now invested in over 2,000 companies. Through a spokesperson, 500 Startups venture partner Clayton Bryan, also a former executive at NewME says, "diversity was broken within the accelerator ranks in 2011, but 500 Startups was more open to working with founders of color.")
Now, the conversations and awareness around systemic racism birthed in the wake of George Floyd's death in May feel like a breakthrough to Bennett.
"It's a little bit of a strong word to use, but I honestly feel more safe" now, says Bennett. That's an emotional safety — it's about being seen.
"The more folks recognize what it's like to be Black and in technology in America, in San Francisco, the more we can impact change.
"We first have to be aware of the problem before we can solve the problem," he says."What I'm noticing right now is so few people were aware of the problem — even though it's been very obvious to me.
"Hopefully … it leads to change," he says. Because change "will allow for me to do my best work … and allow for a lot of other Black entrepreneurs and folks in the technology field to enter the field and feel that they can do their best work."
Building a community
When Bennett came to Silicon Valley, he didn't have the network white Silicon Valley stalwarts did.
In the early days, Bennett remembers an investor asked him, "'Who do I know that he knows?' I realized I didn't know anyone he knew, [and] that it was gonna be likely hard for me to raise any funding."
"Silicon Valley operates on a lot of loose ties and a lot of networking," Bennett says. "So without that, it is very hard to break in."
But unlike other groups, there was no local network for Black Entrepreneurs, Bennett says. So he started one. He started Black Founders in 2011 and the community hosts events, hackathons and conferences.
"I got into an accelerator called 500 Startups because of a connection through Black Founders," Bennett says. "Andreessen Horowitz led my most recent round in my company, Wonderschool, and Andreessen Horowitz was the biggest backer of NewME, the accelerator I was in, so the Black Founders Community has played a big role in supporting my entrepreneurial journey."
But Bennett has also needed support on an internal level. To help manage that undercurrent of discomfort he's felt as a Black founder in white Silicon Valley has taken a lot of work, he says, including getting an executive coach in 2016.
The coach helped Bennett remember "how hard I have worked — and recognizing that sense of, 'I deserved to be there'" even though he didn't look like the majority of tech types in San Francisco.
A successful founder
Bennett is from a big family, and he was "one of only a handful" of his 31 cousins who graduated from college — he got his bachelor's degree in 2007 from The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.
"In my early childhood education I was sent to a great preschool — something most of my cousins did not have a chance to do," Bennett says. That education, combined with his parents being "strong role models" contributed to his success later in life.
It also inspired Wonderschool. "My goal, and the company's mission, is to ensure every child has access to early education that helps them realize their potential," he says.
Wonderschool gives educators and child care providers training, mentorship, community and enrollment and payment technology to set up their own in-home childcare businesses. Now, it also helps parents seeking childcare and microschools to find available options near them.
Though less than 1% of venture funding has gone to black founders in the last decade, according to Crunchbase, since launching in 2016, Wonderschool has raised $24 million. (Wonderschool had more than 60 full-time and part-time employees before the pandemic, but Bennett has had to lay off all but 19 employees and six contractors. He is is still making business decisions day by day.)
With that level of funding, Wonderschool is an outlier. Though Silicon Valley is making progress, Bennett says Black entrepreneurs and technology professionals still need jobs and funding — "hire or wire," is the short-hand used by tech professionals and investors.
"Black folks need an opportunity to to participate and so I think it's a simple — I love that idea — of hire or wire," he says.
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