We hosted panel exploring the Black experience within the entrepreneur and tech community titled “A Conversation on Diversity & Leadership in Tech.” The panel was presented in honor of Black History Month with the goal of providing an array of perspectives from Black investors, entrepreneurs, and executives on how they reached success within their careers.
The panel was presented by NEA’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) initiative and featured Anne Beal, CEO, AbsoluteJOI Skincare; Amanda Johnson, CMO, Underlining and co-founder, Mented; Deon Nicholas, CEO and co-founder, Forethought; Kumi Walker, investor, advisor and board member, Tracy Williams, Chief People & Diversity Officer, New Relic. It was moderated by NEA Associate, Hunter Worland.
Hunter: Hi everyone. The black identity is obviously powerful in its unity – but that doesn’t mean we all have the same journey. I think it’s important to acknowledge the diversity within this community. In your own words, where are you from? Who are your people?
Amanda Johnson: I'm originally from Charlotte, North Carolina but I’ve lived in New York since 2008. I come from the typical, large southern Black family. My mom's people are from a very small town in South Carolina called Clinton, which you've probably never heard of. My dad's people are from the tobacco farms of North Carolina. So, there’s deep, rich, agricultural Southern roots.
Tracy Williams: I was born in Berkeley, California. A lot of my family is from the Jackson, Mississippi area as well as Picayune, Mississippi–another small town you probably haven’t heard of. My dad's family is from a coal mining town in Virginia called Clinchco. I'm a descendent of slaves, slave owners, and native people. I was born and raised on the land of the Ohlone people and currently live on the land of the Pomo tribe.
Deon Nicholas: I was originally born and raised in inner city Toronto, and I learned to code at a young age which became a passion I followed throughout my life. My parents are originally from St. Lucia, a beautiful island in the Caribbean. They immigrated to Canada before I was born with the hopes of giving my brothers and I a better education and a better life.
Anne Beal: I was born in Paris, France. My father, who was from New Jersey, and my mother, who was from New York, were like, "We're out!" when they got together. There was a large African American community that had moved to Paris around the time that I was born. My father comes from people who were from Virginia and his mother's last name was Henry. Recently, we discovered that our ancestors were owned by Patrick Henry, which is why we carried that name in our family.
My father decided that he would not accept what life was expected to be for a Black man in America coming out of Newark, New Jersey. So, my sister and I were born in France. My family moved back to the United States when we were entering school and so I grew up in New York. Anyone who has lived and worked in New York knows that you meet people from all around the world there–a fact that has influenced both who I am as an individual and the way I think about Blackness within the United States and globally.
Kumi Walker: Originally, I’m from Columbia, Maryland, the first planned community in the United States. My parents are from the deep south. My dad grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee and my mom is from Raleigh, North Carolina. They met while attending historically Black colleges, Spelman and Morehouse. Both my mother and my father were Presidents of their class. My mother was the first Black woman from a historically Black college to attend Harvard Law School. My father had his own academic achievements: he studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and received his Law Degree from Georgetown University. They were both attorneys.
Hunter: I want to take a closer look at your roots and connect how your upbringing and background brought you to where you are today. What reaction do you think your younger selves might have to your current roles and what exposure did you have to entrepreneurship growing up? What was the moment you realized that entrepreneurship was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
Kumi: I had no exposure to venture-backed entrepreneurship growing up. As I understood it, entrepreneurship meant starting something, likely in the retail or manufacturing space. First checks were written by friends and family and people in close social networks. I didn’t have any concept of a pool of risk capital that was available to help support building a business from scratch. I started my career in finance. Investing was always something I wanted to do but I quickly realized that I didn’t have any interest in working in public markets. I was working at an investment bank, and I didn't want my boss's boss's job.
It wasn’t until after business school that I learned about venture capital and that there were careers on the operating side where you could go and build a business. I was drawn to technology for a number of reasons. One of them was something a professor once told me: "The interesting thing about technology is that it changes so frequently that you can actually enter into a new industry and within a few years become an expert." That's something that’s not true for more traditional areas of industry. It was this idea that got me really excited.
Eventually, I joined a friend who was an engineer from a music streaming company who had an idea but didn't know any venture capitalists. I introduced him to people and helped him raise money for his company, and then I joined as the lead in business development. From there, I spent the last 15 years operating in technology companies. In the last few years, I started investing on my own [companies] and now I'm setting up my own investment fund.
Tracy: I had no knowledge of technology or entrepreneurship or really anything of that nature. My dad owned a clothing store when I was growing up, so that's the business mindset that I had. I also started out in a traditional role: My background is law and then I got into HR. As I was transitioning between roles, I started thinking about what might keep me excited in a career. I live in the Bay Area, a place where people, including myself, are always looking for new challenges and new ways to think. Surrounded by all of these tech companies, I realized this was the place I wanted to be. Things are constantly changing in this environment. This is why I love tech. I wanted to be around a bunch of really smart people doing incredible things and changing the world.
Hunter: Did you find your dad's entrepreneurship, although not directly relevant, to be helpful when you set out to build your own career?
Tracy: It's certainly the traditional things, right? Being hardworking and self-sufficient, understanding risk and how to model your investments in your business. So that exposure certainly helped. But my family actually steered me towards a traditional job as opposed to going out and starting my own business because there’s a lot of risk involved. And there was no knowledge about bringing in investors and mentors to help you back and grow your business in new ways. So, a traditional job was the route for me and the route I continued on up until recently.
Amanda: Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my great aunt's hair salon. That was really my exposure to entrepreneurship. The biggest lesson I learned from the hair salon is that you should never let a customer leave dissatisfied, which is something I’ve carried into my current sense of entrepreneurship. But similarly, my family is in education. When I wanted to go into business, they were like, "Alright! Investment banking. Go the safe route." And that's what I did. I started my career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs.
It wasn't until I went to Harvard Business School that I was exposed to the idea of risk-taking in one’s life and career. At HBS, I’d hear kids say things like "I've started three businesses and they all failed” or "I did this thing and it didn't succeed." It was all very new to me. After two years of the school drumming these ideas into my head, I started to normalize that fear and that sense of risk. I was like, "Well, if somebody else will invest in it, I guess it's a thing." So, it became normal to me and that's what lit the spark of entrepreneurial inspiration.
Anne: My path is a little different. I'm a physician and I’ve had a full 30-year career working in health policy as well as in the business world. My last role was in the C-Suite at a pharmaceutical company. In part, I took this path because it was traditional and safe. It’s not an accident that I decided to start my business right around the same time that I wrote the last check for my kids’ last tuition payment. Part of pursuing this role is about having the freedom to do things and to pursue them. As a woman and, especially as a woman of color, it was clear to me that although I had reached a certain level, my career was definitely going to be capped within the corporate world.
I knew that I wanted to build something that wasn’t only for myself. As a senior executive in the corporate space, I’d seen so many women and people of color who were profoundly stunted in their professional growth and development. I knew that I wanted to create a place where others could come and flourish as professionals. Entrepreneurship was something I always wanted to pursue but because of the risk and family responsibilities I didn't do it. After working in pharma and knowing that I’d taken care of financial responsibilities like tuition payments and a mortgage I’m at a different point in my career. At this point, I'm having a lot of fun.
Deon: As I mentioned, my background is in building tech AI companies. I didn't always want to be an entrepreneur– in fact, I didn't even know what that was for most of my life. But I was always interested in technology. My dad's a mechanic, he’s the tinkerer of the family. As a kid, I’d watch him take apart cars and put them back together and work on computers. So, I got some of this from him. My mom is the hustler of the family. She's the one who worked three jobs in order to make sure that we had what we needed. I got my work ethic from her.
Growing up, I was always interested in how things worked. Eventually I started asking things like, “How do video games work? How could I make one myself?” So, then I started learning how to code. My parents were always big into education and so they were like “If you have an aptitude for it, go to school," even though college wasn't a thing that anyone in our family had done before. Still, they were always encouraging me to keep pursuing my passion. Eventually I went out to school at University of Waterloo near Toronto and was fortunate enough to intern at a few Silicon Valley tech companies.
One common thread throughout my life is that I was always building stuff. In the early days when I was building video games, I’d be stuck in history class thinking about how I could build technology to help me study. I was always interested in forms of entrepreneurship, but I didn't realize that was what it was called. Later, when I was an engineer, some of my friends would say things like, "Why don't you start shipping some of your apps or some of the stuff you're building to other people? You're basically building a company when you do that."
So, I started learning more about the tech world here in Silicon Valley and getting connected with other folks. Pete Sonsini from NEA was one of the first investors I ever spoke to in the Valley, and they ended up eventually leading our Series A round and they’ve been great backers ever since. In the end it was following my passion that eventually led me to tech entrepreneurship.
Hunter: For many of you, it sounds like your informal principles and character are influenced by your roots, but these roots didn’t necessarily contribute to understanding the ropes of a specific industry. Did any of you have mentors or a network that showed you the ropes when you entered the ecosystem?
Deon: I had a roommate in business school who was just getting started in venture capital. The only Black VC I knew was Charles Hudson. (I'm pretty sure every Black person in tech knows Charles Hudson because he was one of the only Black VCs.) Charles was a year ahead of me in business school. At the time he was working with another investor, and he was my resource for getting educated on expectations of an executive at a technology company. There weren’t many other folks that I could go to with these questions aside from my roommate who also worked in venture.
Tracy: I got involved with the woman-owned venture fund Operator Collective a couple of years ago. One of the founders that started Operator Collective was also one of the co-founders of Black Venture Institute and I was in their first cohort. I found a lot of mentors there and I learned a lot. This is not stuff that we talk about socially in our groups. Unless you went to a school like HBS where you're around people who constantly talk about this type of entrepreneurship, you don't have these types of mentors. As an operator, I'm around operators and so my mentors and sponsors are all operators. Finding resources like good mentors is critical but it's not always easy.
Amanda: Because I worked in the beauty startup space and knew a lot of people working in beauty startups there were a lot of people I could go to with operational questions like, "Does this CAC make sense?” or “Does this ROAs make sense?” It was more difficult to find someone who could offer real, blunt guidance on things like how to navigate the boys club of venture capital or how to pursue the next steps of entrepreneurship.
Hunter: I’d like to discuss some of the best practices for affecting meaningful and thoughtful change within organizations. What do you believe are things that worked? And, equally important, what hasn't?
Anne: I was working on another startup where we had an HR consultant who came in and said, "Wow, this is the most diverse organization I've ever seen. How did you manage that?" I turned to my gay Mexican chief of staff and we were both like, "I don't know. We just hired the best."
The reality is, though, that a lot of these DE&I efforts are always focused on mentorship and on training people. But there's a lot of talented people sitting right here, and, frankly, we don't need more training. We don't need to be more excellent than we currently are.
Part of what we need to do is to challenge ourselves and our organizations on being a truly inclusive and fertile place where people can flourish. Because I was in charge of that other organization, I could ensure that assumptions around who we should hire were challenged. But many of us don't really have that opportunity. While many of us may be in leadership roles, we’re not necessarily sitting at the table where some of those discussions are taking place. Recently, I’ve started to call BS on any more training that is targeted towards us, because we are trained. We are excellent. We are polished. We are well spoken. We are all of the things that people are looking for.
The real training is in creating genuinely inclusive environments where people from different backgrounds with different perspectives can be respected as their authentic selves. I don't believe in mentorship programs. Yes, mentorship helps, but that's not where the problem is. The problem isn’t that people are showing up unprepared–it’s that our environments aren’t genuinely inclusive. That's where we need to push the needle.
Hunter: I assume a lot of that starts at the very beginning of setting up a company’s culture. Deon, when you started Forethought, how did you think about establishing a culture from the get-go that would be inclusive and welcoming?
Deon: First and foremost, it starts with the people. In the early stages of building a company, when you're scrambling to recruit, many founders will recruit their buddies or whoever they happened to go to school with. If you start off by doing that, you're probably starting your company in a bad spot because then you get all of this inherited culture debt.
The first thing you need to consider is the kind of company you want to create. And then you need to find the best people in the world and bring them in from all backgrounds. The second thing that you should think about is the values and the culture you're building on. Even if you’ve found great talent from different backgrounds, you're not going to have an environment where you're keeping the best people if people don’t feel free to be themselves within that culture.
Hunter: What does this look like at scale? Once you don't necessarily know everyone who works at your company, how do you maintain that culture?
Kumi: A big part of culture and having DE&I as part of the culture starts with the head of engineering, the head of product, the CEO, the head of marketing. These are functions where leaders set the tone for culture. Being intentional across the organization is important, particularly when you are operating at scale. When I worked at Twitter, which was a larger tech company at the time, we were very intentional with how we thought about building teams. When you're at smaller companies, that intentionality is really important, because there's fewer people. If your networks aren't diverse, and your investor base networks aren’t diverse, then you as a startup aren't going to build a diverse team.
There's been a triangulation of relationships for just about every meaningful experience I’ve had in my career. This means that my networks need to go beyond folks that look like me, because that triangulation wouldn't have been possible with the folks that had the power to give me the opportunity to run business development for different organizations. The key for me is really in making sure that DE&I is not a separate function, that it's something that works throughout the organization.
Tracy: My company is about 2,200 people now. We've been in business for 13 years. We’ve been a startup all the way through, and we're now a public company. I’m the chief people and diversity officer, and that’s a very intentional role. But my goal is to not have a job or to have DE&I as a separate function. Because it is. It is the job of our CEO. Thankfully, I have a CEO who believes that. It is the job of our executive team. And most of our executive team believes that, but it has to start at that leadership level. And the work that my DE&I team focuses on is how do we create programs that are inclusive? How do we build that community internally?
How do we push our talent acquisition team and our hiring managers to be more intentional about building networks so that they're not saying we have to hurry and fill this role? There's so much talent out there that you can always find great talent. Go look for it. The intent is important, but you also have to look at your systems. It’s not just about training and the mentor program. We also don't have a mentor program, because I don't believe in them either, but what we have had in the past are sponsors.
I had impactful, thoughtful sponsors at the only two tech companies I’ve ever worked at who helped me navigate my career. The role of a sponsor is to speak up, speak your name in those situations where you're not in the room and advocate on your behalf for new opportunities. This is the type of sponsorship where people can really think about how they can step up and help, but you have to have that intent.
Hunter: How do you distinguish between a mentorship program and a sponsorship program?
Tracy: A sponsor is a person who's speaking on your behalf and who's looking to help you navigate your career opportunities and growth. They’re always thinking about what's next for the person they’re supporting. A mentor is similar but it’s broader. A mentor’s role isn’t necessarily to speak up for you in those rooms. They may not even have access to those conversations, but they're helping you and giving you support in your current role. But a sponsor is someone that's multiple levels up who is making sure that you’re positioned in a way that accelerates your career.
Amanda: For the majority of the companies I worked at I was the only one on the football field. For me, that football field was a floor at Goldman Sachs. It was quite lonely. When my co-founder and I started our own company for women of color who were having trouble finding themselves in the world of beauty we started it with intention and our employee base reflected what we thought was missing. Our mission is to help people find themselves in the world of beauty, particularly women of color who've been left out.
Hunter: How do you balance being as loud of an advocate as possible while maintaining your multidimensionality?
Kumi: I do all that I can to help more Black people. The issue is not about the pipeline or quality, it’s really important to get more Black people in lots of different spaces around tech, including in the role of investors.
My first job as a professional is to be the best in the world at what I do. That will afford me the opportunity to hire whoever I want whenever I want and pay them whatever I want.
Anne: Absolutely. We should not underestimate how radical just showing up and being excellent is. It goes against many expectations that people have for us. Our own excellence can be a radical action. You may not think it is, but it is. The other thing that I have seen and experienced is that the higher you go and the better you are, the more pushback you're going to get. You can’t underestimate the power of your own excellence.
Hunter: It's been a little over a year and a half since the death of George Floyd which sparked a lot of promises from investors regarding representation. How would you rate or evaluate those promises that were made?
Tracy: This is a really tough question. One of the biggest things that's come out of this is more open dialogue about tech’s commitment to drive change. People made some hires, people set up programs to deliver ally skills training. But we still haven’t made a lot of progress. A lot of companies were purely grandstanding, putting up tweets so that they wouldn’t lose their customers. But when it came to real commitment, things fell apart. What I’m most optimistic about is the dialogue, the fact that we're still talking about this. I see so many more young African American and Black folks joining the entrepreneur ranks and starting up Black VC funds. So many more people are deciding that if they're not going to give me a seat at that table, I'm making my own table.
Not too long ago I had a conversation with someone who said, “How can we ask people to give up their seats at the table?" I was like, "Why are you thinking of it like that? Why wouldn't you just add more seats to the table?" It’s not a limited pool. We have to change that mindset. There's space in tech for everyone. There are not enough people to do all the great things that we're trying to do here. Thinking of it from an expansion as opposed to a takeaway is going to be a mindset change, we all have to learn.
Kumi: I sit on the board of a couple of companies and, in reality, not much has materially improved. This is reflected in the numbers, so it’s not a controversial statement. The conversation is happening for the first time and that is really good. Historically, we’ve always talked about diversity in corporations and startups with the idea that diverse teams deliver better outcomes. We live in a pretty segregated society, so most people's networks are fairly homogeneous.
I see diversity in the workplace as something that is powerful. It’s about building more cohesive, interesting teams, work environments, places that people want to go and work, because it's differentiated. As investors, as companies building stuff, you want to have something that's differentiated. A diverse and inclusive team is a differentiated experience for most Americans today.
It's going to take time. You can't just make a pledge to have more Black investors. There are investment companies that have been around technology for decades, so that's going to take time. But I’m optimistic. I like the idea of thinking about diversity the same way you think about getting an edge on your competitor as a startup. To me, it's no different.
Hunter: My last question is this: if you could speak to a high schooler or a college student of color who wants to be in your shoes one day what advice would you give them? How would this advice be different from the advice that you received when you began your career?
Deon: When I was younger, I would always notice a lack of representation. Hopefully that's changing and I do think we're all examples of that. Giving people the opportunity to see people who look like them in roles where they might not have been before. Anyone in this role, in this environment, is a trailblazer. By definition, that means you're doing something for the first time that the people around you aren't doing. It’s scary, because you won’t know whether or not you’re allowed to do certain things or if you have permission from the world to do something. That's often been the biggest hurdle for me: imposter syndrome, that feeling of getting over the need to feel like you need permission to show up. You don't need permission to show up.
Anne: I once had a friend, a Black woman in a high-level government position who was complaining about how hard her job was. Another friend was like, "Stop. Harriet Tubman had a hard job. What you are doing now is not hard. Okay?"
We are our ancestors' wildest dreams. Whatever we're doing, we're going to be trailblazers. Showing up is trailblazing, but it is nothing compared to what our ancestors and predecessors went through. For the previous generation, it was all about getting the best job, the best education and moving on.
Back then, it was getting a unionized job that was a big deal. And then it evolved to getting a professional job. The next generation is about creating jobs. Having a long-term perspective helps you realize that you're always going to be uncomfortable, because you're always going to be doing something different, new, and trailblazing. But it is still nothing compared to what those before us have gone through.
Tracy: It comes down to how you grow. Sometimes we get too comfortable sitting in certain roles. Sure, it’s comfortable, but you're not stretching yourself. You're not challenging yourself. Grow.
Go do great things. Don't be afraid to take risks. It's fine to fail and get that fear out of your DNA. It is a very real fear. People come from backgrounds where stability is key. But there's so much opportunity. Taking risks and learning how to fail is the key to keep moving.
Amanda: I came from a family of educators where my mom always said, "Stay curious." So, my advice is stay curious and bold. I got nervous about some of these new things. You can cower within yourself sometimes. Having the platform to speak out for people who look like me and say, "No, this isn't right. There needs to be more," has given me my voice back. I wish I'd never stopped being bold.
Hunter: Wow. I'm glad that we all got the chance to speak, because each piece of advice I think added something different. Thank you to our panelists and for all of our attendees for making the time. Happy Black History Month and have a great day.