7 Ways to Meet a Diverse Tech Startup Founder
We threw our first app launch party about three months ago.
Since then, I’m most frequently asked to answer a version of the question below.
It’s a question I get A LOT.
Especially when folks are packing up to leave at the end of our app launches.
“How do you meet these tech startup founders, anyway”?
The truth is “it depends.”
Although, I’m tired of giving that answer.
People genuinely want to know.
So we’re publishing just for you.
The truth is…
There’s really no magic to it
But if you’re like me, you’d agree that some good ole fashioned luck can certainly juice your odds.
If that answer doesn’t suffice, I hope you enjoy the article below.
As always, you can follow us at www.d-tech.fund to learn about our upcoming launches.
#1 JR ROBINSON, JUSTMYCITIES, INC.: Serve others and be open, someone is always watching
It’s my understanding that many venture capitalists won’t venture into smaller cities to source deals.
At least not initially.
It’s too expensive and resources are sparse compared to well-endowed markets like Silicon Valley and New York City.
Valuations are typically smaller too.
I get it.
Although, what I like about meeting startup founders in smaller cities is the opportunity.
The additional (rocky) mountains they climb make them an underdog worth rooting for, in my opinion.
For example, I spent seven weeks volunteering in an art gallery for Dr. King’s photographer, Dr. Ernest C. Withers, before moving to NYC.
Instead of spanning the globe for my mind blowing bar trip, I volunteered my time instead.
One morning, the head of business development invited me to an offsite mastermind group session at a private high school on a rolling campus just off of the main interstate.
We entered the front gate of this secluded area, parked our minivan and went inside.
As we strolled the cafeteria and into our meeting room, portraits of former headmasters stared approvingly at us.
We took our seats.
Floor to ceiling windows showed clearly views of jovial students sauntering into their classes.
And on our side of the window, my co-workers and I met a who’s-who of local artists.
All of them sought expansion and in some of the biggest theaters, operas, symphonies, ballets, and museums in the city.
But unbeknownst to me, a young tech start-up company attended as well, present to help promote these artists and businesses on its proprietary platform.
The leader of this mastermind group poured her coffee as we entered a truly majestic meeting room where artists get together once a month and update this group on current happenings and upcoming exhibits while swap actionable creative ideas.
When the meeting ended, I scanned the room for potential opportunities.
(I was in full sales mode for the art gallery at the time).
And I divided the room into two groups:
Ready to leave and lingering.
Eventually I maneuvered to a coffee table designated for literature drop-off, so guests could leave their respective pamphlets.
It’s that there I struck up a conversation with someone who had to be the youngest person in the room that day.
He wore a fitted with blue jeans and converse, and he had my attention.
At the time, I was mostly curious as to why he was there?
Was it really just to help these artists?
I wanted to know but we were running low on time.
Despite our brief exchange, my co-worker and I began to peak his interest; so we exchanged information and walked away.
I thought that the end.
And that’s when I ran into a slightly more seasoned gentleman.
These two people were connected.
Coincidentally he was even more skeptical and standoffish than the blue jeans guy.
Until I mentioned my recent law school graduation and that I would be moving to NYC in a few weeks.
Curious he was, so we scheduled a follow up meeting for that next Friday.
When Friday arrived he showed up to our newly designed art gallery space and agreed to a brief tour with me.
His tech start-up was having an event right down the street at the Peabody Hotel and we found a fairly empty ballroom to talk business (so he could deliver his ask).
As it turns out, the blue jeans guy was the president of this burgeoning start-up; and the older gentleman was the founder.
Just because someone doesn’t drip fully suited and booted, doesn’t mean they have less to say.
The man was JR, founder of JustMyCities, Inc., a Memphis-based tech startup that publishes local businesses’ promotional video-stories to over 10,000+ users on a locally curated platform, and that’s just in one city.
For example, JustMy’s real estate channel directs prospective homebuyers to neighborhoods that match their interests.
Its faith-based channel, on the other hand, augments attendance at religious events, while restaurants, sports fans, non-profits, and creative artists alike all can push their content to novel traffic and blooming audiences.
Their user interface is sleek.
Their lookbook designs are timeless.
It felt like viewing Memphis inside-out for the first time as I visited the platform.
The following week, JR and I met again at a local pizza shop.
I wanted to pick his brain about their technology, the JustMy business model and to better understand each member’s role at the company.
Most importantly, I wanted to ask him the hard questions about his overarching goal and purpose with JustMyCities.
But then I asked,
“What’s your exit strategy?”
Like many founders, he wanted to go big.
However, I was still a bit eerie about committing.
This would have been my first tech startup investment.
Nonetheless, he wanted us to keep in touch regularly and he liked my energy.
JR thought I could help JustMy increase its revenue (like we had accomplished at the art gallery).
But we agreed to talk once a week.
And a few months later I invested.
To stay focused, I called JR almost every Monday morning for at least thirty minutes for updates on the newest technologies, the company at-large, daily revenue and weekly wins.
I try to add value through my insightful questions to encourage team growth and by providing thoughtful feedback on priorities, focus and sales.
His leadership (and the team itself) have grown substantially since those initial early morning calls, which got me excited on both a personal and professional level.
If you’re like me, you may be doubting yourself here and whether you can add value early in your career.
Trust me, you can and will in ways you least expect.
In fact, it’s easier fearing embarrassing mistakes than actually embracing a time tested strategy of failing early and often.
For example, initially, JR was nervous about entering some of the biggest urban markets too soon and also about going overseas prematurely.
All valid concerns that he’s since (not only) abandoned but now pushes us all to aspire to grow with its user base.
Practical tip: In my opinion you add tremendous value when you help founders keep from lowering their goals by leveraging your connections and inspiring their team members.
Disclaimer: I don’t give legal advice to the company (they don’t expect me to) and the company has its own lawyer.
So who is JustMyCities, Inc.?
JustMyCities, Inc. is a Memphis-based startup attempting to make the internet local again by promoting local businesses’ stories on their platform using real people with an affordable out-of-the-box public relations solution for non-profits (kind of like an App Store)..
JustMy had 10,000+ Memphis users in 2018, and expanded to Houston and Nashville by the end of 2019, tripling their market.
In 2020, we expanded to 186 markets.
In summary, my story is a bit peculiar.
Yours will be too, but these tips will help to prepare you for that special moment.
#2: ABBEY WEMIMO, ESUSU: If you don’t already you might have a diverse tech founder friend real soon.
If you want a full scoop of my chance encounter and friendship with Abbey Wemimo, co-founder of Esusu, you can view our app launch party recap here.
If you haven’t read that already yet, I’ll give you a speedier summary here.
Abbey and I met in the summer of 2013.
We both flew to Northern California for a public policy program called Public Policy International Affairs (PPIA) (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year) and we became friends there.
He (and several members of our cohort) visited me at Howard Homecoming later that fall as well.
More specifically, Abbey and I were teammates for several public policy presentations that summer.
It was a ferocious public policy camp and Abbey taught me to elevate and project my voice in an effort to speak with more conviction (that is if I knew I was probably right when I did).
We also famously resolved pressing economic problems of the day together in UC-Berkeley’s Goldman’s School of Public Policy building, where our PPIA program was housed.
I realized from Abbey, that diverse tech founders are made, not born.
Now, let me take a step back.
You can never know for sure which of your friends will make that tech startup founder leap.
The one that changes everything.
Although, haven’t you witnessed that most folks generally aren’t surprised when certain people accomplish these exceptional goals?
It’s common for people to say, “I always knew you would do great things,” but how many of us actually support this person during their seismic journey?
It’s more than just treating people with genuine respect (no matter what their background is).
Be willing to make mistakes as you’re getting to know somebody.
And they should be willing to let you make them too.
North Little Rock, AR and Lagos, Nigeria couldn’t be further apart actually.
That’s where we were each born.
Yet, we both learned to respect and admire each other in a very short period of time.
Here’s the deal, if you bring your genuine authentic self to the table, with an appropriate level of curiosity (and of course copious amounts of humor), you’ll learn more about people than you ever thought you would or that they were prepared to tell you.
The stuff of true friendships.
Also, I’m sure you’re aware…
You have at least two types of friends.
The type of friends you talk to everyday…
…and friends you catch up with periodically when big monstrous, earth-moving things are happening.
And when you see your friends coming out of the shadows on social media or on the internet more broadly, please, try trading encouraging words with them more frequently now.
Materializing an idea from scratch requires a healthy amount of courage, bolstered by myriad genuine supporters.
Being a source of encouragement to someone is the first and easiest way to attract other successful people to you.
Learning another human being’s true self fosters time-tested friendships, and grants insights into each other’s decision making, loyalty habits and the ability to think on our heels.
Food always helps too.
We broke bread together so many times that summer, we could’ve made a dozen peach crumbles.
Don’t just “stay in touch”.
Manifest genuine friendships with sincere folks that extend beyond the classroom.
#3: JHAMAR YOUNGBLOOD, THE BLAST APP: Invite them to your home, they just might come.
Like Esusu, I wrote about my first encounter with The Blast App founder, Jhamar Youngblood, shortly after our app launch party for TBA.
It was a key focus of that article, which you can get here.
#4 ALEX HENRY, JIFF: You may be working with them; be genuinely supportive.
A law school classmate of mine told me about Alex.
This friend learned would be “summering” together in New York City.
And that’s when we formally met in person.
During my first official summer associateship in New York City back in 2017.
But it definitely wasn’t Alex’s first rodeo.
You see, Alex is a native New Yorker.
And one who already hit the lottery at least once in life.
But I’ll get to that in a moment.
That summer, he knew the lay of corporate land much better than I did, and much of my first few months in New York City were anchored and enhanced by our mutual friendship as we bonded around hot topics overlooking rooftop views.
Despite Alex’s New York origins, his story is fit for Hollywood.
A graduate of the prestigious Horace Mann School in the Bronx.
An army vet.
A corporate lawyer.
And a survivor.
So how’d we meet again?
Although our mutual friend is responsible for betwixting our lives, we became friends primarily outside of the job, through our shared interests in the city, which eventually brought us within the intoxicating realm of NYC’s local startup world.
Witnessing someone found a startup, up close and personal, in real-time, engenders an unusual feeling in you.
When you realize that their notable potential is actually beginning to manifest an exceptional product, I get a tingling feeling.
I’ll admit to you that Alex asked me to join his team formally, as a consultant, to help him pitch and generally be there for him where I could.
I’m still there for him, albeit less formally now, as friends, and through our relationship.
Since writing his first line of JIFF code soon after law school, I knew Alex deserved a proper celebration.
He needed an app launch party.
To be honest, I certainly would have learned more about the local startup scene had I joined JIFF formally.
Alex’s industry connections now span the globe.
And there’s not a meetup in NYC he doesn’t know about.
Practice tip: when possible, connect with your co-workers (outside of work) with whom you share mutual interests and be yourself, professionally of course.
It’s great for morale as well as work product.
Here’s a quick question for you:
“What are you talking about at happy hour or over breakfast/lunch/dinner?”
This next clause will sound corny but I talk a lot about our app launch parties because I sincerely believe in our mission.
It’s the one thing we can contribute as a community for diverse tech founders which gives us all a boost.
Often (but not always) I strike up said conversation and the person I’m talking to will casually mention that “we should talk about this when I’m _____,”
With little to no follow up.
What’s different about Alex and I?
Characteristic mutual vulnerability has kept us friends over the last three years, with no end in sight.
# 5 CALVIN WILLIAMS, JR, FREEMAN CAPITAL: Build virtual friendships first, and then meet in person.
Have you heard of HBCU Wall Street?
It started via GroupMe and that’s where I met Calvin.
I’m not even sure how I joined, I think I just signed up.
At the time of this writing, HBCU Wall Street has 74,000 IG followers.
But back then it was just GroupMe.
And this GroupMe was kind of elite.
Active during key surges throughout the day.
HBCU Wall Street became a think tank for wealth, communication strategies and killer financial techniques.
So who all joined the group back then?
- The youngest African American ever to revive a PhD in Physics (18 years old) before going to Oxford.
You know who else I met?
- Another brother, a pharmacist.
He was running a company called Black Market eXchange at the time.
He deemed himself and had coined the term “Hip Hop Stock Doc”, teaching his followers to invest in stocks like Jay-Z and other wealthy hip hop investors through his educational programs and free online content.
I even interviewed him for my long departed podcast.
Today, you might remember him from his $50M cannabis business in Los Angeles, CA called Good Tree LA.
Suffice to say, this group was packed with the most money minded HBCU millennials in 2014 and I was blessed to be in the mix from its earliest days.
Calvin and I exchanged direct messages while I was a grad student at Cambridge and traded paragraphs over his investment thesis.
Calvin thought that a skilled asset manager could disrupt the wealth management market by using artificial intelligence to serve hundreds of clients at once and by leveraging the full retail investment market as investors
That was five years ago.
Fast forward to today.
Three months into my new job, I reconnected with Calvin over Instagram and we set up a Zoom call using his artificial intelligence scheduler, Amy (X.AI).
He had just filed SEC registration documents weeks earlier.
Coincidentally he was raising a friends and family round (he didn’t tell me this initially).
After peppering him with questions, he later said “based on your questions, I think you’d want to see our investor presentation. It’ll be more efficient.”
How could I say “no” to that?
So I agreed.
And within a week I was video calling Calvin for the first time, from the comfort of my Airbnb.
That’s when he popped the hood of Freeman Capital, but only for about 35 minutes.
It was great because I finally got to hear Calvin explain his origin story, why his product would work and listen to him provide detailed options for potential investors.
With three Instagram accounts totaling 100k+ followers, he mapped his vision for converting these trusted followers into clients.
Since then, I’ve also become a paying client.
I’m not recommending any of these startups to you by the way.
You should do your own research and this isn’t investment advice.
Part of that research can come from hearing the founder speak in an open forum, like Calvin’s upcoming app launch party.
Join us here. It will also be our first meeting in person :)
#6 KIAMBER STAPLES, RESTAGE: your friends will come through for you as well.
I met KiAmber at her own party.
I wasn’t directly invited.
Odd way to meet someone for the first time, right?
Well let me ask you, have you ever attended a celebration party for somebody you didn’t yet know?
Was it lit?
KiAmber, like many burgeoning founders, paid her dues in the corporate world as she built her startup strategy and product-launch gameplan.
Her corporate journey ultimately culminated in her brief abscond for Los Angeles and a high octane startup accelerator called Founders Institute.
When we first met, I could sense her ambition, quiet confidence and signature smile over tasty bites.
I was stuck by her innate curiosity, in such a short period of time
Sometimes people feel like their time is better spent not attending parties and that time not spent working on their business is time lost.
There’s a grain of truth to that, but at some point “you have to leave the garage,” as Grant Cardone says.
People have to know you.
To know you, you have to be seen.
Hosting and attending events with constructive themes can build a pipeline of gushing talent for you.
Shout out to my roommate for inviting me to KiAmber’s going away celebration, a reminder to all to fellowship among peers and be willing to meet new people, always.
After a follow up call prompted by my roommate we all decided that an app launch party would go a long way for her tech startup.
#7 [ANONYMOUS], KNIGHTWATCH CYBER: Your reputation will precede you.
Folks outside of New York City hear about what we’re doing in Harlem.
They follow us and have been genuinely supportive of our mission.
Your reputation is important.
But I won’t talk about ruining it or anything like that.
I want to talk about developing one’s reputation generally in the face of obstacles that make you want to quit.
There were plenty of times when people close to me said discouraging things about aspects of our app launch party execution.
It’s easy to doubt yourself when you’re trying to build something.
And others have no problem presenting problems without resolutions.
Pushing forward often requires having friends that affirm your deepest convictions.
I have one of these friends in Chattanooga, TN and it’s through him that I met our seventh founder from Knight Watch.
They build cyber security products that startup founders and investors might want to learn more about.
We hoped in the phone call to virtually meet.
These are always unknown calls and you can tell both folks are trying to figure out who is going to talk first and the most about their business.
Fortunately, this conversation was a tennis match of interests converging.
One hour later we got off the phone with another app launch party scheduled.
The common thread in all of these stories is the willingness for folks to open up and to be genuine, that’s mutual vulnerability.
Well there you have it, 7 ways to meet diverse tech startup founders.
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