Here at Recast Capital, we’re fortunate to work with incredible emerging managers in venture. To help showcase these exceptional GPs and their funds, we’ve launched “Catching Up,” a new series featuring individual profiles on the managers and funds in our community. Read on below!
We had the pleasure of chatting with Kelli Jones, born entrepreneur, PR pro, natural creative, tech wizard, experiential marketing pioneer, and co-founder of Sixty8 Capital, the first Indiana-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in Black, Brown, Women, LGBTQ+, and disabled founders. Sixty8 uses capital, connections and community to support scalable and investable tech and tech-enabled companies with a clear road to profitability, and we were fortunate to be able to work with Kelli in our first Enablement Program cohort. We caught up with Kelli while she was mid-route from Amsterdam to Ghana — and jumped right in.
Kelli Jones (KJ): I’ll start at the beginning. I always had an entrepreneurial drive, but wasn’t sure how I would apply it. I loved entertainment and knew I wanted to work in the music industry, so I moved to New York without a job, waited tables to pay bills, started to meet people, and found myself as a volunteer for the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. I thought I’d have typical volunteer responsibilities (errands, clean-up), but the experience turned into something very different. I was in my early 20s, exuberant, and incredibly enthusiastic about being part of it; a few weeks later I was invited to join the team. As a volunteer, I ran press and PR for the entire event. The next year I was asked to lead sponsorship and marketing — and I wanted to make it big.
Recast Capital (RC): What did you do differently?
KJ: It was such an exciting time. We brought in tons of sponsors, doubled our vendors, and collaborated with multiple brands. This was when experiential marketing was a nascent space, but, having done so many events, I was already thinking about disruptive creative concepts. During the festival, I worked with an audiotech company on an experiential activation: we turned a tour bus into a recording studio, invited each performer at the festival to freestyle, and turned the tracks into a free compilation for the audience. The activation was really successful, and of course drove revenue for the audiotech, since we were able to showcase a breadth of product inside the bus. That was when things really kicked off…
RC: It sounds like they already did!
KJ: I continued to work with multiple other audiotech companies; I went to trade shows, learned go-to-market strategy, honed my experiential marketing skills. Landing in tech felt accidental at first, but I realized that the entire music industry actually relies on tech to support it, promote it, and distribute it. I also noticed that I was often the “only” in the space; there were few, if any, Black women in music tech at the time.
RC: And that wasn’t that long ago — 2010.
KJ: Right. So it was around that time that I was introduced to Young Guru, Jay Z’s brilliant engineer — in addition to producer, record exec and DJ — who was creating a new platform called EarSketch. The project centered around a digital audio workstation environment that allowed high school students to learn computational hip hop remixing by using code to control loops and beats. That intersection of music and culture, engineering and tech, created a space for us to look at audio engineering innovation through a new lens.
RC: What does innovation mean for you?
KJ: I think it’s about stepping out, trying what hasn’t been tried, enticing the community. It’s the ability and the desire to jump out and do what’s never been done. In the tech sector, that translates to creating solutions which benefit all, but allow for scale. One of the last projects I worked on with Young Guru was also my first intro to startup accelerators: Techstars. They were starting a music accelerator and Young Guru, who had become my mentor, was also investing; I found it remarkable that there were services out there willing to give people money and help them build a business. As I worked with that program, I grew more and more driven by helping startups succeed. From the Techstars experience, I had the chance to move to L.A. where I led the sales and marketing for HipHopDX, one of the biggest online media content houses in the world. I grew their Instagram to 1M followers, tripled their Facebook audience, developed YouTube programming and sponsored content. Again, this was all very new. But we were starting to see significant revenue around social.
RC: You were way ahead of the game.
KJ: The L.A. experience was definitely a turning point for me. After HipHopDX, I joined one of the first teams at Blavity, then one of the only Black millennial news outlets (now multiple outlets deep). There were just a handful of us at the start, so we were truly able to build the foundation of the brand, and I began to think again about what it would be like to run something of my own.
RC: The ardent entrepreneur in you.
KJ: Yes! I love developing a vision and seeing it come to life. I knew I wanted to continue helping other Black women in the tech space, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to solve inclusion or diversity living in L.A. or New York; the companies were too big, the issues too widespread. Instead, I sought out tier two cities — Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland — emerging ecosystems that would genuinely benefit from diversity and inclusion at all levels, because we would be having the conversations from the start.
RC: And that’s where Be Nimble comes in?
KJ: Exactly. In 2017, alongside my cousin and co-founder, I started Be Nimble, a 501(c)(3) social enterprise that would create fully diverse and inclusive tech ecosystems, developing career training and placement programs to upskill unemployed and underemployed communities in the tech business. Since we were a non-profit relying on grants and loans, we leveraged my marketing and PR experience to create events that funded our programs until we began raising grant funding.
At Be Nimble, we quickly identified that the biggest gaps were in upskilling, career development, and helping secure better wages. Not to mention, there were zero Black-led startups in the city of Indianapolis. We became the first accelerator to be entirely industry-focused on supporting Black founders, and went on to launch six different programs across multiple areas, from F&B to e-comm. But, as we continued our work with Be Nimble and, in parallel, started to raise for Sixty8 Capital in 2019, we saw that almost all the VC dollars in Indy were being funneled into traditional B2B SaaS and enterprise founders. If you were a founder in CPG, retail, community as a service, restaurant, or virtually any other business, the promise of funding was low because the business models didn’t align with common VC investment theses. We launched Sixty8 Capital as a solution to that problem.
RC: A diverse fund, serving diverse businesses.
KJ: 1000%. I didn’t want to leave people behind simply because they weren’t creating more of the same.
RC: So of course you raised your own fund.
KJ: At times I thought, “Why am I even taking this on?” To raise capital you have to build trust in people to give you money — in order to invest in other people who also trust you — aka, things that keep me up at night. But at the end of the day, we’ve invested in nine companies to date, all of them diverse founders across diverse sectors — HR tech, DtoC, consumer apps, media — and we’re seeing incredible deal flow. We’re still raising, but I knew it was important to get a track record going, and our portfolio is super strong. It’s exciting to be on both sides: making meaningful investment decisions while also acting as a service for business owners in their earliest stages to make sure they are prepared. The first company we invested in went through our program in 2018; they just raised a $2.5M series seed led by Rally Ventures. To me, that is proof positive that the work we do really works.
RC: So, as the only Indiana-based fund working with founders in diverse spaces, Sixty8 is not only providing direct sources of deal flow, you’re also offering expert marketing, PR, and brand-building guidance along the way.
KJ: It’s an integral part of our overall platform. You’re a founder in a new space? We’re going to help you make a way out of no way.
RC: I love that: “a way out of no way.”
KJ: Sometimes it’s also the only way. As a fund manager, I probably have one of the most non-traditional backgrounds ever. It’s so important to know that the path you take doesn’t need to be the one everyone else is on, that you don’t need a billion exit, or even a business degree. You start by focusing on what drives you, what brings you joy, and where there is room to create real solutions, and then you figure out the path to get there.
Make a way out of no way. Thank you, Kelli. Learn more about Sixty8 Capital right here.
Recast Capital is a 100% women-owned venture capital platform that invests in and supports top-tier emerging fund managers, with a focus on diverse partnerships. The platform was built to drive returns and create substantive change in the venture industry.Founded by seasoned, institutionally-trained fund investors Courtney McCrea and Sara Zulkosky, Recast Capital leverages its deep network and exceptional track record to provide its limited partners diversified exposure to top-performing emerging managers, as well as access to a pipeline of the future’s industry-leading franchises. Recast also launched the Enablement Program as a powerful complement to its fund investment strategy; the program provides learning and development opportunities for emerging managers in venture.