The real reason my startup was successful: privilege.
I am a millionaire. The first in my family. A self-made success. It’s the story we love to tell ourselves in America about how anyone can make it. Except it’s not true. The reality is that most entrepreneurs—myself included—are the product of generations of privilege that enable success. You just have to look a little deeper to see it.
I was not born into wealth. Both of my parents were teachers. My dad worked an extra job making pizzas to pay the bills. My sisters and I wore hand-me-down clothes donated by our church. We were lower-middle class — never hungry, but definitely not rich.
My grandfather ran a small business. He passed before I got a chance to know him. His success enabled him to help my parents with the downpayment on a house in a good neighborhood. Because of this, I attended a great public school and got a good education. While in college my parents received an inheritance from my grandmother. I got a small piece of it as well, which I used to ensure I finished college debt free.
I was well educated, intelligent, and looked the part as a White male. This enabled me to rise through the ranks at a handful of marketing firms. By 28 I was leading the digital team at an agency. I was consulting with big brands and making close to six figures.
At this point in my career an older mentor told me he thought I had the makings of an entrepreneur. He encouraged me to start my own business. I had not even considered this path, but his words inspired me to at least give it a try.
I didn’t have much exposure to entrepreneurship. My grandfather was the only business owner in my family and I never got to know him. I had no idea how equity or investment capital worked and had never seen the inside of starting a business. I didn’t know where to begin.
Thankfully I had married into a family that had a little more experience. My wife’s family was not wealthy, but was definitely more upper-middle-class than mine. Her aunt and uncle had worked in Austin for decades and were quite connected. He ran a small business and she was a lawyer. They made introductions to people I could learn from and served as a sounding board for my ideas.
Meanwhile I spent most Saturdays brushing up on my coding skills. I had the seed of an idea for a software startup and was considering raising money to focus on it full time. I figured I would need $250,000 to be able to quit my job and hire a developer friend of mine.
I had read plenty of books at this point. I was familiar with the “family and friends” round of financing most entrepreneurs use to get started. I almost definitely would not have been able to raise that kind of money from my family or peer group, but before I even got started trying, my wife’s grandmother and uncle offered to fund the entire thing.
Nana had been a school teacher along with her husband. They had saved their money and bought a piece of land in central Texas decades earlier. She offered me the proceeds from selling that land as seed capital.
I had a good paying job that I would be walking away from. I was well aware that most startups fail. There was a good chance I would lose Nana’s money and be out of work. And yet, she had assured us she did not need the money and would be ok if we lost it. I was confident I could get another job if things fell apart. And if worse came to worst we could always go live with my wife’s aunt and uncle.
Having weighed the costs with my wife, and realizing we had a sound safety net, we decided to take the plunge. I quit my job and became an entrepreneur.
It’s worth taking stock of the cards life had dealt me at this point:
- I was born with a decent intelligence, curiosity, and energetic personality . This was nothing that I worked for or earned.
- My home growing up was safe and secure and I felt loved. This enabled me to develop confidence in myself and an optimistic outlook on life. These feelings were bolstered by the expectations our culture places on boys to be assertive and confident (vs. submissive and pretty for girls).
- I had a great childhood education which I parlayed into a college scholarship and degree.
- I was debt-free in part due to an inheritance from my grandmother.
- My wife’s family made introductions to successful leaders that helped me learn how to start a business.
- Our family safety net meant I wasn’t worried about where we would live or how we would eat if the business failed.
- My wife’s grandmother provided $250,000 to get my business off the ground.
- In my interactions with potential partners, customers, and investors, my physical appearance as a young white male opened doors that might have otherwise been closed, consciously or not.
Without all these things, I likely would not have made the leap into entrepreneurship. And a majority of this privilege came from generational wealth. My success came on the shoulders of the generations before me. And theirs on the generations before them.
If my ancestors had not been White, there is a good chance I would never have been able to start a business. Just two generations ago mortgage and lending discrimination were widespread. It is unlikely my grandfather would have been able to start a business as a Black man. I probably wouldn’t have grown up the same neighborhood with the same schools as a result.
My wife’s grandmother would almost certainly have not been able to buy the land she used to fund my business if she had not been White. Her husband probably wouldn’t have gotten the promotion to school superintendent and been given the higher salary to afford the loan on the land either.
I have not done the genealogical research to trace my family line back to the time of slavery, but I don’t have to look hard to see how dramatically different my circumstances would be if my family tree had a little more color in it. I can almost guarantee I would not have become a business owner at the age of thirty.
I went on to sell my business for millions, and I’ve had people ask me how proud I must be of that success. I am certainly proud of the team I had the honor to work with and the things we were able to build. That said, I don’t feel like I deserve to have more success and privilege than others. There are plenty of people smarter than me who work harder than me their entire lives and have little to show for it.
I attribute a majority of my success to the generational privilege that comes from being a middle-class White American male. And from my perspective, the rest had more to do with the talented people I worked alongside than with me. While I may have some natural ability and put in my share of sweat and tears, the best pilot in the world can not fly to the moon unless someone provides them with a rocket ship. Seen in this light, my privilege is the vehicle most responsible for my success. I may have flown it a little further than most, but I would be nowhere without it.
There are true “self made” successes in America. Immigrants that arrive with nothing and rise to the top. Black men and women who overcome generational inequity sown from centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, housing and loan discrimination and cultural bias. For them there is little chance of inheriting a network of success and power or having a rich Nana to fund their dreams. They have to build their own rocket ships and fly them — a task so difficult it’s no wonder most entrepreneurs come from wealthy families.
It’s time for more entrepreneurs like me to stop telling the story of how they climbed their way to the top. To stop taking credit for flying to the moon all by themselves, as if the entire support structure they were born into had nothing to do with it. And it’s time for all of us to find ways to empower more of the world’s highest-potential entrepreneurs with their own rockets so they can show us the stars.