Techies: Tristan Walker

Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/tristan-walker/

Let’s get started. Tell me a bit about where you come from and how you think that affects how you approach your work as an entrepreneur.

I’m originally from Queens New York, born and raised. I was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York. It’s called 40 Projects. I lived there until I was about 6. Once I turned six I moved to Flushing, Queens, Latimer Gardens Projects. A lot of my life was school of hard knocks, in the struggle. I like to describe my story as that “rose that grew from concrete” story.

I’ve been very fortunate and blessed, quite frankly, to have gone through that because it actually made me a lot stronger, a lot more resilient, a lot more confident in my ability to move faster out of need and necessity. That hunger comes out of nothing other than need. It’s just a part of me now.

Yeah, totally. I know this is a loaded question, but can you share some of those struggles that you faced in childhood that you had to overcome to get where you are?

Well one, living in the projects is not easy. Two, I’ve had to go through the whole welfare thing among other things, right? I had the great fortune to go to boarding school for high school on full scholarship, one of the best high schools in the country. At that point I got to see really how the other half lives. Going to school with Fords and Rockefellers and that sort of thing. It was a really inspiring thing to me because I got to see number one, that I could compete similarly at the highest level and with the best of them. No matter what our upbringings were. It also showed me that I had a hell of a lot to learn.

When I juxtapose my upbringing with that boarding school experience it’s kind of night and day. To be honest, I needed to have both of those experiences to become who I am.

“I like to describe my story as that ‘rose that grew from concrete’ story. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed, quite frankly, to have gone through that because it actually made me a lot stronger, a lot more resilient, a lot more confident in my ability to move faster out of need and necessity. That hunger comes out of nothing other than need. It’s just a part of me now.”

Yeah. Totally. I want to quickly segue to your work now. I personally think you guys are doing the best consumer facing brand work in Silicon Valley. I am a super fan.

Thank you. That makes me feel great.

Tell me more about the brand that you guys have built and your philosophy behind it.

Yeah, my philosophy about branding is I don’t like describing our brand. I’ve got a lesson I learned a couple of years ago from a marketing professor I trust from Stanford. She said “Tristan, brand is not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.” I really articulate our brand through our customer stories. Fortunately a lot of them are consistent!

I get emails all the time from customers that talk about the success they’re having. I got an email from a woman who said “thank you for finally helping single moms teach their sons how to shave.” Or “thank you for fighting for a product that works.”

You know that’s my story. A pretty important rite of passage. As a young man in the Army, you have to shave everyday. These are the stories that I need to hear, that we’re onto something special. A lot of these stories are incredibly similar. If we can tell those stories through our own kind of authentic narrative, then I think we’ve nailed something and we’ve done it, right?

I’m always hard-pressed to say, “Hey, here’s what our brand is right now” because it’s also so adaptive, but so far it’s been incredibly consistent and told through our own customers stories.

I love it. Tell me a bit more about how you hire and how that has contributed to the success of your company.

I think one thing I think a lot about is this term ‘culture fit’. I think it’s a silly, silly, silly, silly phrase, specifically because no one defines it. It is important to me to really define what that means to people. Before I raised a cent in money, I wrote down the six values of the company. Courage, Inspiration, Respect, Judgement, Wellness, Loyalty. They’re all defined on our website etcetera. It wasn’t enough to just put in on our website. I wanted to entrench it in every single thing that we do. If you get reviews, you are rated according to your goal attainment but also every single one of those values. Are you inspiring? Are you practicing good judgement? Are you being courageous and inspiring?

“I think one thing I think a lot about is this term ‘culture fit’. I think it’s a silly, silly, silly, silly phrase, specifically because no one defines it. It is important to me to really define what that means to people.”

Also our interview process. We’re going to ask leading questions to get at one’s courage. We’re going to ask leading questions to get at one’s loyalty and respect. It provides an objective framework for folks who are not me to scale the hiring process in a way that’s clearly defined. I think that’s contributed quite a bit to a lot of success that we’ve had, and because Bevel is probably one of the most diverse companies on the planet in technology especially.

Yeah, absolutely. Something that’s come up in this project is that VC’s typically invest in problems that they can personally relate to. I’m curious if you experience quite a bit of skepticism building products for people of color and tech…

Yeah, I still do.

And how do you overcome that?

I mean, I overcome it by delivering product that works, building product that people love. To this day, people still don’t think this thing is going to work which is crazy to me because it’s just so clear that there’s such a consumer demand for this. That’s fine. They can think what they want to but we’re just going to keep moving towards our true north which is just delighting our customers and making health and beauty simple. That’s it. I don’t need their validation.

Tristan Walker + Cassidy Blackwell, Marketing Lead @ Bevel

Yeah. I feel you. Another huge thing in this project has been people feeling a sense of isolation not knowing anyone who was like them or came from an unusual background, something that I definitely felt when I worked in tech.

Yeah.

I’m curious about your experience early in your career coming into tech in terms of feeling isolated or not knowing anyone like you and how you feel about it now.

My whole journey here started in 2008 when I came out to go to business school. That was the first time I had even heard about Silicon Valley. I didn’t even know it was a place. I was very lucky to have an email address that had .edu at the end. It allowed me to speak to a lot of folks that I might not have gotten access to otherwise. Fortunately, they saw it as coming from a place of pure genuine interest. For me, the isolation wasn’t there insomuch as my ability to speak to folks. Primarily, it was inability to speak to folks that looked like me. There just aren’t enough people. One thing that’s important is to increase the number of folks. Some of the stuff that we’re doing at CODE2040 really speaks to that because I saw there was a need. Even some of the stuff that we’re doing at Walker & Company. I see bouts of isolation but nothing to really restrict me from chasing ambition I suppose.

“To this day, people still don’t think this thing is going to work which is crazy to me because it’s just so clear that there’s such a consumer demand for this. That’s fine. They can think what they want to but we’re just going to keep moving towards our true north which is just delighting our customers and making health and beauty simple. That’s it. I don’t need their validation.”

What would you say are your biggest motivators right now? What drives you?

I think a lot about looking longer term. I want this to be 150 year old organization right? When I’m long gone, what’s the kind of legacy that I hope to leave? There are two things I think are incredibly important here. Number one (and this is the stuff that motivates me), I look at my son.

I want him to be treated as a first class consumer along with anyone else where his interests and needs are respected. Secondly, I want him to know and feel like he can produce at the highest level without bias.

When I think about my motivational driver, it’s allowing and getting him to live in that world.

“I look at my son. I want him to be treated as a first class consumer along with anyone else where his interests and needs are respected. Secondly, I want him to know and feel like he can produce at the highest level without bias. When I think about my motivational driver, it’s allowing and getting him to live in that world.”

Similar question, do you feel pressure as one of the few celebrated founders of color in Silicon Valley?

Well, I mean I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel any semblance of it. I have a responsibility. I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to give back. Period. I want to make sure that I’m doing right by the folks who have actually given me the opportunity and offering other folks that might be on the come up the same opportunity. Code 2040, Walker & Company, et cetera, I’m dedicating my life to this. I’m doing everything that I can to mitigate any need for that pressure. It’s less pressure and more responsibility. I have a responsibility to not only succeed but also to help others who look like me succeed. That just makes it easier for the next group of folks.

You’ve come up a lot in this project in other interviews.

Oh, very cool. Hopefully good things!

Good things and kind of profound things — like someone literally said “Tristan can’t carry the torch for us forever, you know.”

Nothing will have changed if that’s the case. That’s not something that I want. I say that because there are a lot of people doing amazing things that should be celebrated. Right? I get a ton of interviews all the time and folks reach out to me to talk and I’m like “stop talking to me.” Talk to these folks that really have an interesting story to tell. There are other folks and let’s celebrate them just as we celebrate Tristan because it should be done. There are some other folks who just say that Tristan’s sucking up all the oxygen. I think a lot of people think that I do that purposely. I actually try and … I really, really try to not do any of it anymore. It’s unfair. It really is.

I’m sure you’re frustrated with that, you probably feel like it’s a little lazy.

Exactly.

I get it. I’m really sensitive about it as the founder of this project, of “No, no, no, don’t talk to me. Talk to the people in this project.”

Totally.

“I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to give back. Period. I want to make sure that I’m doing right by the folks who have actually given me the opportunity and offering other folks that might be on the come up the same opportunity. Code 2040, Walker & Company, et cetera, I’m dedicating my life to this. I’m doing everything that I can to mitigate any need for that pressure. It’s less pressure and more responsibility. I have a responsibility to not only succeed but also to help others who look like me succeed. That just makes it easier for the next group of folks.”

Okay, let’s go macro for a second. How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What excites you? What frustrates you?

Look, I don’t think about it. I just think about being the most faithful person I can be. I care about building the most important organization I can and I care about ensuring that my family is taken care of and safe. That’s enough for me to focus on. I can’t really focus too much on the ebbs and flows of macroeconomic stuff. If it’s not for the sake of my own personal business?

My last question for you before I send you off is what advice would you give to folks of similar background who are hoping to get in tech or just getting started.

Yeah, this is the same advice I give to pretty much anybody. I get it from Tyler Perry. What he said kind of fundamentally changed my life. He said “Tristan you realize your potential as an entrepreneur when you understand that the trials you go through and the blessings you receive are the exact same things.” What he meant by that was those trials you go through are just lessons. Lessons and blessings. You have to revel in that. It was the most important thing that I needed to hear because it’s actually made me a little bit more sane as a CEO. It’s given me more perspective. It allows me to focus on the right things right now. That’s something that should not only apply to business but just general life. Right?

That, combined with my own personal faith gives me a strong arsenal in executing my plans.

“Those trials you go through are just lessons. Lessons and blessings. You have to revel in that. It was the most important thing that I needed to hear because it’s actually made me a little bit more sane as a CEO. It’s given me more perspective. It allows me to focus on the right things right now. That’s something that should not only apply to business but just general life.”

Read more on http://www.techiesproject.com/