This is the second in a series about ‘heroes in the making’ a.k.a founders and investors from diverse backgrounds in Tech. In this article we shine a light on the tale of Tristan Walker, one of the key players addressing Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity.
Quick shout out to Kirsten Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures and one of two women who featured on The Top 20 VC’s Worldwide list. She gets a S/O because she had never worked at a venture capital firm before starting her own in 2012, and she is also a woman in a male-dominated field representing a diversity of thought. She achieved two Billion dollar exits in 2016, with Jet.com (acquired by Walmart) and Dollar Shave Club (acquired by Unilever). One thing to note is she did have was a track record for more than 20 years in retail and online commerce so she understood consumer behaviour in depth.
However this post is about another beacon of diversity who founded a consumer health and beauty brand called Walker & Co, his name is Tristan Walker. In the previous article in this series, we learned about how Nas went from Rapper to Startup Investor and founded a VC firm called Queensbridge Venture Partners. Nas’ firm invested in Tristan’s company. Nas was introduced to this opportunity by his good friend and fellow VC founder Ben Horowitz who owns Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). Walker & Co. have raised over $33 million to date, across four rounds, from folks like a16z, Google Ventures, Upfront Ventures, among others since 2013. In 2012–2013 Tristan actually worked along Ben Horowitz as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at a16z. In just that snippet alone we can see the importance of building and maintaining relationships.
The vision for the company is to make health and beauty simple for people of colour. Tristan shares that he was scratching his own itch by starting a company as he was sick and tired of “walking down those aisles, being relegated to the second-class shopping experience, and feeling frustrated.” He recognised that black, Asian and Latinos made up the majority of the world let alone the US and saw the opportunity to create something special for an underserved community.
The first product released to market was the Bevel blade, designed to help reduce and prevent shaving irritation and razor bumps not only for people of colour as 80% of this demographic suffers from these problems, but rather anyone who suffers from these issues. The second product released last year was the Bevel Trimmer, and one thing both products have in common is their slick design. Tristan’s journey reminds me a little about the first self-made black American female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker (not related) who invented a line of beauty and hair products for black women in the early 1900’s.
Why do we need investors that are culturally aware?
Similar to Kirsten Green, Tristan recognised he had a depth of experience he could leverage. Before he started the company he worked at Foursquare and Twitter before that, therefore he experienced first-hand what technology could do to authentically connect people and disrupt industries. Coupled with this, like Nas, Tristan was from New York, Jamaica, Queens to be exact. His father was killed when he was only 3, his mother was low-income and clearly did her best to provide opportunity for Tristan to find a way out through education, funding it all by working three jobs. An after school program in New York called The Boys Club was pivotal in Tristan’s development in his formative years. This experience broadened Tristan’s horizons in terms of opportunity and awareness and helped him get into Hotchkiss, private boarding school. This is a prestige school littered with notable alumni from the likes of the Rockerfellas to the founders of Morgan Stanley and Ford Motors.
Tristan’s thesis which I align with is that global culture’s led by American culture, which is led by black culture in the U.S, shaped heavily by Hip Hop.
During Tristan’s days pitching to investors in Silicon Valley in 2014, in his very first pitch he was talking through the similarities between Proactiv, the acne system and the Bevel system, both solving acute problems. A woman of colour stopped him in his tracks and said, “Tristan, I’m not sure issues related to shaving irritation are as big a societal issue as issues related to acne.” This is an example of conscious bias that reflects a ‘mirrortocracy’ rather than a meritocracy. The investor clearly had no context as she couldn’t relate to the problem herself and didn’t make the connection to the customer or even the effort to go and test the hypothesis with the target customer. She could have just spoken to even 5 black or Latino men to ask whether razor bumps or shaving irritation from manual blades are problems they had suffered with. 4 out of 5 would have said yes (including me!). Part and parcel of being a great investor is being willing to be inclusive and acquire the context to understand the problem entrepreneurs are trying to solve.
What is next?
Tristan co-founded Code2040 with Stanford classmate Laura Weidman Powers. Code2040 aims to increase the pipeline of minority engineers by placing them in summer internships at top tech companies. The name derives from the hypothesis that if current demographic trends continue, by the year 2040. The classic article in Fast Company on Tristan, titled The Visible Man quotes:
“Venture capitalists, startup founders, and big-time CEOs like to brag that the tech business is a colour-blind meritocracy, but their boasts don’t reflect the facts.”
Craft released research on the state of diversity in UK tech and stated that 87% of venture investment professionals are Caucasian, while 1.5 % of the professionals analysed are Black/Black British/Middle Eastern or Mixed ethnic origin combined (people of colour). This shows how the market is currently skewed and deprived from different thinkers providing different solutions to the problems we face. I would like to hope this article shed some light on a founder from a diverse background delivering value to the market solving a culturally aligned pain point. Code2040 is an example of why it is important not to just rise to a position of prominence individually but to serve others and help them along the journey given the lack of minority representation in tech.
QUICK PLUG: My inspiration is my mother, she became an entrepreneur at age 60, but she needs our help. She is raising funds to buy a shuttle bus to support low-income families in picking up their children for Nursery in Ghana. Check it out here: https://www.gofundme.com/juliets-nursery-mini-bus-campaign
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