Climbing the Mountain: Or, Life as a Black Founder in Tech

7/1/14Follow @joahspearman

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quite match up to Tristan’s or Rob Reffkin’s—who both tout MBAs and Wall Street beginnings—and I’m not super-connected on Sand Hill Road, I can tell anyone with great confidence that I am more than capable of making the climb up Everest. I’ve been climbing all my life, actually.

I earned more than 25 academic scholarships to become the first in my immediate family to graduate from college after growing up in a single-parent home with two older brothers. During many of those years, we lived in cramped apartments and on food stamps. Since then, I’ve worked at highly reputable organizations during high profile, high-pressure situations in sports (Texas Longhorns), politics (Department of Homeland Security), fashion (creating SXSW’s style program), business (advised FedEx, Kimberly-Clark, among others), and tech (Bazaarvoice), often being the lone black person in the room.

So what I have is the experience of climbing up life—not just technology—as a pioneer and disruptive thinker. The risk of entrepreneurship is something I can handle, because my life has been all about making the most of limited opportunities to get to places no one around me had been before.

As a tech founder, there’s an order to things: First you lose your free time and sleep, then you lose your good credit and savings, then you lose some friends and maybe your husband or wife—and if things don’t work out, you’ll lose money and your reputation. Most importantly, entrepreneurship can make you lose the most important thing you have: your perspective on the world and your place in it. For blacks in tech, this last part can be the hardest as you can be subtly forced to not identify as being black in order to assimilate into the industry around you, an industry that doesn’t look like you or have the benefit of experience to believe in you.

I can say this from experience because I have lost sleep, maxed out credit cards, borrowed money from friends, and done consulting gigs on the side to pay company expenses. Most achingly, I’ve lost friends and a wife in the process of running this startup. Now, as I’m fundraising for our first institutional round, I can sense that I’m at a crossroads of needing to not be black, too. I’m not supposed to say this because saying so is to imply that I’m not spending enough of my mental energy and time focusing on my business and being “undeniable,” which is just another way of trying to make me not realize what’s really happening.

Despite these truths, my goal now is to make the experience of building Localeur a valuable one, personally and financially, for myself, my investors, and the people who will follow in my path despite the sleepless nights, stress, rejection, confusion, bias, heartbreak, migraines, and self-doubt.

And I’d like to do all of this while not losing my perspective and sense of (black) self on the climb up the mountain, sherpa-style.

Does that sound disruptive to you?

Joah Spearman is the co-founder and CEO of Localeur, a community of locals who share their favorite places to eat, drink and play. Follow @joahspearman

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Man Joah. I am an entrepreneur on vacation, trying to actually have a vacation and not read more (digital elite) articles while I broaden my reading horizons. But the headline of your post sucked me in, as did your superb ability to bring your sherpa experience to life. I hope the VC’s you are pitching will read this with open minds…I agree that navigating life the way you have, against the odds and without the props of insider advantages, is a better predictor of entrepreneurial success than any other, for a founder.

    • Joah Spearman

      I really appreciate your note here Jules. I hope you enjoy your vacation!

  • Brian Marshall

    Well said Joah. Having worked in the Tech industry for over 15 years being the “only one in the room” was a big adjustment for me. Also, to your point regarding blacks in tech and finding your voice and place in an eco-system that is held together by either white or Asian relationships, you speak for many dealing with this issue. One thing I will note, is that we need more like you!! You have been a huge inspiration to my son Austin who needs role models like you to take those huge chances. As an entrepreneur myself with a focus on helping minority, women and veteran businesses get an opportunities with major tech companies like Dell, Google, Apple and Facebook the work is never done. Regardless of how I the mountain, you MUST continue to climb!! Remember Matt Henson the famous black explorer of the artic. Talk about being the only one. But he continued regardless of what he was called and the price he had to pay both personal, mental and physical.
    Bottom line, press on! And remember, it is not the load that brings you down my friend, but how you carry it.
    Regards,
    BKM

  • lorac

    This is a subject that needs more discussion and exposure. Thank you for speaking out. Good luck in your endeavours.

  • Chris Senga

    This post had me saying “Amen” all the way….Especially the losing ‘a wife’ part, there’s nothing more crushing to see someone that had unlimited faith in you & then it all disappear to the point she just doesn’t believe you anymore.

    In regards to the core of the article, I truly believe that minorities(blk, Hispanic, women) should have a reliable inner network we could fall on not just to get funded but for any purposes. It’s true we have blk friendly ventures such as Karpor, Anderseen Horowitz…The truth is our experience differs and most of the time it’s hard for VC to relate to our realities. I always like to use the Hip Hop analogy where if it wasn’t for Def Jam we wouldn’t have a known a lot of act which are considered mainstream today. Hell.. if it wasn’t for ROCA FELLA we probably wouldn’t have heard of Kanye West the rapper. He produced a lot of track for artist under that label but it took Dame & Jay to literally take a Chance on Mr West without a PMF or any type of attraction for them to produce his 1st album. I believe the concept is the same for us nowadays, we’ve got a bunch of successful blk executive, VC, and CEO who have done it. A venture run and directed by them could be helpful for any upcoming founder/CEO.

    At the end though, I think we as blk founder just have to step it up in terms of how we’re executing our ventures. We’re in a position where as you’re reaching PMF you need to know already how you’re going to monetize with a low overhead. It’s almost like you’ve got to take all the risk and even if you reach PMF(Like Localeur has done) it’s not enough. You must know everything not just because you could impress the VC(which you still need to do) but for survival purposes. Survival/Desperation brings creativity and makes you a really good manager of time& money, but sometimes even that isn’t enough. I always wonder if “Rap genuis” & “Yo” were founded by blk founder would they have received any type of funding?

    I love Localeur the only beef I got with it is that I can’t use it on my Note 3..When Are You dropping an Android version?