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


Please give me a minute to talk about diversity in tech, even though I know whenever anyone talks about diversity in the tech industry, there are two types of responses I typically hear:

The first is tokenism or the defensive argument. People will usually point to one example of the “diverse” person they hired, funded, served on a team with, or someone they consider successful like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook or David Drummond at Google. “Hey, I’m not racist, look at my black friend.” That’s what this argument sounds like.

These people must’ve missed the published stats of companies like Google, LinkedIn, or Yahoo—each of which clock in at 2 percent of employees being African-American. Or maybe they haven’t looked around their own offices much. For example, when I worked at Bazaarvoice, the company employed as many as 800 people before its 2012 IPO and I was the only black person with a director-level or higher position. It was an amazing place to work, but I often felt like that Southpark character, Token.

The second response is usually rooted in a false sense of meritocracy or what I consider the idealistic argument. The tech industry likes to ignore its roots in Ivy League schools and early access to computers from upper-middle-class upbringings—“What is this digital divide you speak of?”—in order to buy into the fallacy of equal opportunity. Truth is, industries like government and media are far more likely to take in a black kid from the public school system’s free-lunch program as evidenced by the stories of everyone from Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey.

So Tumblr founder David Karp can be a high school dropout and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of Harvard, but I’m less sure that someone like Tristan Walker with Bevel would have been able to take a similar non-traditional path to get where they are today.

Being an entrepreneur, particularly in technology, is a lot like climbing Mount Everest, and being a minority of any type is like doing it under storm conditions. Investors want confidence that you can make the climb and their confidence scales based on how familiar investors are with “someone like you” having done it before. The more people like you who’ve done it, the better the weather conditions. If you’re a serial entrepreneur or have an Ivy League MBA, you have an inherent advantage because VCs have seen “that” done before.

If you’re a first-time entrepreneur, the climb is more difficult. If you’re in Austin and trying to build a consumer startup, the climb is even more difficult. And the degree of difficulty is multiplied exponentially for blacks and women because we didn’t start Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

So being a black person in the tech industry is like climbing Mount Everest under non-ideal weather conditions not as the adventurer, but as the pioneer climber who journeyed up without the best equipment, without the luxury of first-class comfort, and likely without the funds (from investors) to try it again if I failed the first time.

To this point, my own startup’s biggest weakness thus far—and my biggest weakness as the CEO—has been fundraising, which is all my fault. We’ve raised around $750,000 from angels and friends, half of whom are minorities themselves, but all of it in very small increments over the past 18 months. Yes, fundraising each and every month for 18 months straight is a very painful life experience, in case you’re wondering.

So my hope is that this “fault” of mine in fundraising is not in any way connected to my race, though I often question it. After all, even private equity titan Robert Smith told The New York Times that he believes certain people won’t invest in his billion-dollar funds even though his funds have outperformed Warren Buffett’s for years. Why? Because of his race.

And although my credentials don’t 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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