Podcast Transcript – Series THREE
3rd Anniversary REtrospective July 2022
[00:00:00] Kwame Boler: Very common mistake that I see many founders make myself included is they run the race at a Sprint’s pace and gas themselves out.
[00:00:11] Ikechi Nwabuisi: We’ve been hit with a lot over the last few years, right. Anyone who is starting a business has been hit with a ton.
[00:00:18] Stella Ashoulu: I’m still seeing a lot of same ways of evaluating founders and startups that don’t take into consideration. A lot of the unique experiences that black founders have.
[00:00:28] Kwame Boler: When a challenge [00:00:30] arises, we’re always the ones to rise to the occasion.
[00:00:32] Ikechi Nwabuisi: I feel like I saw more black founders getting funded. We’ll see what the data looks like when it comes out.
[00:00:37] Bara Cola: I would say that younger people maybe are noticing the startup space, young black girls and boys.
[00:00:43] So I think it’s just kind of front and center in the culture.
[00:00:47] Coach AK: I think there is a bigger divide where race is a factor.
[00:00:51] Stella Ashoulu: Being able to prepare for that. In hindsight, would’ve been really nice, but you can’t go back in time.
[00:00:56] Coach AK: Follow love, not fear. Meaning don’t let fear drive [00:01:00] your decisions instead. Let it be love.
[00:01:02] Dan: What’s up Unfound Nation, Dan Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out this special episode of Founders Unfound. Those were snippets from the first guests we ever had on the podcast. Way back in 2019 at founders unfound, we’re celebrating three years of bringing you amazing founders and their stories. Early in June, 2022, we published our 50th episode. So exciting and unbelievable at the same time. To recognize both of these milestones. I thought I’d do a little [00:01:30] retrospective and catch up with our first seasons entrepreneurs. Stay tuned for their updates and wisdom you’ll wanna listen in. But before that, please make sure to liken subscribe to the podcast we’re available anywhere you get your podcast, even YouTube. And if you like what you hear drop us a five star review on apple firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course you can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn @foundersunfound.
[00:01:53] Now on this special episode, stay safe and hope you enjoy.[00:02:00]
[00:02:00] Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound, spotlighting, the best startups you don’t know. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented backgrounds. I’m your host, Dan Kihanya, let’s get on it. What are an amazing three years when Deborah and I started this project back in early 2019, we had no real concept of what was to come.
[00:02:25] We just believed that the narrative of no black founders out there to support [00:02:30] was just bunk. And that storytelling is a powerful way to bring those journeys to life. We had no idea just how incredible all of our guests would turn out to. Doggedly building companies against the backdrop of a global pandemic, social unrest and protest around racial injustice, a highly contentious election and political divisiveness that still divides the us today in 2022, all with economic uncertainty, inflation climate events, and ever frequent natural disasters.
[00:02:58] Well through it all day by [00:03:00] day, startups and founders struggle, lead and attempt to thrive. Many have been truly tested and it’s no different for the startups represented by our guests at founders unfound. Since we started in 2019, we’ve had 50 episodes interviewing 50 different founders from 48 companies.
[00:03:16] Some of the highlights from this incredible group:
[00:03:18] They currently employ around 500 employees along with countless contractors, part-time consultants and advisors.
[00:03:25] Founders came on the show having raised an average of about 450,000 at the [00:03:30] time of their record. They have collectively gone on to raise over 213 million in outside funding.
[00:03:36] Incredible. When you think about all the challenges in fundraising that have faced entrepreneurs, especially founders of color.
[00:03:42] Our guests have participated in many of the premier accelerators studios and competitions in the us ecosystem from Y Combinator to Techstar and beyond.
[00:03:51] And they’ve received a multitude of accolades and media coverage from the likes of Forbes, CNBC tech crunch, and good morning America.
[00:03:59] If I were an investor in [00:04:00] this portfolio, I’d be pretty happy with the results. So far. At the same time, these founders haven’t been immune to the challenges. Many startups have had to endure since 2020, we’ve seen co-founder and key team members turnover. We’ve seen some businesses, sunset or go dormant.
[00:04:15] Many have had to pivot in some way and all have had to deal with the challenge of leading teams through seasons of acute stress and uncertainty. The fact that so many of our guests’ companies are actually growing and optimistically, driving forward is a testament to the grit and sheer determination [00:04:30] that black founders demonstrate daily. To celebrate our anniversary, decided to go back to the beginning 2019 and catch up with the five founders we had on the show that first year Stella Ashaolu, WeSolv Kwame Bowler of Neu, Ikechi of TRiBL, Bara Cola of Carbice, and Coach AK Ikwuakor from E-LETE Styles.
[00:04:50] I wanted to find out what the world of 2022 looked like compared to 2019 from their eyes. But before exploring that, I got a quick update from each of them. [00:05:00] Stella was our very first interview. Coming in just after she completed Techstars Seattle. As a reminder, we solve uses a tech platform to create challenges that help corporations engage with and recruit diverse talent.
[00:05:12] I’m forever grateful that Stella was brave enough to be my first and she kept it real right out of the gate. Since then, Stella has continued to grow. We solve raising close to a million dollars and cultivating great clients like Salesforce and discover. Stella has been featured in Forbes, PC magazine and tech crunch. She’s also gone [00:05:30] on to co-found Fifth Star Funds, a Chicago- based venture philanthropy fund investing in underrepresented founders.
[00:05:36] Our second interview was with the founding team of Neu a company, creating a marketplace matching Airbnb hosts with on-demand cleaning since 2019 Kwame and Claudius have gone on to complete Techstars and raised almost a million dollars.
[00:05:49] A company has also pivoted to providing a platform that focuses strictly on home cleaners. They rename themselves to Spritz with a Z like many of our founders, Kwame, and [00:06:00] Claudius, aren’t waiting for a super exit before giving back. Kwame helps out with venture out in Austin, which empowers folks who want to leave corporate life for entrepreneurship Claudius is on the board of an organization focused on supporting stem for kids and is also exploring the investor side of things with Startup Haven Ventures. Fun fact: Claudius was recently a contestant on Fox TV’s Domino Masters.
[00:06:23] Our third guest was Baratunde Cola, founder and CEO of Carbice. Carbice, as you might recall, is revolutionizing [00:06:30] material science and a quest to help all electronics big and small cast off heat, their new Carbice lab. And Carbice SIM are first of their kinds for thermal material design and qualification.
[00:06:41] Since 2019, the company has raised 15 million and is building out a lab and manufacturing facility in Atlanta. Bara is a noted leader in the city’s booming startup ecosystem. In his spare time, he still maintains ties to his professorship at Georgia tech. And oh, by the way, is on the board of advisors for the Smithsonian.
[00:06:59] [00:07:00] Next up, we had Ikechi, the founder and CEO of TRiBL. Back then the company was focused on building a community that helped folks stay connected to heritage and culture. Now, TRiBL has evolved to focus on the financial lens of community with investment clubs and clear connections to web three defi and cryptocurrency. Ikechi has raised about $500,000 in forged partnerships with Circle USD Coin, and most impressively Visa.
[00:07:26] And rounding out our guests for 2019 coach AK [00:07:30] Ikwuakor of E-LETE Styles. Unfortunately, AK decided to sunset E-LETE in 2021. The formal attire wear business it was based on, just couldn’t survive the pandemic. But AK landed on his feet for sure. He moved from Boston to LA and now is a leader for Google’s Sales Excellence Coaching. His speaking and consulting, take him all over the world. He also has a new company called MobileXA, which helps other startups scale in 90 days via remote teams.
[00:07:57] When I chatted with each guest, I wanted to find out how [00:08:00] they viewed things differently for black founders in 2022 versus 2019. And what advice they’d give themselves in retrospect? First up here’s Stella, Kwame, Ikechi, Bara and AK talking about the contrast of black entrepreneurship in 2022, compared with 2019.
[00:08:21] Stella Ashoulu: I think between 2019 and today 2022, there are a lot of things that are different for black founders. Me specif. [00:08:30] But I think, unfortunately there’s a lot of things that are still the same. They just might not present in that way. And so I think for me personally, in 2019, it was still a struggle as a black founder to get folks to take a bet on investing.
[00:08:48] There wasn’t as much attention on the challenges and the need for a concerted effort. To change funding and the venture landscape for black founders. And I think after the [00:09:00] death of, or the murder, I’m sorry of George Floyd. There was a lot of attention given towards the inequities and the disparities between black folks and others here in the us.
[00:09:14] And that has put a lot of attention and spotlight on investing in black founders. I’ve seen a lot more. Still flow, attention media going towards black founder. And actually I say that with the grain of salt, it’s not exactly a lot more [00:09:30] given in the grand scheme of things, but we are seeing the attention and, and more discussion around it.
[00:09:35] When I say some things are still the same. I’m still seeing a lot of same fundamental methodologies or ways of evaluating founders and startups that don’t take into consideration. A lot of the unique experiences that black founders have and adjust accordingly. I’m not seeing in the macro sense, a shift in thinking [00:10:00] about how we deploy capital.
[00:10:01] But what I am seeing as far as being a founder of a company that’s in the diversity space, a lot more attention from our prospects, our companies that we serve, we’ve built a really huge inbound wait list of companies that wanna work with. We solve that want to improve their diversity. Now how much effort and time and resources are they actually going to commit?
[00:10:26] You know, that’s T B D. There’s definitely been an [00:10:30] influx and an uptick in that focus, something that we’re really excited about.
[00:10:39] Kwame Boler: So one of the key differences I identified between us in 2019 and where we are now. Is just the fact that we’re considerably more confident in our own abilities. One thing that time has shown us is that when a challenge arises, we’re always the ones to rise to the occasion. And that has made us not only feel more [00:11:00] validated through the experience that we face or challenges that we overcame, but comparatively reassured us that we’re high performers well within this industry and definitely are very deserving of the success that we received.
[00:11:19] Bara Cola: I would say that you see a few more funds that are small, that are led by black people. You see a few more faces as associates [00:11:30] operating partners and some of the larger funds. And you hear more people talking about diversity, inclusiveness. That’s what I see. That’s my experience. You know, I see the people, I see the funds where they are.
[00:11:43] I hear the talk, you know, those things don’t change my strategy or kind of how I operate as a founder, but it’s what I see in the landscape of the environment. And that’s certainly a change. I think also I would say that younger people [00:12:00] maybe are noticing the startup space, young black kids, girls, and boys are noticing it a bit more.
[00:12:06] So I think there’s more opportunity to kind of affect the future of the youth through. What has happened over the past couple years with the George Floyd, you know, as a result of that, there are several numerous things that kind of fall out of what people wanna take action on. And I feel like one of them is on business ownership.
[00:12:22] And as a result of that, people start looking a little bit more at startup ecosystem and that could just be unique to Atlanta. Cause I think Atlanta [00:12:30] has a startup scene and a tech scene that is on the rise. So it’s kind of top of mind and topic and at Georgia tech university where I’m affiliated. They have a focus on that. So I think it’s just kind of front and center in the culture.
[00:12:49] Ikechi Nwabuisi: Black founders are begin more funding. It looks like we can’t say that until we close out our rounds from a personal perspective, but just looking at the overall [00:13:00] ecosystem. Increasing first time black fund managers, it seemed just on like the network. I feel like I saw more black founders getting funded. We’ll see what the data looks like when it comes out right at the end of the year.
[00:13:12] But it seems like things have been somewhat progressing while it’s also like, well, overall more capital was entering into the start of ecosystem as a whole. When it comes down to dollar for dollar, are we getting more money?
[00:13:24] Maybe not, but I’m definitely seeing more people get money, which feels good. At least [00:13:30] today. It’s a lot more clear that black culture, black content, that there’s a business case for creating things geared towards specifically the black community. I think you’re seeing that like across entertainment, across technology, you know, cash app.
[00:13:48] Everything Jack’s doing with Bitcoin Africa, et cetera. The understanding of the value of black culture has increased and has now allowed for black leaders to [00:14:00] enter into roles, whether creating their own businesses or joining companies to kind of be the source of cultural capital. Right. Unfortunately, you know, our IP is still.
[00:14:12] Used and the capital is still being controlled at times by the same people. But people are breaking through in progress is progress. .
[00:14:22] Coach AK: You know, when I think about myself as a [00:14:30] black founder in 2019, and now in 2020, I look at it in different ways. For one, I lived in Boston pre pandemic. Where that environment was much smaller and your race, your gender was much more concentrated and much, much more talked about. So being a black founder in Boston is very different than being a black founder in Los Angeles.
[00:14:57] Los Angeles is just a much. Bigger [00:15:00] place. It has much more diversity from people all around the globe in different sectors, different interests, different hobbies, you know, it’s big in the entertainment world. So for me, I haven’t actually really thought about being a black founder in Los Angeles. It’s never actually crossed my mind because.
[00:15:18] The demographics are very different, but at the same time, if you actually look within the country, I think there is a, a bigger divide where race is a factor. It is played. But I think a lot [00:15:30] of it depends on the location in which you live and how much it’s gonna be on the forefront of people’s minds.
[00:15:37] Dan: And here now is the great advice our guests would give from 2022 to the 2019 versions of themselves.
[00:15:49] Stella Ashoulu: If I could go back in 2019, that’s pre COVID one. I would tell myself to really think about self care and how I [00:16:00] continue to be the leader that I need to be, to show up, to do the hard work that I’m doing. I would also really focus. On building a more foundational leadership team within my organization and the importance that it would be in allowing me to delegate a lot of the responsibility of we solve and, and find really great partners to help build and scale we solve because, uh, we did not know that we were gonna [00:16:30] get the influx of attention capital.
[00:16:33] Revenue and companies that we have. And so I think being able to prepare for that in hindsight, would’ve been really nice, but we can’t go back in time.
[00:16:48] Kwame Boler: I’d say the biggest piece of advice that I would give to myself and to any founder that’s going for. Venture funding is the understanding that fundraising is sales. So everything that I just said in those other four pieces [00:17:00] are key components to that last point, which is it’s really important to understand that you’re selling a person on your dream, your vision, and what the company will be able to accomplish.
[00:17:12] They’re selling a person on your leadership, your team, your ability to make that vision a. And so it’s, it’s extremely important to recognize that when you’re talking to people who could be investing in your company, that you’re definitely leading with your strengths, not necessarily [00:17:30] your weaknesses, that you’re ensuring that you’re positioning the company positively and for success that you’re qualifying the values of your teams in your contributions.
[00:17:41] And that you’re again, bringing. In leading and deeming confidence because no one wants to buy into a product that where they feel as if the person that is leading or is driving the ship is not completely confident in their ability to execute what they’re [00:18:00] saying. And so I would also just kind of condition for extra credit.
[00:18:03] Less is more, it’s much more important for you. Provide less information and enable your person or the person that you’re speaking with as an investor or anyone really to double quick, then try to explain every single thing to them, turn it into a conversation and make it organic.
[00:18:25] Bara Cola: Probably would tell him to start doing Pilates classes a little bit earlier than [00:18:30] you. Just to, just to manage your stress a bit better. you know, cause that’s worked out fantastic since the pandemic started. The main thing. I think that in terms of just what we’ve been doing at the company, we’ve been tremendously fortunate that we made some good decisions about our strategy and approach, but you can’t avoid the stress of the environment in which you operate.
[00:18:54] And just to inherit things with supply chains and your customers and their supply [00:19:00] chains and their delays. So I think the, you know, this then the journey of a startup founder is one of resilience and anything that you can do to better prepare yourself to be Bulletproof. I would go back and just kind of remind my earlier self, get ready each veggies.
[00:19:18] You know, work out a little bit more and I’ve been doing that, but I, I probably started a little later than I could have. And for me, the pandemic was a fortunate thing. Cause it forced me. I built a gym [00:19:30] in my garage, so I had access to working out more frequently. So because of the pandemic. I’ve been taking better care of my body and we didn’t have that boundary condition.
[00:19:41] I could be an completely different place. Physically, mentally.
[00:19:48] Ikechi Nwabuisi: Keep building, keep building is the best thing I can say right now. I think we’ve been hit with a lot over the last few years, right. Anyone who is starting a business has been hit with a ton. And [00:20:00] I think starting with the pandemic, but now we’re in this, you know, or we’re getting into this recession. I think builders will be rewarded, right. We’re kind of entering into this new internet on one end. Right. And also entering into this bare market where you actually got to need to become a business. Right. And ultimately we were on the right path back then the world kind of had to change for alignment, right? To start to happen. [00:20:30] Everything from the pandemic, starting and us really shifting the digital commerce kind of fast track this into the future.
[00:20:37] Social commerce started to become really big narrative and crypto got really big. And then I think ultimately in web three, the term Dow came about and we like to talk about Dows is like, yo, if a Dow is a group chat with a shared bank account cap table, right then tribals is discord for Dow. Which kind of helped align the story to something that people understood the [00:21:00] behavior of. So I would just say, keep building, we’re moving down the right road and now we’re here and we’re early. So it’s interesting.
[00:21:11] Coach AK: Even if I were to give myself advice in 2019, I never would’ve understood. The only advice I would give myself three years ago is to continue on the path and trust the journey that everything is going to work out when it needs to work out. You need to go through those ups and downs. [00:21:30] You need to go and take your lookings along the way, because all of those little muscles that you’re building along the way of strength of getting back to where you need to, especially during the pandemic of people, losing things and gaining things and.
[00:21:44] Finding new perspectives. If I had to give myself actual some type of advice from three years ago, it would be to meditate daily. And it sounds so small, but the impacts are so large and then two [00:22:00] would be to follow love, not fear, meaning don’t let fear drive your decisions instead. Let it be love.
[00:22:13] Dan: So, where do we go from here? In many ways black founders have as much opportunity as ever, but barriers still remain in funding as a percentage of the total still falls well short of what should come their way. So I will continue to make founders and found [00:22:30] episodes as long as there are underrepresented founders whose stories need to be heard.
[00:22:34] I will put out shows sometimes less frequently, sometimes more frequently, and I’ll even take small break. Rest assured my commitment remains strong as always. We still want and need more people, especially those with influence and capital to hear from our founders. So take two minutes and share founders unfound with someone whom you think is hungry for these stories.
[00:22:56] Thanks so much for tuning in
[00:22:58] This podcast was produced by [00:23:00] Dan Kihanya.
[00:23:00] With audio editing and production by We Edit Podcasts.
[00:23:03] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcast. Or simply go to foundersunfound.com/listento. That’s listen T-O. And follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn @foundersunfound, and make sure to tell your friends about us. We appreciate every single new listener.
[00:23:22] I am Dan Kihanya, and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.[00:23:30]