Who is the Serena Williams of Tech?

I saw this question on Twitter yesterday.

Many of the replies to the question were disappointing to me, so I decided to write my own answer. Below are my thoughts on the people who could potentially be the next Serena Williams or Michael Jordan of the tech industry.

Before I share my list, let’s get clear on definitions. Serena Williams and Michael Jordan are both:

1) game changers in their respective fields (incredibly talented)

2) wildly popular and recognizable

3) supported by individuals/teams around them who are personally invested in their success

4) monetarily rich

Their presence and success inspires millions of young people to strive for greatness. There is no doubt we need people to achieve comparable levels of success in the field of technology. It’s been well documented that the earning potential over a career for a technologist is higher than that of an NBA player. Additionally, there are obviously far more open roles to fill in the tech industry than in professional athletics or entertainment.

Of course, there are additional factors other than role models (education, access to capital, overcoming systemic barriers, etc.) that have to be addressed in order for more young people of color to enter and succeed in the tech space. However, of all the issues, I’d argue supporting those of us who are already on the road to greatness in tech is the lowest hanging fruit action we can take. It can immediately address the notion that more young people don’t pursue careers in tech because they don’t see people who look like them winning in this industry. I am suggesting that the people on this list have the potential to meet each of these criteria above. We can help them with 2 and 3. Number 4 is a bi-product of 1, 2, and 3, and from there these founders will hopefully reinvest their riches into our communities and into other founders. By the way, although I focused this post on [black] founders, I don’t believe founders are the only potential role models, so I encourage you to promote the stories of the people who are killing it in the industry under other disciplines as well.

These people have what it takes. Many of them have already crossed the hardest obstacles (building a product, hiring and retaining a great team, acquiring customers, raising money) and probably don’t actually need much from us. Some of the folks I’m listing are newer to the tech industry, but have game changing ideas and need us to support them now. When I say support, I mean take small actions to help them without expecting something in return — not take advantage of them because they are new to this (another post for another day). In all cases, it really takes little effort to encourage these people and acknowledge their work, and that is the least we can do.

“Could” be the Michael/Serena of tech can change to “Will” and “Are” if those of us with influence and money will rally around these folks and help them reach the next level. I can tell you from experience that there were powerful, highly visible individuals who could have single handedly changed the trajectory of my business, but for whatever reason they decided I/my company were not worth the risk (again, another post for another day). I am telling you the people below are worth the risk. I am quite certain I’ve left important people out and I am happy to edit this article to include them. The people I’ve included were top of mind because their brilliance, resilience, and drive has inspired me personally during my journey as a founder. If nothing else, I want these people to know that I see them and I need for those of you reading this to see them too.

Rodney Williams — Rodney is the Founder of Lisnr. He created a communication protocol that sends data over audio that brands and companies are using to get information to their customers. He’s raised millions of dollars and has secured big contracts with many Fortune 500 companies. He also has an undeniable cool factor that makes him relatable to young people. You can read more about Rodney and Lisnr here.

How can you help?: Read and share Rodney’s Forbes contributor posts. They’re awesome.

Jessica Matthews— Jessica is the Founder of Uncharted Play. She invented a way to create energy from toys like soccer balls and jump ropes. She’s also raised millions of dollars, has 15 patents and is generating tons of revenue. I was impressed by Jessica’s story before I met her, but it was her “tell it like it is” attitude that really made me pay attention. We need more fearless voices like Jessica’s. You can read more about Jessica and Uncharted Play here.

How can you help?: Jessica’s journey is super inspiring. Help make her famous by sharing her story.

Brian Brackeen — Brian is the Founder of Kairos. He’s built a computer vision company that specializes in facial recognition. Given my experience in building a computer vision company, I can tell you Brian and his team have overcome enormous technical feats to achieve accuracy results that rival Google and Facebook. Brian has raised millions of dollars and is generating millions in revenue. He is also a vocal advocate for the growing tech scene in Miami. You can read more about Brian and Kairos here.

How can you help?: Brian is raising a round of funding right now. His business is doing extremely well, so if you can invest — you might want to get in now. If you’re not an investor, you can help Brian hire great people by sharing the open roles on his careers page. Lastly, you can try out his tech and learn more about your own diversity at kairos.com/you.

Diishan Imira — Diishan is the Founder of Mayvenn. I don’t personally know Diishan as well as some of the other folks I’ve listed, but I have still been inspired by his story and success thus far. Diishan has used his unique background to create a lucrative marketplace for high quality extensions. Additionally the number of young black entrepreneurs he is activating from his platform is incredibly exciting. You can read more about Diishan here.

How can you help?: Encourage hairstylists or potential distributors to sign up with Mayvenn here.

Frederick Hutson — Frederick is the Founder of Pigeonly. Pigeonly has a suite of products that help prison inmates and their families communicate with each other. Frederick has also raised millions and generated millions in revenue, but more importantly he is serving communities that are often forgotten and passed by. You can read more about Frederick and Pigeonly here.

How can you help?: Pigeonly is hiring a junior front-end developer and back-end python developer. Please apply.

Zim Ugochukwu — Zim is the Founder of TravelNoire. TravelNoire is helping people from all backgrounds experience new adventures and build relationships along the way. Zim’s energetic personality and inspiring messages have drawn people to her company and encouraged them to sign up in droves for TN Experiences. You can read more about Zim and TravelNoire here.

How can you help?: Sign up for Compass and TN Experiences to experience the magic of TravelNoire.

Emeka Anen — Emeka is the Founder of Throne. Throne is currently the #1 streetwear and sneaker app in the appstore, but more recently has expanded its offering to be a platform that helps people turn their passions into profits. I met Emeka through MLT when we were both contemplating pursuing our startup ideas or going to business school. We both decided to go after our startups and I think we both made the right choice. Emeka has been sharing some important gems recently, which also inspired me to take the time to do this post. You can read more about Emeka and Throne here.

How can you help?: Download Throne and join Emeka and team at Throne Day on May 13th in LA.

Candace Mitchell — Candace is the Co-Founder/CEO of Techturized Inc. Their consumer brand Myavana is helping women discover the right products for their hair and building a healthy hair community in the process. When I think about the word resilient, Candace is one of the first people who comes to mind. She has been building and growing Myavana for 5 years now and is showing no signs of slowing down. You can read more about Candace and Myavana here.

How can you help?: Sign up for Myavana’s hair analysis here.

Jerry Nemorin — Jerry is the founder of LendStreet. Lendstreet is on a mission to help people get out of debt, rebuild their credit and get a fresh start. Last year, LendStreet announced it had raised a $28 million facility to fund loans on its site. That’s a huge deal, and has since helped thousands of hardworking people get back on the right track with their finances. You can read more about Jerry and Lendstreet here.

How can you help?: Jerry is looking for talented people to join his team. He’s particularly interested in people with branding and marketing backgrounds and experience building a financial brand, storytelling, and dealing with complex social problems. Apply here.

Ofo Ezeugwu — Ofo is the Founder of WYL. He started his company in college to help fellow students at Temple University, and has since grown it to serve the wider populations of DC, NYC, and Philly by helping renters learn more about their landlords before signing leases. Ofo has a magnetic personality that will resonate with young people who are interested in starting businesses in high school or college. You can read more about Ofo here.

How can you help?: Post a review of your landlord or property manager on wylandlord.com and share the site with your friends and family.

Jasmine Crowe — Jasmine is the founder of Goodr. Goodr was created to rescue food that would otherwise be wasted, and facilitate delivery to hungry people. Of all the companies I’ve seen recently, I am most excited about Jasmine’s right now. I think she has the capacity and vision to make a huge impact, and make a lot of money while doing it. Within just a few months of launching at Goodie Nation Demo Day, she’s already saved tens of thousands of pounds of food, and secured contracts with heavy hitters like Turner Broadcasting. You can read more about Jasmine and Goodr here.

How can you help?: Goodr just launched a Kickstarter campaign. Contribute to it.

I picked these 11 people because I wanted to get this post out quickly, but if I had more time I’d also write about the people on the list below who I am watching as well and whose moves inspire me. I encourage you to click on the links to their companies, and see if there are ways you can help them. You can help by doing something as small as retweeting an article you see about them, or as impactful as helping them make a key hire, or introducing them to a pivotal client/partner, or even writing a check to help them grow their business. By the way, these folks are listed in no particular order, I just wrote the names and companies that came to mind. I don’t know everyone who is making moves out there, so I know I left people out (charge it to my head, not my heart). I want to see all y’all win. Keep pushing!

Tiffani Ashley Bell — The Human Utility

Morgan DeBaun — Blavity

Debra Shigley — Colour

Dawn Dickson — Solutions Vending and Flat Out of Heels

Porter Braswell — Jopwell

Stephanie Lampkin — Blendoor

Ama Marfo — Airfordable

Kaya Thomas — We Read Too

Isa Watson — Envested

Natasia Malaihollo — Wyzzer

Chris Bennett — Soldsie

Sarah Kunst — ProDay

Brit Fitzpatrick — MentorMe

Christopher Gray — Scholly

Riana Lynn — Foodtrace

Sheena Allen — Sheena Allen Apps

Maci Peterson — On Second Thought

Angel Rich — WealthyLife

Kellee James — Mercaris

Lisa Dyson, Phd— Kiverdi

Kelechi Anyadiegwu — Zuvaa

Kiah Williams — Sirium

Tanisha Robinson — Print Syndicate

Dayveon Ross — Shot Tracker

Camille Hearst — Kit

Nicole SanchezECreditHero

Tracey Pickett — Eboticons

Chrissa MacFarlane — Patientory

Benjamin Young — Sworkit

Matthew Burnett — Maker’s Row

Joah Spearman — Localeur

Aniyia Williams — Tinsel

Harold Hughes — Bandwagon

Courtney Caldwell — Shearshare

Tommy SaundersFewDM

Jenifer Daniels — ColorStock

Sterling Smith — Keystoke

Angelica NwanduThe Shade Room

Big thanks to Kimberly Bryant for raising the question on Twitter and for continuing to inspire us all through your work. Also, shout out to Arlan Hamilton who within a year has invested in nearly half of the folks I’ve listed above through her VC firm Backstage Capital. Be like Arlan.

How My Identity Impacted My Business

[This blog post was originally written for design.blog]

“Is your leadership team still black?”

I will never forget when a venture capitalist asked me this in a meeting. Much had changed since the last time my black co-founder, black CTO and I had connected with this insensitive investor, but certainly not that. I answered in the affirmative and quickly, awkwardly ended the meeting. The firm did not invest. Perhaps it was our business model they didn’t like.

This was one of the most overt, but certainly not the only time, my identity was at the center of an outsider’s analysis of the worth of my company. I started Partpic because I observed a significant pain point that I wanted to solve. While working at an industrial distribution company, I found our customers struggling to describe the parts they wanted to purchase from us. Agents on my team would try their best but often err in trying to help customers locate products. Based on customer feedback, it seemed taking a picture would be a better way to search for items that were not labeled with a part name or number. Partpic was created to solve this problem for everyone. We built a computer vision API that can recognize part images and match them to a specific SKU.

I had no idea how much my identity would play into starting and growing the business. I selected my co-founder without thinking of the optics of two black people at the helm of an early stage tech company. He was one of the smartest people I’d worked with at Google. From Google, he went to work on product marketing at Shazam. I wanted to create “Shazam for Parts”, so I thought he was the perfect fit to help me build something great. Race didn’t come up in my decision, but I often wonder how things would have gone if it had. Perhaps we would have had an easier time fundraising if investors could have seen themselves in us. Maybe more customers would have signed up had we been members of their country clubs. I’ll always wonder.

I watched both my parents run businesses when I was a child. I learned from the hardships they faced in managing staffs, making payrolls, and keeping their customers happy. I also saw how their racial identities impacted their businesses. My father had to clean and rebuild one of our stores after vandals attacked our buildings because they couldn’t stand the idea of a black-owned business prospering in the neighborhood. I watched my mother build an insurance agency despite constant waves of prejudice for over twenty years. She was transferred a book of business from a white male who retired from his agency. Many of his clients refused to be serviced by my mother and were explicitly vocal as to why. The color of her skin was enough to make them take their business elsewhere.

I mention these stories to express my awareness of race and how it can impact business and life. I was not a person who grew up in a “colorblind” world. I was the kid who was constantly made aware of my differentness. Even with the context of my parents’ experiences as entrepreneurs, I was still blindsided by the challenges my identity brought me in my own journey. The awareness process went something like this:

Phase 1 – Surprise: I was surprised people focused more on the makeup of my team than the efficacy of our technology. Questions about our credentials always monopolized meetings, where we expected to deep dive into how we built our training models or acquired images and data. Early on, I was aware that things would be different for us as we built Partpic, but I was hopeful our product and business could overcome the pervasive doubt.

Phase 2 – Bitterness: I became bitter when I compared our experiences to other founders and teams with whom I compared notes. Starting a company is hard for anyone, but I couldn’t help but notice how the hoops we were asked to jump were always higher. I contemplated finding a white male to help fundraise and “front” the business because I felt my identity was holding us back.

Phase 3 – Understanding: At a certain point, I realized that there are macro systems that impact thoughts and behavior. Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, and the election of Donald Trump put my experiences in perspective. Racism is alive and well in the United State of America. The tech industry is par for the course in that way. I understand that now. I have a strong desire to change the system, and I’m working to use myself as an example of what can be when black people create.

Today, I manage a team of 12 engineers, product managers, and quality analysts — 50% of whom are black. We are responsible for making unmarked products searchable with a smartphone camera. Our technology will change commerce forever. The people who use it will likely never know how we look. How ironic.