How To Shift The State Of Black And Latinx Tech Entrepreneurship

Aaron McClendon
Written by Aaron McClendon

How do you advance the state of Black and Latinx entrepreneurship?

Here’s one way — encourage doing business with each other.

Identify the investors, executives, and innovators that have a vested interest in the mission.

Build relationships with these powerful dealmakers and enable them to do what Dr. Mae Jemison — the first African-American woman in space — calls “using their seat at the table” to shift the culture forward.

Then identify the first-time founders, the serial entrepreneurs, and anyone in between that radiates potential.

Include the media-friendly founders and the silent assassins creating ripples within their respective industries.

Create a community to intentionally initiate deals and grow lasting relationships with each other.

The goal? To help create examples of what successful Black and brown-led businesses can look like.

I call it a collective effort to activate access.

This is what Andrea Hoffman’s Culture Shifting Weekends (CSW) is all about. The annual invite- only three-day event takes place in Silicon Valley and New York. Guests are a curated group of influential and accomplished C-Suite executives, entrepreneurs and thought leaders of color selected to attend and collaborate, make deals and tap into the social currency, intellectual and financial capital among leaders of the new economy.

I had a chance to speak with a few of these culture shifters during my visit to CSW Silicon Valley 2018.

Here’s what I uncovered.

The Serial ‘Stealth-Mode’ Shifters

This year’s Culture Shifting Weekends Silicon Valley was particularly exciting because of the emphasis on showcasing founders.

I was curious to discover more examples of millennial Black founders that have effectively built and sold multiple companies.

Founders that have already figured it out (to an extent) and are actively investing the resources and learnings from previous experiences into building their current venture.

Because frankly, I don’t know of many founders with this profile.

Culture Shifting Weekends is proving that they exist.

Culture Shifting Weekends
Paris Benson, co-founder and CEO of Wizely Finance. Photo: Drew Alitzer/courtesy of Culture Shift Labs.

Paris Benson, Wizely Finance

For example, I met Paris Benson — cofounder and CEO of  Wizely Finance.

Wizely is an Los Angeles-based fintech startup that builds a white-label lending platform for community banks and credit unions to offer on-demand debt-consolidation loans to their best customers.

Wizely’s software streamlines the time of completing a traditional lending application from one hour to just three minutes.

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Simply put — Benson puts in work.

Although he studied economics in college, he’s been a computer programmer since high school and has already founded or been involved with at least six startups — three of them within the fintech industry.

After selling his last fintech company, Benson mentioned that he assembled the same team to build Wizely.

The future looks promising. Wizely is actively launching in new banks and is on track to originate close to $1 billion in loans by 2019, receiving a small percentage on each transaction.

And Benson has Black investors like Denmark West, Lindsay Lee, and Rashaun Williams to count on for support along the journey.

“This is just incredible — this is why I wanted to be a part of the tech community,” Benson said on his first time at Culture Shifting Weekends

Benson wasn’t the only one.

Collin Wallace, Farm Hill

Collin Wallace is the CEO of a Bay-Area startup called Farm Hill, which builds software that allows schools and workplaces to order and receive healthy meals from local restaurants on a daily basis.

Culture Shifting Weekends
Collin Wallace, CEO of Farm Hill. Photo: Drew Alitzer/courtesy of Culture Shift Labs.

As a fourth-time founder with two successful exits under his belt, Wallace hoped to seek guidance from the Culture Shifting Weekends community on taking his surging company to the next level.

Wallace is another example of a millennial tech founder that has been building since his youth, accomplishing his first startup exit by the age of 23.

“I’m looking for mentors, but also to mentor…I’d love to be a resource for everybody in this room, as well as a potential investor.” — Collin Wallace

I was shocked that this was my first time hearing about either one of their stories.

Other notable serial Black entrepreneurs in attendance included Sheena Allen, founder of Capway and Clarence Wooten, founder of STEAMRole.

The New Wave of Tech Founders

Culture Shifting Weekends
Maci Peterson, founder and CEO of On Second Thought. Photo: Drew Alitzer/courtesy of Culture Shift Labs.

Unless the entrepreneurs lead, the startup community won’t be sustainable.

So it was exciting to watch these serial entrepreneurs brush shoulders with the new wave of first-time tech founders like Maci Peterson — founder and CEO of On Second Thought.

Maci Peterson, On Second Thought

On Second Thought is a tech company with the vision of creating the universal “undo” for all mobile and desktop environments.

Whether it’s a social media chat, text message, payment, or email, OST’s patented technology enables users to undo their mistakes.

On Second Thought began as a direct-to-consumer Google Play Store app, generating nearly 100,000 active users in 190 countries before ultimately licensing their technology to large telecommunication companies, peer-to-peer payment platforms, and customer call centers.

Peterson is a driven leader who has assembled a strong team of cofounders, investors, and advisors, despite not having a technical background.

Although this is her first software company, Peterson is well-versed in entrepreneurship. She explained that everything she does now is an expression of her past, including founding a women’s digital magazine startup in 2006.

After attending Culture Shifting Weekends for the first time in 2017, Peterson was able to not only secure investments but also become top of mind when business development opportunities arise with major Fortune 500 companies.

“CSW is a community that is there to help. You get out of it what you put in,” Peterson said.

After our conversation ended, Peterson headed to Amsterdam to kick off OST’s international expansion strategy through EY’s Accelerating Entrepreneurs program. She was notified of the opportunity by OST investor Backstage Capital.

Culture Shifting Weekends
Anisha Chopra (Morgan Stanley) and Russell Ladson (Drop Software). Photo: Drew Alitzer/courtesy of Culture Shift Labs.

Peterson was joined by other first-time black tech founders, including Russell Ladson — founder of Drop Software and Helen Adeosun — cofounder of CareAcademy. Each exhibits the new wave of Black-led tech entrepreneurship.

Activating Access with Fortune 500s

Culture Shifting Weekends
Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado, Williams-Sonoma’s VP of Strategy, Business Development, & M&A. Photo: Drew Alitzer/courtesy of Culture Shift Labs.

Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado, Williams-Sonoma

As mentioned before, it takes a collective effort to shift the culture.

That’s why Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado — vice president of strategy, business development, and M&A at Williams-Sonoma, was excited to attend Culture Shifting Weekends for the first time.

In 2017, Clack-Rogers Varnado led the iconic retailer’s $112 million acquisition of 3D digital imaging startup Outward to help advance the future of retail.

This was Williams-Sonoma’s largest acquisition to date, and first technology acquisition.

Clack-Rogers Varnado is a visionary with executor tendencies. She also launched Robin — Williams-Sonoma’s new sleep and wellness brand — within a year of the Outward acquisition.

“It’s incredibly important to see yourself represented and reflected in your society.  I commit to shining the light across my predecessors, peers and successors to ensure that we are inspiring each other along the way.” — Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado

Her mission: continue to innovate, share stories, and ideate together.

As Williams-Sonoma builds a greater tech presence, Clack-Rogers Varnado is now able tap into the Culture Shifting Weekends network for potential innovative partnership opportunities that exemplify diversity as a core competency.

Culture Shifting Weekends
eBay executives Sam Bright (left) and Beric Alleyene (right). Photo: Drew Alitzer/courtesy of Culture Shift Labs.

Samuel Bright, eBay

Samuel Bright — senior director and general manager of eBay’s multi-billion dollar Art & Collectibles division — is another Fortune 500 leader seeking innovative opportunities to create win-wins at Culture Shifting Weekends.

“Having a background in partnerships, I place a big premium on connection and identifying unexpected ways people can collaborate. There’s a real bias here for action.” — Sam Bright

Beginning with his first job working at a startup incubator, Bright is committed to empowering entrepreneurs and enabling communities of enthusiasts through eBay’s 11 major art and collectible categories.

Bright is also a mentor for Draper University and enjoys supporting organizations that are committed to creating social good in the world like Benetech, where he’s a board member.

Versatility At Its Finest

From pioneering astronauts and renowned neurosurgeons to technology founders and executives, there is no lack of versatility in this community.

I even caught David ibnAle — pioneer venture investor and Culture Shift Labs board member — rocking a pair of Kobe XI Elite Lows (the Mambacurial edition), while I had on my Jordan 1s.

Minorities drive culture, and culture shifts the world.

We are now beginning to realize our access.

More on Culture Shifting Weekends 2018 can be found here.


About Aaron McClendon

Aaron McClendon is an investor at Detroit Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm that has invested in companies like May Mobility, StockX, and Floyd Home. Prior to joining DVP, Aaron led supply chain and business development projects at General Motors and IndustryStar. Aaron currently focuses on fueling the growth of consumer internet startups in the Midwest.