Marlon Nichols Is Changing The Face Of Venture Capital
The lack of diversity in venture capital is no secret. The Silicon Valley stereotype of white-male-dominated meetings and exclusive country club deals is backed by the numbers. Fewer than 3 percent of full-time investment team members at VC firms are black or Latinx, and – despite a growing list – still less than 1 percent VC founders are black. Women, across the board, fair only slightly better.
The U.S. demographic shift, moving toward a majority-minority population by 2044, is also a well-known fact. It’s already the reality for the nation’s public school children — who are, coincidentally, tomorrow’s consumer base. Minority- and women-led startups seeking to reach this diversifying market with new products and fresh approaches often struggle to secure funding. The disconnect can point directly to the top, to VC decision makers who may not understand the dynamic cultural trends of diverse markets, nor see the value in those who do. The end results are missed opportunities, zero network expansion, and billions left on the table.
Marlon Nichols, founding managing partner of Cross Culture Ventures, understands this plight firsthand. CCV’s growing portfolio has put him in contact with numerous CEOs of color and emerging innovators, all sharing a similar story.
“If you don’t have savings or well-off friends and family, you may not be able to quit your day job to start working on your passion project full time. This obviously slows down progress and makes it difficult to hit the necessary milestones to get venture capital financing. And most VC deals come as the result of an introduction from a trusted resource within your network, so if you can’t find a way to be introduced you are starting five meters back from the starting block.”
Breaking through these closed loops often requires the delicate task of moving beyond investors’ preconceived notions. This is true for the hopeful startup CEO as well as the VC of color seeking funds.
“As a black man,” Nichols said, “at times it felt like I had to prove more than some of my peers to push past unconscious and at times explicit bias in order to raise funds.” His perseverance has paid off, for CCV and it’s investments, affording Nichols additional opportunities to tear down traditional barriers. His early and continued board-service support of HBCU.vc, a nonprofit that prepares students of color for careers in VC, entrepreneurship, and tech, is one example. His own Cross Culture In Residence program introducing professionals to VC is another.
CCVs investment strategy is also an important study in how cultural diversity can positively impact the bottom line. By employing a “cultural investing” thesis that Nichols defines as “the impact of the convergence of global popular culture and consumer behavior on technology / innovation,” CCV develops a deeper understanding of the cultural trends and consumer patterns that can capture high-potential investments. Additionally, by maintaining a varied portfolio that includes Health Tech, Education, Media, and Financial Services, and features companies with diverse leadership (66% of CCVs companies are led by black, Latinx, or women founders), Nichols has positioned CCV as a capable player with strategic assets in multiple markets. Diversity works both ways. White-owned companies also benefit from building investment relationships with black-backed firms.
Through his mentoring, conference keynotes and continued success, Nichols is set on not just growing CCV, but building relationships to produce the next generation of VCs of color. This work is often not recognized or rewarded, but he understands the responsibilities that come with being one of just a few – if not the only one – in the room. Nichols also knows that these pay-it-forward investments in others will bring immeasurable returns to tomorrow’s VC and tech leaders, and the overlooked communities they seek to serve.
Up next for Nichols is a focus on reaching more women of color.
“Based on a recent report, it seems that white and Asian women are the only form of diversity in venture that is improving,” he said. “I’d like to see gains in all areas, and more opportunities for black women and Latinas. We’ve partnered with Silicon Valley Bank to create the VC apprentice program to bring talented underrepresented women of color into the industry. And we’ll keep helping creative entrepreneurs through Cross Culture bring novel, and positively disruptive ideas to market.”