As Entrepreneurs Focus Ahead, We Look Back At Some Highs And Lows Of 2019 In Black Tech

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Black tech
Black men were resilient and broke records in 2019. Brian Brackeen settled his lawsuit with Kairos, the Miami facial recognition startup he founded. Brackeen has moved on to become a general partner of Lightship Capital, a fund serving underrepresented entrepreneurs. Photo of Brian Brackeen by Anita Sanikop/Moguldom

As another year and decade come to a close, the Black entrepreneur community has made great strides in tech but it was not easy. We’re focusing here on the highs and lows of 2019 in Black tech.

We took a hit

We felt the loss of Joan Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Products, the first Black-owned company to trade on the American Stock Exchange. The makers of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen, the Johnson family helped to pave the path for companies like Shea Moisture, Mielle Organics and CurlMix to create, manufacture and distribute Black haircare products.

The loss of Nipsey Hussle, entertainer, investor and cryptocurrency activist, provided a stark reminder to be vigilant and reinvest in the Black community. It is estimated that the projected value of his investments could one day reach $210 million.

We saw the “Michael Jordan” of the corporate world, Bernard Tyson, also transition this year. Chairman and CEO of the $55-billion Kaiser Permanente, he advocated for social issues. He wrote an op-ed on Black men being killed by police and led his company to increase revenue and grow its technology investments.

Still fighting the fight

Big tech companies are still being called out for discrimination, hostile work environments and a lack of diversity. It’s exhausting to have to write on this topic on a regular basis. Uber and Lyft are still trying to address ride discrimination where users of the apps are finding their requests for rides being canceled, or longer wait time. A Denver-area Lyft passenger was racially harassed and faced an attempted kidnapping which led to the usual “we have an anti-discrimination” public address. A study — “When Transparency Fails: Bias and Financial Incentives in Ridesharing Platforms” — showed bias from drivers. Black users were canceled at nearly three times the rate of white users and twice as often for those in the LGBTQ community. Uber announced a policy update for drivers to attempt to address the issue.

Facebook stayed in the news for its diversity issues. You know it’s bad when HUD Secretary Ben Carson charges Facebook with discrimination. The housing discrimination charges state Facebook allowed advertisers to discriminate on their advertising platform. Forget Mark Zuckerberg going before the House Financial Services Committee over proposed cryptocurrency Libra. Representatives Maxine Waters and Joyce Beatty took him to town for lack of diversity, discrimination, spreading fake news on the platform and censoring users. It was reminiscent of Black Panther’s M’baku character claiming, “We will not have it.” Externally it seemed Facebook was suffering. Little did we know, Black employees were still finding it hard to work there after the previous public calling out by former employee Mark S. Luckie. This year, a group of Facebook employees created a post titled Facebook Empowers Racism Against Its Employees of Color. The article appeared on Medium under the page “FB Blind”. While this post is focused on Facebook, it could easily apply to employees in big tech companies around the world. According to a recently released study from Dipper, people of color distrust their employers and are lying on the employee surveys for fear of retaliation.

Black men showed resilience

Brian Brackeen settled his lawsuit with Kairos, the Miami facial recognition startup he founded. He was fired by his board in 2018 and both parties sued. Brackeen will maintain shares of the company he was ousted from. He has moved on to become a general partner of Lightship Capital, a fund serving underrepresented entrepreneurs, and an investor in EXCITED, a direct-to-consumer platform serving the gay male community.

Reggie Middleton, CEO of Veritaseum, a software for P2P capital markets and founder of the once-popular investment site, BoomBustBlog, settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He faced fraud charges this year related to his platform and tokens. He agreed to a $9.5 million settlement which may boil down to a civil penalty of $1 million and a transfer of assets. Delane Parnell, founder, and CEO of Playvs, the official league for high school esports, completed a $50 million raise in a Series-C round with Adidas, Samsung and Sean “Diddy” Combs as investors.

Rodney Williams, founder and CEO of Lisnr, received support from Visa in a Series-C fundraise for an undisclosed amount. Founder and CEO Marcus Carey, who previously raised $4 million for his Austin startup, Threatcare, was acquired by Tampa cybersecurity firm, ReliaQuest for an undisclosed amount. Black Men Talk Tech launched and hosted its first conference in Miami with the theme, Unicorn Ambition. Clarence Wooten, entrepreneur, investor and an overall Black tech Silicon Valley O.G., launched Revitalize Ventures to attract underrepresented founders of SaaS, AI and marketplace technologies to move their headquarters to West Oakland’s opportunity zone, per Forbes.

Black women continued to rise

From avatars to an increased number of Black women investors and acknowledgment of hidden figures and record breakers, women are securing their seat. The momentum has not stopped and they are not letting opportunities slip by. Black women in tech mobilized, pooled resources and continued to create safe spaces via events such as Black Women Talk Tech, blackcomputeHER.org, Power Rising and Summit21. Black women continued to grow communities such as Black Tech Women, Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech and Women of Color in Blockchain.

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 33: Dr. Gina Paige

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Reynell “Supa Cent” Steward broke her own record on Cyber Monday and sold $1.37 million dollars from her makeup line, The Crayon Case. Dawn Dickson, founder and CEO of PopCom and Flat Out of Heels, became the first Black woman to raise more than $1 million in a secure token offering, per Forbes. Health tech startup, Mahmee, founded by Melissa Hanna and her mother, raised a $3 million seed round. Joy Buolamwini, recognized as a Time 100 Next 2019 innovator, is affecting policy by speaking with U.S. and European government officials on the bias of facial recognition programming. Peggy Alford, senior vice president at PayPal, was appointed to Facebook’s board of directors, making her the first Black woman to serve on the board. Amazon appointed Rosalind Brewer, COO and director of Starbucks, to its board of directors, making her the second Black director to serve.

Atlanta on the rise

We cannot overlook one of the most memorable moments of 2019 — the grand opening of Tyler Perry’s 300-acre studio production lot. From Hotlanta to Techlanta, Atlanta is quickly becoming the land of opportunity for Blacks beyond entertainment and historical sites. Per USA Today, Atlanta is “emerging as the nation’s black tech capital” where one in four tech workers are Black. Its reputation is rising due to heavy hitters such as Paul Judge, Rodney Sampson, Jewel Burks Solomon, and up-and-coming leaders, investors and CEOs such as Joey Womack, Shila Nieves Burney, Jasmine Crowe and Dr. Roshawnna Novellus. Black tech founders can be found participating in accelerator programs across the city or working at The Gathering Spot, a members-only co-working space in Atlanta. The area is drawing former Silicon Valley residents including Tristan Walker and Sheena Allen.

Focused ahead

Whether on the east coast or west, the South or the Midwest, startup founders are focused ahead. I have spoken with numerous founders over the year for Moguldom, and 2020 looks to be a bright year with highly anticipated fundraising and growth in various sectors. Collaborations and alliances continue to increase among Black founders and founders of color. Keeping an eye ahead with a foot on the neck of those trying to oppress our progress seems to be a theme amongst founders. We say goodbye to a decade of lessons from others and hello to leading the way in various industries and being catalysts for innovation around the world.

Hustling, increasing knowledge, working hard, focusing and remaining tenacious — these are paving the way for Black entrepreneurs in the new decade.