Kristina Ashley Williams’ wears a tattoo on her arm that reads: “Disena tu vida.” It means “Design your life” and reminds her that she has control — to move forward, to change her path, and to write her own story.
She’s taken some risks to live the life she wants. For one, she recently stashed all of her belongings in a storage unit in Atlanta and travels to different places around the world, staying in Airbnbs or with friends. She’s stayed in Greece, Italy and Hawaii, attending meetings in the early hours of the day and spending her afternoons paddleboarding or connecting with nature after work.
The Emotional Context
She’s also building a startup — a diversity training tool and community for companies called Unpacking that was born following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The startup is already partnering with companies such as Nike and Google, has 10 contractors and has taught 350 users, including teams that have gone through the training and individuals interested in the courses, she said. Companies can certify up to 30 employees for $10,000, or individuals can join a cohort for $250. Soon, the rate will only be per person, she said.
She’s run into barriers as she stands in front of investors– who are often men. Sometimes it’s because her pitch wasn’t as strong as it could have been– she’s the first to say her strategy has improved as she’s practiced her storytelling. But Williams has faced worse than a “no.”
Times of E talked to Williams not to establish that women of color face barriers in the business world – that’s already clear. Companies with Black women founders received just 0.34% of all venture capital in the first half of 2021. That’s $494 million of the record-breaking $147 billion that all startups raised in the same timeframe, according to Crunchbase. It’s a higher amount than ever before, but it’s still an extremely tiny slice.
“People don’t always get that it’s a lonely experience,” Williams said. “You’re putting yourself in a position of a really small percentage of people in the world. That means that there’s only so many people that can relate to you.”
White investors often dismiss the statistics by talking about a pipeline problem. Faced with such discouraging odds, many women of color may not choose VC-funded entrepreneurship as a profession. Many of those who are succeeding now have extra advantages, like an Ivy League degree or a wealthy family. The lack of diversity means fewer innovative ideas are rising through the U.S. economy. Limiting the pool of entrepreneurs also means that there are fewer ideas, in general.
The Barriers Look Like a Maze
Black women face barriers erected by investors and barriers they erect within themselves, said Melissa Bradley, a Georgetown University professor of practice, and founder of 1863 Ventures. Black women tend to dial down their funding requests, asking for what they can get versus what they need, she said. This leaves them needing more funding and raises questions for investors. Meanwhile, humans are accustomed to pattern recognition, and white-dominated VC firms often assume investing in Black women is a higher hurdle.
“It is baffling to me that it (equitable funding) is taking so long, in light of the fact that proportionately we have an outsized contribution to the economy that is oftentimes not recognized,” Bradley said. For instance if racial gaps were closed 20 years ago, $16 trillion could have been added to the U.S. due to racism, according to Citibank. And $5 trillion can be added in the next 5 years if the gap were closed today – Bradley and others are working on new ideas to close the gap.
Times of E wanted to get a sense of the texture of what one woman founder experiences, and how she overcomes the day–to-day experience of feeling out-of-place and having doors slammed unfairly in her face – even as she makes steady progress.
Expertise in the Field
Williams, who studied business and teaching social science, focused in Critical Race Theory and sociology, thought it was necessary to launch a diversity training platform as she watched companies with poorly designed inclusion practices announce they support diversity. She has experience designing plans for building culturally competent communities through contracted work she’s done for American Heart Association in Puerto Rico and XQ Institute, an organization co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs focused on transforming high schools.
“Disena tu vida” has proven to be an especially important motto as she aims to raise venture capital funding as a Black woman — which is no easy task. So far she’s raised $220,000 from completing Techstars’ Cox Enterprises Social Impact and Higher Ground Labs accelerator programs.
Investors have harassed her in the pitch room, she said. They interrupted mid-sentence to ask if she’s single, slid into her DMs to ask her to meet at a bar to discuss her pitch and even touched her butt, she said.
“Those are experiences that are traumatic and don’t belong,” Williams said. “They’re not necessarily experiences that I believe that my male peers have to deal with.”
Software Rather than Distribution
Many investors also clung onto wanting only a tech invention rather than a distribution solution, she said, dismissing her software that takes a communications approach to solving the problem. Diversity and inclusion issues won’t be solved by robotizing the process, she said. “We’re not building something for technology’s sake,” she said. “We’re building something for people’s sake.”
Black women entrepreneurs are also more likely to start businesses focused on community — hair salons, beauty and health– industries many white VCs have little experience investing in.
Other investors were uncomfortable with Williams’ nomadic lifestyle, urging her to hunker down. “I chose the digital nomad lifestyle to do the majority of my work, at least for this phase of my life right now because I’m breathing better, my spirit feels lighter and I’m getting inspired by the world around me, which is leading into the creativity and the innovation that I’m putting into my product into my business,” she said.
Walls Built of Patriarchy and Racism
The walls put up in the pitchroom are a result of patriarchy and racism, which are woven into society, she said. “Men abusing their power or pushing boundaries to see how far they can go is about their narcissistic personality traits, unchecked misogyny and the societal exploitation of Black women creating a culture of misogynoir,” she said.
Williams said many of the women who are raising funding have shared similar experiences. She recalls a friends who said an investor told her she had to have sex with him in order to get the funding. Others have had to field questions about how they’ll be able to run a business as a mother– questions reserved only for women.
On particularly hard days, Williams spends time immersing herself in something that inspires her — such as an art gallery, taking a walk in nature or calling an old friend. She calls peers who are fundraising themselves, so she feels less alone, or checks in with her advisors, who push her to re-center herself.
The high cost – emotional and otherwise – of being a woman founder of color is likely one reason many drop out of the journey. Black women are more likely to start a business than white men — 17% of Black women are starting or running a new business compared to 15% of white men, according to a Harvard Business Review analysis. But as reflected in the venture capital data, only 3% of Black women are running mature businesses, according to the data.
It can cost at least $250,000 more for Black entrepreneurs to start a business, after elevated interest rates and out-of-pocket costs for services that many larger accelerators that accept a higher percentage of white entrepreneurs give out for free, said Melissa Bradley, an Obama and Clinton appointee, Georgetown University professor of practice, and founder of 1863 Ventures.
More women of color are speaking out now. After a Forbes article published two months ago quoted Ben Herman, a white man, saying he raised $50 million without actively trying for his diversity recruitment platform, Williams posted a video on her social media accounts expressing her frustration. “I’m a Founder & I’m Fed Up!” she wrote in the October post.
“This is a reality, and I’m not afraid to name it,” Williams said. “And I think the more that I’m able to name it, the more people will feel comfortable coming out.”
The people who have been working on creating a more equitable venture capital industry are trying new solutions. Creating more databases to track Black businesses and the demographics that funds are investing in is key to getting more funding in Black entrepreneurs’ hands, Bradley said. “There’s not a lot of money in research that goes into that, and so therefore it’s not a lot of data,” Bradley said. Instead of penalizing investors for tracking race and gender, they should be encouraged.
As more general partners are women and people of color and have experience working in communities, Bradley hopes there will be change. But white investors must commit to cultural competency training and creating diverse investment committees, she said.
Bradley’s 1863 Ventures aims to build $100 billion in wealth for underrepresented founders by 2030. So far, it’s generated $245 million in member revenue through its investments, according to its 2020 Impact report.
Other leaders include Arlan Hamilton, who founded Backstage Capital in 2015 to fund underrepresented founders in Silicon Valley. Since then, the fund has invested in 180 startups led by underrepresented founders with typical checks of at least $100,000, according to its website.
Hamilton herself faced an uphill battle. She shared her experience on Twitter: “Back in 2016, a guy fund manager with $1B+ under management told me that in back channels and private rooms, very wealthy and powerful VC investors were spreading the word not to ‘let’ me be successful,” she wrote in an Oct. 7 tweet. “Even those who publicly applauded me.”
“I think he thought I’d be out, cause any rational person would have been, but…,” she continued in the Twitter thread, with a gif of Beyonce singing “You must not know about me.”
Still, many funds focused on funding people of color are small. Whether funding will ever be equitable, Bradley is realistic: “I’m semi optimistic,” she said. “I would like to believe that that is easier than it’s turning out to be.”
Tips for Coping with the Stress
Building a business is hard on its own, but grappling with systematic barriers on top can be stressful, exhausting and even traumatic. Here’s how Williams stays determined:
Find a community of people going through the same experience: Large Slack or Facebook groups are OK, she said, but really a smaller group where you can form relationships is better.
Set goals, but make them manageable: Break down big goals into bite-sized pieces so that you can reach them easier. Williams suggests setting quarterly goals. Also, stick to your goals, but be flexible in how you reach them, she said.
Go to therapy: Starting a business means long hours, which can easily become unhealthy. “I think that anyone that’s going into starting a business should definitely be in therapy prior to starting it and during their time starting it,” she said.
Practice your pitch: Practice on family, on friends and even children, Williams said. If they can’t grasp it, your investors won’t be able to, either.
This story has been updated to reflect that Unpacking is both a software solution and a solution that focuses on people.