There have been ample conversations around minorities having access to capital, but Jason Towns, the founder of Groundwork, is actually doing something about it.
Black Enterprise spoke to Towns about his Groundwork Accelerator program and venture fund, and how he hopes to make an impact by granting that access and further diversifying the entrepreneurial landscape.
Black Enterprise: What is Groundwork.VC?
Towns: Groundwork.VC is a startup accelerator and venture fund that is focused on supporting and funding startup founders from underrepresented groups in the tech industry. We spend a lot of time outside of Silicon Valley making sure that we extend the resources that are in the Valley to innovators and startup ecosystems around the country and globally.
BE: Why are you solely focused on funding diverse founders?
Towns: Seventy-seven percent of all venture funding is deployed to three markets; Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. Ninety-nine percent of funding goes to white and Asian founders. There’s a tremendous market opportunity to find and fund the top innovators outside of these groups early on.
In Washington, D.C., white households have a net worth that is 81 times greater than black households; $284 thousand as opposed to $3500 thousand. That disparity impacts so much, including new business creation and success. We often don’t have, nor are we connected to the type of capital needed to start and grow a new business. So, there’s a wealth gap and there’s an opportunity gap. Part of our thesis is to invest in great entrepreneurs earlier, to help offset the impact of these disparities.
Groundwork’s culture is cool, collaborative, and laser-focused on supporting untapped excellence in this innovation space.
BE: Where are you finding founders with diverse backgrounds?
Towns: There’s a number of markets that we focus on, and a couple that we’re looking to expand into. Right now, our first two markets are Washington, D.C. and Oakland, CA. In Washington, D.C., we’re launching the first iteration of the Groundwork Accelerator.
People have called us a “bridge to the valley” for top black founders, but really, we see ourselves as the center of a new and developing global ecosystem. The valley plays a critical role in supporting innovation, but so does Washington, D.C., or Oakland, CA, or Durham NC, or Durban, or Lagos, [the list goes on and on].
BE: Tell me more about the Accelerator.
Towns: The Accelerator is a 12-week, time bound program, where we’ll support 10 founders. We just closed up the application process, so we’re in the selection process right now. We put together a really dope selection committee.
We will be helping these 10 founders reach their next milestone through cash infusion and access to resources, with the thought process of really helping founders get to a place of investability. What we recognize, particularly in a lot of our communities, is that there are founders that are working on really amazing things and doing really dope stuff, but may have been overlooked by the broad investment ecosystem. This could be for a number of reasons; we can talk about bias and a number of other things. However, sometimes, it’s as simple as not being aware of what you need to know. So, we take some of our expertise from navigating “the Valley” and the tech investment world, and we try to bring that to the founders we work with.
Outside of our fund and Accelerator, the broad umbrella of Groundwork creates a much more diverse, inclusive startup community. We do that in a number of ways, but particularly through events that we host around the country where we make sure that there are safe spaces, people are building relationships, and we’re extending our access to as many founders as possible, as often as possible.
BE: What are some of the traits that you look for, when deciding to invest in a founder?
Towns: I look for high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy, coupled with killer instincts. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is just, flat-out hard—for anybody. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever embark upon in your professional career. So, it takes a certain type of person to endure.
Hip-hop is a thread that weaves through so much of what we do. When you think about collaboration, the drive to win, and “the come-up,” it all resonates. When you hear startup founders and VC’s talk about “hustlers,” that’s borrowed directly from hip-hop culture. A lot of our founders possess these traits.
Want to know how Jason raised his fund? Stay tuned for Part 2
Sequoia Blodgett is the Associate Technology Editor for Black Enterprise, Silicon Valley. She is also the founder of 7AM, a lifestyle, media platform, focused on personal development, guided by informed, pop culture.