Preston James Discusses DivInc’s Mission for More Startup Diversity
Founded in 2016 in Austin, DivInc has helped launch 55 companies. This organization is expanding in Houston this year with other cities on the roadmap, which will enable them to launch hundreds of startup companies annually.
DivInc most recently announced their Fall 2020 cohort will be focused on Social Justice Innovation to help entrepreneurs all over the country apply their skills to creating systems-level change. Additionally, DivInc has a women of color entrepreneur initiative, Startup Sistas, that currently serves 300+ women per year across Texas.
A former 20-year veteran at Dell, James served in executive leadership roles in Enterprise IT Sales and Consulting where he led teams responsible for driving $250M+ in revenues. He also served as the Managing Director for the Dell Global Center for Entrepreneurship, where he supervised the $100M Dell Credit Fund and helped expand the center’s initiatives globally.
James grew up in New York and previously lived in the DC Metro area as well as Atlanta. But moving to Austin in 1997 was the right thing to do: “As newlyweds with no children and growing careers, Austin offered great quality of life. It took quite a bit of time to get used to the culture though.”
He says that a sense of grounding is crucial for his personal work-life balance as well as the ecosystem that he has tried to help create for your founders at DivInc:
“For the DivInc participants, we hone in on making sure everyone makes time for themselves and takes care of themselves, because this entrepreneurship journey is a real grind and can be lonely. You have to take care of you, surround yourself with friends who genuinely care about you and will support you through the most difficult of times.”
Learn more about current and future goals for DivInc at 3 pm on Monday, August 10 when I interview James as part of the TechTalk from the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Admission to this webinar is free, but click here to RSVP.
How has COVID impacted the challenges faced by the kinds of founders that DivInc serves?
For most black and brown founders, I’d say that COVID-19 has exasperated the existing challenges, especially with generating revenue through customer acquisition and especially equitable access to financial capital. Many founders have had to pivot their business significantly which is extremely difficult to do.
As it pertains to DivInc founders, most of our founders are early stage, pre-revenue or early revenue, so prioritizing their business execution and figuring out how to still generate the revenue despite the crisis was of paramount importance. We have several founders like Airion Watkins-Clark (Vessel), Roman Gonzalez (Gardenio), Jerold McDonald (Omaiven Health), Vi Nguyen (Homads), Farhaj Mayan (Kanna), and Anthony Gantt (At Ease Rentals) that have experienced some level of success during the crisis.
The bottom line, though, is we must fix the systemic racial, gender and bias issues associated with the lack of access to financial capital. And, make no mistake, it is systemic when you have just 1% of venture capital investment going to black and LatinX entrepreneurs and a woeful .06% going to black women founders. Recent reports indicate that just 2% of the hundreds of the billions of PPP CARES Act dollars went to black owned businesses! There is something very broken in the system and now is the time to fix it.
“It is systemic when you have just 1% of venture capital investment going to black and LatinX entrepreneurs and a woeful .06% going to black women founders.”
Traditionally, one of the benefits of accelerators like DivInc is that they bring young entrepreneurs together and thereby create a kind of support system for what can be a fairly daunting process. How do you replicate that support in a socially distanced world?
Two magic words for you. “Brooke Turner”!!! LOL! She is our amazing program director who led the conversion of our program to 100% virtual in less than 30 days. Our focus had to be even more intentional about engaging the founders on an individual level while also being part of the larger group, because it is so easy to be “out of sight/out of mind” during a program like this. Brooke does an awesome job leveraging our EIR (Entrepreneur in Residence) Mark Phillip and a host of mentors like Ada Ryland, Stefan Kollenberg (marketing and sales), Sean Sadasivan (pitching), Marat Gaziev (SEO) and Harold Hughes (Bandwagon) to bring individual focus to each founder. I have to say with pride that our Austin mentor network has stepped up big time during COVID. The other great thing is that the networks and support systems have gone virtual so we’re still able to provide a great level of support in this regard with a host of mentors and subject matter experts that the founders would not have otherwise been able to access. Our founders are able to more easily expand their networks nationally, because people have made themselves available beyond their localities.
Are there any relatively easy fixes for the Austin startup community to become more inclusive?
Yes! That said, our society, due to our history, makes this work a really heavy lift. We’re dealing with long standing behaviors, policies, laws and systems that many folks refused to acknowledge actually existed. Some still refuse to acknowledge! Here is the deal. We don’t mind doing the lifting, we just want the institutions/systems to stop adding more weight every time we make a little progress. That is called oppression. We want allies in removing these weights together and keeping it off. So, here are some things I know that can make this heavy lift a helluva lot easier.
First, for any organization/company that acknowledges they want to be more authentically inclusive or wants to create positive change, they should proactively and intentionally seek a collaborative partnership with an organization that is focused on making the tech startup community more diverse. Organizations like DivInc or Black Innovation Alliance or BlckVC or Black Women Talk Tech are just a few great examples of a long list of potential partners. Folks need to be prepared to put some investment into these partnerships (preferably money versus in-kind). This is not charity work! This is about doing the work today for a truly equitably inclusive future. We have to move the mountains today to make that happen.
Secondly, assuming the “why” is understood within the company/organization, they must decide what/how you want to be more inclusive. What problem do you want to solve internally ( sound familiar?) so you can understand how you can engage externally with the right partners. Here are examples: If you are a VC, Angel Investment group or accelerator, do you want to see investment into founders of color and women increase to 30% of all investment in Austin? Do we want more limited partners of color or investors of color as part of your fund? Do you want more board members/executives of color on your team? Do you want to help programs that help diverse founders? Do you want to develop a pipeline of students of color through internships? As a corporation, can you encourage your leadership, especially leaders of color, to serve as mentors to diverse founders in the startup community?
Thirdly, engage in a lot more meaningful/action oriented dialog with startup and corporate leaders of color with the intention of effecting positive measurable change. DivInc hosts these meetings with committed startup community leaders & corporate executives. Let’s focus on removing barriers to racial and gender equity.
Fourth, the startup community leaders as well as real estate development leaders and other high net worth leaders have A LOT of influence in Austin. They need to get behind some of the grand ideas that come from conversations in 1–3 above to push city/foundations/corporations/venture capital/angel investors to create initiatives that foster greater inclusivity in our innovation ecosystem AND hold them accountable to it. We need to harness all of this brain power to come up with alternative funding mechanisms that break down existing barriers and make capital equitably available.
What is the goal of DivInc’s new social justice innovation accelerator program?
Accelerate the adoption of innovative solutions that help eradicate inequities and disparities caused by systemic racism and bias. We’ll build the ecosystem of support of human, social, political and financial capital that will enable innovators and activists to work hand in hand to implement solutions that address root cause issues. Our aspiration is that the implementation of these solutions will change human behaviors, policies and processes within institutions and thus change mindsets over time.
“We don’t mind doing the lifting, we just want the institutions/systems to stop adding more weight every time we make a little progress. That is called oppression. We want allies in removing these weights together and keeping it off.”
What are some of your other long-term plans and aspirations for DivInc?
When I look at DivInc, I see an organization that helps transform the startup ecosystem by continuing to create solutions that effectively remove the barriers within the ecosystem and empowers people of color and women by providing more equitable paths to successful entrepreneurship. We have to beat back systemic racism and bias in order to provide equitable access to all of the capital resources for everyone. We want to take this model wherever it’s needed in this world so we can close the racial and gender wealth gap and generate socio-economic prosperity for people of color and women. Houston is officially our next city. Our current plan is to launch at the end of this year. We don’t want to just show up, we want to become part of the fabric of any startup community we serve. We become one with the community! That is the DivInc way!
DivInc created the Champions of Change program to celebrate trailblazers in diversity, equity and inclusion in Austin. What do you anticipate this program looking like in 2021 within the challenges of a socially-distanced world?
We were blessed that our 2020 Award ceremony was one of the last public events before the COVID-19 shut down. It was so great to able to honor some amazing leaders in the Austin community such Matt Stephenson (Code2College), Chris Kennedy (Leadership Austin), Jameila “Meme” Styles (Measure), Janice Omadeke (The Mentor Method) and Grant Loveless (Austin Community College). Yes, there is a high likelihood that the Champions of Change awards event will have to go virtual. We’re already in the planning stages for it with a Plan A (in person) and Plan B ( virtual). I can tell you this. If we go virtual in 2021, I’m confident with the creative and experienced folks we have on our team led by my always wonderful partner, Monica Morales, and the planning committee for the event it’s still going to be a great and unique event. The celebration of our trailblazers will go on!
“Houston is officially our next city. Our current plan is to launch at the end of this year. We don’t want to just show up, we want to become part of the fabric of any startup community we serve. We become one with the community! That is the DivInc way!”
Do you think that COVID ultimately sparks a rebirth of the creative ecosystem?
I believe it will spark efforts to build more inclusive ecosystems, new innovation and in a lot of ways it should encourage ecosystems to explore new ways of doing things. A great example to look at is co-working spaces. How will they reinvent themselves? Investors (both VC and Angel) should be looking to do things differently. I am hopeful that COVID-19 will foster smart collaborations between private, public and non-profit sectors. I would love to see new program offerings for K-12 and Hi-Ed, that provide more entrepreneurship opportunities for students as an alternative educational pathway. I am hopeful that creativity will enable alternative funding models to emerge that will address the disparities in investment into companies led by people of color and women, especially at the early stages (friends and family round).
Between COVID and the George Floyd murder, the US has seen incredible turmoil over the last four months. What has been your silver lining during this very difficult time period?
Not sure I would call it any silver lining, but there are some positives in the fact that far more people have their eyes, ears, minds and hearts open to the disparities and inequities that exist in our society and that these disparities are caused by institutional bias, racism and sexism. I say this is everyone, but in particular for many white people. I think far more people are taking a deeper look into our country’s history and are gaining a much better understanding about how racism is so deeply rooted in this country and is indeed the cause for many of the ills we experience today. People are learning that the end of slavery in this country did not end the hate, bigotry or oppression of black people in this country and that the policies and laws enacted throughout our history became the new tools of oppression during the last 150+ years. There is hope in knowing that there are more folks “getting it” and are going to work to do something to change things for the better. We want to turn that hope into a strategy and plan for real change.”
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world.