Wednesday, November 16, 2011
In some ways, Navarrow Wright ’93 beat the odds. The technology-rich Silicon Valley region of California has been the cradle of such iconic businesses as Apple and Google, but African-Americans have had a notoriously difficult time gaining traction with investors. In fact, less than one percent of all venture capital money went to digital startups with African-American founders in 2010, according to industry analyst CB Insights.
But Wright, the chief technology officer of Interactive One, says that while investors may be influenced by color, that color is most often “green.” There is a lot of money at stake, and the key, according to Wright, is to be ready to pitch your product properly to the right partner.
“A missed pitch is a missed opportunity,” said Wright, who previously co-founded GlobalGrind.com, a social media site catering to the hip-hop perspective, with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.
To that end, he helped advise and mentor a group of eight African-American entrepreneurs who traveled to Silicon Valley in order to seek venture capital investments in the CNN documentary Black in America: The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley. Wright returned to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus on Thursday, November 10, for a special Fireside Lounge prescreening of the program, which premiered on the cable news network on November 13.
The previously unacquainted participants lived together in a modest, three-bedroom house in Mountain View, Calif., for nine weeks from June to August 2011. During that time, they were mentored by prominent people from within the tech industry, including Interactive One’s Wright. As part of the “Dragon’s Den,” a panel of technology experts who greeted the entrepreneurs at a welcome reception hosted by Google, Wright held up a mirror to the group, letting them see and learn where their impromptu product pitches failed.
While money is a prime motivator, Silicon Valley is dominated by distinct ethnic groups, as evidenced by the documentary. “This is a white and Asian world,” said one tech writer. “It just is.” One successful Indian American was told early on to “get a white guy to be your front man, so I did.”
One investor interviewed in Black in America said that he typically invests in just one of 30 start-ups he interviews per year, moving about $10 million into the companies he selects. He conceded that he tends to favor familiar faces, and that he “Just doesn’t see that many blacks” in Silicon Valley. This dearth of African-American representation puts the onus on the black entrepreneurs who do receive the opportunity.
“If investors see only one African-American a year, and it’s you, you’re important to our group,” said Wright, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Rider.
After weeks of tweaking their products and practicing their pitches, the entrepreneurs attended an event well-stocked with wealthy investors. Their response – in contrast to the critical reception of the original Dragon’s Den – was extremely positive.
“There was no way I could’ve expected things to turn out as well as they did,” said one of the group’s Dragon’s Den mentors. One influential reporter from TechCrunch.com tweeted during the investor’s event that it was “one of the best start-up events” he’d ever been to.
Wright said that African-Americans tend to be consumers of technology, not creators of it, mainly because of the perception that the skills are too tough to be learned.
“Who has Facebook? Who has Twitter?” he asked the gathered students. “We use it, but don’t make the leap to think, ‘we can do that.’ Look at Facebook and Google, both started by young people, hardly older than you. Technology today is easier than it’s ever been.”
Wright said that learning the business is made simple by the digital accessibility of information.
“There are suburban kids in high school building apps and making $60,000 a year,” he explained. “On iTunes, you can download an app on how to build an iPhone. It’s the same course and instructor as the one taught at Stanford, for much less of the cost.”
Marrying digital technology to the traditional goal of good business filling a need remains the foundation for success, according to Wright.
“Don’t get rid of your brick-and-mortar idea,” he urged the students. “But, look at how technology can help you grow.”
Interactive One is the digital division of Radio One, the largest black-focused media company in the United States. Interactive One created a series of vertical websites ranging from news, entertainment, lifestyle and faith, all of which are connected by the largest social network created for African-Americans, BlackPlanet.com.