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A reflection on discrimination in venture capital

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Life changed the moment I looked at the text message on the iPhone resting in my lap. It was my last day in Washington, D.C., and I had just finished a meeting with the owner of Hera Hub to discuss a potential collaboration.

Feeling good, I decided to drive with the windows down from Friendship Heights to Georgetown to Halcyon Incubator in celebration. Luck would have it that I found a much-coveted parking spot right in front of my destination — I had made it.

After parking my car, I reached for my phone. Alonzo, my attorney, had called with what I guessed was another request for information from a government agency about logistics, plans or strategy details for EnrichHER, a financial technology platform for women-led businesses that I founded. I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to call him back.

Alonzo said, "I have great news for you. You are officially approved by FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority)."

I immediately responded with a question: "So does this mean that we can get started, or is there another step?"

He replied, "You're good to go barring …”  

The rest of his words got lost in my excitement. All the months and years of frustration had finally brought me to this pivotal moment of tangible success.

I didn't feel the need to listen to the rest of the information he provided; I just knew then that I had finally gotten past numerous roadblocks. My goals were just a grasp away, and all I could feel was happiness.


Discrimination in venture capital

One might wonder what any of this has to do with discrimination in venture capital. The answer to this quandary is, everything.

Throughout my life, I faced others’ assumptions that I did not belong in certain circles and conversations. I recall my mother calling in the NAACP to stand up for me in high school after authoritative figures decided to scrap class rankings following my selection as valedictorian.

I remember certain co-workers telling me they would never consider me a doctor even though I had a Ph.D. I remember people telling me over and over that I didn't look smart.

The obvious truth is that all of these experiences stemmed from the reality that people expected someone with my level of achievement to be male and white, and they were disturbed that I was neither.

“The one obstacle that prevents most people from achieving their dreams is capital. There are many resources for those who want to learn, yet not enough for everyone who is qualified or capable.”

Tune out the hate

In the face of adversity and disrespect, I set out to achieve my goals. I told myself that any negativity people displayed toward me was simply the manifestation of their own self-hatred. One must learn to focus on the goal ahead and silence any static rooted in others’ insecurities.

There comes a point while chasing success when you forget about keeping a balance between work and relaxation. One can easily lose themselves in the monotony of vicious work cycles.

When I realized this was happening in my life, I decided to move to an ashram in Thailand for six weeks. There I would eat off the land, study yoga 12 hours per day and live without internet or hot water to balance my chakra energy.

Although the experience was much more difficult than I expected, I achieved peace of mind, better energy and the acceptance that there truly is a place in the world for a Type-A hippie with wanderlust.

My trip to Thailand was the tipping point when I regained confidence and focus. Following that moment, I knew without a doubt that I had all of these skills for a reason — I just needed to apply them.

Economic empowerment

I went to Thailand in search of peace and restoration. I left Thailand transformed as a wealthy yogi.

For the next few years, I taught classes about the intersection of yoga and finance, instructing people that they needed to be mindful and present before making decisions about anything. Through all of my coaching, lessons and webinars, I collected enough data to tell me that most people want to be in charge of their own economic footprint.

The one obstacle that prevents most people from achieving their dreams is capital. There are many resources for those who want to learn, yet not enough for everyone who is qualified or capable.

If you are not a white male in the business world, the proverbial glass ceiling instantly marginalizes you. Because of this reality, I became absolute about trying new avenues and started by co-founding Bootstrap Capital with three other entrepreneurs.

Our motto reflects our joint passion: We are entrepreneurs investing in entrepreneurs. The four of us arranged learning and investment sessions in front of investors for a variety of companies, including ShearShare, MomSource and more. While these joint ventures were fruitful and monumental in our track record, it wasn’t enough to fully resolve the issue.

“We are at the forefront of advancing entrepreneurship for a traditionally underserved demographic.”

A few of my favorite criticisms

As a serial entrepreneur, I knew I was tired of hearing comments such as "women don't ever have any good ideas" or "women can't run a business."

"You're too old to start a business" was another one. Many people believe that only 25 year olds are fit to be business founders.

And my favorite comment of all — "Maybe we would believe in you or someone like you if you could find someone technical to join your team."

To which I responded: "I have three engineering degrees including my AI. My doctoral studies focused on applying machine learning techniques to solve real-world problems. I used to work for IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, two of the most prestigious technical research institutions in the world. Let alone that I learned how to code when I was 6 years old and used to design operating systems from scratch."

I could have gone on, but eventually I stopped responding when it became evident what they meant: You're not a white guy, and I don't understand your existence.

Caption: Tiara Zolnierz, CBDO EnrichHER, Dr. Roshawnna Novellus, CEO EnrichHER, and Alisha Griffey, COO EnrichHER

Creating a new lane for women

So, I founded EnrichHER, a financial technology platform that fuels the growth of women-led businesses by enabling female founders to secure $30,000 to $70,000 of capital in an affordable and non-dilutive manner.

Similar to Kiva, we provide investors with an opportunity to lend to small businesses. EnrichHER loans go to pre-screened, women-led companies.

We are the driving force behind women who want to push their innovative ideas. We are at the forefront of advancing entrepreneurship for a traditionally underserved demographic.

We are creating and expanding a new lane. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. The saying motivates me, and I refuse to follow a tradition that excludes the creative energy of so many women.

Longitudes republished this commentary with permission.

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