The tech industry still has a diversity problem. Education and funding aside, perhaps this greatest barrier for entry for black people is a lack of targeted professional networking opportunities.
100+ rsvps for our #engineering and design happy hour on Tuesday in ATL in less than 12 hrs. This why I don’t believe tech companies when I hear them say they can’t find diverse tech talent. YOU’RE ?? NOT ??LOOKING in the right places. Be open. Be accessible. Be available.
— Morgan DeBaun (@MorganDeBaun) September 15, 2018
Although there are many organizations helping to increase black male representation in STEM, it doesn’t solve the inclusion problem evidenced by the less than one percent of tech founders of color. A major barrier in the tech world is who you know. This concept isn’t lost on Devin Dixon, the mastermind behind Untapped Founders.
With extensive startup experience, Devin recognized one major barrier black and brown founders face in the startup world is the limited access to a professional network. He noticed minority startups lack the ability to tap into a well of resources, not just for capital and funding, but introductions to successful CEOs and other entrepreneurs who can help shape ideas and provide honest feedback.
Dixon conceived Untapped Founders when he saw there was a market for black and brown founders who wanted to connect with other people, but didn’t have the opportunity to do so. Started in March, Dixon says the organization’s “real value is [its] network.” It’s a social networking platform and incubator that teaches and connects founders – at any stage of their startup – how to network to get what they need. Dixon’s goal is to help individuals seek “advice from people who can prepare [founders] with funding and get customers.”
Dixon had a jumpstart in coding and building things since the age of 12. As a programmer by trade, his interest in coding was sparked when he decided to recreate an online version of kickball. With a coding kit he purchased, he taught himself how to code. Although it was more complicated than he’d expected, Dixon began developing other gaming plugins. Transforming a hobby into a formal education and profession, he studied computer science on a D-1 track scholarship at UNC Wilmington. Since then, he spends his time programming and solving problems.
As he leveraged his position to disrupt the film world with another startup, Dixon is also helping black and brown founders gain a foothold in building better companies. With only one percent of funding going to marginalized groups, Untapped Founder’s goal is “to change that number by building better companies by working together.
I spoke with Devin about his startup career and how he landed on the idea of Untapped Founders, here’s what he had to say:
What has been your startup experience so far? I recognized early on big corporations weren’t a good fit for me after my two-year internship at IBM. Instead, I nestled into the world of startups. Each startup came with their own set of competitive advantages. Newlio was my first startup I worked for full-time which was “led by a CEO that was terrible at management.” Dixon says. Here, it was the “first startup in which the idea was fully funded, but there was no proof of market or concept. The [CEO] had a great network and he was able to raise money without any product, but I got to see how the leadership turned over in the company. It was a poorly mismanaged company. It taught me how to work with people and how to treat people.”
The second startup I worked at was started by CEO Jon Fratteroli. He was a seasoned charismatic entrepreneur and working with him verse my first was really different. He was very hands-on. He acted like a mentor to me. We had conversations about what he was thinking about, how he was approaching problems. I learned a lot more just talking to him. It serves as the best opportunity and enriching experience in my startup career.
How did you use both experiences to start your own company?
After working with a few startups, I went out on my own to launch Sprout Connections. It’s a networking platform that combined Linkedin and Eventbrite. I had the skills on how to pitch, how to grow a team, how to completely build a product and bring it to market, so I was able to grow my platform to about 60,000 users. The problem I faced was not having the guidance I needed to manage it nor could I raise the necessary capital. It was hard to sustain the business model without any money coming in so I eventually shut it down.
Jumping out on your own, what were some of the learning Lessons?
It taught me how to take a product and grow it to market and how to get customers on board. I’ve always had stuff I created and launched, but it was hard to get customers and users on board. Building a product is easy, but finding a product market fit is a lot harder.
After Sprout Connections, did you continue building companies? Yes, I started another company called Bingewave.
What Problems Are You Trying to Solve? The goal is to disrupt movie theaters.The problem that we are solving is that about 4,000 movies are produced every single year, but only hundreds of them actually make it to theaters. So what we are missing now is these diverse markets that you can actually tap into to show movies. So we partner with local venues in the community like co-working space and we show these niche audiences these movies that they are actually willing to pay for. For example, in a Nigerian neighborhood we show authentic Nigerian films to that audience that otherwise would not be able to watch inside a theater. So the goal is to lower the price of movies and create a diverse cinematic experience that doesn’t require a movie theater.
What are some problems you face? The problem I had before was that I was unable to network my way into production. Licensing movies is based on your network. Filmmakers will not give you a license if they do not trust you. I built a network out in L.A. on purpose with Untapped Founders. I was able to ask people who are part of the organization who made great connections with filmmakers who could then help me hone my ideas around film.
So, what’s the bridge between Binge Wave and Untapped Founders? I had to figure out how to get past this failure with Binge Wave. At the time, I joined an engineering organization. It’s all about black engineers that want to help each other and it was there where I gained access to companies like Google and Facebook. I noticed a lot of these companies have a very large network.
One of the things I learned running my own startups is how hard it is to get a solid network you can actually tap into. Raising money can be difficult, but finding and getting honest feedback and advice is just as hard. The best people you can discuss your problems with are other founders. Better yet, the best way to get customers is through a solidified network.
That’s where I realized if people are here to help each other out it’s easier to maneuver and form companies. I modeled Untapped Founders after the idea of everybody in the group’s mission is to help someone out.
What has been the growth for Untapped Founders? We started with 8 people in March. It was 8 engineers and entrepreneurs. We all got together to pitch each other our startups. The pitches wasn’t for funding, but more so a “here’s where I am doing. Can you give me feedback and can you make connections for me?” Everyone left that meeting with good feedback for their companies or left with connections to move forward with. We said let’s do it again. We are in four cities now: Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. We’ve managed to make connections with top VCs and past founders who will now accept introductions from people within Untapped to setup meetings for counsel and funding.
Now that Untapped Founders is thriving, how do members build relationships for growth? If you look at companies that are successful, you’ll find a family member or someone that guided them on how to start a company. Many people of color don’t have that network or privilege to tap into who can work with them and provide real feedback and guidance on how to do a startup.
They don’t have anyone who can correctly talk to them about problems they’ll face as a company grows. We’ve built a seminar to help founders tap into a network and build relationships. For example, typically if you look at a company’s board, you’ll see people who invested money or someone who is the CEO of another big company. We provide founders the correct way to network or a safe space to network and freely discuss problems they may face.