Networking for Capital: Advice for Entrepreneurs Getting Started in Tech

If companies founded by underrepresented groups are to grow and scale, they must be vigilant in creating their sphere of influence.

by Christine Johnson on April 7th, 2014

The big BOOM for the diversity in tech movement that happened in 2011 followed the success of CNN’s Black in America 4, The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley. The show focused on NewME, a startup accelerator for black technology entrepreneurs that became somewhat of a pop culture icon in the world of startups and minorities. NewME had all the buzz and was deemed the primary resource for blacks in technology.

Since then, the national landscape has shifted significantly concerning organizations targeting minorities, especially black and Latino groups in technology. Today, the landscape is flooded with initiatives blazing the trail and encompassing many perspectives, tools and opportunities: Black Girls Code, Latino Startup Alliance, Latinas in STEM, Black Founders, Code2040, Code Fever, digitalundivided, RailsGirls, LATISM- and of course DiversiTech, which I founded in 2011 to support the growth of underrepresented groups in technology, primarily technology entrepreneurs.

Johnson, the author, speaking alongside Donna Harris at the 2013 Blogalicious conference.

Johnson was a featured speaker, alongside Donna Harris, at the 2013 Blogalicious Conference

The commitment of these organizations has been astounding. Their leadership has amassed corporate support and national acclaim because of paramount passion. Their programs have garnered hundreds of millions of social media impressions, mainstream press and unprecedented success in growing underrepresented communities as technologists and entrepreneurs.

A photo of five young entrepreneurs posing in front of a whiteboard.

At DiversiTech, our interest in underrepresented groups in technology extends beyond race and ethnicity to youth, gender, sexual orientation and disabled populations as well. Since our inception we have supported, hosted educational programming and been a voice for awareness concerning disparities in technology for these markets, and boasted relationships with the national organizations that serve them.

#DTechTips: Affinity groups provide a place to foster your growth, share similar experiences and get encouragement… but your network can’t end there.

Investing in Networking

To be successful and #leveltheplayingfield, #changetheratio, #movetheneedle or whatever the appropriate hashtag, it is critical for individuals and organizations dedicated to curbing the inequities in technology, especially entrepreneurship, to: 1) collectively ensure that these segments are aware of the available resources in the mainstream startup ecosystem and, 2) eradicate the larger disconnect between the two.

“If you’re serious about raising money, you not only have to act the part, but you have to put yourself in an environment where investing is a normal conversation.” -@FeleciaHatcher, Co-Founder, Feverish Pops and Code Fever Miami

If companies founded by underrepresented groups are to grow and scale, they must be vigilant in creating their sphere of influence. These relationships lead to much needed resources, especially capital. But, developing relationships with heavy hitters begins with showing up for the party. Nationally, the technology startup community has expanded beyond measure with substantive networking opportunities: events, educational programs and more, particularly in vibrant tech hubs.

If you aren’t sure where to begin to access these networking opportunities, the “101” action is to Google key words, search meetup.com, eventbrite.com and other relevant sites such as mashableTech Cocktail, Technical.ly, Nibletz and others. Most communities also exchange information via Facebook, Twitter and other social channels. For instance: DC Tech, Baltimore Tech, NOLA Tech, Refresh Miami and Silicon Valley Events and Parties all have a presence on various platforms.

Also, most tech hubs have informal programming at local accelerators, shared work spaces and incubators that may not be broadcasted as widely. Some are only for their members, but finagling a way to gain access would be worth your while. In fact, spend a day or two weekly at the shared work spaces. Not only is there an opportunity to expand your peer network, but Venture Capitalists tend to float around inconspicuously. It is important to note that they don’t wear labels inviting you to pitch them, so consider every chance hand-shake and conversation with anyone an opportunity to merely engage and go from there.

Service providers wander around as well… Don’t discount service providers! Attorneys, accountants and others have connections and inroads to those with capital. Determine the key firms and practices that are staples around the scene. Developing a solid relationship with them can open up access to their rolodexes. It’s a win/win for both parties. With time, you get investors and they get a paying client.

A classroom, with three rows of tables and several projectors, during the youth tech day at Microsoft.

Mapping out the various leaders and organizations that foster your regional entrepreneurship ecosystem – universities, associations, support organizations and others, is important in outlining your networking efforts. Check-out “How to Build An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem” from Upstart for background on how all these entities play together and their roles. It includes a helpful chart and video from Brad Feld, of TechStars and Foundry Group, for reference.

“…having strong contacts through networking and building relationships can take a company from 10 to 100 with just one introduction.” – @MacConwell, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), App.Given.to and RedBerrry.com, Entrepreneur in Residence and Alum (‘12), NewMe Accelerator

Access to Capital

I realize that minorities’ access to capital is a very complex discussion, with a number of variables contributing to the lack of investments supporting these founders, but this is an attempt to highlight an actionable step which can be a catalyst to curbing this problem: building your sphere of influence.

Accessing the morsels of available capital for anyone, particularly minority founders, is a huge feat. Creating a broader sphere of influence is one item at the helm of moving towards a next phase of fostering diverse communities in technology entrepreneurship. Again, this is accomplished by accessing the resources that are front and center: the events, educational programming and other networking platforms that host wall-to-wall industry leaders, executives, technology titans, investors and others. Here you can learn about valuable go-to events; ask the tough questions; inquire deeper about their work and road to success; engage with a broader subset of peers; and even get tips on between-the-cracks opportunities for regional founders that may not be common knowledge.

Remember, to get closer to the dollars, you must first develop a keen strategy to “work” your regional technology ecosystem, creating a sphere of influence that leads to things like trusted business advisors, mentors, a strong knowledge-base and the opportunities necessary to continue to build and strengthen your company.

#DTechTips: Be bold, employ killer networking tactics, walk into uncomfortable places, build.

Furthermore, moving diverse communities forward in technology entrepreneurship and closer to the investors also requires collective intention by organizations serving these segments. Far too often, there is a large disconnect between the ever-expanding minority communities in technology and the vast resources and energy of the national startup landscape. As a service to our members, we must feed the mainstream ecosystem and make them aware of the founders and technologists we have at our fingertips, share opportunities with our members about platforms beyond our borders, and begin to become a resource for the next conference convener that again lacks diversity for their panels and claims to not know of any blacks/Latinos/women in technology.

Networking Tips

#DTechTips: Be sure to utilize online platforms when developing your networking strategy on-the-road to capital, beginning with AngelList, Gust and PWC Money Tree.

Johnson, the author, posing in the middle of a group of five other SXSW attendees. A large conference banner is behind them.

There are a multitude of tips on standard networking practices. Take a look at the below customized suggestions:

1. RELATE

Focus on the “relate” root of relationship. You are connecting as an entrepreneur in a room packed with like-minds, interests and ambition – your peers. Check out this valuable Slideshare focused on developing a strategy for networking in order to build your sphere of influence, or as referred to in the Slideshare – social capital.

2. STANDOUT

Make your presence known. You may say that you already stand-out, but that is not always the case. Make your way to the pack, ask a question during Q&A or make a poignant statement. Say, “I am here”. Another trick that has become a winner on the scene is to be creative with your name tag in order to draw attention to yourself, reinforce your brand or provide a conversation piece out the gate. The first place our eyes go is to the name tag of the individual that approaches you. This is a great way to break the ice.

3. CHECK-IN

So often we have a habit of avoiding others from our minority group for fear of being stereotyped as always flocking together. Make a point of checking in and exchanging contact information. These peer groups are essential through this process, to share similar experiences, encouragement and resources. Within that group exists varying degrees of knowledge that will be essential as you continue to strategically navigate the landscape.

4. BOUNCE

Take nothing personal. Getting that initial handshake or conversation is sometimes quite an endeavor, with the results not always our desired outcome. At the least, get a card – if they are the sort to still carry one, or confirm their available social channels so that you can Follow, Connect or Like them in that moment. *For reference: “Why Social Media Isn’t A Distraction for Entrepreneurs” for great insight and tips via Forbes.

5. GATHER INTEL

Take time to roam and listen. Valuable conversations abound. People are there that hold the key to various doors you may not be privy to. Get the skinny for further investigation. Accessing opportunities, funding, contacts, mentors and other needs may initially require unconventional and creative approaches. There are no roadmaps. This is new terrain.

6. MAP-IT

Mapping out the various leaders and organizations that foster your regional entrepreneurship ecosystem will be helpful to determine where and how your time is best spent to network – universities, associations, support organizations and others.

Got other networking ideas and suggestions? Share them and read others using #DTechTips!