Houston has consistently been recognized as one of the most diverse cities in the country — but is that translating into equitable funding opportunities for diverse founders? A panel at SXSW this year discussed whether or not Houston's playing field is level for people of color within the innovation ecosystem.
"People do business with who they know — and who they like," says Felix Chevalier, co-founder of Urban Capital Network, when the panel was asked where the disconnect is with funding diverse founders. "I think it boils down to a lack of exposure and a lack of relationships."
Chevalier was joined by Jesse Martinez of Resolved Ventures and VamosVentures and Denise Hamilton of WatchHerWork, who moderated the discussion, which was hosted in the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston House on Sunday, March 13, at SXSW in Austin.
"We have to look at the pipeline — what the existing ecosystem looks like," says Martinez, who leads the LatinX Alliance, an organization that's relocating its operations to Houston. "We have new funds, new diverse GPs, and we have more investors — and we're building talent. ... We are making great strides, but we still need more of us to be funding our diverse founders."
The key to the equation, the panelists agreed, is education and programming — both for potential investors, like UCN does with its hands-on support for its diverse investor base, and for founders of color who might be more hesitant to plunge by starting a company.
"The way you start to dissolve that fear for folks, for example, who may be in a corporate space but may want to spread their entrepreneur wings, is to just get involved with the ecosystem," Chevalier says. "What ends up happening is you bump into someone you know or someone who is from the same talent you are originally — all you have to do is immerse yourself in the environment."
"The opportunities are out there, but it is incumbent upon in those who want it to put themselves in a position to meet people who are in the environments that are going to help facilitate whatever your objectives are," he continues.
Hamilton explained her experience raising money as a Black woman — investors didn't want to bet on her. It's a chicken and an egg situation, she says, and support for diverse founders in terms of programming and investors focused specifically on underserved communities are going to help break the cycle. It's not about charity, but equitable opportunities.
"I don't want any charity – I don't want an overabundance of kindness. Scaffold me like you scaffolded Mark Zuckerberg," Hamilton says, giving Facebook as an example of a company that was supported in a way she never had. "If you are going to be in a nascent ecosystem, you need to have structures that explain why your pitch deck has to be efficient, why you need a team. We've got to not focus just on the money piece, but on this whole psychosocial aspect."
With Hamilton's call to Houston's development as an equitable tech ecosystem, the conversation turned to discuss whether or not Houston is ready to provide this support to startups and rise to being the global innovation hub the city wants to be.
"We've got to find our tribe. We have all the pieces," Martinez says. "It's going to take time, and we have to be very intentional. ... It's really about thinking of Houston as a startup itself. How do we act as a team, and bring in partners and investors to make it a thriving ecosystem over time."
It takes commitment, Hamilton says, and that's happening in the Bayou City.
"Everything is not figured out right now — but there's a commitment to figuring it out," she says. "It's not going to be Silicon Valley overnight — it will never be Silicon Valley. Because this is Houston."