Urban Tech Connect 2020 Wraps with Inspiring Call To Action

What an incredible journey. Urban Tech Connect 2020 brought together an amazing group of people over the past three days. The virtual conference proves that Black and Brown founders and tech pros are building innovative ecosystems nationwide.

“During the conference we got to see what the future looks like,” says Plug In South LA Founder Derek Smith. “Our communities are the idea of possible. We are all part of this story.”

Day 1 began with inspiring talks, fundraising insights straight from VCs, informative workshops, a next-gen tech showcase, and live judging for our pitching contest. Everyone really brought it for Day 2, which included energetic discussions on a range of pressing issues facing founders in our community.

In case you missed anything, here are the highlights from Day 3:

Understand how a VC makes money. Diishan Imira, the co-founder and CEO of Mayvenn, is known as the Black Hair King of Silicon Valley. He raised $41 million in capital for his business, but cautions fellow entrepreneurs against romanticizing stories about raising big capital. He learned as much as possible about the business of venture capital, which is something he said many founders don’t do. Imira also used his experiences living abroad in China to acclimate to Silicon Valley.

Leverage social media. DeMarcus Williams, director of Silicon Valley Bank’s Early Stage Practice participated fielded questions about early stage entrepreneurship for an Ask Me Anything session. One question was how to get attention from investors. “As an entrepreneur you have to make a name for yourself in order to stand out from the noise,” he said. “And social media is one of the most efficient and effective ways to do this.”

Drumroll please… The judges for our startup pitching contest were unanimous in their winning pick. Congratulations to Corey Mack of the Aura Project, a low-cost Covid-19 ventilator. Check out the winning pitch video on Instagram.

Lessons from the pandemic. CFOs united for a panel on scaling up fundraising. They agreed that investors, VCs, and startup founders all learned a lot of lessons from Covid-19 on how to navigate through challenging times. The pandemic reminded many about “general corporate hygiene” — practices that we’re supposed to do anyway, but that we become less attuned to when things are good, said Janice McNair, the CFO of EZ Texting.

It all starts with the creative economy. The panel “Cultivating South LA’s Creative Economy for the Future” produced a powerful conversation with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, America On Tech CEO Jessica Santana, and Brandon “Stix” Salaam-Bailey, rapper and founder of the Think Watts Foundation. Stix connected the dots between the creative economy and reforming social injustices to produce significant change. Santana encouraged everyone on the panel and in the audience to adopt a “design with” approach to communities rather than a “design for” one.

Take heart. Zuhairah Washington, SVP of global strategic partners, lodging and vacation rentals at Expedia Group, explored the question “Are you brave enough to build an inclusive culture?” with Lauren Maillian. Courage is rooted in Latin for “heart,” Washington pointed out. “It’s not about superheroes being fierce, but individuals speaking openly and honestly about what’s on their minds, and expressing their whole hearts,” she said. “We have to start to nudge ourselves in the direction of courage.”

Continue to connect. Derek Smith encouraged UTC participants to use the network function in the virtual conference platform Hopin. Get in touch with Plug In South LA through the website. Connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Become a mentor. Join our Lunch & Learn accelerator program, which we’ll be resuming.

“Look at where you are and think about how you can make an impact in our local communities,” Smith said in closing.

Many thanks to co-hosts Bonin Bough and Lauren Maillian, and all of our office hours participants, speakers, sponsors, and partners for making Urban Tech Connect 2020 a success. Stay well. Stay involved. Stay in touch.


Urban Tech Connect 2020 Day 2 Shows Us What’s Possible

That was incredible.

Virtual Urban Tech Connect 2020 had a power-packed first day hosted by Triller’s Bonin Bough. SoLo Funds’ Travis Holoway and Lisnr’s Rodney Williams showed us how to challenge the status quo. We got fundraising insights from VCs like Lo Toney, cracked the product development code with Ying’s Karla Ballard Williams, envisioned the Black video game studio of the future, and discovered how the pandemic is spurring tech innovation with Snap Inc.’s John Imah.

But everyone really brought it for Day 2. In case you missed any part of it, here’s a recap of the highlights:

Learning a new skill is brave. Squad founder and CEO Isa Watson shared that, despite everything that’s happening in our world, this is actually the best time to imagine what’s possible. She emphasized honing the ability to communicate with technical talent at the idea stage, even if you don’t have a technical background.

Immersive tech bridges the divide. The expert panel moderated by Ryot’s Jake Salley featured PLLAY Labs’ Shawn Gunn, USC’s Jessica Brillhart, River LA’s Ed Reyes, and Destination Crenshaw’s Jason Foster. They explored how using immersive technology can bring control back to the community — and inspire everyone who has been affected by the pandemic.

Stay focused. ActOne founder and CEO Janice Bryant-Howroyd sat down with innovation advocate Chris Denson to discuss growing a $1 billion company with the right talent. “Keep your career goals in front of you,” Bryant-Howroyd said. “It will guide you on what you accept — and what you do.” Building your team must be directly aligned with your goals for the business, she added.

Complete the cycle. “How can we galvanize people in all aspects of the startup ecosystem to support Black founders?” That was the core question for our national community roundtable. Black Girl Ventures founder Shelly Bell emphasized that Black vendors complete the cycle by helping keep money in the community. “Change is incumbent upon us,” said Jessica Santana the CEO of America On Tech. “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

Be an innovative rockstar. We welcomed host Lauren Maillian, the CEO of LMB Group, an award-winning marketer, consumer brand strategist, and technology startup investor and advisor. “Something has to happen to close the gap between idea and action, desire and deliverable,” she said. “We can create a future that is big and bold and bright — and possible.”

Never settle. Melissa Hanna, co-founder and CEO of Mahmee, discussed representation in Silicon Valley. Previously she would have said that the market of investors just needs to see and hear more of us, which would force them to raise the bar. “Now, I realize that a new market of investors that looks like us — or at least appreciates our world views and lived experiences — is the path forward,” she observed. “I won’t settle for anything less.”

Hold onto your equity. LeaseQuery founder and CEO George Azih sat down with Forbes reporter Brianne Garrett to talk about retaining a bootstrapping mentality despite raising millions. During the conversation he shattered long-held ideas about what you need in order to raise money. The moment someone pays for your product or service, that’s the validation of your business, Azih said. Make the journey to getting paid as soon as possible.

Minimum delightful product. One big takeaway from the “Essential Steps To Build Tech Experience for Non-Technical Founders” panel was advice for launching a new product. Have a product that delights first, rather than focusing entirely on one that is considered viable, the expert panelists agreed.

“Define your vision.” Alexandra Zatarain, Eight Sleep’s co-founder and VP of brand and marketing, led us through how to design and market a startup with purpose. Connect with people who support your vision, measure the difference you’re making, and let your followers actively participate in the process, she said.

Relationship management is huge. Investor and former NBA All-Star Baron Davis opened up to Snapchat’s John Imah about what he looks for in founders. “How much passion do you have in the space you attack in? What is your knowledge base? And what is your willingness to learn more?” Davis said. Looking ahead, he’d like to see the culture own its own platforms, distribution platforms, and social media. “I believe that the future of technology is data transparency, even if it sounds crazy right now.”

Day 3 of Urban Tech Connect takes place on the virtual conference platform Hopin Thursday. On deck: The Black hair king of Silicon Valley Diishan Imira, SVP’s DeMarcus Williams, rapper and Think Watts Foundation founder Stix, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, LMB Group CEO Lauren Maillian, Expedia Group’s Zuhairah Washington, and more. Check out the full agenda.

Haven’t registered to attend? Not a problem — you can still grab a Day 3 ticket. Join us as we wrap up the conference with an amazing lineup of conversations, workshops, and talks plus an inspiring community call to action. We’ll see you there.


Urban Tech Connect 2020 Begins with a Power-Packed Day 1

The virtual Urban Tech Connect conference kicked off Tuesday with exciting conversations, fundraising insights straight from VCs, informative workshops, a futuristic next-gen tech showcase, and live judging for our pitching contest.

In case you missed any part of it, here are some of the highlights:

Move forward, together. Bonin Bough, chief growth officer of Triller, opened the conference with Plug In South LA Founder Derek Smith and Verizon’s executive director of community affairs and government relations Sophia Garcia.

Disrupt your industry. SoLo Funds co-founder and CEO Travis Holoway and Lisnr co-founder and CCO Rodney Williams did a fireside chat with TechCrunch editor Jonathan Shieber about challenging the status quo.

VCs are entrepreneurs, too. Henri Pierre-Jacques of Harlem Capital Partners, Jeff Cherry of Conscious Venture Lab, Noramay Cadena of MiLA Capital, Candice Matthews Brackeen of Lightship Capital shared their experiences raising capital with Mack Kolarich, chief product officer of Different Funds.

Startup pitching contest live judging. Our judges asked contest finalists tough questions. Tune in on Thursday to find out who they picked as the winners.

“We need to see money getting wired, people getting hired.” Lo Toney, founding managing partner of Plexo Capital, let us into his thinking as a VC entrepreneur during a fireside chat with J.P. Morgan Asset Management executive director Tiffany Johnson Lewis.

Leverage your networks. Greycroft investor Brentt Baltimore and Cleo Capital managing director Sarah Kunst discussed how to reset your fundraising strategy in 2020 with OPV partner Austin Clements. Use social platforms to gain access to high-level networks that historically underserved communities didn’t have the advantage of inheriting.

Spotlight on next-gen talent. We got a glimpse of the future from the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation’s showcase, where students harnessed advanced coding language skills to build an impressive photo-based app.

Keep your business SAFE. Karla Ballard Williams, co-founder and CEO of Ying, highlighted the SAFE acronym for “simple agreement for future equity” during her talk on how to crack the product development code, even if you’re not a tech developer.

“Stay scrappy, keep your vision as long as you can, maintain your control.” Our panel on building the Black video game studio of the future sparked an energetic conversation about representation, ownership, design, and creating completely new systems.

The pandemic is spurring tech innovation. John Imah, head of gaming and entertainment at Snap Inc., gave us the state of play with Covid-19. He encouraged founders to keep innovation and ownership front of mind.

Day 2 of Urban Tech Connect takes place on the virtual conference platform Hopin. On deck: Squad founder Isa Watson, Mahmee’s Melissa Hanna, LeaseQuery’s George Azih, Eight Sleep’s Alexandra Zatarain, “unicorn” tech founder Julia Collins, and investor and NBA great Baron Davis. Check out the full agenda here.

Still haven’t registered to attend? No problem. You can still grab a ticket for Day 2 and Day 3 for an engaging lineup of keynotes, workshops, and conversation. We’ll see you online.


Five Quick Questions for Lisnr Co-Founder Rodney Williams

Urban Tech Connect // Forward 2020 speaker Rodney Williams knows what it means to challenge the status quo. The co-founder and CCO of ultrasonic data platform Lisnr is transforming the mobile payments world.

Lisnr enables secure wireless device-to-device communication for payments, and has been backed by partners such as Visa, Synchrony Financial, Metro, Target, and Intel. Recognition for the company includes a Cannes Gold Lion for innovative technology and being named to CNBC’s Disruptor 50 companies list multiple times.

At the virtual Urban Tech Connect conference coming up September 15 – 17, Williams will join SoLo Funds co-founder and CEO Travis Holoway and TechCrunch editor Jonathan Shieber for the keynote fireside chat “Take that First Step To Disrupt Your Industry.”

Recently we asked the pro disruptor five quick questions to get to know him better:

What’s something that few people know about you?

I have four degrees. College athlete. I started my own fraternity in college.

What sparked your entrepreneurial spirit?

For me, it’s about having the vision to see an opportunity and create innovative ideas that turn into viable companies or technologies. That was sparked at a young age when it became clear that this was the most fundamental way to create wealth for myself and my community.

How many rejections did you get before your first investment?

I used to track this, but somewhere around 30 to 40.

Do you have an effective strategy for dealing with rejection?

Learn from it. It’s a data point that needs to be recorded assessed and validated. Then you innovate around the point if the issue is validated.

What does “possibility” mean to you?

Everything. I live to live well and the possibility to change everything.


Five Quick Questions for Tumblr Chief Revenue Officer Cavel Khan

With the virtual Urban Tech Connect // Forward conference right around the corner, we reached out to speaker Cavel Khan, Tumblr’s chief revenue officer for a quick Q&A.

At Tumblr, Khan is responsible for global sales and sales strategy company-wide. Before joining the social networking site’s C-suite, he was SVP of client partnerships in North America for Vice and a senior manager on the CPG vertical at Twitter. Prior to that, he spent eight years at Microsoft in multiple roles.

In 2019 New York On Tech presented him with an Innovators and Disruptors Award for business development and sales. Earlier this year, the Advertising Club of New York selected him as an icon for their third annual Black History Month recognition series “Icons, Rock Stars & Innovators.”

At Urban Tech Connect, Khan will moderate the panel “Essential Steps To Build Tech Experience for Non-Technical Founders” with Sheila Marmon, the founder and CEO of Mirror Digital, Share Ventures CEO Hamet Watt, and Steven Wolfe Pereira, the co-founder and CEO of Encantos.

We recently asked Khan five questions to get to know him better:

What’s something that few people know about you?

I love riding motorcycles.

When did you know you wanted to work in tech?

I didn’t know I wanted to work in tech until I started to work in tech.

How are you staying sane during Covid-19?

My four-month-old baby, my wife, and my 10-year-old son spending quality family time together.

What does “possibility” mean to you?

It means when you have done the hard work to prepare, and you just need to align that preparation with an opportunity.

What advice do you have for the next generation of tech founders?

The knowledge you need to be successful is out there, and many people will share it with you, for free. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Startups The PISLA Beat

The Plug In South LA Beat: Minority-Owned Digital Savings App Closes $2.3 Million Seed Round

Abbey Wemimo and Samir Goel started the financial technology platform Esusu several years ago to help individuals save money and build credit. The company just closed a $2.3 million seed round, bringing the total financing up to $4 million, according to Forbes.

Esusu is an app that enables users to pool and withdraw money for major transactions like a downpayment on a house, reporter Ruth Umoh explained in Forbes. “These purchases and the fulfillment of debt obligations are then reported to credit bureaus to help users establish or improve their credit profiles,” she wrote.

The app also works as a rental data reporting service. Although rental payments are the largest single monthly expenditure for American consumers — and act as a strong predictor of credit risk — less than 1% of them get reported to major credit bureaus, Umoh wrote.

“We’re trying to address the fact that millions of people have a thin credit score or no credit score at all, while the average debt is around $135,000,” Wemimo told the news outlet.

For this Plug In South LA Beat, our ongoing curation of must-read innovation and tech news, we’re getting to know Esusu’s co-founders and what the pandemic means for their future business plans:

Minority-Owned Fintech App Esusu Closes $2.3 Million Seed Round, Announces Plans To Address Credit Inequality

Photo: Esusu co-founders Abbey Wemimo and Samir Goel. Credit: VickyG Creative


These Black and Latinx Founders Cleared Funding Hurdles to Raise More than Half a Billion Dollars

Collectively, the curated lineup of Black and Latinx entrepreneurs speaking at the virtual Urban Tech Connect // Forward conference have already raised more than half a billion dollars. These talented startup founders represent the idea of what’s possible, and they’ll be sharing their firsthand experiences September 15 – 17.

Rising to the top in sectors such as banking, beauty, digital media, gaming, and consumer goods requires hustle and grit. Take Alexandra Zatarain, the co-founder and VP of brand and marketing for smart mattress company Eight Sleep, for example. “I grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, not too far geographically from Silicon Valley, but very far in terms of culture and opportunities,” she says.

Zatarain used her background and passion for communication to get into the tech sector. “From day one I began learning about every other aspect of building a business — from product to fundraising,” she said. “I can only hope that my own journey serves as a reference to others who feel that these opportunities are too far out of reach for them.”

The entrepreneurs speaking at Urban Tech Connect // Forward this year represent the future of tech, demonstrating what’s possible. They include:

During Urban Tech Connect, the founders plan to discuss the challenges they faced and how they addressed them in order to move forward. They’ll also dig into smart strategies that fellow entrepreneurs can adopt right now.

As we know, the percentage of dollars flowing to Black and Latinx founders remains abysmally low. There’s plenty of work ahead. Learning from the Urban Tech Connect speakers could kickstart changes — and catalyze new success stories. Let’s make it happen.

Startups The PISLA Beat

The Plug In South LA Beat: Black VCs Call Out Racism in Silicon Valley

The numbers speak volumes: Despite having a population that is 13% Black, in the United States just 4% of the venture capital industry is African-American, a recent Bloomberg article concluded.

Nico Grant, citing data from the National Venture Capital Association, found that an estimated 3% of influential general partners are African-American. “Even when these VCs successfully boost the founders from other underrepresented groups in their portfolio, structural forces keep funding for Black entrepreneurs stubbornly low,” he wrote.

Black VCs including Tyson Clark at Alphabet Inc.’s GV, Monique Woodard, a VC who created Cake Ventures, Reach Capital co-founder Shauntel Garvey, and Base10 co-founder and managing partner Adeyemi Ajao opened up about their struggles.

“Humbly, there are a group of people in my position who want to do something, but feel like we don’t have enough power yet to be influential on this topic,” Clark told the news outlet. “It’s painful for all of us to feel this helplessness.”

In today’s Plug In South LA Beat, our regular curation of must-read innovation and tech news, we’re delving into why the racism in Silicon Valley is particularly insidious:

Black Venture Capitalists Confront Silicon Valley’s Quiet Racism