How Plug In South LA Pivoted to Support Founders in 2020

The past year threw extreme challenges our way, but Plug In South LA rose to the occasion. Our team reimagined programs, pivoted to virtual events, and developed new services to support startup founders from underrepresented neighborhoods.

Let’s revisit the highlights:

Power Huddles

Our successful Lunch & Learn series returned, connecting early-stage startup founders with a growing ecosystem of entrepreneurs, business professionals, and VCs in South LA. During the pandemic we went virtual.

In the series, new founders open up about the hurdles they face. During the workshop session, they showcase their ideas and receive immediate feedback from experts in the field. Many thanks to our talented roster of participating mentors.

On January 20, we are excited to relaunch the series as monthly Power Huddles, kicking things off with the CEO of DASH Systems Joel Ifill. Get your free ticket here for this online event. Founders interested in presenting can apply here. To stay updated about future Power Huddles, check out our newsletter.

Accelerator Program

In 2019–2020, Plug In South LA hosted our beta Accelerator Program to cultivate next-generation entrepreneurs who had already launched and were in the process of raising funds. We welcomed the first cohort, representing a wide range of industries: Hyve founder Jibril Jackson, Esqapes Immersive Relaxation founder Micah Jackson, Spooler, Inc. founder Benjamen Janey, Gro Lens founder Ron Johnson, and Me Tyme Network founder Remy Meraz.

These pioneering entrepreneurs graduated over the summer with a virtual showcase. They formed new partnerships with companies like FFL Brands and Sesame Street, made key organizational hires, saw revenue increases and higher online conversion rates, received investment from VCs, and collaborated on new projects.

We’re starting the new year with the launch of the second cohort, welcoming 10 new founders along with 20 mentors and advisors. Stay tuned for our founder showcase event in March.

Urban Tech Connect

Urban Tech Connect was originally set to take place at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in May, but then the pandemic struck. We regrouped to host virtual office hours and a community gathering to keep momentum going despite the disruptions. The live virtual conference in September on the Hopin platform was hosted by Lauren Maillian and Bonin Bough, who brought energy and powerful insights that kept more than 350 attendees engaged throughout all three days.

Attendees are still buzzing about keynotes by Ying co-founder and CEO Karla Ballard Williams, Squad founder and CEO Isa Watson, and Mayvenn co-founder and CEO Diishan Imira. If you missed any of it, you can still get access to the replays.

A post-conference survey revealed the event’s success: More than 85% had never attended UTC before, but 100% of the 2020 participants said they would return again. Mark your calendars because we’re gearing up for Urban Tech Connect May 18–20, 2021, hosted virtually.

Looking Ahead to 2021

If there’s anything the tragic events of this past year taught us, it’s the importance of uniting in support of our communities. We have to look out for each other and continue moving forward, together.

Startups The PISLA Beat

Serena Williams Calls Out Shortsighted Silicon Valley VCs

Serena Williams has experienced what it’s like to be underestimated and underpaid throughout her career as a professional tennis player. Now, as a VC investing in early-stage startups, she’s confronting similar shortsightedness in Silicon Valley.

“The Black female founder begins her fundraising journey already down a match point,” Williams wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN Business. “Investors expect to see more traction from Black founders than their White counterparts, and will often question their technical expertise and market understanding.”

This challenge is compounded by “the network effect.” Williams observed that Black women rarely have a wealthy network of family and friends to turn to for early investment — the average Black household has a net worth that’s around 10 times less than that of their White counterparts.

Her Serena Ventures fund takes an inclusive approach, giving burgeoning entrepreneurs with innovative visions the opportunity to be heard and take their ideas to the next level. The fund’s portfolio of more than 50 companies includes the maternal and infant health tech startup Mahmee, founded by Urban Tech Connect 2020 speaker Melissa Hanna.

In today’s curation of must-read innovation and tech news, the Plug In South LA Beat, we’ve got front-row seats for Williams’ quest to build an inclusive VC landscape:

Silicon Valley Is Wrong About Black Women Entrepreneurs

Photo: Serena Williams speaks at TED 2017. Credit: Ryan Lash / TED, Flickr Creative Commons

Startups The PISLA Beat

CEOs Form Coalition to Employ a Million Black Americans

A group of CEOs from well-known companies launched an initiative aimed at closing the opportunity gap for one million Black Americans over the next decade. The effort, called OneTen, has support from a coalition of 37 companies including Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Cisco, Accenture, Trane Technologies, HP, and Lowe’s.

Merck chairman and CEO Kenneth Frazier is a OneTen co-chair. “Many times, companies require four-year degrees for the kinds of jobs that really do not require a four-year degree,” Frazier told CBS This Morning. “We’re trying to urge companies to take a skills-first approach rather than a credentials approach, which will eliminate some of the systemic barriers that African Americans have faced.”

Frazier and his co-chair, former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, pointed out that companies are overlooking a large talent pool, exacerbating disparities. Census Bureau data show that around 36% of all Americans ages 25 and over had a four-year college degree in 2019, but the same was true for only 26% of Black Americans in the same age group.

For the Plug In South LA Beat, our regular curation of must-read innovation and tech news, we’re taking a closer look at how OneTen emphasizes soft skills rather than hard skills for diverse talent development:

Ken Frazier, Ginni Rometty and Other CEOs Pledge to Train and Hire 1 Million Black Workers in 10 Years

A Step in the Right Direction: CEOs Pledge to Train and Hire One Million Black Workers in the Next 10 Years

Photo: Merck chairman and CEO Kenneth Frazier. Credit: Bill Bernstein/Merck

Startups The PISLA Beat

SoLa Impact Introduces $1 Billion Community Fund

The time to act on creating shared prosperity and racial equity is right now, says Martin Muoto, CEO of SoLa Impact, a family of social impact real estate funds. He and his team just launched a $1 billion fund to invest exclusively in Black and Brown communities.

Longtime Plug In South LA supporter SoLa Impact operates a data-driven fund focused on high-quality affordable housing, economic development, and access to educational opportunities in underserved and underinvested neighborhoods. Earlier this year Forbes named the company the top Opportunity Zone fund with an urban focus. They were also ranked the seventh fastest growing minority-led private company on the Inc. 5000 2020 list.

SoLa Impact recently introduced the $1 billion Black Impact Fund. In homage to the Thirteenth Amendment and the percentage of African Americans nationwide, 13% will go toward funding an unaffiliated not-for-profit called the Black Impact Community Fund. This fund’s significant size, operating efficiency, and purchasing power is expected to build housing that community members can purchase at cost, opening the door to homeownership and wealth creation, the company said.

“We believe this inclusive model will give us access to better investments and stronger partnerships — particularly in communities of color where minority-led builders, architects, and developers have struggled to access capital,” Muoto said in a public statement.

In today’s curation of must-read innovation and tech news, the Plug In South LA Beat, let’s take a closer look at how the new fund promises to deliver near- and long-term dividends for communities that have been overlooked for too long:

SoLa Impact Announces $1 Billion Black Impact Fund for Black and Brown Communities

Photo: Martin Muoto is CEO, founder, and managing member. Credit: SoLa Impact

Startups The PISLA Beat

Black Women Founders Smash Barriers to Each Raise Over $1 Million

Shani Dowell persisted. She’s the founder of Possip, short for “positive gossip,” a platform that helps schools gain real-time feedback from parents on topics like bullying and school culture. And, like many Black women entrepreneurs, she encountered a fundraising wall early on.

“When I originally would go out and pitch Possip to people, especially to typically wealthier men, they sometimes didn’t understand the problem, and part of why they potentially didn’t see the problem is because they may not have ever had the experience of not feeling entitled and empowered to share their voice or share their opinions,” Dowell told CNN Business.

But finding an institutional investor led by a female CEO put the startup on track for success. Now Dowell is a member of the “million dollar club” of Black women who each raised more than $1 million for their businesses.

That club remains small although its size is increasing, according to the study ProjectDiane commissioned by DigitalUndivided. “Businesses founded by women of color are in focus now, specifically those founded by Black women because of the racial reckoning,” CEO Lauren Maillian, who co-hosted Urban Tech Connect this year, told CNN. “But we need to make sure that they continue to gain great investment.”

For our regular curation of must-read innovation and tech news, the Plug In South LA Beat, we’re meeting the Black women who smashed fundraising barriers — and seeing how they did it:

Black Women Don’t Get Much Startup Funding. These Founders Are Trying to Change That

Photo: Shani Dowell, founder of Possip. Credit: Possip

Startups The PISLA Beat

Marcy Lab School Founders Forge High-Growth Tech Career Paths for Underrepresented Students

Well before the pandemic turned higher education upside down, Maya Bhattacharjee and Reuben Ogbanna saw Black and Brown students saddled by debt and left behind. The two educators put their heads together and launched the Marcy Lab School in 2019.

Their organization is based in a low-income Brooklyn community and provides an immersive education program that’s designed to prepare students of color for full-time careers in fast-growing tech professions.

“It’s more than just about ‘poor kids learning to code,’” Ogbanna told TheGrio’s Danielle James. “We are pushing the boundaries of secondary education. When we are successful, people are going to be questioning what is valuable about the traditional college experience at all. Institutions will be looking at this model to be relevant.”

The inaugural class of fellows graduated in September. James reported that 89% of program graduates landed full-time software engineering jobs at companies that included the New York Times, Weight Watchers, and JP Morgan.

In today’s curation of must-read innovation and tech news, the Plug In South LA Beat, let’s find out how the Marcy Lab School places underrepresented and underserved high school graduates in a position of opportunity:

Marcy Lab School Democratizing Path to Six-Figure Income in Tech for Black, Brown Students

Photo: Maya Bhattacharjee and Reuben Ogbanna. Credit: Marcy Lab School

Startups The PISLA Beat

Travel Startup Founder Cherae Robinson Shares Her Successful Pivot During the Pandemic

Cherae Robinson founded the travel tech company TasteMakers Africa six years ago to help travelers connect with people in authentic ways through unique tours created and hosted by artists, creators, and makers.

Initially she arrived in Africa focused on international development. “When I got to the continent and spent a significant amount of time there, I realized that the poverty narrative wasn’t the one I was called to share,” Robinson told Black Enterprise. “I didn’t really see anybody doing progressive cultural work.”

Soon she was fielding requests on social media for suggestions on places to go, what to see, and where to eat. Robinson decided to create a centralized platform for travel-related messages, envisioning that TasteMakers Africa could become a vehicle of transformation for Black people.

The company garnered attention from outlets including Fusion, AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, and CNN. Then, this year, the pandemic hampered international travel. Robinson had to pivot, expanding her platform to include virtual experiences and a members-only digital community.

In today’s Plug In South LA Beat, our curation of innovation and tech news, we’re finding out how Robinson left a 9-to-5 career in biology to build and scale up a successful business:

TasteMakers Africa Founder Cherae Robinson Is Living her Calling by Connecting Us to the Motherland

SistersInc. Podcast Episode Nine: Following Your Calling with Cherae Robinson

Photo Credit: TasteMakers Africa on Facebook

Startups The PISLA Beat

Executive Pia Flanagan Mobilizes Companies Nationally Around Racial Equality

Pia Flanagan didn’t want to just talk the talk on racial equality in the business community. The corporate lawyer and chief of staff to the CEO of MassMutual sought to actually walk the walk. So, this year, she and several other employees stepped away from their day jobs to effect change.

Flanagan became COO of the CEO Action for Racial Equity, a fellowship that launched this fall to identify, develop, and promote scalable and sustainable public policies and corporate engagement strategies that “will address systemic racism, social injustice, and improve societal well-being.”

Each fellow is spending one to two years on the effort, using a business approach that includes technology-enabled strategies. The fellowship has drawn more than 250 professionals from over 100 cross-industry organizations, according to a RYOT Studio article for HuffPost.

“We know that there are about 48 million people Black people in the United States,” Flanagan told the outlet. “Everything we do will relate back to that number. So, how many Black people are we touching with any of the policy proposals on which we work?”

For our regular curation of must-read innovation and tech news, the Plug In South LA Beat, we’re going inside Flanagan’s quest to advance racial societal equity nationwide:

For Black Executives like Pia Flanagan, the Fight for Racial Equity Is Personal

Photo Credit: CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion