The 14th Startup Runway is around the corner. We are the largest platform connecting investors to underrepresented founders in this country. I’m reflecting a lot on our journey at this milestone.
Let me take you back to 2016, as I was raising my first fund. I was leaving my 100th+ pitch competition and had seen no pitches from women or founders of color. I was tired of waiting for change.
I decided to be the change. I decided to lead the change.
Startup Runway ignites
Startup Runway was born right after that event, in a parking lot in Atlanta’s midtown. I made a phone call to my friend Ryan Wilson, who had his hands full with his own startup, The Gathering Spot. He said, if we built it, founders would come.
It wasn’t clear we’d have success at the time. There were lots of pitch events for particular types of founders–African American, Latin American, LGBQT, women . . . To some extent, the “pitch marketplace” looked crowded. But my experience as a founder and an investor was, “female founder pitches” and “pitches for black founders” and so forth were often non-competitive. The hunger and ambition for excellence driving so many founders didn’t find outlets in those kinds of onramps. They were more inspirational events.
In traditional venture events, built by and for a 95% white male venture capital club, the culture gap steep for founders who are women, and thushave access to 70% of the capital men do, or for people of color. Black families on average have 1/10th the wealth of white families.
For underrepresented founders, traditional investor pitch competitions are like asking startups to achieve lift-off from an untended gravel road when everyone else has a jetway.
We decided to pave that runway founders needed–super competitive, real investors, a place for innovation to soar. We want to see all founders flying.
Startup Runway takes off
We held our first pitch event with a $5,000 grant prize in October of 2016. It took a village, and that village gathered. Mentors embraced our founders in small groups to help them break open access to capital.
We were overwhelmed by the response.We didn’t have dozens of founders apply–we had almost a thousand. We realized we had a vast opportunity. The demand from founders, and investors, for a highly competitive pitch event featuring all types of under-represented founders, was enormous.
Cox Enterprises paid it forward and became our first Presenting Sponsor.
I am are proud to say they still are today. Their mentors make a difference cohort after cohort. Their presenting sponsor grant of $10,000 cohort after cohort helps attract some of the top VCs in the country to administer the prize.
Startup Runway Finalists now number over 120 select firms led by women and founders of color.
One in three of them have earned significant first venture rounds include Civic Eagle (ffVC and M25), Jax Rideshare (Collab Capital); PleaseAssistMe (Collab Capital); Ecotext (Valor Ventures); Candidly (Floodgate and Valor Ventures), Don’t Get Mad, Get Paid (Techstars), Civic Dinners (Atlanta Seed Fund and Techstars), and more. A Startup Runway Finalist is SIX TIMES more likely to raise a seed round than a woman or founder of color who has not gone through our investor introduction platform.
One in 3 of our pre-seed founders raising a significant round is what you call a VERY high “graduation rate.”
Startup Runway on the rise
As I write this, we’ve held 13 Startup Runways. Sponsors like Slalom joined forces to provide partnership and more technical expertise in our mentorship circles. American Family Institute cbrought their own expertise in inclusion, underwriting a community choice grant. Angels are flocking to our network–so we built the only angel investor network focused on inclusion (and it’s free!)
Late last year, we recruited a rockstar as our first executive director, Mecca Tartt. We’ve got plenty of sky left to conquer, and you can help.