September 23 is the 12th Startup Runway, which has become the largest platform connecting investors to underrepresented founders in this country. I’m reflecting a lot on our journey as we reel in this milestone.
Have you ever felt an intolerable frustration? Something you couldn’t necessarily change in that moment, but you couldn’t live with, either? That’s the feeling I had in 2016, leaving my 100th+ pitch competition, with no women and no founders of color. I was tired of waiting for change.
I decided to be 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 picked up. He said, if we built it, founders would come. We decided to test that.
There were lots of pitch events for particular types of founders–African American, Latin American, LGBQT, women . . But my experience 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. Yet in traditional venture events, built by a 95% white male venture capital elite, the culture gap was just too great for founders like women, who have 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.
We decided to pave a runway. We want to see founders of all types fly.
Startup Runway takes off
We talked to dozens of leaders about what was working and not working in getting funding to underrepresented founders.
We listened. And listened hard. I talked to dozens of investors, too–why weren’t they backing founders who were women and people of color? They said “pipeline.”
We said: we got your pipeline.
In short, there was radical agreement “across the aisles” that a competitive environment to source the best of the best would help support the inclusive innovation ecosystem.
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.
A flood of founders
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 just under 100 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.
Startup Runway on the rise
As I write this, we’ve held 11 Startup Runways. Sponsors like Slalom joined forces to provide partnership and more technical expertise in our mentorship circles. American Family Institute connected to us and brought their own expertise in inclusion, underwriting a community choice grant of $10,000 in addition to the Cox Enterprises Judge’s Grant of $10,000. Angels are flocking to our network–the only angel investor network focused on inclusion (and it’s free!)