Alumna builds nonprofit to help Black & Brown founders succeed
Lack of access to capital is one of the primary barriers facing Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. According to the Harvard Business Review, less than 2% of venture capital goes to Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, and when almost 65% of all entrepreneurs rely on personal and family savings for startup capital, taking on the full financial risk of starting a business may not be feasible.
In 2017, Penn State alumna Aniyia Williams launched Black & Brown Founders, a nonprofit organization providing community, education, and financial access to Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, allowing them to launch and build tech businesses with modest resources.
“When founders look a certain way or come from a certain background, there isn’t the same lens and rigor around how investors evaluate deals,” Williams said. “In terms of venture capital and the role it plays in tech, a lot of those decisions get made based on having the right relationships when people are giving out money – Black women are basically at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to getting investment and support, which has only gotten marginally better in the past few years.”
Williams started her work in diversity and inclusion as a student at Penn State Berks in her first year as an undergraduate. As a member of the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments (CCSG) and diversity co-chair, she helped start an endowment fund for students working towards advancing diversity and inclusion on campus. She graduated from the Schreyer Honors College in 2007 with a degree in music from the College of Arts and Architecture. These opportunities provided her with a great introduction to and experience in fundraising and development.
Now, Williams’s journey with Penn State has come full circle as the Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network collaborated with Black & Brown Founders to facilitate the We Rise Together program, which was designed to equip the directors and staff at each of the 21 LaunchBox and Innovation Hub locations with the awareness and tools to help them build more inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems.
“Black & Brown Founders’ extensive knowledge of building community and the unique challenges faced by underrepresented entrepreneurs was instrumental in our ability to generate awareness with our 21 locations across the Commonwealth,” said Lee Erickson, Chief Amplifier at Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank. “Aniyia and her team played a huge part in shaping and informing our community of practice moving forward.”
After graduating from Penn State, Williams moved to San Francisco and got her foot in the door of the tech and startup world working for Voxer, a Walkie Talkie messaging app. Shortly thereafter Williams decided to start her own business. Combining her love for music and interest in tech, Williams founded Tinsel, which manufactured and sold women’s necklaces that transformed into headphones. She got an initial investment from her former boss at Voxer allowing her to start a team, build a functioning prototype, and start a crowdfunding campaign that exceeded its fundraising goal.
But when she went to investors with a prototype and proof of an existing market, she didn’t see the financial support other tech startups were receiving.
“Particularly at that time, Silicon Valley didn’t understand women, didn’t understand hardware, and didn’t understand fashion,” Williams said. “So, having raised a little bit less than half a million dollars over the lifetime of the company, it was amazing what we accomplished with Tinsel, especially knowing what I know now about manufacturing and shipping a product.”
While working on Tinsel, Williams entered an entrepreneur residency program funded by Google and Code 2040 – a nonprofit helping Black and Latinx individuals get into the tech industry. The program was an important inflection point for her because it gave her the opportunity to connect with so many other Black and Latinx entrepreneurs with experiences like hers.
“It was really hard raising capital and getting the resources I needed. I had 50+ ideas in my head of things I could’ve done to change the outcome, but the really deep feeling I had about it was validated after I started doing that residency,” Williams said. “I just realized, this is what it means when we say something is systemic, where it’s actually the exception that you got what you needed.”
After seeing and experiencing the need for targeted support, Williams launched Black & Brown Founders in 2017. Since then, the nonprofit has produced seven events in four cities providing actionable information about building tech companies, gathering interdisciplinary stakeholders to ideate on ecosystem solutions, and refining effective ways to create connection among siloed tech founders of color.
Deldelp Medina, executive director of Black & Brown Founders and a co-facilitator for the We Rise Together program, said the main goal going into We Rise Together was providing the tools for innovation hub leadership to connect with and support diverse founders while discovering new ways to examine personal and institutional bias.
“We are super grateful that folks were willing to show up virtually week after week to have difficult but needed conversations, and during a pandemic,” Medina said. “Talking about racism, bias, and systems on exclusion is not a skillset folks develop through formal education. Yet it is so needed to make sure you are engaging in economic development that is solid.”
Williams chairs the Black & Brown Founders Board and works as a principal for the Omidyar Network, a social change venture seeking to create a more equitable economy, promote responsible technology that improves lives, and discover the emergent issues that will shape our future. She and the rest of the Black & Brown Founders team look forward to continued collaboration with the Invent Penn State entrepreneurial ecosystem.
To learn more about the Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation Hub Network, visit https://invent.psu.edu/programs/pa-innovation-hubs/.