For some Computer Science students, starting their own company is the ultimate goal. Last year, we had a "Building a Brand: Black Founders Edition" Fam Friday panel that offered gems on how to get started. In this panel, interviewer Brunix Michel sat down with top Black tech CEOs Asha Christian of Coily, Joshua Ogundu of Campfire and former CEO of Heart to Heart, and our own Founder and CEO, Jehron Petty of ColorStack to discuss their journey as Black tech founders. Learn from their collective wisdom with seven key tips for underrepresented Computer Science students aspiring to start a business can build their brand.
- Give investors a strong sense of who you are
VCs are investing as much in the founder as they are in the idea. Certainly, building your resume up with easily recognizable markers of success is one way to give people the confidence to back your startup, but Asha emphasizes that you don’t necessarily need a big name school or company behind you to be successful. Highlighting your own initiatives (past startups or projects you’ve built) can be just as fruitful in getting people to invest in you and your idea.
- Be intentional about creating a support network
All three founders express the importance of building a support network of people you can compare notes with and learn from as you grow your company. Jehron says that building this kind of network doesn’t happen by chance. Rather, it's something you build with intention. He recommends seeking out a diverse group of individuals at different stages in their careers and being transparent about the relationship you’re trying to build. “I was very up front in these intro calls, just talking with these folks and saying ‘hey I would love to catch up every month,’” he says. Joshua adds that you should reach out to people in your specific space or sector to maximize learnings.
Both highlight that you don’t always need to be best friends with the people in your professional support network, but you do have to be mutually interested in supporting one another.
- You can be humble while maintaining confidence in yourself
Jehron points out that in order to seek out the support network indicated above, you need to be humble and recognize you might not always have all the answers. This humbleness leads you to seek other viewpoints. Asha follows up by saying that this humility, while valuable, doesn’t need to come at the cost of your self-confidence. In fact, it’s a foundation of self-confidence that allows you to ask the questions you really need to ask without feeling scared that you’re asking a dumb question.
- Take advantage of being a student while you can
Joshua advises aspiring founders to start building while in school. He describes college as a relatively risk-free environment where you can try things out. If your idea doesn’t pan out, you still have the safety net of being enrolled as a student. If your project does take off, you’ve potentially carved out your post-college career. To this end, Asha recommends taking full advantage of any entrepreneurship and investment resources available through your school and seeking out peers who strike you as particularly smart or driven. These networks often follow you after you graduate.
- Sometimes failure isn’t always that deep
Asha approaches failure as a fact of life. “When I run a program, I’m expecting there to be a bug,” she says. “I rarely expect it to just work the first time.” She describes applying that mentality to her real life and coming to the conclusion that failure isn’t always an indicator of whether or not you’re on the right life path. Sometimes, it’s just an obstacle you need to get around to achieve your ultimate goal.
- De-risk your decisions
There’s definitely a false perception of founders as people who “take risks just to take risks,” as Joshua puts it. He recommends de-risking decisions as much as possible before making them. Jehron echoes this sentiment and describes raising funds for most of his senior year of college to offset the risk of turning down an offer at Google and to found ColorStack.
- … But still remember that there’s always going to be some risk involved
To the point above Asha, notes that “Black and Brown people… are more socialized than our non-Black counterparts to be risk-averse.” She says that as a result minorities in tech are more likely to sit on decisions for longer periods of time. While she recommends making calculated decisions, she also notes that you don’t have to be 100% sure of something. “Follow your gut,” she says. “As a founder you’re going to have to follow your gut constantly.”