I am often asked if Silicon Valley is friendly to Black entrepreneurs. My answer would be yes, more or less, but the real million-dollar question is “Will Silicon Valley invest in you and let you dream big if you are a Black entrepreneur?” The answer to that question would be no.
I jumped head-first into the Silicon Valley venture capital world when I joined a facial recognition software startup called Kairos as a chief strategy officer in 2012. I left my corporate mentality and started learning how to build a Silicon Valley style company. I always say that's when I went from PCs to MacBooks, from suits to jeans and hoodies. Silicon Valley gives you the ambition and audacity to think you can literally change the world.
At Kairos, founder and fellow Black entrepreneur Brian Brackeen and I raised some money from Kapor Capital. NewMe accelerator also gave us exposure to Google for Entrepreneurs, Andreessen Horowitz, and similar big name firms. But when we tried to raise a real round for real money — we were going for $7 million — we were told no by every single investor. We had such a great product, such a great team, such a great market approach, and all we heard was no. But look at us now. Brian runs Lightship Capital, a $50-million venture capital fund in the Midwest. Down here in Dallas, I've raised $13 million and have lots more coming for Gig Wage, a platform trying to simplify and democratize the payroll system for gig workers. You can't tell me we weren't talented enough, experienced enough, or solid enough to have raised a significant round back then. The truth is, Silicon Valley was built for the white man.
The leaders of academia as well as investors in their students, the presidents of various organizations, or the donors, back to the schools at Bay Area institutions like California Berkley that drive research and development and run heavy, consumer-facing platforms are all white men who have created and perpetuated a cycle of transferring and sharing wealth between them. If I got a scholarship to attend Stanford and spent four years at the school networking, I would still not have the same opportunities as my white male counterparts. You can see examples of racially segregated networking in Bay Area sororities and fraternities. This is woven into the American fabric; America was built on the back of racism, after all.
I didn’t get discouraged nonetheless. Before joining Kairos, I had been selling payment and payroll technology that had opened my eyes to how underserved the gig economy market was. Trillions of dollars are being paid to hundreds of million gig workers globally in a way that costs them 2-20% of their income due to an outdated banking system. So I embraced the Silicon Valley brand vision and created a business for the future.
I launched Gig Wage in 2017. Through a smart Fintech technology, Gig Wage horizontally integrates payroll, payments, and banking, allowing businesses to pay vendors instantly. Companies need proper infrastructure to facilitate gig workers’ payments. The gig economy is the economy of the future, and COVID has accelerated its expansion. I have managed to bring in Tier 1 venture capitalists like Foundry Group out of Colorado which has billions of dollars under management, and publicly traded companies from Southern California. My total funding of up to $13 million so far is a pretty significant number for a Black entrepreneur. It turns out, you can build grand and audacious Silicon Valley-esque companies outside of the Bay area.
Gig Wage was born out of my encounter with the Silicon Valley spirit and tactics, but now I’ve got my own ambition and vision as a founder and CEO to use as fuel. I have people all over the country working for me. Entrepreneurship is akin to ideology. If enough people believe in your ideas and follow you, action becomes reality. First, you get intentional. You try to see the future. Then, you raise your data points, you put in the creativity and team-building, you reassess your data points. Throughout the journey, you make sure you are positioned and capitalized enough to last long enough. If you endure, the trend you first noticed hits an inflection point, after which the future presents itself. What you built created the future.
Craig J. Lewis is a Black entrepreneur and founder of Gig Wage, a platform promising to simplify and democratize the payroll system for gig workers.