The white male dominated world of venture capital may leave the impression that women and entrepreneurs of color are nowhere to be found. It has been a way to explain why they receive only a fraction of the billions of dollars VCs invest annually in startups.
Visible Hands, a new Boston VC firm, wants to prove the rest of the industry wrong.
Founded by Daniel Acheampong, Yasmin Cruz Ferrine, and Justin Kang, the three like the early trends they’re seeing in their first round of investments they selected in late July.
Tapping their networks — Acheampong is Black, Ferrine is Latina, and Kang is Asian American — Visible Hands’ cofounders attracted more than 900 applicants, the majority of them underrepresented founders or women. The demographic breakdown of their first cohort of 50 investments is impressive: 49 percent are Black entrepreneurs, about 14 percent Latinx, about 14 percent Asian, about 10 percent multiracial,and about 12 percent white. Nearly three-quarters of the group are women.
“It validated our thesis. We do not see a pipeline problem,” said Acheampong who also serves as general partner along with Ferrine and Kang. “We see a resource problem.”
The funding recipients hail from all over the country, though Boston is well-represented. Visible Hands invests in startups at the earliest stages by providing $25,000 in seed money and enrolling them in a 14-week fellowship to refine their concepts. Entrepreneurs can seek up to $150,000 more at the end of the program.
Women and founders of color often lack access to capital and social networks that white male counterparts have in getting their companies off the ground. An analysis of the top 100 US venture firms between 2018 and 2019 found that only 10.7 percent of their funding went to women founders, according to a report by RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC. White entrepreneurs dominated, capturing 71.6 percent of the funding, followed by Asian founders at 25.2 percent, Black founders at 1.7 percent, and Latino founders at 1.3 percent.
Visible Hands joins other efforts, from Golden Seeds to Smarter in the City, that aim to help underrepresented entrepreneurial groups. In launching Visible Hands, Acheampong said, the cofounders began with a provocative question: “How can we manufacture privilege?”
Many of us think of privilege as a bad word ― something white men have at the expense of most everyone else. But what if privilege could be created, shared, and dispensed as a way to help level the playing field?
It’s something Lakshmi Balachandra, a Babson College professor who teaches entrepreneurship, has also been examining as it relates to gender and VC investing. She tracked 409 entrants in the annual MIT Elevator Pitch Competition and found that seven years later the women entrants received VC funding at the same rate as the men.
Her big takeaway? That women entrepreneurs who were part of the pitch competition benefited from the MIT imprimatur and networks connected to a university known for churning out innovations.
“Without privilege, women and minorities are excluded,” said Balachandra, but “being part of MIT and having that status got them into an equal place.”
In their careers, the Visible Hands founders felt they had privilege extended to them. Acheampong worked at Goldman Sachs and Summit Partners before going to the Wharton School for his MBA and Harvard’s Kennedy School for a master’s degree. Kang got involved in accelerators and launched his own social impact startup City Awake, which later became part of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to help energize young professionals.
Ferrine, like Acheampong, worked in the financial services sector, and armed with an MBA from Boston College, she has worked at institutions like John Hancock and Brown Advisory, and has raised capital, overseen investment strategies, and advised foundations.
Acheampong and Kang, who met as undergraduates at Brandeis University, began kicking around the idea of a VC firm aimed at funding underrepresented founders in the fall of 2019. When the pandemic struck, they considered delaying their launch.
By then, Ferrine had agreed to join the effort, and it was clear to her the trio could not wait.
“Yasmin was a big game changer for us,” Acheampong recalled. “She came in and said, ‘Guys, we have to do this. If nobody is out there to help them, who is? Especially during these uncertain times, we have to go out and do this.’ ”
By June 2020, they decided to work on Visible Hands full time. Their timing could not have been better. The country was going through a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, and Corporate America pledged billions of dollars to narrow the racial wealth gap.
Bank of America is one of Visible Hands’s earliest and biggest investors, with funding coming out of the financial institution’s $1.25 billion racial equity initiative. Corporate sponsors have lined up to underwrite Visible Hands’s fellowship program including $750,000 each from Liberty Mutual and JPMorgan Chase.
While much of the fellowship will be virtual, a week-long, in-person orientation is set for Sept. 13 in Tulsa, Okla., where a century ago Black entrepreneurs thrived in a district dubbed Black Wall Street. But in 1921, that district was burned and destroyed by a murderous white mob.
The Visible Hands entrepreneurs draw from a variety of backgrounds, from engineers to product managers to marketers. About 70 percent arrive with a prototype or idea. Their interests cluster around four areas: business and creator tools, work, family, and health.
For Evelyn Hartz, who has been working at e-commerce startups in Boston, Visible Hands allowed her to quit her job and pursue her concept full time. Her idea: an Amazon-like marketplace for shoppers with a social conscious. People can buy products using filters such as sustainable or women-owned.
“It came at the right moment,” Hartz said of the Visible Hands fellowship.
Felix Gonda graduated this year with a doctorate in computer science from Harvard but felt that he lacked entrepreneurial training. Being a Visible Hands fellow allows him to acquire those skills quickly. His idea: improving camera technology to better calibrate darker skin tones and textures.
The pursuit is personal: Gonda, who was born in Kenya, said he was giving his dissertation defense in April over Zoom, and when he was done, those who were watching, including his parents, were invited to turn on their cameras for a group photo.
“I couldn’t see my parents’ faces,” recalled Gonda. “I could see that they were there. That was a very emotional moment. That is the thing that jolted me into action.”
Irene Li knows a lot about running her own business as chef-owner of Mei Mei restaurant in Boston, but she never envisioned herself entering the tech space until Visible Hands came along. Kang, one of the cofounders, encouraged her to apply. Li is interested in developing technology that can help restaurants solve the problem of high employee turnover.
At first, Li didn’t think Visible Hands was for her. She grew up with every advantage, as the daughter of two doctors who attended prep school and an Ivy League university. But the fact that someone like her felt invisible to the VC world might explain why the startup world lacks diversity.
“I‘ve always thought the VC and tech world is not for me. The VC and tech world has always said, ‘You’re not for us,’ “ said Li. “What I’m observing is that there is a meeting of the middle.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.