As nationwide protests against the killing of Black Americans by police continue, Inc. has asked Black business leaders in or near hot zones to tell us what they are experiencing.
As crowds of protesters filled the streets of many American cities over the weekend, Joah Spearman, the founder of Austin-based travel guide startup Localeur, found himself consumed by a series of phone calls and text exchanges with colleagues around his city and as far away as Hong Kong--all of whom wanted to know how they might respond to escalating tensions and the killings that sparked them. It's a pattern Spearman is familiar with, one that he has come to embrace every time the issue of racial inequality flares up. As Austin has grown into an ever-hotter startup market, the scarcity of Black founders in the city has become increasingly apparent, and Spearman has become a trusted local voice on race and entrepreneurship. He didn't ask for the job, he says, but it's become one his most important roles--this week, perhaps, more than ever. --As told to Tom Foster
There isn't really a community of Black founders in Austin.
And I am the only one I know of in this city who has raised $5 million. I have been doing this for some time and have a wide network. That means I have a responsibility to speak up.
There is evidence that moments like this thrust Black people into being distracted. If a VC firm is virtue signaling and has one Black founder in its portfolio, and if you are that Black founder, it is now your job to amplify that virtue signaling. You didn't sign up for that, but that is your job now. You are their token. I take that as an opportunity to be an educator--I write a ton on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on other platforms. For others, it can be a distraction from just putting their heads down and running their businesses.
I use the analogy of Jackie Robinson a lot. There's a reason that Jackie Robinson is considered one of the 50 or 60 greatest baseball players, and it's not his home run count. There were better players when he joined Major League Baseball. For me, I realize, I am not the best or most famous Black founder. But there are a lot of people who would love the money I have raised or connections I've made, so when I get it, I need to make the most of it. That's being in the game. It's a burden that I carry with pride, because it amazes me to think about how many baseball players before Jackie Robinson could only dream of playing against White people. It's the same thing in business.
I probably spent 14 hours a day on my phone this weekend texting and talking with people. I have been spending my time trying to take the little experience I have and parse it out to people in my network who don't have that experience, and hopefully see it disseminated beyond that. A lot of it has been consulting with investors and other entrepreneurs about what they should post on social media. They want to say something but want to make sure it doesn't sound tone deaf, that it doesn't seem like virtue signaling.
That's part of my job too, whether I like it or not. Those people were put in my life for a reason.
One thing I've learned in interacting with other Black founders is that we try to look at these moments as ways to lessen our own personal burdens. So for me, it's a good day when I get to have a conversation about being Black and being a Black founder, because now the weight doesn't have to be something I have to hold privately. I can openly share it and say, "This is what is going on."
- Kim Prince, owner of Hotville Chicken, a restaurant in South Central L.A., on why, despite widespread protests, she chose to not board up but to stay open.
- Brad Keiller, owner of San Diego's Nomad Donuts, with family from South Africa, on hopes that the U.S. is in a watershed moment.
- Zawadi Bryant, founder of NightLight Pediatric, a group of urgent care clinics in the Houston metro area, on what keeps her awake at night.