Porter Braswell and Ryan Williams met on a Goldman Sachs trading floor, dotted with hundreds of garish flat-screens--yet lacking in analysts of color.
Though Braswell was senior to Williams, the two became fast friends. As African Americans working in finance, both were frustrated with the industry's troubling diversity problem.
"It's professionally unsettling, and not a confidence boost, for someone of color to look around and not see anyone else who looks like them," Williams recalls from his Wall Street days. "There's often a discounting of ability that happens either consciously or subconsciously."
Williams and Braswell admit that they've had opportunities that many others like them haven't; Braswell arrived as a full-time staffer at Goldman Sachs after spending five summers interning at investment banks, between semesters studying political science at Yale. Williams, meanwhile, graduated in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He spent his summers at Credit Suisse and Goldman.
"My path to finance was really being identified from an early age through a diversity internship program," Braswell says. "We realized that while we were really fortunate for that, there was never really a scalable tech solution for it."
So in 2015, after being accepted to Y-Combinator, they launched Jopwell, an online recruiting platform that connects African American, Hispanic, and Native American candidates with jobs at major technology and finance companies. Employers pay a standard subscription fee to use Jopwell, and in return receive access to thousands of potential hires. For job seekers, the only requirement for being accepted onto the platform is having completed a degree at any four-year college in the U.S.
The company generated some buzz this year after it closed a seed funding round of $3.25 million from Magic Johnson Enterprises, Andreessen Horowitz, Kapor Capital, and Valar Ventures--bringing its total funding to $4.24 million.
Benjamin Jealous, partner with Kapor Ventures and former head of the NAACP, believes Jopwell is solving a problem he's long been trying to figure out himself. "Before Jopwell, many of us had tried many other avenues, like public policy and advocacy within companies. What has not been tried enough is to create highly scalable companies that help remedy the problem of exclusion from the job marketplace," he said, referring to time spent with the NAACP.
What particularly attracted Jealous to Jopwell is the level of commitment the founders possess, having experienced some degree of racial exclusion in their lives. "There's an effect that fills you, that ultimately makes many people very committed to not just figuring out how to expand opportunities for themselves, but for others like them as well," he explained.
To date, Jopwell has facilitated more than 6,000 "connections" between candidates and employers--meaning contact has been made between a company rep and a job seeker--up from 250 just last summer, as candidate applications continue to grow by 40 percent each month. The company has partnered with more than 60 employers, including Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Buzzfeed, and Morgan Stanley. The founders don't anticipate the demand to ebb over time.
"There's no shortage of companies who value diversity," contends Braswell. It also helps that startups with fewer employees are now beginning to approach Jopwell, as they recognize the need to become diverse sooner rather than later, he says. That's an entirely new crop of clients for the one-year-old firm.
To his point, a number of Silicon Valley companies disclosed some dismal numbers outlining internal diversity statistics for the first time in 2014 at the beckoning of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. In part, Jopwell's launch was a response to that event. Two years later, those numbers haven't improved much: Facebook, for instance, is 55 percent white and 36 percent Asian, with all other minorities accounting for just 9 percent of the work force. Minorities account for just 37 percent of leadership roles at LinkedIn -- the company with the most diversity at the executive level, according to the most recent available data.
Increasingly, employers in Silicon Valley and beyond are recognizing the business case for diversity. Ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians, according to a recent report from McKinsey.
Of course, it's feasible that hiring managers may still approach Jopwell with biases -- by targeting candidates from select universities, for example -- similar to those that prevent companies from becoming diverse in the first place. Google, for instance, hires most frequently from Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University, according to 2014 data analyzed by Business Insider.
"That's absolutely a concern," says Williams. Still, he insists that companies are increasingly becoming exposed to new sources of talent through Jopwell. He says HR managers have realized that plucking hires from different industries--say, a candidate of color with experience in finance, but not technology, per se--has been surprisingly successful.
"This [Jopwell] doesn't solve the whole problem. It solves part of the problem," says Jealous.
While both founders concede that, there's a larger pipeline issue at play: Many job seekers of color may not have the opportunity to attend a four-year college. Jopwell tackles the issue by partnering with nonprofit organizations to integrate less privileged candidates onto the platform.
This explains why Jopwell says it's not competing with corporate diversity initiatives, or other nonprofits, but rather hopes to "build on the work" that's already been done.