Shaking up the startup scene and making diversity happen
D/SRUPTION spoke to Abi Mohamed, Emmanuel Aremu and Denzel Walters of Community Growth Ventures (CGV), about their mission to improve the startup scene…
It’s no secret that the tech sector has a diversity issue. Whether it’s a lack of gender balance or a failure to recruit from underrepresented backgrounds, companies are widely missing out on the talent of minority groups. And, although most would agree that equal representation is a moral imperative, it also has business value. According to McKinsey, racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to perform better than their counterparts.
This concept is no less true in the startup world, where talented but underrepresented founders can struggle to find the funding and support they need to get their businesses off the ground. Luckily, though, there are people out there looking to make positive change.
London based Community Growth Ventures packs a lot of expertise into one, small team. With Aremu in charge of growth and marketing, Walters heading up investment and operations, and Mohamed taking care of tech, CGV is ideally placed to work with pre-seed and seed level startups across all aspects of their development. Their motivation? To help underrepresented founders make their businesses a success.
“Ultimately all three of us saw the problem,” says Aremu. “We came together because we think that what we’re doing is going to be part of the solution. We all want to see more representation in terms of the startups out there, but for this to happen there needs to be funding, there needs to be support. There needs to be more people going out on a limb, starting to come together – whether it’s by a syndicate or just being angels themselves – to back some of these companies when they’re trying to grow.”
Crucial to building this infrastructure of investment and support is finding the right kinds of startups to work with. When assessing potential businesses, the CGV team looks for a few key attributes. A viable product or roadmap is – of course – essential, but so is the right kind of attitude.
“One of the key things for us is working with passionate founders,” says Walters, “people that really care about the issues that they’re trying to solve. Actually, passion is probably key on both sides. So in any work that we do we’re trying to engage with the community. There’s an ecosystem to build there to really help underrepresented founders.”
As Aremu notes, these founders aren’t necessarily restricted to the tech sector itself.
“The first company that we invested in is tech enabled – and that’s where we see opportunity. When a business has ideas, and wants to get stuck in and actually deliver stuff for customers, it’s technology that enables you to deliver that at speed and at scale. But we’re not saying that it’s just tech companies we’re working with because disruption doesn’t necessarily end with tech. If there’s other areas and avenues that tech can enable that’s also disruption.”
Beyond the 9 to 5
If a key ingredient in the success of CGV is passion, so is a willingness to work hard. All three founding members fit their responsibilities around other careers. While these arguably help them develop the skills they need to run their enterprise, it also means long hours and lots of sacrifices.
“I’m very lucky because I work in the tech sector so it is very flexible, in the sense of when you’re able to work from home,” says Mohamed, “but then I choose to stay at work to prove a point that I can do both. Generally how it goes is after 5pm and at the weekend it’s CGV. And I will literally work for hours and hours. It could be going to investor meetings in the evening, getting stuff done at lunchtime or very early, doing hackathons, meeting founders, running workshops. I have to schedule everything. If you look at my calendar you’ll literally cry. I sacrifice my own holiday to do CGV stuff. Because I really believe in this, that’s why I do it.”
Aremu agrees. “It is about prioritising,” he says. “It’s good that we are team of three, so if there’s a project we’re working on we divvy up the work within the team. To be fair it doesn’t really feel like work, even though some days you’re like ‘how much do I have on my to do list?!’ For me it’s more of a lifetime mission and all three of us are committed to that.”
An age old question
Beyond the hard work there’s another issue that Aremu, Mohamed and Walters have to contend with: being taken seriously as investors in a domain that typically characterises youth as inexperience. For Mohamed, this can be particularly frustrating.
“With our age, people don’t believe that we can do it,” she says. “Especially with investment. It’s quite interesting because I’ve always had meetings with investors and they’ve always asked me ‘what makes you the right person to invest in a company? Why do you feel like you have the skills and experience?’ And I always reply going ‘what does that even mean?’ What does investor experience look like? It’s all about the age but I feel like you’ll never know if you’re good enough to be an investor until the first return happens.”
“With my engineering background I’ve been part of different projects that had end to end transformations. I have that experience – I’m able to see the kinds of problems people are solving and the actual capacity and the growth of it from a technical point of view. I can apply that into investment and become an angel as well.”
According to Aremu, investors should be worrying less about age, and more about attitude.
“At the early stage of a company, you need people who have expertise, who can solve problems and who can adapt quickly. If you start to match skills and attitude, people who want to get stuck in and look for solutions are more appealing. It’s not necessarily about being a certain age.”
This prejudice around age has resulted in lost opportunities for several young startup founders. That being said, it leaves the door open for organisations such as CGV.
“It’s a shame,” says Aremu, “but it’s their loss, because we can take advantage of the opportunity and the startups are doing great things. Off the top of my head, there’s Cashmere App, there’s Trim It, there’s Afrocenchix, there’s Whipgo – these companies are building stuff that customers want, and all the founders are absolutely resourceful, they’re absolutely tenacious.”
There’s no such thing as experts, just people
A conversation with the founders of CGV leaves no room for doubt that their energy and vision are just what the tech sector needs if it is to see real change. By creating an investor network, assembling a group of expert advisors, and putting their own capital into startups, they are helping to create opportunities for underrepresented founders, as well as an ecosystem that will help these startups to secure long term success.
This kind of drive is something all organisations can learn from – whether they are small businesses or established, multinational corporates. It is when we empower determined individuals that we can really galvanise positive change.
“Some people are very knowledgeable but they still get faced with a new problem and they don’t come with the right energy and drive to see it through to a solution,” says Walters. “Emmanuel always say something which really resonates, which is there’s no such thing as experts, just people. Fundamentally, it’s people that make the change and if you don’t know how to do it, learn how to do it, and make sure you can do it properly.”
“It’s not just about us.” Aremu adds. “There are a lot of other people in the ecosystem who are committed to solving this issue. This is great because it leads to different ideas and solutions coming out of it. My personal belief is that it doesn’t make sense complaining about something, you might as well solve it.”
It’s this attitude which sees the members of CGV not only putting their money where their mouth is, but a good chunk of their time and energy too. For anyone hoping to see greater diversity in the UK technology sector, this is truly inspirational work.
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