I wrote this in my newsletter this morning:
If you're not willing to ask yourself difficult questions, to be asked them, or to ask them of your teams, then this e-mail and, frankly, this "innovation" industry isn't for you.
What have tech leaders been telling people they needed to do in order to be great founders and to build great things?
Move fast and break things.
Don't ask for permission.
Run through walls.
In fact, Marc Andreessen once tweeted:
"To be AGAINST disruption is to be AGAINST consumer choice, AGAINST more people bring served, and AGAINST shrinking inequality."
So, innovation supporter...
Are you against shrinking inequality or not?
Ask yourself how come you're so concerned with people taking things from a Target when you cheered from the sidelines as Amazon burned Barnes & Noble to the ground and caused a million small retailers to go up in flames on their way to the top.
Have you owned shares and profited from all the broken Main Street windows Amazon created?
Last night, SoHo stores were looted, and nowhere in the coverage will it mention that the whole neighborhood has been one giant flaunt of real estate zoning law for years--illegal occupiers of their space.
There aren't supposed to be any stores in SoHo over 10,000 square feet, which Hollister, Topshop, Uniqlo and Zara all violate, while residential zoning in the neighborhood requires every SoHo household to include at least one certified artist.
The area has over 25,000 residents but has barely generated two dozen artist applications per year in recent years, with most being turned down on their face.
I'm not pro-looting, but I am pro having an honest conversation about who gets to break the law, especially when mostly white investors people get to profit from it.
"Uber’s ascent to the largest rideshare company in the world was fueled by a recurring cycle in which it blatantly ignored state and local laws, became entrenched and widely used in a community, and then tried to use its largesse to change the laws it was breaking..."
Could you not use this *exact* description for those who have been protesting?
Who benefitted equity-wise from Uber's success?
Black drivers make up over 20% of who is actually behind the wheel but have no equity in the company as they are not technically employees. Even if they were, startup employees usually don't hold more than 10% of the company's overall stock and less than 10% of the company's employees were black at the time of the IPO... so they make up less than 10% of 10%...
Well, you would have needed to be a wealthy, accredited investor to get in on the upside, and only 3% of Americans meet the criteria to do that.
I don't have to tell you what the racial distribution of the group benefitting looks like relative to those doing the work.
Systematic and institutionalized racism and bias have prevented black people, and people of color from gaining wealth that leads to access. It's too easy to disassociate yourself from it if you don't think of yourself as harboring racist sentiment--not racist and therefore, not part of racism.
I'm not talking about using certain words or intentionally denying someone a job or apartment.
What I'm talking about is a feature, not a bug.
It's a system where you can profit by owning equity in the booming cannabis industry, for example, without having to pay back any of the multi-generational economic harm done to those who were incarcerated because of it.
Or one in which to get a government license to build a crypto trading platform, you need to pass background checks to make sure you haven’t been too disruptive on your way to building financial disruption.
Or more simply put, one in which to make money, you have to already have it.
A little over seven years ago, I set out to start a fund that looks to be an early and vocal supporter of those who are outside the innermost circles of the most powerful people in tech--since, by definition, New York City was beyond that circle.
I did so from a position of privilege.
I didn't always fully acknowledge or understand it. I thought privilege meant certain levels of wealth--not realizing the privilege of my skin color in our society. I thought that because my dad was a NYC fireman and my mom was a teacher's aide and because we lived in a small house that didn't have privilege.
That's before the killing of Tamir Rice made me look up the toy guns I used to play with without any fear that something would ever happen to me:
It is impossible to look at these photos and deny that I am alive today purely as a function of my skin color.
But I digress...
The investors who backed me asked me to seek out and support those who would push boundaries and question the system. That's a contradiction if the only people who I make myself accessible to are those in positions of privilege and who have benefitted from unfair systems.
If I am to really seek out the disruptors, I need to find more people who will actually see upside from disruption, not from status quo.
Venture capital is supposed to make a high multiple of return for the risk. If you want to make a lot of money with a small amount of money, what you're asking for is wealth transfer--and if you want wealth transfer, the architects of real change need to be outside of the system, not intrinsically part of it.
The latter is financial engineering masking itself as disruption.
That is why Brooklyn Bridge Ventures from the very beginning was built around the idea of accessibility--that the idea that the vast majority of the next great companies built in NYC will be built by people who aren't on current investor radars.
To me, that doesn't mean "donating" my time to meet with underrepresented founders as a charity.
That means making sure that there are no artificial barriers for accessing me and the capital I represent that would skew my time only towards founders of privilege. It means flipping over every single rock looking to be first to the opportunity that no one else has figured out yet--because anything else is just laziness.
First and foremost that means eliminating the requirement for warm intros which makes those people already in my network, who statistically tend to look like me, the gatekeepers.
Sure, that means exponentially opening up the flow of deals and going through a ton of deal flow.
That. Is. The. Job.
It's not enough just to be open--because it doesn't address other systematic barriers, like fear.
You can't just post to social media circles of people with the same skin color as you that you want to meet diverse founders in June. You need to commit to following and promoting voices of people that aren't like you--that say things that aren't exactly comfortable to hear to earn the right to have them follow you back.
And only then can you put asks out every single day to get the pitches from the smartest people in their network and expect it to look different.
You need to show up and take people seriously--because founders will sniff you out in a heartbeat if they get the sense that you've already decided you're not writing a check but that you're here for the meeting quota.
Sure and you need to write checks.
I've written the checks--to three black founders, dozens of other founders of underrepresented ethnicities, genders, sexualities, etc, but that's not enough.
The ecosystem of check writers needs to change, too.
I've been running a group of people who are new to the VC ecosystem or who aspire to join it. That group intentionally welcomes and seeks out those who are underrepresented.
The other day, I solicited invites to an educational session about VC with this tweet:
You: a) newly a non-partner in VC, b) from an underrepresented group, in startup/financial job and would like to get into VC, or c) HNW/Angel getting started. DM me. Running something educational tom (Fri) from 10-11:30AM ET I'd like to invite you to. No current founders, pls.
— Charlie O'Donnell (@ceonyc) May 28, 2020
I specifically asked for underrepresented attendees and got 75 requests.
We had an amazing meeting that got 100 diverse RSVPs for a learning session in which aspiring VCs and angels from multiple backgrounds got to watch a real pitch meeting and have a 90 minute discussion after as to why certain questions were asked, how the team and pitch got evaluated, and what could have been done to improve.
Here's a smattering of the requests I got:
"I’m a current nonbinary college student working at various startups but interested in working in VC someday and would love to take part in your educational session tomorrow if there’s room for me..." - Carnegie Mellon design student
"I currently scale urbantech solutions in cities and am a Venture Partner with [x]. I have been working to start my own fund combining public-private funding to invest in companies" - African American Female
"I am Mexican-American first generation college graduate, parents were both Mexican immigrants (mom still cleans houses for the rich from Chicago here in Michigan). I currently work in a corporate finance setting but would be interested in VC if the opportunity ever presented itself."
My network is better for having intentionally sought out those who might not happen upon me during the normal course of how business works today. Because of that, my deal flow is better, and the investments I can make on behalf of those who funded me will be better.
Make no mistake--while some of you may think that these kinds of "politicized" messages coming from a professional investor might hurt my career, the only careers that are going to get derailed are those that don't show up as allies.
Today's startup founders and leaders are more empathetic than ever before and to be successful in managing more diverse workforces they will have to be. They will expect nothing less of their investors.
Notes are being taken, my VC friends.
Tearing down barriers to equality and access to wealth is a feature of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures--so when I am confronted with those who would do the same in their own lives in disruptive ways, my *first* instinct isn't to question their methods.
It's to understand their why and to seek to relate to the way they see the world in whatever small way I can.
That's literally the job of a VC--understand the why and understand how disruptive people see things. I'm not going to stop now because they're protesting injustice and not pitching me a startup (not today anyway).
Complaining about the broken windows of well insured multi-billion dollar corporations?
That's the equivalent of a VC asking whether the next disruptive hack project violates the terms of service of some big dumb Fortune 500 company we hope our startups to knock right out of the water as we crush them for profit.
Push yourself to ask why.
By now, you've probably watched all the videos... the George Floyd murder, the Ahmaud Arbery murder, the Amy Cooper threats... I don't need to post links to them here and re-inflict their trauma.
They're horrifying... if you're white.
If you're black, they're part of an unfortunate routine.
I can't speak for how black people are feeling right now--but I'll use whatever platform I have to promote those who can speak to it better.
You really need to watch the entirety of Trevor Noah's take on this.
If you've ever felt angry when someone breaks a contract with you--maybe not delivering something on top, or not paying you what you were owed, you haven't even scraped the surface of the pain caused by the social contract that America has broken with the black community.
"What do you see when you see angry black protesters amassing outside police stations with raised fists? If you’re white, you may be thinking, “They certainly aren’t social distancing.” Then you notice the black faces looting Target and you think, “Well, that just hurts their cause.” Then you see the police station on fire and you wag a finger saying, “That’s putting the cause backward.”
You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either. The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges.
But COVID-19 has been slamming the consequences of all that home as we die at a significantly higher rate than whites, are the first to lose our jobs, and watch helplessly as Republicans try to keep us from voting. Just as the slimy underbelly of institutional racism is being exposed, it feels like hunting season is open on blacks. If there was any doubt, President Trump’s recent tweets confirm the national zeitgeist as he calls protesters “thugs” and looters fair game to be shot.
Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands.
So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive."
I also want to make a special mention for my support of cops--those who actually understand what the badge stands for and who they're protecting and serving. Those who have lost that need to go--and I don't want to pay their pensions either.
I was struck by how many scenes of peaceful protest this weekend were interrupted by overzealous law enforcement officers who were acting like they were storming the beach at Normandy. Near my house, cops literally drove into protestors, using their vehicles as weapons.
I couldn't help but notice that riots seem to break out in direct proportion to the amount of riot gear on the scene.
But several phenomenal examples of true compassionate leadership on behalf of the police gave me hope for change, like Michigan Sheriff Chris Swanson, who instructed his officers to put down their batons and marched with the crowds.
Is it any surprise that you can diffuse an angry crowd by kneeling with them, not on them?
The least safe I felt this weekend wasn't when protesters marched by me--it was when NYPD vehicles sped up and down Park Slope streets and helicopters lingered overhead.
Think of similar situations you've faced in the past. Do you feel more or less safe when you see police with machine guns in Grand Central Station?
It's not an accident that the sounds of keeping the peace sounded more like a war--and the only thing we probably won't cut in our economic downturn is defense and law enforcement, while our education and healthcare systems fall further and further behind the rest of the world.
We need more empathetic leaders willing to listen, learn and have difficult conversations as opposed to cowering in fear down in a bunker from the difficult and complex realities of their job.
So if you are a NYC founder, aspiring founder, startup employee, wanna be startup employee, join in on our events, invite me to show up for yours (I generally show up anytime I'm asked if I'm free), ask me to promote your work in this newsletter, come to our neighborhood dinners (FiDi on Weds night, virtually), and if you want to join the investor side of things, especially if you do not look like me, reply here for invites to our educational events.
I'm not going to take a meeting with you to check a box this month or any month--but I'll always be damn sure to help you get to that meeting one day via honest feedback if you don't score it the first time.
Thank you for reading and for all those who answered my question of what you wanted to hear from me during this time.
The world needs you lighting a fire every now and then to keep us honest.
Meanwhile, thank you to my friend Nisha from BBG for posting this link on what white people can do for racial justice:
Also, this came in from Ella Crivello as a resource list on anti-racism: