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Tristan Walker is in the house. He is posted up in the vestibule of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, California, where the hottest venture-capital firm in Silicon Valley, Andreessen Horowitz , has just hosted a screening of a new documentary starring the rapper Nas.
Walker is a celebrity in Silicon Valley, known primarily for his success and creativity as head of business development at Foursquare, which he joined in and left in In Silicon Valley, even in , a visible, successful African-American is big news.
Next up was Yahoo: While Drummond is, arguably, the highest-ranking black executive at a major company in the Valley, Walker is its highest-profile African-American startup founder and CEO. As he tries to turn this startup into what he considers a great company, Walker will face all the usual obstacles that confront a young entrepreneur.
But he will also be carving out a narrative with unique challenges. Despite the fact that African-Americans have risen to the highest levels of every other aspect of business and popular culture, not a single black entrepreneur has attained that level of success and influence in tech.
If Walker can build a world-changing business, he will serve as an extraordinary role model for younger African-Americans. As if proof should be necessary. Its first product is a single-blade razor system, called Bevel, which makes it possible for men with coarse or curly hair—the kind that I and most other black men have—to shave without developing razor bumps or other skin irritation.
Can a razor be the foundation of a great business? Can it lure young black men and women to Silicon Valley? Can it be a catalyst for real change? Walker knows that his every move will be closely dissected, given his status.
While he is adept at turning on the networking charm when necessary, he is not naturally at ease with such public attention. What am I going to talk to people about?
Its mission is to connect young black and Latino engineers with tech companies such as Facebook, Jawbone, and LinkedIn. Misa, who works for the global design firm Ideo, is hosting a session on ways to close the diversity gap. She then turns to the audience: Misa stammers for a few seconds before asking for other opinions. These are typical, and convenient, hiring practices of startup founders. Under enormous pressure to grow their companies fast, they feel entitled to dismiss niceties such as an HR department that might seek out minority candidates.
The problem does go that deep, into our subconscious and our collective history. After the Ideo presentation, the audience breaks into groups. One proposes that kids might be encouraged to pursue a tech career by Fleer-like Silicon Valley trading cards featuring images of role-model engineers instead of basketball or baseball players.
They certainly would have been a different kind of inspiration for young Tristan Walker, who, like many African-American boys, idolized sports figures on magazine covers, dreaming of living their lives. This was partly because he was a good athlete, but mostly because musicians, entertainers, and sports heroes tend to be the most visible models of black success for young African-Americans.
He claims not to have even known of Silicon Valley until he moved there. Walker was raised in a couple of the roughest neighborhoods of Queens in New York City.
His mother, Bettie, worked two jobs, six days a week—as an administrative assistant at the New York Housing Authority from 8 a. In eighth grade, he tried out for a basketball team that played against a variety of prep schools around New England. He did, and one day found himself with a full scholarship to Hotchkiss, a prep athletic powerhouse perched aside bucolic Lake Wononscopomuc in Connecticut. Hotchkiss features prominently in F. It bears little resemblance to the housing projects of Queens.
Computers and other technologies were plentiful and up-to-date, and classes are offered in AP statistics, microeconomics, and computer science, along with Java programming and robotics. Walker would learn much more than math and science at Hotchkiss. The air among his peers, mostly offspring of the economically elite, could easily become racially charged. It was during these years that Walker would develop and hone something widely considered a requirement for the survival, and success, of young black professionals in a white-dominated environment: Walker has a more euphemistic way of explaining this.
After graduating from Hotchkiss and then excelling at Stony Brook University in New York, Walker landed on Wall Street through SEO, an organization that offers training and internship programs to underrepresented minorities in business. He traded stock for Lehman Brothers and J. These were dark days for the Street. Walker decided to try to develop his entrepreneurial skills at Stanford Business School. He was accepted just after losing his job in the first round of layoffs during the financial crisis.
Coming from the literal depression of Wall Street, Walker was struck by the vibrant, inspiring environment of the Bay Area. As had been true of Hotchkiss, Stanford presented more than just a classic education. Toward the end of his first year in business school, Walker sent an email to David Hornik, a partner at August Capital, and asked to stop by his office and pick his brain.
His goal is not to optimize the economic value of any given relationship, but to meet smart, interesting people. Walker spent the next five months leading a team of other Stanford grad school students performing market research on how Twitter could be used for business applications. After Crowley half-seriously offered to meet him, Walker hopped on a flight to New York the next day and showed up at their offices, laptop in hand.
Stunned, Crowley and cofounder Naveen Selvadurai challenged him to sign up 30 small businesses as Foursquare merchant partners within a month. He found in a little over a week. Bit by bit, Walker had been accepted by an establishment he could never have imagined accessing as a child.
This is going to be my husband! The Valley is nothing like Atlanta. In a cutthroat world like Silicon Valley, having a support system of others navigating a similar professional journey is crucial. The party is a wormhole to an undocumented dimension of the Valley. For the first time, I am witnessing a sizable, concentrated group of black technology executives.
Everyone, including Walker, seems more himself or herself than they usually would be with other professionals. He also feels comfortable enough to slip back into his introversion as he pleases, observing everyone else while pecking away at stubborn hangnails. Here is one of the most popular figures in mainstream tech, and yet not a single white person is celebrating his birthday.
I cannot help asking Gauda how this could be. Gauda is chuckling away, thoroughly amused at having set me up for such an uncomfortable moment. This is a safe place. After Walker left Foursquare, a slew of venture-capital firms offered him positions as their entrepreneur-in-residence. I was just concerned. His father, David, is a former Marxist turned hard-right-winger who has been excoriated for books and speeches advocating what some call racist positions.
Horowitz has dedicated time and resources to the success of black tech talent—he sits on the board of Code and has led Andreessen Horowitz into investments in black-run startups, including AgLocal which was featured in the November issue of Fast Company and Bitcasa.
As his own profile has risen, Horowitz has used it to loop celebrities like Nas into Silicon Valley, which could, celebrity be damned, help to create a bigger pool of people who understand and invest in minority entrepreneurs. Horowitz gets a fair share of criticism for his public persona. Whatever this says about Horowitz, he was an effective sounding board for Walker as he used his months as entrepreneur-in-residence to figure out what kind of startup to launch.
He pushed Walker to create something unique. That would be the worst. The largest American consumer-goods companies have focused on the largest domestic market, and in so doing have neglected the different needs of minorities. African-Americans have grown accustomed to limited, second-class options when it comes to the health and beauty category. For men, these include depilatory creams and powders like Magic Shave.
Those razors can cut beneath the skin, leading to irritation for customers, especially African-American men, when their coarse or curly follicles start to grow back. What ultimately solidified his idea for the Bevel shaving system was a visit to the high-end retail chain the Art of Shaving, which touts customer experience as its defining trait.
After some needling, he texts me a link to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that shows a strong correlation between the harsh chemicals in hair relaxers—commonly used by women of color—and the development of uterine fibroids, which can lead to infertility and miscarriage. It requires that much more courage. Silicon Valley wants its founders to shoot for the biggest customer base possible, but in so doing they risk missing a chance to back companies that might very profitably rule a strong minority niche.
The most important thing, he keeps reminding me, is to shave with the natural grain of my hair—not against. The company shipped its first Bevel last February. Walker guides me through the whole morning routine. First, he instructs me to insert the blade into the razor. Finally, I apply the shaving cream, which is made with shea butter, white tea, and aloe vera. Walker is now building his ideal company, slowly, with all the care that he put into teaching me how to shave.
Marketing is run by Michael Plater, a dapper, light-skinned, young black man who is standing at his computer barefoot, checking the performance of online Bevel ads. The engineering team is comprised of Isaac Elias, who is Latino, and Rachel Heaton, a purple-haired white woman. Fulfillment operations are run by Mir Anwar, a Pakistani-American who recently left another supply-chain position at DIY—electronics manufacturer littleBits.
Walker randomly tweeted one day that he needed to learn how to code, and Hanley, who tweeted back and offered lessons, eventually quit his job at the camera startup Lytro to join the company. In his book The Difference , Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan, went so far as to create a statistical model that showed how diversity can trump even skill when people work in a group to solve a problem.
Walker and his diverse team are not even close to being able to declare victory. Next to the flywheel are lists of hypothetical models of Bevel customers. But Walker has got a tendency to reach for the stars when he needs to focus on the day-to-day.
Its Instagram profile features daily style tips and slick yet gritty professional photography of cityscapes, vintage album covers, and, of course, the Bevel razor and kit. The Bevel Twitter feed might offer followers an Arthur Ashe quote or a retweet of a satisfied customer.