NewCo Shift Forum 2018 — P&G Signal Talks
Aaron Walker’s Camelback fund uses community to level the playing field for entrepreneurs of color
Aaron Walker runs Camelback Ventures, a new kind of fund based on the insight that “genius is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” Below is the transcript and short video of his Signal P&G talk at Shift Forum this past February.
Aaron Walker: Thank you. Good afternoon. The question that I’ve been asking myself is, what do entrepreneurs of color need to be successful? This is the question I’ve been asking myself for the last five years.
At first, I thought to myself, “Well, we probably just need what white entrepreneurs need. We need some capital to grow our businesses. We need some coaching to become better CEOs, and we need some connections to move the ball forward.”
What I’ve realized is, while that’s necessary, it’s probably insufficient. What I want to talk to you about is some of our lessons learned over the last five years by telling the story about myself and then connecting it to our work.
In 2004, I applied to law school. I don’t come from a family of lawyers. The only lawyer that I knew at the time was my cousin, Tonya, who was about 20 years older than me. She was more of an aunt than a cousin.
I asked her, I said, “Hey, I’m applying to law school. Can you help me?” She said, “Of course.” In the process of helping me, one day she asked, “So what schools are you applying to?”
I told her, and she said to me, “You know, you should probably apply to the best schools in the country and go to the top ranked school you can get into because whether you like it or not, the law is an elitist profession and where you go to school really matters.”
She said, “You know, if money is an issue, I’ll write you a check.” At first, I was a little skeptical because usually money comes with strings attached, but I took her advice. Today, I can call myself a proud graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Now, I tell you this story because I want to talk about the power of community. Now, Tonya did three things for me. One, she helped me tell my story. She helped me to figure out how I can get people bought into me, and why I was the right one to go to law school.
Two, she also just let me fail. She wrote the check. She said, “Look, you may not get in, but you won’t get in if you don’t apply, and it will be all right.” Third, she helped me to dream bigger for myself than I was even thinking.
She allowed me to think that I could ascend to the highest heights of this thing that I wanted to do. Now, I was lucky. I had a powerful community of one. 15 years later, what I’ve realized is that our opportunity at Camelback is to do, for entrepreneurs of color, what my cousin, Tonya, did for me. What does that mean?
Take Tony Weaver Jr. Tony, we started working with him out of college last year. He has this idea for a media company that seeks to combat media misrepresentation for folks of color. He’s a drama major, so he knows how to tell a pretty good story.
During the course of working with us and our fellowship, and spending some time with his cohort mates, his story becomes so good that one day he calls us up and says, “You know, I was telling my story to this guy that I was sitting next to on the plane, and he said he’s going to write me a $400,000 check.”
I was like, “That’s the power of community.” Take Jessica Santana. Jessica’s a young Latina, first in her family to go to college. Has her dream job at IBM, making more money than her family has ever seen before. What she wants to do is figure out how more entrepreneurs who look like her or have more Latinas who look like her can get into tech.
She’s trying to figure out where she’s going to get the money. Camelback steps in and is the friends and family for folks who don’t have it, folks like Jessica. Today, Jessica just got named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list.
Take folks, like Vincent Cobb. Vincent is part of the two percent, that two percent of black males in our country who are teachers. He wants to see more people who look like him in the classroom because he knows the impact that it could have on young kids.
It’s right before our demo day, and he’s practicing his pitch with one of his colleagues that’s in the cohort. He’s a couple minutes in. The colleague stops him and says, “Say it, own it, say you are the CEO for the fellowship for Black Male Educators.”
She forces him to say that he is the CEO. In this moment, she’s giving him a gift. She’s allowing him to own his power, to own his space, and to own his dream. The question I asked in the beginning, what do entrepreneurs of color need to be successful?
Simple, we need a community. We need a community of people who are going to let us succeed, a community of people who are going to let us fail, a community of people who are going to let us learn. That’s something that everyone in this room can give them.