The Venture Capitalist Who’s Part of a Very Different 1 Percent
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because more than 97 percent of VC funding goes to white guys.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
If the stereotype of a venture capitalist is something like this — white guy, slick suit, fat wallet — Monique Woodard definitely stands out from the pack. Today from her desk in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from the Financial District, she’s rocking bold red lips and blue jeans. She’s a sunny California transplant, after all.
Yet casual she is not. At 500 Startups, she pulls the purse strings for one of Silicon Valley’s best-known venture capital firms and startup accelerators, which has some $200 million in assets under management. As the team’s first Black venture partner, she’s a long-overdue “home run” for the firm, says Charles Belle, founder of the nonprofit Startup Policy Lab; Woodard, who’s in her late thirties, is on track to become an even-keeled “force” in this scene, he says. At the same time, Woodard is holding down the fort at Black Founders, the group she founded in 2011 to support Black entrepreneurs in tech. More than 97 percent of venture capital funding goes to white, male founders, according to the latest stats from New York–based digitalundivided, which examined about 60,000 startups for its study. Woodard has personally taken countless budding Black and Latino entrepreneurs under her wing and watched them grow in a context where they might otherwise “be repeatedly shot down,” she says.
Today, a cup of caffeine at her desk, she’s in the zone, flipping through pitch decks and jamming out to the ultimate “entrepreneur’s soundtrack” — that includes motivational tidbits from Biggie, Scarface, Nas, Kanye and Drake, all meant to give you a kick in the backside when you need it most. “The key to staying on top of things is treat everything like it’s your first project, nomsayin,” Jay-Z spits out from her Beats headphones. There are plenty of go-getter gems to be found in hip-hop, Woodard says, and Jay-Z knows what he’s talking about: “You stay humble and you stay grinding.”
Words to live by, especially if you’re like Woodard, who grew up on a small, quiet farm in Ocala, Florida, and made the cross-country move to Silicon Valley, California, eight years ago without knowing anyone there. In the early days, she dabbled in building companies, including a project called Speak Chic — a mobile app that teaches you how to correctly pronounce fashion brands. Now, she’s a “total geek” for consumers, e-commerce and cities. As one of San Francisco’s first Innovation Fellows, she’s even got experience in the civic-tech sector in her back pocket. She can easily hold a conversation about government procurement and then chat about fashion and mobile startups, all in the same breath.
She wakes up every morning exhausted, but she plans to make the most of her first year at 500 Startups, making countless deals with companies in the critical early stages, when “Black and Latino founders need the most support,” she says. And she’s in the ideal place to do it — one bursting with pitch-giving, deal-making energy, where people keep barging into the conference room. “Meeting space is in high demand here,” Woodard says. Two months into her new gig, she’s got several young companies, from financial tech to media to Nigerian beauty e-commerce, under her thumb. That’s probably why friend and colleague Nnena Ukuku calls her the “Mother Teresa of Black Founders.”
The venture capital industry moves at a snail’s pace in terms of change — and that’s not what you would expect from investors who aim to “innovate” or “disrupt” or whatever the kids are calling it these days. “In Silicon Valley, being Black and in tech makes you part of a very different 1 percent,” Woodard says. To her and many others, it’s more like a boy’s club in which only 1.5 percent of some 2,000 investors are African-American, according to a rough survey from San Francisco–based venture capitalist Richard Kirby. Yet the combined purchasing power of Blacks and Latinos is $2.5 trillion and growing. Indeed, the waters are steadily shifting, and venture capital firms are looking to diversify everything from their portfolios to their partners in order to remain competitive, says Woodard: “A fund that only funds other white men” likely isn’t going to stay afloat — and you don’t need a crystal ball for that.
However, there’s a more pressing issue lurking behind the oft-closed curtains of venture capital here. It’s that diversity initiatives shouldn’t be the responsibility of any one person like Woodard but, rather, a full-team effort. One day, Woodard will no longer be the token person of color signing the checks or sitting at the diversity table. After all, no one wants the pressure of taking on the role of diversity police. “I hope that in 20 years, we’re not sitting here having this same conversation,” says Woodard. In part because the last thing that crossed her mind before she left the house this morning was “don’t fuck it up.”