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Tristan Walker: The Visible Man

Tristan Walker The Visible Man Fast Company Business Innovation


A bold entrepreneur with a radical startup. An African-American. In tech, those two phrases usually don’t go together. Enter Tristan Walker.

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These four organizations are trying to bring minorities into tech right now.

Code2040 - Jobs: Started by Tristan Walker and Stanford B-school classmate Laura Weidman Powers, this San Francisco–based not-for-profit helps black and Latino engineering students land internships—and in many cases, full-time gigs—at the likes of Jawbone, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Uber. Says Weidman Powers, "This is a way to access the best and brightest undergraduate talent in the country."

Digital Undivided - Funding and Visibility: An eight-week "Focus" program helps female entrepreneurs of color develop and fund startups. The annual Focus conference features prominent tech minorities as speakers and mentors, including Maxine Williams, head of diversity at Facebook, and William Crowder, partner at DreamIt Ventures. Kathryn Finney was inspired to found Digital Undivided by her father, Robert, who lost his job at a brewery—and then becamea successful Microsoft engineer.

Black Girls Code - Early STEM: Introducing African-American girls to computer programming became a passion for former Genentech engineer Kimberly Bryant when her teenage daughter decided she wanted to develop video games. Her organization has put 3,000 students in the U.S. and South Africa through after-school classes on web design, mobile app development, and robotics. "Only 3% of computer-science grads are women of color," Bryant says. "I want to see that triple."

All Star Code - Skills and Training: AOL, Dropbox, and Spotify sponsor All Star Code, which offers a six-week summer course of instruction in programming and app development to minority male high school students. Founder Christina Lewis Hal­pern was inspired, in part, by a Harvard Law School prep program attended by her late father, Reginald Lewis, a prominent businessman famous for owning Beatrice International in the 1990s.

Ben Horowitz is interesting, too.

Horowitz, who has been called Silicon Valley's "most inclusive investor," is himself a case study in the complications of America's great national disgrace. 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. Ben, whose wife, Felicia, is black, loves hip-hop so much that he leads his Andreessen Horowitz blog posts with choice verses, has rapped on a VH1 TV special, and reportedly dubbed a Brooklyn artist named Divine the "official Andreessen Horowitz rapper." He knows what he's talking about, and is unlikely to ever slip up the way Y Combinator president Sam Altman recently did on Twitter, when he attributed Wu-Tang Clan's classic "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)" to Wyclef Jean—and even got the title wrong. Horowitz has dedicated time and resources to the success of black tech talent—he sits on the board of Code2040 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. (Nas is an investor in Walker & Co. and Proven, another A.H. portfolio company that functions as a job-search app and was cofounded by Pablo Fuentes, a Chilean immigrant.)

Horowitz gets a fair share of criticism for his public persona. Several articles from Valleywag, including one titled "Ben Horowitz Is Desperate for You to Think He's Cool," drew Horo­witz into an epic Twitter feud with the writer. Some people still find it awkward to watch a white man freely express himself in ways they feel they can't. "With the utmost respect, it's easy for Ben Horowitz to tweet rap lyrics, but I have to think twice and three times before I tweet rap lyrics," says Kanyi Maqubela, who has backed Walker & Co. in his role as partner at Collaborative Fund, a seed investor for "mission-based" companies. "We both like rap lyrics just as much. When this Ferguson situation was coming apart at the seams," he continues, referring to the killing of a young, unarmed black man by a police officer in that St. Louis suburb, "there were levels of outrage and betrayal in my [Twitter] stream, which I wanted to retweet. But I don't want to be an 'angry black man.' I don't want to be pigeonholed to the stereotype."

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. Walker came up with several ideas, including a service to connect truck drivers to more freight jobs and a financial service for people who don't have checking or savings accounts. Horowitz vetoed them all—not because they weren't good, he says, but because he sensed Walker was too focused on creating something that looked typical of Silicon Valley.

"There are things that almost no venture capitalist knows that Tristan knew," Horowitz says. He pushed Walker to create something unique. "But he was very hesitant to do it," says Horowitz. "Could he end up being the guy who failed while trying to build an infinitesimal company? That would be the worst." In fact, Walker's very first brand idea, inspired by the Warby Parker try-by-mail model, was a direct-to-consumer service providing hair extensions—a $250 million business in the U.S. "A couple of days went by, and he said, 'A black man, doing a weave company in the Valley?'" says Amoy. "[He] ultimately decided that if he started it and failed, people were going to say it wasn't intellectual to begin with, so he walked away."

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