Shila Nieves Burney has had enough of being rebuffed, although she doesn’t fear it. “I’m a lot older than the typical entrepreneur,” she quips.
But righteous indignation seeps through her voice as she relates tale after tale of talented founders of color being denied investment opportunities. Some, she says, even have trouble getting phone calls returned.
“It’s a lot for these entrepreneurs to carry this rejection,” says Burney, “when they’ve spent years building something and are turned down for no other reason than [investors] feel people of color cannot manage a business successfully.”
“They give us no credibility, no matter what we bring to the table in terms of education and skill set.”
This desire to see diverse companies succeed and scale despite the odds led to the creation of the $10 million Zane Venture Fund, which Burney officially introduced to the world last October. The fund targets innovative and socially responsible startups that are early-stage and tech-enabled, with diverse leadership teams.
As Burney researched the world of venture capital, she realized that investors were selling themselves short by looking past diverse companies. “Once I really started digging in, I saw all the data that was out there, and saw a lot of companies that could have been part of our overall GDP had people made investments in founders of color. There was just money being left on the table.”
She decided that she would function as an “intermediary” responsible for connecting investors with companies on the rise. “There are billions of dollars out here to be invested,” she says. “I figured I could bring the two together with no experience whatsoever.”
Although she was told that entering the investment field would be hard, she took that advice and “ran with it.”
“It’s not impossible,” she says. “I’ve dealt with hard.”
The odds are definitely stacked against founders of color, especially when they are women. Last December, Tennessee entrepreneur Shani Dowell made history as the first black woman in that state – and one of less than 60 in the entire country — to raise more than $1 million in venture funding for her startup, Possip. According to the company, less than 2 percent of all venture funding went to companies with women founders, with .006 percent going to startups founded by black women.
“Nobody wants to take a chance,” Burney says.
After years working in a variety of full-time jobs, Burney ventured into entrepreneurship by starting The Burney eXperience, which curated women’s empowerment events while assisting non-profit organizations and small businesses. Despite her knowledge of the tech space, her initial foray into the world of investing two years ago didn’t quite go as planned when she tried helping an African-American startup founder find investors. Despite scoring a $5 million term sheet, the investor she found decided to pivot toward a different industry.
She decided to start the fund when she and her daughter found themselves victims of gun violence in October 2018. Naming the fund after her daughter, the fund dedicates itself to promoting “the proliferation of quality companies led by diverse teams.” More specifically, the fund “aims to bring talent and capital to companies to companies founded by diverse and visionary teams, providing them with the funding and networks they need to build world-class organizations.”
“We do have our allies, but [some investors] don’t expect us to be in the room,” says Burney. “Unless people look at this and decide to do something about it, nothing’s going to change.”
“I see what entrepreneurs deal with, and that drives me even more, because they’re dealing with privilege that cannot be shaken in this generation alone, as a VC,” she adds. ”It’s a long-term problem because they’ve done it this way themselves for years. And they’re comfortable with that.”
Research shows that approach may be short-sighted: A 2018 McKinsey & Company study of more than 1,000 companies across 12 countries found that organizations scoring in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability. In addition, companies that chose ethnically and culturally diverse teams experienced a 33 percent increase in performance.
Earlier studies have also shown that employees of companies diverse in both inherent and acquired diversity (traits gained from life and work experiences) were 45 percent more likely to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70 percent more likely to report the firm had successfully captured a new market.
Several luminaries in the Atlanta tech ecosystem have taken notice: In January, Burney announced that legendary angel investor Sig Mosley had joined the fund as a venture partner and that pioneer Wall Street trader Martina Edwards will serve as an advisor.
“Every bit of it is intentional,” she says. “I’m looking at some very well-rounded people who have all the expertise I don’t have. I’m a connector, bringing all of these people together under this mission. I need your voice. It’s all been intentional, putting all of this together – and it works.”
“Having been an investor for three decades, I have come to realize that it is possible to both prioritize investments in companies led by women and multicultural entrepreneurs and maximize returns,” Mosley, now managing partner of Mosley Ventures, a venture fund that invests in early-stage technology startups in the Southeast, said in a statement. “Diverse entrepreneurs hold the key to a trillion-dollar market. I believe joining Zane Ventures is a wonderful opportunity with mutual rewards.”
Right now, Burney is working on raising at least 30 percent of its fund by the end of Q2, while preparing for the fund’s virtual event series for founders and entrepreneurs as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This virtual series will be covering maintaining wellness, keeping momentum, finding resources for founders, and more.
“We want to start deploying capital right away,” says Burney.
More recently, Burney announced the launch of Zane Access, an initiative designed to help all early-stage companies (not just the ones in the Fund’s network) accelerate their growth and development. Zane Access has also started a 12-week pre-capital for founders throughout the Southeast and in New York. Program applications will open on April 22.
However, her long-term goal is a bit loftier: to play a role in closing gender- and race-based gaps in generational wealth in the U.S.
“I’ve been told we will never, ever close the wealth gap in this country. That saddens me a lot,” Burney says. “I want to do everything I can to at least contribute to closing it.”
As Burney continues to watch where venture capital money goes, she challenges investors to dig a little deeper to find the next startup success story.
“Give at least a small percentage to some of these black- and minority-owned companies. Watch what we do with it. Watch how we make it work.”
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