“For me, it felt like I always had all of the puzzle pieces, they just weren’t put together. One thing I want to prove is that, if you just look at a snapshot of the top 20 [startup cities], we could be an ecosystem that embraces diversity and inclusion and culture, and that could be what we’re known for.”
Sam Smith was familiar with the Charlotte, NC startup scene from her time spent as a VP at a fintech startup headquartered in the city. She had connections in the entrepreneur and investor community, but once she took the leap and became a founder herself, she quickly came upon new challenges.
“I started going through the startup scene in Charlotte itself, quickly recognizing that there weren’t as many ladies around as one would hope,” Smith says. “But it wasn’t until I was going to an event and I looked in the room — and it was all men, all sitting down at a brewery. I sat at the bar and drank a beer and I was like, do I really feel like doing this today?”
Smith, who isn’t a shy person by her own admission, could imagine how tough the startup grind could be for those who didn’t have her personality and connections. Shortly after discussing her observations with a few other founders, she created Collective Hustle, a startup and investor coalition that aims to “broaden the Charlotte entrepreneurial network.”
Though one of Collective Hustle’s pillars is inclusion, Smith was intentional about establishing an organization that wasn’t limited to underrepresented founders — or any other specific group.
“One of the biggest things for us is that we wanted to showcase what it was like to be inclusive without throwing it in folks’ face,” Smith tells Hypepotamus. She knew Charlotte did already have successful female founders — three went to the Techstars accelerator program in Austin last year — so she just needed to draw them out and bring it all together.
“So instead of saying females-only, we made sure to be inclusive to men as well and showcase different lessons of how we might be able to work together to further this cause. We’re showcasing how inclusion and diversity can help benefit not only the company, but also is usually more lucrative to the investors.”
Smith believes that this approach has made the organization “approachable to the male leadership” in the area, many of whom she says are self-aware of the lack of diversity within venture capital and entrepreneurship.
During each of Collective Hustle’s panel events, they strive to have equal representation amongst about four speakers: half founders, half investors; half male, half female. These events focus on topics relevant to a wide swath of the community: how to read a term sheet, startup marketing techniques, and even an event focused on startups and the #MeToo movement.
That one was delicate, says Smith, and she acknowledges that the sensitive nature of the topic probably led to it being their least-attended event so far. But still, the panelists met Collective Hustle’s inclusive requirements — the male side of the table was represented by co-founder of Charlotte fintech unicorn AvidXchange Chris Elmore and Lowes Ventures Managing Director Christopher Langford.
“A lot of people appreciated it, and I had a lot of men who came up to me afterwards asking questions,” says Smith. The audience’s had questions about best practices for hiring blindly and how to approach networking in the #MeToo age.
In fact, Smith says conversations like this have opened up the entire community and quickly made a name for Collective Hustle, even amongst Charlotte’s corporate community.
“Many of the leaders within larger organizations have actually approached us and asked us for assistance in how they might be able to be more inclusive,” she says.
With all of the interest, Smith felt there was a need for more programming beyond panels. This week, Collective Hustle hosted the first Seed the South event, a full day of entrepreneurship and investor programming that also included an early-stage startup pitch.
The event, co-hosted by New York-based SoGal Foundation (the non-profit arm of female-focused SoGal Ventures), echoed Collective Hustle’s messaging in that it didn’t push diversity specifically. Instead, Seed the South billed itself as “the only event in Charlotte highlighting all early-stage startups.”
Of the 20 startups participating in the pitch, 30 percent have at least one female founder and half have at least one non-white founder.
But Smith is also conscious that encouraging underrepresented founders is only half the battle. Statistics from 2018 found that women make up only 9 percent of partners at venture capital funds of a certain size (manage at least $25 million). Almost three-quarters of U.S. VC firms don’t have even one female partner.
“[Charlotte] severely lacks female investors which we believe is a big problem, especially for female founders being able to convey exactly what they’re trying to sell,” says Smith.
Seed the South therefore made a point to invite not only current angel and VC investors, but those who are considering entering the field. Changing representation on both sides of the equation will start to move the needle, Smith believes.
That representation problem is especially top of mind for Smith right now, as she’s currently fundraising a seed round for her own startup, Vishion. She conceived of the color search and matching mobile application after she spent hours searching for a specific shade online and realized that there was no search engine for color.
“We’re trying to gain more advanced color data about the products themselves to enable individuals to actually have a precise search rather than guessing colors,” she explains. While Vishion users would be consumers and interior designers, the revenue model is based on impressions and clicks, with retailers as clients. The startup landed a pilot partnership with paint supplier Sherwin Williams to test their beta this year.
Between her startup and Collective Hustle, Smith is constantly plugged in to the Charlotte startup ecosystem. It’s a scene she feels has a lot of potential.
“I think we are at the precipice of something that could be great,” she says. “It’s going to take more interaction and work from a bunch of different participants — not only the startups themselves, and the different providers that help startups, but also the local government, universities, all those elements need to come together to really bolster the ecosystem.”
“Once those things come into play and we find a way to put them all together symbiotically, then I think this community could really excel.”