Talib Graves-Mann Headshot 2015

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Like any decent researcher, I started prepping for this article by gathering data to show the problem: that a lack of diversity plagues technology companies and startups in the Triangle and across the country. 

But the truth is, you’ve seen that data. You don’t need to see another infographic to know that there are far too few women and people of color working in startups, founding companies, and sitting in their executive suites or boardrooms—you’ve already seen what that looks like in person. Nor do you need proof of the abysmal number of female and minority venture capitalists and angel investors in the field because you’ve noticed the lack of diversity when you’ve interacted with them. 

You’ve also seen the data on the benefits of improving diversity in our workforce—more diverse companies outperform those which are not diverse. You’ve heard the US is becoming more diverse even if our technology workforce isn’t, and the economists voice their concerns about the issues that arise when such a large part of the population is left out of the tech sector. Chiefly, if we continue at this rate, there will not be enough talent to fill the inevitable vacancies the baby boomers will leave when they retire, much less to keep up with the new jobs startups and tech companies create.

With all this data, why is the diversity problem still a problem? 

The truth is, I don’t know. But I have two theories. First, the diversity problem is multi-faceted and has been created by a multitude of factors over the years. In other words it’s hard and takes multiple players from both sides—the unrepresented minority and the overrepresented majority—who are dedicated to working towards change for things to actually change. And second, diversity or the lack thereof has been discussed so much that it’s almost been reduced to a buzzword or a trend, which results in lack-luster responses to the problem, and programs with reduced efficacy.

But diversity isn’t a buzzword or a trend. And just because it is hard to overcome, doesn’t mean we should shy away from tackling the issue. 

Here in the Triangle, American Underground is rejecting the rhetoric and stepping up to the challenge to create a more diverse startup ecosystem on its campuses and throughout the Triangle at large through a new partnership with CODE2040 and Google for Entrepreneurs. The program, called the CODE2040 residency, is intended to find new ways to embrace, promote and sustain diversity within the tech hub and its member companies with help from an entrepreneur in residence (EIR) who is also dedicated to changing the diversity equation. 

That EIR is Talib Graves-Manns and his mission is to “examine the existing eco-system and provide ways to complement and enhance that work through lenses that include those who are traditionally underrepresented.” He shares his background in the video below (beginning at 39:30).

Credit: Ryan Timms/ExitEvent

To find out more about the man, the kids entertainment startup he co-founded—RainbowMeand American Underground’s goals for the EIR program (including two big upcoming events), I recently caught up with Graves-Manns, Jason Towns from CODE2040, and the American Underground team.

The EIR Program

CODE2040 was founded in 2012 after Tristan Walker realized but for his time in business school at Stanford, he would have never been aware of the opportunities in Silicon Valley. He noticed that many people of color, like him, were unaware and left out of technology companies and startups, so he co-founded the non-profit with Laura Weidman Powers to, “create programs that increase the representation of Blacks and Latinos/as in the innovation economy.” 

Until now, CODE2040 has focused on bringing talented Black and Latino/a students to Silicon Valley to both diversify the Valley and introduce the students to potential opportunities through internships with companies like Facebook or LinkedIn. Towns says, the result for the participants has been a, “really holistic immersion into the Silicon Valley tech world,” for the nearly 50 CODE2040 fellows they have placed in internships thus far. 

The EIR program was born out of CODE2040’s desire to better support the innovation occurring in cities outside the Valley by helping them embed diversity into their foundations. The founders brought on Towns, a serial entrepreneur and former political advisor from Washington D.C., to spearhead the new program. CODE2040 then partnered with Google for Entrepreneurs, selecting cities from its designated tech hubs to pilot the program. Towns said they chose Durham, Austin and Chicago because they are on the “verge of seeing a real growth” in the tech sector.

Jason Towns of CODE2040
Jason Towns is director of the CODE2040 Residency program and overseeing American Underground's new Entrepreneur-in-Residence.

CODE2040 received 221 total applications for the EIR positions, and 73 for Durham. Applicants had to identify as Black or Latino/a living (or lived previously) in the community they applied to represent. They had to be founders of early stage tech ventures, and “be committed to impacting the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of their local tech sector.” 

CODE2040 will both assist the EIRs as they scale their businesses and support them as they implement initiatives for the tech hubs. The EIRs receive a $40,000 stipend for their year-long fellowship, access to the CODE2040 network, mentorship and networking opportunities, and free office space at the tech hubs. 

Placing a Black or Latino/a entrepreneur in each tech hub was a calculated move and essential for the success of the program from CODE2040’s viewpoint. Towns said he wants the local community to take the reins and direct the process so its individual needs can be better met.  The pilot won’t be successful unless the EIRs, “listen to what’s needed on the ground and support that need,” he says. To that end, CODE2040 has also allocated up to $10,000 to each EIR to fund any initiatives they establish in the tech hubs. 

Durham’s EIR: Talib Graves-Manns

Graves-Manns is a fourth-generation entrepreneur, with deep Durham roots and a self-described “blue-blood hustle” DNA—a DNA that seems to be comprised of both a desire to build businesses and bridge racial divides. Witnessing first-hand his parents and grandparents’ successes and the challenges they faced as African-American entrepreneurs was instrumental in both his decision to become an entrepreneur and his interest in tackling the diversity problem head-on. 

Talib Graves-Mann Headshot 2015
Talib Graves-Mann is CTO of RainbowMe and the 2015 Entrepreneur-in-Residence at American Underground.
His Durham roots are so deep that an entire neighborhood—Walltown—bears his ancestors’ name. One of which, George Frank Wall, his great-granduncle and janitor at Duke University, made the president of the university the executor of his estate and bequeathed $100 to the president upon his death to bridge the gap between the African-American community and the university. 

A serial entrepreneur, Graves-Manns has his hand in four businesses in addition to his startup RainbowMe. They are: Point AB Consulting—his marketing and finance-focused consulting firm, a luxury lifestyle clothing brand called Life on AutopilotWords Liive-a company working to increase student literacy, and Jacqui Graves Realty, a Greensboro-based realty company. Until recently, he worked on all of these businesses simultaneously from the Forge, a maker co-working space in Greensboro. But with the CODE2040 fellowship, he will relocate to Durham and primarily focus on the EIR program and RainbowMe.

Prior to starting his own businesses, Graves-Manns built a solid reputation in marketing. After earning his MBA from Wake Forest University, he consulted with the university on marketing strategies, and was marketing manager of the Winston-Salem based e-commerce company, Inmar. Before graduate school, he spent time in Washington, D.C. building diverse teams (ie. hiring, promoting, and developing) as a brand merchandiser for brands such as Nike, Nautica and Polo and Ralph Lauren. 

Towns described Graves-Manns as a, “scrappy but very smart guy,” who stood out from other applicants because of how intricately the goals of his startup, RainbowMe, intertwine with CODE2040’s goals for the EIR program as well as his clear understanding of the issues surrounding diversity. Jesica Averhart, American Underground’s point person for building community partnerships and new business development, said the Underground team could see Graves-Manns' commitment “to the process and the need for inclusion in the tech industry,” after he was chosen as a top contender for the position.

For his part, Graves-Manns' reasons for applying to the CODE2040 fellowship were simple. He wanted to “directly affect people as they build their company in the Durham community,” and help open up doors to the tech world, funding, and mentorship for the Triangle’s minority populations. And it helps that he can do those things while also scaling RainbowMe.

RainbowMe

Today, 49 percent of children watching television between the ages of 2 and 12 are either Latin American, Indian American, Asian American or African American. And yet, only eight percent of children’s programming is reflective of these demographics. RainbowMe seeks to change this with an entertainment platform with the goal to foster the “exchange of enough cultural backstories that in the world they (the kids) grow up in they have a higher comfort level with everyone else’s culture.” 

Kya Johnson, an attorney based out of Greensboro, founded RainbowMe in 2013 and brought on Bernard Bell as COO/co-founder and Graves-Manns as CIO and co-founder in 2014.
 
Prior to the CODE2040 announcement, the team had 300 users signed up to test the site and its current programming, which includes television shows for children featuring a wide variety of characters and story-lines from different backgrounds. One is the Nigerian animated series “Bino and Fino.”  

RainbowMe programs
RainbowMe is a new kids entertainment program with TV shows, apps and games featuring kids of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

When it officially launches nationwide in 2016, the platform will be more robust and interactive, with TV shows, games, music, books and activities featuring characters from a wide spectrum of cultures. While in beta, the team is gathering feedback from users on their experience and preferences to guide future decisions on programming, design and form (app, website, network) the platform will take.

RainbowMe has and will continue to acquire content through various distribution companies from across the world, though it’ll create some original content as it grows. 

Funded by friends and family to date, RainbowMe will launch a crowdfunding campaign later this year and then raise a series A round. The team plans to have a carnival-style launch party, and is already forming strategic partnerships with companies like Gerber, which will be an integral part of helping the team get their product to the market.

Though still in its early stages, the founders goals for the company are lofty—they hope one day their users will have a better frame of reference from which to connect to other cultures and people of different backgrounds because they “grew up watching RainbowMe.”

What’s Next?

Averhart says Graves-Manns' work will be an “extension of the good work and innovation that goes on (at the Underground) daily.” He will be fully integrated into the American Underground team, and will receive support from the other staff members “around every diversity initiative and program that he champions.” He’ll also have access to the Underground’s members who can collaborate and offer feedback throughout the process, as well as the partnership networks at all three American Underground campuses. 

Graves-Manns was fresh on the job—just two days in—when I first spoke to him about the programming he planned to implement as American Underground’s new EIR. He doesn’t have any set programs planned as of yet, but says he takes a collaborative approach to everything and will work with the American Underground team to both pull in new community members and push out new programming that will increase diversity in the Underground and the surrounding community. 

For example, he hopes to attract underrepresented communities to the startup scene through upcoming events like the Innovate your Cool Event featuring serial entrepreneur and national Diversity in Tech speaker Wayne Sutton on April 25th and the Triangle Startup Weekend: Trailblazers May 29-31.

Regardless of what form the future programing takes, we can expect it to build from or foster the creation of three key elements Graves-Mann identifies—based on his experience—as essential for building a diverse organization and workforce. They are as follows:

First, leaders can’t just support diversity initiatives, they have to embrace, live and apply diversity to their lives and decisions affecting the organization. They have to be 100 percent on board with improving diversity and be willing to be held accountable.

Second, there should be awareness built and discussions held on diversity’s impact on businesses potential success as well as how it impacts the employees’ morale and their ability to contribute to the organization. 

And finally, it is important to identify advocates and sponsors within the organization who can support, commend, and advocate the ideas and work of their underrepresented peers or subordinates. 

If Graves-Mann is able to implement these key elements into the forthcoming programming, we can expect it to do more than just feed the diversity buzzword machine. 

Indeed, all parties—CODE2040, American Underground and Graves-Manns are not only excited about the partnership, they see it as an opportunity as Averhart says to, “create the model and set the standard,” for diversifying startup ecosystems. And with an EIR who doesn’t forsee any challenges, “only opportunities,” a new standard might be the end result of the partnership and a new beginning for the Triangle.