When entrepreneur Wayne Sutton
left North Carolina in 2011, he had a mission: to change the racial, gender and cultural makeup of Silicon Valley.
He also hoped to find success in business, to create jobs and a product that people wanted and used. But he recognized that would only come with the relationships built accomplishing task number one.
Sutton’s mission proved challenging in 2011. As he worked to gain traction for his now defunct startup TriOut, he also co-founded an accelerator called NewME, the first focused on minority entrepreneurs, and filmed a documentary on the topic in Mountain View. The Valley wasn’t ready to embrace diversity then. Tech giants weren’t under pressure to report the percentages of women in their workforce. There weren’t high-profile gender discrimination cases going on. And there certainly wasn't a dedication to including underrepresented populations, like African Americans, in workforces.
Much has changed since that time, and the small town guy from North Carolina has propelled himself into the national spotlight as a conversation starter and promoter for the inclusion of minority groups and women in the homogenous tech world.
Through two years of relationship-building, Sutton's got famous professor, author and entrepreneur Steve Blank on the board of his new startup, a part-accelerator, connector and eventual venture capital fund called BUILDUP.vc launching this year. He's spoken at Stanford University, South by Southwest (multiple years), The Lean Startup Conference and Raleigh's own Internet Summit. He's built up nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter and writes columns on diversity in tech for USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.
Though his social media activity isn’t new—he jokes he was the first black man on Twitter back in 2007 when he worked in Raleigh—his relationships in Silicon Valley are. It's after two years of persistence building them that his hard work is paying off.
To a crowd gathered in April for the first ever Innovate Your Cool event in Durham celebrating diversity and tech, Sutton shared his story—from starting a company in Raleigh to making waves in Silicon Valley—and gave some advice for Triangle entrepreneurs hoping to level the field. Watch his entire speech in the video above.
His key piece, is to just do something.
Sutton’s story is always of doing—from those early days making a name for himself on social media, to starting the Valley’s first minority-focused accelerator to the friendship he built with Blank over time. To a crowd gathered for Q&A after the talk, he told the story behind the Blank connection. Sutton didn’t make the ask of Blank until they’d met at several different speaking engagements and events—after two years, Blank invited Sutton to his ranch and asked how he could get involved.
Sutton's laundry list of doing in the Valley includes mentoring for CODE2040 (the organization co-sponsoring American Underground's Entrepreneur-in-Residence), Women Who Code, Astia (a women's entrepreneurship group), the Latino Startup Alliance and to the policy organization Engine. He's the diversity and inclusion advisor to the Galvanize startup campuses in California and Colorado. And he's a convener for the 70 men involved in the education and mentorship group #blackmenintech.
So what's his advice for the Triangle?
"Here we value sports (...) and we like tech and entrepreneurship, arts, music. That's all cool and great," he says. "But over there, I've never seen a community care about who can write the best, most brilliant essay in the world. It's about intellectual capital. (...) They care about our minds."
Be welcoming to new, audacious ideas—that's how Elon Musk's hypothetical Hyperloop, the suspended high-speed train proposed a year ago to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, is now a real project.
Fund them too. There are thousands of people in the Valley with pockets deep enough and minds risky enough to take big risks on those ideas.
Spend time building relationships. Here's the diagram he uses to suggest tactics for how to build trust in other people.
Connect to people like Sutton who started their careers in the Triangle but are now working in the Valley. People like Ryan Allis, the co-founder of iContact, Doug Williams, a former IBMer and Startup Weekend organizer who took a job at Twitter and made out big at IPO, and Chad Etzel, a former Cisco developer who worked at Twitter and Twilio and now Jelly. For his part, Sutton hopes BUILDUP can be a resource for Triangle entrepreneurs.
"We want to find great entrepreneurs and not say, 'Move to the Bay Area,' but get them in the door and then come back here and create an innovative company," he says.
entrepreneurship and innovation cool. Events like Innovate Your Cool are a great start, he says. The Triangle will soon follow it with the Trailblazers Startup Weekend, geared toward entrepreneurs from underrepresented populations.
Sutton wrapped up his talk with a challenge: "I do what I can. The question is, what are you going to do?"
After last week's visit from Steve Case, who said inclusion and collaboration are our region's biggest strengths, it's clear the Triangle is already on it.
The top photo is credited to SocialWayne.com.