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Right place, wrong time: a Black tech exec’s 10-year journey to fight racism in Silicon Valley

Wayne Sutton, founder of The Icon Project, was an early adopter in the fight to make Silicon Valley more diverse. The racism and bias he's experienced along his journey has helped him find his calling.

Wayne Sutton, founder and CEO of The Icon Project.

Wayne Sutton, founder and CEO of The Icon Project, has spent over a decade in Silicon Valley to get to this moment.

Photo: Wayne Sutton

When CEO and entrepreneur Wayne Sutton decided to pursue his own venture fund to support Black founders in 2014, he struggled to attract limited partners. They would often ask, "Where are you going to find those entrepreneurs?"

That's because the common "wisdom" in Silicon Valley was that there simply weren't enough Black founders with viable businesses to fund, Sutton told Protocol.

"That feedback just showed the bias toward Black founders," he said.

Sutton has endured the kinds of negative experiences in tech that would discourage anyone. He is the founder of the non-profit The Icon Project, and has spent the last ten years in Silicon Valley working to improve diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. His efforts, which have taken a number of different forms over the years, have highlighted the bias and discrimination Black people experience in the tech industry, as well as Sutton's dedication to supporting the Black people in Silicon Valley.

In 2011, Sutton co-founded the NewMe startup accelerator, alongside Angela Benton and Toby Morning, which later became the subject of the CNN documentary "Black in America: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley." Sutton has also tried his hand at entrepreneurship, venture capital and events.

Despite systemic racism in tech and a general lack of support from investors, Sutton has helped create environments for Black entrepreneurs to grow, advanced diversity and inclusion in the tech industry and found his passion in helping others succeed in an industry that sometimes doesn't seem to care whether they fail or succeed.

Heading north to "the new promised land"

Sutton was one of the few Black tech founders in North Carolina and he felt it.

The 37-year-old, now 46, experienced racism both in-person and online, he said. People would call him the N-word in online chats and people would assume he was part of the waitstaff at events he hosted, Sutton said.

"Of course that affected me," he said. "But it helped drive the change I wanted to create in terms of representation in tech."

Sutton and his co-founder failed to raise angel capital in North Carolina for their company called TriOut, a location-based check-in app. Around that time, CB Insights released a report showing how 87% of VC-backed founders were white and less than 1% were Black.

Sutton remembered thinking, "Oh, I'm not even part of that 1%. And if I'm in North Carolina, there is probably barely any chance of me raising any type of venture capital."

That's when Sutton said he realized he needed to move to Silicon Valley. He shut down TriOut shortly after moving to Mountain View, California and connected with Angela Benton and Toby Morning.

The three of them decided to start the NewMe Accelerator for Black founders in Silicon Valley. The dearth of Black founders receiving venture capital, he said, was their motivating factor.

"We wanted to make an impact," Sutton said. "We wanted to change the numbers and help Black, underrepresented founders have the opportunity to create tech companies, to pursue their dreams, to create platforms or build apps that could impact lives, and to create generational wealth opportunities."

Shortly after moving to Silicon Valley about ten years ago, Sutton was stopped by the police while walking back to NewMe. The cops wanted to know what he was doing in that neighborhood, Sutton said. The answer was simple: He was working on his startup.


Screenshot of CNN video. CNN's documentary followed Sutton and the seven other Black entrepreneurs as they lived and co-worked in the house in Mountain View.Image: CNN


As part of the accelerator, eight entrepreneurs, including Sutton and Benton, lived together in a house in Mountain View. Sutton was also tasked with working with tech companies to provide mentors and coaches, as well as partnering with organizations to get booth space at tech conferences. But this was in 2011, during a time when very few people in the tech industry wanted to talk about the lack of diversity in venture capital and entrepreneurship, Sutton said.

"That was a conversation we had to fight to have," he said. "My responsibility was to try to prove the industry wrong, at a time when the industry was saying that it's all a meritocracy."

NewMe helped minority founders raise more than $47 million throughout its nearly eight years of operating. The accelerator incubated a number of successful founders and now investors in Silicon Valley.

Tiffani Ashley Bell, founder of Y Combinator-backed The Human Utility, was part of the first class of the NewMe accelerator. Bell launched The Human Utility, a non-profit that helps families pay their water bills, after participating in the NewMe accelerator. Chris Bennett was also part of the first class of the accelerator. His company, Central.ly, no longer exists, but his current startup, childcare and education platform Wonderschool, has raised $24 million from investors such as Andreessen Horowitz, Lerer Hippeau and others. Batch two of NewMe incubated founders such as Naithan Jones and Chris Lyons, who now both work in venture capital at Andreessen Horowitz.

During Sutton's time at NewMe, CNN approached the accelerator about its Black in America series. The documentary followed Sutton and the seven other Black entrepreneurs as they lived and co-worked in the house in Mountain View. The documentary thrust the topic of diversity in Silicon Valley into the mainstream. Looking back on it, however, Sutton has mixed feelings.

"It's one of those things where I feel bad for not being self-aware of not knowing what I didn't know at the time," he said.

There was a lot he didn't know about San Francisco and general Silicon Valley tech culture, Sutton told me. He also didn't know what investors looked for in a startup. Meanwhile, MTV's Real World was still popular around that time. Sutton said it felt like the documentary settled on a narrative that played up too much of the interpersonal dynamics between the founders, rather than the struggles and the reality of being a Black founder who just moved across the country to try to get funding in Silicon Valley.

"I'm 1,000 percent grateful for the opportunity to be in the documentary," Sutton said. "But I am also 1,000 percent sure that they could have told a different and better story that would have been more impactful and more truthful."

A better story, he said, would have shown more about the founders receiving product feedback, developing their businesses and planning their marketing strategies.

"[CNN] could have shown the drama of arguing about design and pitch feedback and making product decisions," he said. "You think about what we've seen from the 'Silicon Valley' TV show to 'Shark Tank.' All that was there. [CNN] had it but they didn't focus on that."

The documentary also made waves for some of the comments TechCrunch founder and now investor Michael Arrington made. He insisted that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy and said he didn't know a single Black entrepreneur.

There were Black entrepreneurs and leaders in tech, Sutton said, but a knowledge gap existed in Silicon Valley during that time. When Sutton moved to Silicon Valley, he said he learned about folks such as Ken Coleman, the former executive vice president of Silicon Graphics, Inc.; Google's then-chief legal officer, David Drummond; and Shellye Archambeau, then-CEO at MetricStream.

"[Black people in tech] existed, but their stories weren't being told enough to where enough people knew who they were," he said. "The one name most people knew at the time was Tristan Walker [an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz at the time], but there were so many more."

Looking back on that time, throughout 2011 and 2012, Sutton feels like he and other Black people in tech were criticized more than they were encouraged to succeed.

"We were still being told we're not good enough, from everybody," he said. "White, Black, you name it. Everybody was saying we were not good enough."

"'Diversity' was a bad word"

The amount of attention and money spent on diversity and inclusion in light of the murder of George Floyd could make one think the tech industry has always been down with the cause. But it hasn't always been this way.

In 2014 Sutton's goal was to raise $3 million to $5 million to support Black founders seeking pre-seed funding. But potential LPs would tell him that wasn't enough money, Sutton said. These investors said Sutton needed to raise more money in order to be able to offer follow-on funding. Sutton found himself in a tricky situation where, in order to raise the fund, he needed to set his goals higher, but struggled to even raise $100,000.

That requirement to raise north of $5 million for the fund showed a "lack of understanding of what early-stage Black founders need across the board," Sutton said.

Black founders are less likely to have access to generational wealth because of systemic racism and slavery. The average Black family, for example, has just one-tenth the wealth of the average white family in America.

"They need smaller checks" to build the minimum viable product. So, a $50,000 check "might stretch a Black founder way more than other founders," he said.

There were a handful of organizations at the time that did gain traction, such as Black Girls Code, Black Founders and Code2040. But Sutton said there were still very few tech companies and larger organizations that would support Black people.

"People weren't so inclined to support work to support Black founders at the time," he said. "The ecosystem wasn't ready. It was like 'diversity' was a bad word. If you think raising money as a Black entrepreneur was hard in 2013, try to raise a fund to support more Black entrepreneurs. Very difficult."

But when big technology companies began releasing their workforce diversity numbers, "everything changed," Sutton said.

In 2014, Google released the tech industry's first-ever diversity report, though Intel had previously posted its yearly EEOC reports on its website. At the time, Google was 69.4% male, 64.5% white and just 2.4% Black. In a blog post, Google's then-senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, noted how Google had been "reluctant" to publish that data but that the company realized "we were wrong."

That same year, Sutton met Melinda Briana Epler. Shortly after Google released its report, the pair formed a partnership and eventually created Change Catalyst in 2015. Change Catalyst hosted its first-ever Tech Inclusion event that same year. Over the years, Change Catalyst held the conference in more than 50 countries and reached nearly 30,000 people.

The conference attracted sponsors such as Oracle, Amazon, Twilio, Google and many others. But Sutton said Tech Inclusion needed so many sponsors because the DEI budgets for those companies were so small.

"While I'm grateful for the sponsors, diversity and inclusion budgets have always been the smallest [at tech companies]," he said. "So that's one of the reasons why we had to get a lot of sponsors because it wasn't a lot of money, not as much as people think."

Tech Inclusion evolved over the years from solely a conference to a career fair to help increase workforce numbers. Change Catalyst also hosted workshops around inclusive cultures at tech companies.

Toward the end of 2019, a Y Combinator-backed company contacted Change Catalyst about an acquisition. They were in negotiations, Sutton said, but the company eventually pulled out from the deal right around the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the U.S.

Change Catalyst, which hosted its last Tech Inclusion event in 2020, is now led by Epler but with support from Sutton.

Right place, wrong time

Sutton has experienced firsthand how a lack of diversity in tech affects Black people. The industry still has a long way to go to reach parity in terms of diverse representation, but a lot has changed since Sutton moved to Silicon Valley ten years ago. Sutton pointed to how the conversations around diversity and inclusion have evolved, companies have slowly begun to increase representation of Black and Latinx people, there are more Black people on boards, Black founders are getting more funding and Black investors are running successful venture capital firms.

Sutton said he is "1,000 percent" sure he would have had more success with his startup or his VC fund in 2020 versus in the 2010s. But he feels good with where he is today, he said.

"A year ago, due to the murder of George Floyd, it changed everything to where the tech industry quote unquote woke up and listened to their Black employees, and wanted to support more Black founders, and Black employees in terms of their wellness and success," he said. "And more Black investors and more Black VCs."

He added, "So everything has changed now. But also, I've changed. That's not what I want to do anymore."

Sutton's current focus is taking care of his own mental health as well as taking care of the mental health of Black and Latinx men in tech. Through The Icon Project, Sutton is working to raise awareness around mental health, and support the mental health and professional development needs of Black and brown men in tech.

"From my own experience and coaching Black founders, we have to take care of our wellness, deal with our historical trauma and potential oppression we have to live with to help us be in the best mental state we can be in to pursue our life goals," he said. "And that could be a founder, an employee at a tech company. It could be a venture capitalist or a journalist. And all of that is okay. But if you are not in a position to take care of your mental health, your emotional intelligence, your wellness and your well-being, it is very difficult to pursue your life dreams."

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