OMCA’s Afrofuturism Exhibit: My Photo Journal

When you first walk into the museum, you are presented with this photo on the wall. What a powerful image! I had seen this photo a few times in advance in some of their publications and the IRL version did not disappoint. What does this image conjure for you? For me, it reads like a promise. A small whisper that says, “don’t despair too much, I promise you that you will survive.”

After waddling around a bit to find the special exhibit and finding out some really intriguing information about California’s history with impressionism, I finally found it. The main event! When you walk in, you first hear the sound which might have felt amplified because it was so dark. The first piece of artwork you are presented in the music. It acts beautifully in concert with a chalk based mural on the wall. The second thing you encounter is non other than the grandmother of Afrofuturism herself, Octavia Butler.

A few new things I learned about Octavia Butler during this visit:

  1. She is from California like me!
  2. She left this one journal entry that I hadn’t seen before. I love the focus on intensity and think that it’s something you feel in her writing. Sometimes it’s so intense that it’s uncomfortable and I think that’s her point.

After you walk past Octavia Butler, you continue to be a part of amazing art. I was honestly overwhelmed by it all and I will have to go back again and again to get the full experience of it. I eventually though walked into a spaceship-like structure and was presented with the following playlist. I continued to listen to it even after I left the exhibit and wanted to share (I particularly liked Tainted Love by Gloria Jones).

I kept walking around and stumbled upon this presentation and I loved it because it reminded me of my own family’s journey. I had not seriously considered us migrants before, but it’s so true we are. What courage it takes to move across the country away from everything you previously knew – particularly in those times. While we moved to San Diego, I think that the same sentiment holds.

This was the last exhibit on the way out of the exhibit and I loved it so much! It was a reimaging of the cable news network focused on Black news created by Black people about Black people. I must’ve sat there for at least 20mins watching. It did not disappoint. I wrote a little bit more about why it didn’t here: https://airtable.com/shrhzzigJpWTNZIGM

As you exit, you’re presented with this message above the wall. I don’t know how you can’t walk of that feeling all of that energy. I cried as I walked out, as to be expected!

If you’re in Oakland, you can check out the exhibit by purchasing tix here: https://museumca.org/exhibit/mothership-voyage-afrofuturism

Birthday Reflections

One of my intentions for the year of 2021, has been to fail more in public. While it wasn’t an official reason why I started to roller skate, now thinking back on it, given that intention, I can’t imagine a better sport to pick up. The entire assignment when learning how to roller skate is to fall often and very publicly. So far, over the past 3 months since I started I have had 1 twisted ankle, 1 sprained ankle, 1 bruised hand, a very bloody finger and lots and lots of other falls that luckily didn’t do much damage to my body, but definitely hurt my pride!

There have been good things too though. Like, I can skate backward now, I am able to do crossover steps and I can stop without just falling down (sometimes!). I am working up to being comfortable enough on skates that I can join the group in the middle of the skating rink (I have learned that there is always one!) that is doing some funky line dance. That is the goal to hit by the end of the year.

This challenge was particularly interesting to me because I grew up a trained dancer and gymnast. I began both of these sports almost at the same time that I could walk so they were natural to me. While dance and gymnastics were both physically challenging and required serious training, I rarely got hurt – I’ve never had one broken bone and rarely got sprained ankles. I tried my hardest not to let anyone see me sweat, never let anyone see me fall, never make a mistake. That is the expectation when you are on stage – to present a routine extremely physically challenging effortlessly, with a smile. I realized only recently how much of that dogma I internalized and roller skating is my way to find my way back.

Happy 33rd birthday to me!

Why Being a Capitol Hill Intern is the Perfect Pre-VC Job

My first office job was as an intern on Capitol Hill. (My first job was selling Cutco knives to my neighbors, but that’s another story!)

I can’t imagine a better training ground for my work in VC. Why?

  1. As a Hill intern you have to respond to every constituent email. That means sometimes 100s of e-mails a day. Yes you can build out a template, but each one needs to feel personalized. People are e-mailing you about very personal and important topics – climate change, healthcare reform, their own experience with discrimination, the list goes on. As a VC, I am now responding to 100s of e-mails a day and doing the same thing. I am creating some templates to help me shortcut the timing required to get back to every single person, but I’m also personalizing every e-mail so that the folks who reach out know it’s a person who is responding back. They’re e-mailing me asking for funding to support a company they might have put their life savings into – they deserve a response that has some care given to it.
  2. As a Hill intern, you have to manage many stakeholders all the time. When I was interning for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Republicans had just taken control of the House. That meant that Congresswoman Barbara Lee had to manage these new colleagues of hers, and also the expectations of her very liberal constituents who elected her. Plus she had just taken the role as Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). This does not include the other leadership positions she had at that time – so she had to manage the relationships with the CBC on top of the other positions she held in the House. She was pulled into a hundred different directions daily. She was an amazing role model for me to watch. As a VC, it’s very similar. You have the expectations of your investors (or LPs), your co-investors, your portfolio, your teammates… Managing all of these stakeholders while also staying true to who you are and what you came into office (or into VC) to do is hard and also one of the most important responsibilities of the job.
  3. As a Hill intern, you have to play the long game. There are no metrics for success. You spend most of your day writing e-mails, drafting PR statements (I got to help draft the one Congresswoman Barbara Lee wrote after Michael Jackson died), and just generally helping. The path towards working on policy and legislation often times requires first working on consituent related problems. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a great example – she worked for Ron Dellums for years before exploring a Congressional seat. You are required to do work that serves others before you become a decision maker. This concept of servant leadership teaches you how to stay focused on the collective instead of yourself. Which is honestly a great pre-requesite for any leadership position, but I think it has definitely served me well in VC!

What Happens To Me When I’m the Only

The first time I can remember being the Only Black girl in my class was gymnastics. My parents started me in gymnastics when I was 3 – they were determined to make me the next Dominique Dawes. I don’t remember much about that experience except that I hated gymnastics. My teacher – who was a white woman – was so hard on me. I remember one time when I was probably about 5 or 6 years old, I burst into tears because the teacher pushed me to do an umpteenth push-up. I was tired. The teacher told me to stop crying because my parents were not paying to have me go to gymnastics and cry.

The second time is dance. I have spent more time in dance than any other career in my life. I was a professional dancer from 3-15. Professional means – I spent on average 4-5 hours a day at the dance studio, traveled across the country to participate in competitions and won enough trophies to cover an entire apartment. My entire career at the dance company I danced with, my sister and I were the only Black kids. This meant exposure to extremely harmful language like – a white girl, who was my classmate, telling me that she was Blacker than I because she was better at dancing Hip Hop than I was (!!!) This also meant the mundane things like trying to get my hair in a bun or choosing “nude” tights were more complicated. So I was constantly negotiating with myself and others how I was “allowed” to operate in this space.

The third time  I can remember was in the National Charity League (NCL). It was one of those high society organizations that my mom somehow got me into. I don’t know how because we didn’t live in or near the same zip code as anyone else in the group. The group was all white girls. They lived in North County in places like La Jolla or Del Mar or Rancho Santa Fe ( if you know San Diego, you know these are the rich places to live). I lived in a weird part of the city that was standardly middle income – our neighbors were teachers, doctors and a guy who ran a dog sitting place (he was the coolest!). NCL became a place where I turned into a full-time observer because it was made clear that I was an outsider – most discussions inevitably turned to conversations about friends of theirs who went to the same Montessori middle school. So at every NCL event, I felt like the purpose of my presence was to be their audience.

Throughout college, I was the “only” a few times. A few classes at Duke, a semester abroad in Scotland, nothing really to write home about. And after college graduation, I went into the public sector where I was surrounded by an amazingly complex set of people who came from all walks of life. It’s only recently that I realized how rare that is. In the public sector, I never really feared for my own safety and I always felt taken care of. It wasn’t perfect (if it was, I’d still be there!) but I think back to that experience as extremely formative and without it I’d never be where I am today. I was forced to consider every angle of every policy – it was invigorating and played to my strengths (I am a deep thinker and love that about myself). And constantly asked to build policies that focused on the most vulnerable first. I loved that work and I was only able to do this deep thinking effectively because I was in institutions that invited vulnerable or minoritized populations into them. I was never an “only”. I was in the public sector for about 5 years before returning to school. I went to Berkeley-Haas for my MBA in 2014.

After business school, the number of times and spaces where I existed as the “only” grew exponentially. I can’t even count the number of times I have been an “only” after arriving on campus. I hadn’t given myself the space to reflect on who I become when I am the “only” until recently and I realized that I should outline exactly what the costs are to being the “only” so that I can remember them and so that others can understand.

Being the Only Black girl in places comes with a set of serious risks. The most significant one for me is – you are highly visible. Visibility is not great because it usually comes with tokenization. An example of tokenizing behavior is when the people around you no longer expect to be held accountable to individual racist acts they perform because hiring you or being associated with you absolves them from any wrongdoing. (to be clear, we live in a country where white supremacy is extremely pervasive, we all need to be vigilant against racist behavior because it is everywhere and in everyone) Instead of receiving protection yourself, you are being used as a shield to protect others around you.

Additionally, when you are highly visible, your moves are more public. Your mistakes are often more public too. You are less able to enjoy the anonymity that is sometimes required for you to have the courage to get back up after you fall down – if fewer people see you fall, there are fewer judges around to tell you how you should get back up. Because most white people live segregated lives, I assume that when I’m the only Black girl in a place, I’m also the only Black girl these white people know. That triggers, for me, a complex layer of processing I can’t fully describe; I feel an intense expectation to then become a representative of my intersectional identity instead of an actual human. A human with human emotions, wants, needs, expectations, worries, anxieties.

Work that inspired this/ vibez with this one:

  1. Economic State of Black America
  2. “We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” – The Combahee River Collective Statement. I love this because I think a lot of people think that being “the only” comes along with the assumption that you’re “the best”. I don’t think I’m the best and think there are a lot of people just as great. Why would I want to be somewhere that puts me on this pedestal? And doesn’t putting me on this pedestal just make it easier to fall off?
  3. “won’t you celebrate with me” – Lucille Clifton
  4. Cluster Hires” – I don’t want to offer any broad takeaways or, “here’s how to fix this” statements, but this is interesting research.
  5. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ epic statement.
  6. The work of Heather McGhee. You can check her out by reading her book
  7. The White Space

Why I Decided to Do Kauffman + How I Found the $$$ to Pay for it

I am so excited to be a part of the Kauffman Fellows Program! I did it for a variety of reasons, which I’ll try to outline here.

First, though, I want to tell you about my biggest pandemic learnings. The answer to why Kauffman starts there.

Pandemic Learnings

The pandemic gave me a lot of time and space to reflect on how I was previously operating in the world and explore how I might design a life that fits me post-pandemic. I realized that I was very reactive, almost constantly, in pre-pandemic life and I wanted to build more intention into my life. After this reflection, I started to explore what I used to do in pre-pandemic life that doesn’t suit me.

The first thing I came up with was networking. I realized I get very serious anxiety around networking in its traditional sense. Attending events, especially nighttime events, was devastating to my sleep. It takes me hours to process events because I am very hypervigilant in large groups, which means that the cost of a nighttime event is a nighttime of sleep.

The second thing that came up was my commute/working life in SF. I am based in Oakland. I love Oakland so much!! I love the new friends and communities I have been able to build because of the pandemic-induced WFH situation. I am now more deeply connected to my neighbors, local businesses + city government. I won’t give that up. My ability to live in a neighborhood whose values align so deeply with my own, to have Black neighbors, to have the kids on the street look out for me to see if I’m hanging out on my porch swing… it’s really beautiful. I now know the true opportunity cost of my commute/working life in SF. While Precursor plans to open an office eventually, I don’t expect to be there for more than a few hours on 1-2 days a week and plan to use that time specifically for team building.

There are a few reasons why I think it took me so long to realize these qualities about myself. One of them is that there is a prevailing notion in VC that younger VCs have infinite time and energy because they don’t have children, spouses, etc. This is compared to older VCs who have families and can’t possibly be expected to go to another networking dinner. I fundamentally disagree with that. Young VCs might be caring for aging parents, might be volunteering in their community, might be struggling mentally/emotionally and this expectation that their time is less valuable than older VCs’ time is dangerous.

As a result of this reflection, I decided to replace the very transactional nature of many of these coffees and lunches and happy hours with anyone who e-mails me w/ an @vcfirm.com e-mail address with an experience that gives me an opportunity to build relationships with people who are taking the time and effort to really get to know me and who are excited about improving themselves. Which brings me to Kauffman. I am so excited to join this group of folks who are building intentional relationships with each other in a way that is less transactional.

Growth Mindset

Another reason I joined Kauffman, is because while I have a really strong perspective on what types of companies I am passionate about investing in, I know that there are still things I don’t know about this business and myself. I am looking forward to using this space, as a Kauffman Fellow, to be, in many ways, a learner. There is a lot of talk about how Black women need the same opportunity to fail as white guys. I think what we also need to explore is the concept that Black women need the same opportunity to be seen as learners instead of as experts. There is so much research that shows that Black girls in education spaces are adultified. While I’m no longer a child, I think the corollary here is that as a Black woman, I’m often expected to enter new spaces and know all the things all the time – to never slip up. This is a trap. I deserve the space to be seen as a learner and to be given the grace that learners are given. I am grateful to be at a fund that gives me space to learn, make mistakes and grow within the fund. I wish that for all Black women in VC.

The Cost, Though

I want to be honest about how I paid for it. I am not rich, plus Precursor is not a $1B+ fund, so I had some really hard decisions to make.

$80,000 is the cost of Kauffman. Let’s not beat around the bush here: that price tag is really really steep. This leads to an exclusion of folks who might find the experience useful, but just can’t figure out how to make the numbers add up. Many Black people in venture are at less established funds that are unable to foot this large bill on their behalf and they don’t have access to the family wealth to put down this capital on their own. I know this to be true, not just because of the data, but because that is my story. To me, that $80K might as well be $1M. I don’t have $80K and have no way of borrowing it from family. So after I applied and got accepted, I asked for help. I reached out to people and organizations who have been supportive of me over the last 5 years and I was met with such generosity. I was able to get $10K from an 😇, $20K from a sponsor organization and $40K from Kauffman. Precursor paid the remaining $10K.

I am so lucky. I know that. I am brainstorming ways to make this experience more accessible to those who are not as lucky. More updates on that later this year! If you’re interested in collaborating on this and have ideas, let me know! You can reach me at sydney@precursorvc.com.

Thanks for reading! Looking forward to continuing to share more about my experience in the program over the coming months and years!

References and motivation to write this:

  1. Nick Caldwell’s “Happy to Be Here” YouTube clip

Meditations on Power

I have a confession to make. I have put this off as long as possible. I have skirted around this admission and have finally decided to own it. Today is the day to announce: I am a powerful woman. And, if I’m honest, I’ve always wanted to be one. I remember being young and just so angry. Angry at the way I was treated unfairly by my dance teachers, angry at my parents for controlling my every move because they were terrified of letting a Black girl loose in this world, angry at my classmates who didn’t seem to understand why I got into ivy league schools even though I had 2x amount of extracurriculars than them and also a better GPA. I was so angry so often and nobody seemed very interested in listening. The most grating (and most common) response I would get to my anger was laughter or some semblance of “isn’t she so cute”.

If I could just get them all to listen to me… I have such important things to say!

So, I devised plans in secret. I would work at a nonprofit for a while to get me closer to my dream of being in politics. Then I realized that those in power at my nonprofit were actually business people! So I decided to go into business. I got into business school, and looked around again. Who, I asked myself, is running stuff here? How do I get to actually have a say? I didn’t have to look far to find VCs. Once I got into the VC world, the question was again, what do I have to do to prove to people that I have something to say? That I have something to contribute? That my vision for the future of business is important?

At the same time, I was also trying to figure out how would I start building wealth. I decided that real estate was the surest path. So I started negotiations early with my Berkeley landlord. After spending $50K+ in rent to him, he will sell me this duplex I’ve rented out for 5 years, right? Right?? Wrong. After this multi-year plan of mine died, I had to start from scratch. I found a house that I fell in love with in Oakland, and after two excruciating months, it was mine (well really it’s the bank’s for a few more decades, but for all intents and purposes, it is mine).

Now, I find myself with decision-making authority at a $100M+ fund, a house, a garden and honestly, a life I always dreamed of. I have more than enough.

Which means, by my own definition, I’m a woman with power. Because I have been so obsessed with this goal in mind, and so consumed by feeling like I didn’t have any, I have probably thought more about this topic than most. How do I honor the trust that people gave me to have this power? How do I not hoard the power I have? How do I create more space for more people to have more power?

And because I am a woman who is so used to feeling powerless, I am not a woman with power who is fearless. I still have a lot of fear. I don’t think I have accomplished anything so far without feeling a healthy amount of fear.

This fear may stem from the fact that I have so many critiques for myself. Before anyone else has something to say about my own work or accomplishments to try to humble me, I have probably already said it to myself. So when I see other people who I think of as whole – not as mythical characters, but real people – and also in power get critiqued by others, I’m reminded of myself. I was and am that person who is critiquing, and I’m also the person in power. It’s a weird place to find yourself in.

I think of this book I’m reading – Cracking Up: Black Feminist Comedy. And so much importance is put on the audience. While the Black woman is on stage, making the jokes, the audience has the power to laugh or boo or be silent. This is particularly true at The Apollo – there was an awesome meditation on it in A Little Devil in America. When we acknowledge that our power is only – as Brene Brown put it – power with instead of power over, who do we become? How do we facilitate meaningful feedback? How do we build trust? How do we forgive even when people have taken advantage of us because they saw us as means to an end and not as humans? How do we shed all of the ridiculous expectations that come with being the first or only and recognize that much of that is a trap created for us to fall into – to become mythologized to the point of no longer being human with flaws, interests and ideas?

Writing inspiration/other people’s work that vibez with this one:

  1. I want to watch this every week honestly. Kathleen Collins is a genius: https://vimeo.com/203379245
  2. I first heard of power with vs power over in a Brene Brown podcast, but this is a more succinct summary of the description: https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/4-types-of-power/
  3. How do I stay aware of my own “Goliath”-ness so that I never fully become them? This speech was at my college gradution on that exact topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oMvVtIQuMk
  4. One of my favorite writers, Chimamanda’s recent post: This is Obscene. I have so many thoughts. Probably could be it’s own post.
  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” I love that this beautiful quote was buried in one of his journal entries.
  6. Weary” – Solange
  7. The Other Black Girl – Honestly I recommend the whole book, but this quote from this interview gets to the heart of why the book resonated so deeply with me: “The traits Nella would need to be a good editor – sensitivity to the world, the ability to feel and react deeply – are the opposite of what she needs to successfully navigate publishing to become an editor. I’m interested in the ways your book discusses compromising your authenticity and numbing yourself for survival.” I think this is true of VC too, the traits necessary to be a good VC require sensitivity to the world so you can feel it all and diagnose what is going on and how to plug into it. Yet VC is also a business. How do you square the two?
  8. This whole thread on Twitter…

Risk Analysis: Failed Company Early Employee vs. Founder

One of the weird things about being in VC now for almost 5 years, is that there are some topics on VC Twitter that feel like groundhogs days. They are debated in earnest at least once a year, and nobody in that conversation seems to remember or care that this happened exactly the same way a year prior. I think this probably happens in many crevices of the internet, that is just the one that I occupy most time in so I see it very plainly.

One of those groundhog day topics is the VC Twitter version of oppression olympics. It’s the discussion about what is riskier: to be an early employee or to be a founder. The funny part about this topic is that most of the people who weigh in are founders. They weigh in as if they can speak for both founders and employees even though they have only been founders. In many cases, they are airing out their own traumatic founder experience and can’t imagine someone else saying that their experience could be more (or equally) difficult. Especially if those people are their own previous employees who they paid when they were depriving themselves of any salary. I get it, being a founder is an extremely isolating, expensive, and overwhelming experience. And I don’t want to take that away from anyone.

My experience though has only been as an early employee at Pre-Seed/Seed* companies that failed. The conversation I think we aren’t having enough is how to process your work product and history after a company you worked for fails. Especially as that pertains to your own feelings of self-worth. From my perspective, in every early startup I worked for, I was underpaid, overworked, and had few (or 0) coworkers to lean on or to learn from. If I had to pick the most important part of the riskiness equation though that made the early employee role that much more risky for me is that in those roles, I didn’t actually learn any skills. Instead, because I was constantly reacting to ever changing inputs, I had to rely on what I already knew to produce some semblance of a useful output. If I didn’t know something, Google was my best friend. The expectation at an early stage company is that as the company grows, the resources it has grows. Those resources can be used to help you hire a team, to get you access to information databases, to increase your pay. But what happens if those resources never arrive?

As a non-technical early employee, so much of the work that I did at the startups I worked for was very tedious, very unsophisticated labor. The lasting impact, in many cases, was nil because things changed so constantly. You didn’t know if anything you built or created would last until the next week. In my first role, I was in charge of supporting one person on the team to help her collect data into her spreadsheet to track the sustainability of the company. Then I moved into a more R&D role to explore a product launch (the product never materialized). In my next role, at a second startup, not a single one of the projects I managed actually materialized. So after a few months of that, the CEO transitioned me into more of a sounding board/advisor role where I was basically just performing emotional labor. Even in my early days at Precursor, I spent much of my time building (and then scrapping) CRMs, and tracking down a lot of paper trails. The administrative labor was overwhelming.

The hard part too about the employee vs. founder conversation is there is a strong bias towards founders. They are the avengers, the masterminds, the leaders. So as a result, “failed founder” has a certain gravitas to it that failed employee does not.

In my work as an early employee, on the good days, what I gained was perspective. I was given a spot in a growing ecosystem that I cared a lot about and so I was able to use that vantage point to better understand how I wanted to navigate that ecosystem. On the bad days, I was so exhausted by my ever-growing workload that I was in a constant fight or flight mode – unclear where I could even fly towards…

Obviously, things turn out well in the end. The third startup – Precursor – ends up not failing, my role expands and I get to grow in my own skills and experience. But I want to be honest about my early experiences so that others know what the real cost of joining an early company can be. I am also using my new position as an investor in companies to coach founders I work with on how they can be more thoughtful about their early employees and my hope is that this next generation of early employees receive the skills, experience and knowledge they need to fly towards something amazing.

*I can’t speak to the risk/reward profile to employees who join Seed+ companies

Inspiration from this post comes from:

1) a few conversations I’ve had with our MBA interns who are thinking about that first employee role at startups

2) a few conversations I’ve had with our founders – many of whom who have been founders before, but few of whom have been early employees are failed companies before

3) Yoni’s recent post – so honest, loved it!

4) Karla’s recent post really spoke to me and this is exactly the type of leader I hope to become, which requires being honest about the work I’ve done and how it impacted me

5) Ashley Ford’s interview on Brene Brown’s podcast about her memoir. Her decision to own her own story despite whether or not it implicated others is powerful and I plan to do the same. My story is mine.

Peeling back the layers of a quick VC diligence call

As part of my day-job, I invest in founders. A lot of them happen to be women. A lot of them also happen to be Black women. I am so grateful for the opportunity and the honor that I have to invest in founders at the earliest stages of their journey. It is really an amazing experience to be able to say: “I believe in you so much that here is a six-figure check to help you build towards your dreams.” If you told me as a young Black girl growing up in San Diego, that this was my future, I would have never believed you! This is an amazing privilege and I don’t take it lightly.

For founders who are starting technology companies, I invest in their Pre-Seed round. The expectation is that the founder will, after raising their Pre-Seed round, raise follow-on financing. Their Seed round, Series A round, Series B round…, all the way to IPO.

When founders in the portfolio fundraise for a follow-on round, I often get e-mails and requests from VCs who are considering participating in that round. The questions they ask are usually focused on trying to get to the same answer: “Do I trust your judgment on this deal?” Peeling back the layers on that question is: “Was your judgment similar to mine on this deal?” In these conversations, very few people are asking me to introduce new facts to prove them wrong, instead, they’re looking for me to confirm their own ideas. Some firms even have a name for this “confirmatory due diligence”.

Peeling back the layers on this again. The questions that I get from VCs about my decision – especially given that I’m investing in the Pre-Seed stage – are often specific to the founder. Which is fair. At the time that I invest, my main bet is on the founder. VCs ask me questions like: But she’s not technical and/or she is a solo founder, how did you get comfortable investing? How do you feel about her leadership skills? Aren’t you worried that she won’t be able to build a big business?

Peeling back the layers on this again. Most often, given the racial make-up of this industry, the questions I’m asked come from a white person. Sometimes a white woman, sometimes a white man, but white all the same.

When they ask these questions about a Black woman founder to a Black woman investor, there are undertones here. There is history here.

Which leads me to the questions I’m starting to build the courage to ask in response. They are: So, is this your first investment in a Black woman? I’d love to know if these questions were explicit parts of your diligence for other investments. Have you considered how it might feel for me, a Black woman, to try and convince you (who might not have any Black female co-workers, friends or founders) to invest in a Black woman? Or how it might feel for me, a Black woman, to convince you, a white person, that we see the world in exactly the same way? How might that diminish my own confidence in my own unique perspective? How might that be tied to larger issues about how you might not see Black women as leaders, or as convincing, or as likeable, or as capable of building billion dollar companies?

The list goes on. These dynamics cannot be ignored. The world is propped up by racist institutions and we have to acknowledge this openly and honestly and its impact. If we don’t we are complicit in it.

From CTRL to HeauxTales

I have listened to Jazmine Sullivan’s Tiny Desk Concert more times than I can count. If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor – it is below, you’re welcome!

I love it. The storytelling and honesty are unparalleled. I was introduced to her new album via her TinyDesk, and when I started digging into the entirety of HeauxTales, I was similarly blown away. She is sharing such vulnerable stories from women – rarely shared – and with so much empathy for the women. Usually I think when these stories are shared, they are accompanied by some level of shame (a number of people have written about this better than I have – this one from Pitchfork was my favorite) and she shared stories in a way that showed the full humanity of each person. So amazing.

I haven’t loved an album this much since SZA’s CTRL. When it came out in 2017, I think I played it every day for weeks – maybe even months?! The main difference that I saw between the two albums is that HeauxTales is a women-only album. There are no men on the tracks. I love the focus that gives to the listener. While CTRL doesn’t have any songs only by men, it does have a number of songs with prominent male rappers featured on them. I distinctly remember reading this one critique of CTRL that the men who were featured took too much control (hehe) over the lyrics and transformed some songs that were supposed to be liberating for women into something else entirely.

Ok, but back to the similarities. The songs that I hear talking to each other on both albums are Girl Like Me & Normal Girl. What I hear from both is this pressure to be who they think the person in their life wants them to be; instead of focusing on becoming their authentic selves. I take it out of the romantic context and see both songs talking about the pressure to conform. I can relate so strongly to this.

The specificity of both of their albums – each focuses on specific stories shared by women – also gives them a weightiness. I am a Revisionist History superfan right now and it reminds me of what Malcolm Gladwell shared in the episode The King of Tears. A reason why country music moves us so much is the specificity of the story told in the lyrics. This is completely different from traditional pop songs that are generalized to mean everything to everyone. He highlights how rap music actually mirrors country music in this way – it’s specific and thus more powerful. He didn’t dig into neo-soul in his podcast (which is the category I put Jazmine and SZA’s album into), but I think if he would have he would have seen a similar trend in neo-soul as he did for rap and country.

Both albums also come at a point of significant transition for me. During CTRL, I was just getting started at Precursor. HeauxTales comes at the tail end of a pandemic where a lot of transition. Very grateful to have this music to guide me during this time.

What album got you through a big transition in your life?

What is giving me life this week?

I don’t know if you ever listen to the NPR podcast, Code Switch, but they have a segment each week called “Songs Giving Us Life“. There used to be a similar segment on the NPR Politics Podcast with Sam Sanders during the Hilary/Trump campaign, and his was called “Can’t Let it Go.” Both segments were/are so great. Well, today is Friday and I had a really intense week so I’m going to do a “What is giving you life this week” for me!

I watched Notorious BIG’s Netflix documentary last night “I Got a Story to Tell” and it started getting me thinking about how music influences people across time, across continents. I loved that his neighbor was a jazz musician who walked BIG through drum segments. I loved that his uncle in Jamaica was a rapper. I loved that he listened to country westerns. What an eclectic life that should not be reduced to “gangsta rap” or whatever new term there is to describe black men who choose to engage in musical careers.

I was introduced to Camilo’s new record called Mis Manos this morning and it is fire! His first song, Millones, sounds like I’m in Colombia (which is where he is from). Which reminds me of what P. Diddy was sharing when he was collaborating with BIG. He wanted his music to transport you somewhere when you listened to it – for the song itself to feel like how you feel when you’re watching a movie.

Camilo’s second song, KESI, feels like afrobeats! If you don’t believe me, listen to it first and then listen to Burna Boy. The african influence should come at no surprise to you if you know anything about the history of Colombia. If you don’t, this in your invitation to dig deeper.

At the end of the album, he travels to the DR with a bachata song, BEBE. I love bachata. One of the main reasons is because when I used to go to salsa clubs, it was honestly the only dance I was really good at. It’s also just absolutely beautiful music.

Ok, that’s all I got for what is giving me life this week. Happy Friday!