On the heels of U.S. President Barack Obama hosting the first-ever White House demo day, which placed an emphasis on diversity, Visa has announced the winners of its The Everywhere Initiative. And, wait for it, all of the winning startup founders are black.
The Everywhere Initiative sought out to source innovative solutions from startups for Visa’s marketing issues around reaching millennials, driving digital commerce and rewards. Visa held an open submission process, while its innovation partner KITE* ran a parallel process through its platform to find other startups that could fit the bill. By the end of it, Visa had nearly 400 startups to choose from. Earlier this week, fifteen finalists pitched their solutions to a panel of Visa marketing executives for a shot at a $50,000 pilot program.
The winning startups: Virgil, a tool that assesses your competitiveness for certain careers, Flag, an app that delivers photo prints for free, and LISNR, a solution that uses high-frequency audio tones to enable people to unlock discounts and experiences.
In a tech world where only 1% of venture-backed companies are led by African-Americans, according to a 2010 CB Insights report, it’s refreshing to see that the startups Visa selected all have black founders. There’s Flag Founder Samuel Agboola, LISNR Co-founder & CEO Rodney Williams and Virgil Founder Ron Mitchell (the three guys in the middle pictured above).
And the founders who represent these companies have impressive backgrounds. Take Mitchell, for example. He attended Harvard University where he earned his A.B. in Economics, and then went on to Harvard Business School, where he served as president of the HBS Student Association. Oh, and he used to be an analyst at Morgan Stanley. TL;DR He’s a boss.
At the White House demo day, Obama said that it’s hard to get in front of the right people, but that it can be even harder if you’re a woman or an underrepresented minority who often has to fight just to get a seat at the table. In Visa’s selection process, the key decision-makers were pretty much color blind to the founders behind the startups until the final pitch day. Even though that was likely by no means intentional on Visa’s part, that allowed the company to solely focus on the merits of each startup and how they could push Visa’s corporate agenda forward.
“I think this is a seminal moment for diversity in tech in the Valley,” Kayode Owens, head of strategic partnerships at KITE, said. “It says that when diverse entrepreneurs are given equal access and opportunity, they are as competitive as any startup founders in the world.”
*I worked at KITE for nine months from October 2014 – July 2015.