Deal Dive: Finally, a startup building a network for those who could benefit the most

The tech industry has tried hard to address its diversity problem, but hiring talent from different backgrounds is only the first “challenge.” A bigger one is retaining them.

Porter Braswell is no stranger to the statistics or to companies’ various excuses for why the numbers are so bad. Early in his career, he struggled to break into tech despite holding internships at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, and was repeatedly told it was a pipeline problem.

So, Braswell launched Jopwell, a career platform for people from underrepresented communities and backgrounds.

Nearly a decade later, the company says it has supported tens of thousands of professionals, and Braswell has moved into an executive chairman role, looking for his next problem to solve. It wasn’t far off: He found that while many companies had started hiring more people of color, they had a new issue in getting the employees to stay.

“Retention is a major challenge and still remains so,” Braswell told TechCrunch+. “My heart was pulling me toward the retention part of the equation, especially [the feeling of] belonging. What are the variables that lead people to feel like they belong or that ultimately lead individuals of color to leave organizations? It’s because they don’t feel seen, heard or valued.”

Braswell decided the best solution was to create a community that could help people feel valued and also involve the corporations they work for.

That came in the form of 2045, named for the year when communities of color are expected to become the majority in the U.S. The company recently raised a $4.2 million pre-seed round led by Ken Chenault Jr., the son of the former CEO of Amex.

“It was astonishing to me that no one was building a community for what will be the largest population in America,” he said.

An attempt to actually be inclusive

2045 is launching at an interesting time for community startups.

Chief, a professional network for women executives that was last valued at $1.1 billion, is dealing with layoffs and growing pains. A New York Times story from earlier this year highlighted that members of color found the organization to be essentially an “old boys club” for white women.

More recently, Hampton, a community platform aimed at CEOs, came out of stealth. Almost nothing stands out about this one at all, to be honest, other than the fact that its early members seem successful enough on their own and might not need a network at all.

I’m not the only one to notice the patterns. Many network-focused startups don’t seem to be designed to help the folks who need them the most but rather as an exclusive model to bring already successful people together, even though they likely have good connections already.

Braswell’s attempt seems to be striving for something fundamentally different. It’s not designed for people to meet each other and sharpen their skills for a position they already have. Instead, it aims to create an environment that actually helps its members advance.

The program will be a mix of in-person and online events targeted at professionals of color who are 30 to 45 years old, to start. Braswell said it made more sense to focus on age rather than titles for a few reasons: For one, titles vary greatly across companies, so he didn’t want someone to not be eligible because of essentially a formality; and two, this is the age group that is most likely to drop out of the ecosystem.

Members will also get a chance to work with an executive coach. They will be slotted into small groups of eight to 10 people for sessions that aim to help them work through the obstacles they face in their industry.

Braswell hopes his fluid approach will help avoid another obstacle these networks often face: Members don’t always find long-term value, as advice can get stale and connections can run dry.

“We will only succeed if we continue to listen to our community members and understand their changing needs,” he said. “We have to evolve our model. I don’t know what that will look like in two to three years and I’m totally comfortable with that.”

Many such networks are only open to people who can pay the hefty membership fees. 2045 will work with companies to pay its $10,000 membership fee for their employees. It’s worth noting that around 70% of Chief’s members have their companies cover the costs, too.

“We think it is very exclusionary to make our individual members pay for that,” Braswell said. “There has been enough commitment from corporate America following the killing of George Floyd, $50 billion. Our members should not have to pay. We believe this is a tangible way for corporations to invest in their employees of color.”

There is also a $2,500 membership tier for founders or people who can’t get a corporate sponsorship. By the end of this month, 2045 will have over 200 members.

If 2045 is able to scale and complete its mission, it could make waves in solving this seemingly stalwart diversity problem in tech.

“It’s very taxing to be a professional of color in this country,” Braswell said. “If you’re a professional in the middle stage of your career and you look up and don’t see someone who looks like you, it is exhausting. It’s very tiring, and I’ve been there.”

I’m a fan of anything that tries to move the needle, but there have been so many half-baked ideas from companies that don’t follow through that I’m reluctant to get excited.

That said, 2045’s approach seems sound.