If you haven’t heard of Angela Benton by now and you’re a woman of color in the tech industry, then it’s time to be schooled. Known as one of the pioneers in black tech, Angela Benton has been a spearhead in the digital business and investment community for quite some time. Growing up in the DMV area, Angela began her career as a digital media web designer and developer, working for a variety of digital brands before launching the now defunct Black Web 2.0 in 2007. She started the site, along with other minority-focused properties, to create a hub for African Americans that were interested or involved in technology (this was way before the entrepreneurial boom that has occurred in the past few years). Although Black Web 2.0 was blooming, Benton wanted to have a more hands-on approach to connecting people of color in tech; so she moved to Silicon Valley and launched the NewMe Accelerator in May 2010 to support entrepreneurs of color in their start-up journeys. Her accelerator, which has evolved through the years, has raised over $25MM in funding for a variety of minority entrepreneurs.
Why is Angela Benton a superwoman and BAUCE to know? She has accomplished a lot despite a variety of “obstacles” that people often believe stops a person from becoming a self-made success. After having her first child at 16, Angela attended college and graduate school, launched a business, and amassed a wide range of accolades which include being the youngest person to be inducted into the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council Hall of Fame and being named one of Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology. With her company’s recent relocation to Miami and the release of her self-help and business book, Revival, Benton has continued to showcase her resilience and ability to make smart decisions that lift her and her community up for the better.
In this interview with BAUCE, Angela Benton gets intimate with us about what it takes to get an investor’s attention. She also shares the most important trait she looks for in successful entrepreneurs.
You’ve been a veteran in the game when it comes to tech. Let’s go back to when you started out as a designer-developer. What have you seen as the evolution for women and people of color in tech? Has it gotten better or worse?
Angela: I would definitely say that it’s better than it was. When I started Black Web 2.0 in 2007, I had already been working for years as a designer and engineer before that. So, I was always kind of the lone black person on the technology team. At that time the development teams were housed as an engineering unit within marketing. Now most engineering and marketing teams have their own separate divisions. I was always the only Black person.
I would definitely say things have changed in terms of entrepreneurship. There’s a ton of people who are starting their careers as entrepreneurs. I think the timing has a lot to do with how many people we’re seeing that are actually employed as engineers. A lot of people regardless of the industry that you’re in are starting their own businesses — I think our society is in a state where it’s very entrepreneurial. And so people are making a decision if they want to actually go to work for somebody else or if they want to start their own thing. I think maybe that’s why we’re not seeing enough people who are actually working kind of 9-to-5 as engineers — they have an option of starting up on their own. Also as it relates to Silicon Valley, I think it depends on the criteria and a lot of the criteria that some of these companies are looking for I don’t think it’s reasonable for their diversity goals.
We know that you launched NewMe Accelerator to help solve the problem around diversity in technology. If I were a newly-minted entrepreneur and I wanted to join the NewMe accelerator, how do I get your attention to invest in my ideas?
Angela: Well, for me it always depends on the entrepreneur and if they are someone who I believe in. So technically, I have made “investments” into entrepreneurs that might not even have a product but I’m willing to give them my time and energy. You know they’re just somebody that I believe in and you know they might be trying to kind of figure it out and testing different ideas. I have one person that I’ve been working with for about three years in that way. And I think a lot of other accelerators tend to focus on “the exit” and what kind of return they’re going to get from a particular idea. Whereas, I just focus on the individual. NewMe is like a family — we invest in the people, not just the ideas.
Not all ideas are going to work. Some of them are going to fail. Many [of the people who completed the program] are still supporting other entrepreneurs and still supporting New Me and coming back to mentor. I don’t think it would be like that if I was just focusing on an idea and how big of an exit I could get.
What specific traits do you look for in entrepreneurs as an investor? What makes you say, “Hey — I think I want to work with this person?”
Angela: Well, first off the easiest way to get my attention is to do what you say you’re going to do and then follow that up. And you’ll hear a lot of investors say that investors hate saying no to entrepreneurs. And so they usually are pretty generous with feedback on what needs to be done in order for them to move forward to an investment or make some kind of mentorship. I’m always transparent with what folks need to do. And the entrepreneurs that I tend to work closely with they tend to take my advice and execute on it and then they come back to me for more advice. It’s a very iterative process. And you know I have one person I’ve been working with for a little over a year in this way. He wasn’t even a part of NewMe to begin with and then he later became a part of [the accelerator]. But it was because he wanted it.
He just had this idea. He was non-technical, he didn’t even know how to get it started. Most accelerators won’t even take someone that’s non-technical and doesn’t know how to get and idea started. And that’s kind of what’s different about me and what I do. Working with minorities, we’re kind of at a deficit and not from a skill perspective but purely because there’s a saturation in non-technical founders. So you have this large group of folks who want to start businesses that are not technical, and they may not know how to start. They may not know what an MVP is and all of that. So that’s kind of where NewMe comes in and where I come in. I come from a similar background as a lot of these entrepreneurs, so I’m not going to sugarcoat it and I’m not scared that I’m going to offend somebody when I’m giving them advice. I’ll tell them look — this is where you need to start or don’t waste your time here. And I don’t think a lot of other investors and accelerators have that benefit.
What things do you see entrepreneurs doing wrong? What is the biggest mistake that new entrepreneurs often make?
Angela: I think the biggest mistake is not being coachable. I used to get a lot of entrepreneurs — this was a few years ago — that I’d like their idea, I saw that there was a growing market, and I could determine if they could be acquired or not. But what I realized was I didn’t like the entrepreneur as much as the idea. A lot of times you can run into someone who might have a good idea but they’re just not coachable. And so you can’t really work with someone who’s not coachable because you’re going to try to give them advice but it’s literally not going to process for them at all. It just ends up either turning into a combative situation or a missed opportunity on the entrepreneur’s part and nobody wants to really deal with that.
Are there specific industries you wouldn’t invest in or you’d advise your entrepreneurs to steer away from?
Angela: Yeah — social networks! Do not say you’re building a social network. Like, the time for that is kind of over. The players that are in the space for that or are in the space, so…not that. And also not ride-sharing.
See what ends up happening in entrepreneurship and startups is that you will get some companies that are hugely successful and then, all of a sudden, everybody else is working on a similar thing and it literally makes no sense at all. When Facebook was really rising, everybody’s pitch was: “I’m building a social network — it’s going to be the next Facebook”. Now, Uber is hot. It’s a billion-dollar company. And so now everyone is building “the next Uber” or “ride-sharing company for xyz”. And from an investment standpoint, if that’s the kind of business that you’re trying to grow where you want to actually get investment, it’s going to be challenging because the people who are going to invest in this space are already invested [in the bigger players].
It’s going to take longer to actually be successful because you’re competing with a huge company at that point, and you just don’t have the resources. Like take for example a “black Uber”. It might be something that you want to use, but if you’re in New York you know you’re ride estimate might go from two minutes away to 15 minutes away because there are fewer drivers in your fleet. It’s going to be really hard to grow and sustain in that way.
Given that you started a digital media company after launching Black Web 2.0, what is your thoughts on content companies? Do you think they can still make money as they did in the past or that they should be seeking investment like new-age startups?
Angela: Media companies are hard because advertising is kind of the main revenue stream for them (or some kind of sponsorship), and in order to get that you need eyeballs and page views. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Content companies need to think about how to also become product companies and product companies also need to understand how to become content companies. The two worlds to me are kind of converging. Most of the product companies that are really good from a marketing perspective have some kind of storytelling. They have a blog, Instagram or YouTube or they’re publishing some type of content that people are sharing, that people are engaging in. And then folks who are running content businesses need to look at how can I come up with a product that this specific audience will buy. The leverage that content companies have is that they already have a captive audience and so people will come back to the site. And that’s for everything from a website to an Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat platform. Despite whichever platform that content company is focusing on, you still have to be able to drive people to give you money for something. And I think that’s the piece that a lot of people miss out on.
I kind of learned that myself running Black Web 2.0 because we were very small, and we had a niche audience that a lot of people didn’t really believe in at the time. We were almost too early for what we were doing and now everybody is interested in technology and “blerds” and this subculture of being black. We had some success with charging a higher CPM [on ads] because our audience was professional and they made a certain amount of money. But it wasn’t our regular stream of income. We had to do a lot of other stuff. We had to do events and take different types of sponsorships. We even started launching these integrated campaigns that are really popular now but weren’t so much back then with folks like HP and some other bigger brands. But it was very, very hard at that time to try to actually generate consistent streams of revenue even though the brand was so popular.
Now, I think it’s easier because a lot of stuff has been commercialized. I mean you have people buying subscription boxes and people have subscriptions for everything they don’t even remember they haven’t purchased subscriptions for. So if you can figure out a way for your business to be able to charge for something that your audience might like, I think having a content company is well worth someone’s time.
Angela Benton, BAUCE women are those that are overcoming obstacles to reach success. What’s the biggest failure or low point you have had in your career that ultimately led to a triumph for you?
Angela: I had a partnership with a company that I walked away from. And it was a low point for me because I was based in Silicon Valley and, if you don’t know, Silicon Valley has a very “herd-like” mentality. So, if something happens and you lose an investor or lose a sponsor or end a partnership, then people signal that as negative and word spreads. The issue with that is that a move you make might not always be negative.
I decided to walk away from a partnership — actually of a few partnerships — that I had with folks based in Silicon Valley because at the end of the day, they wanted me to grow NewMe in a way that was completely different from my vision of the company. People either wanted me to focus on just the 12-week accelerator or they wanted me to focus on only technical entrepreneurs who went to Ivy League schools. Because there was no real synergy there I decided to walk away from those partnerships and it was a low point because other people thought that something was wrong with me. Other people in the industry thought there was something wrong with what I was doing. But in actuality, walking away was probably the best decision that I made in my professional career as it relates to NewMe because making that decision ultimately gave me the freedom that I wanted as an entrepreneur. It gave me the ability to work with whom I wanted to work with and to be able to change or modify my programming so that it suits the entrepreneurs I focused on versus the partner.
Since making that change, we’ve been doing one-week accelerators. The whole first year I was so scared of what people would think about me and so I did the program very privately in Silicon Valley. [Laughs]. And then after working out some kinks, we started to do them more publicly and now it’s our new business model. We don’t even do the 12-week accelerator anymore. It’s been a great move because I’m able to work with so many different types of entrepreneurs in the same way versus being limited to only max 16 companies for an entire year.