Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Black entrepreneurs pitch their dreams to Silicon Valley

Mark Milian
Click to play
Black in America continues
  • The inaugural class of the NewMe Accelerator program pitched their websites on Thursday
  • The incubator helps black entrepreneurs get their ideas in front of investors
  • African-Americans rarely start Internet businesses or receive venture capital

CNN's Soledad O'Brien is chronicling the NewMe Accelerator journey in "Black in America 4," which is scheduled to air November 13.

San Francisco (CNN) -- Hank Williams has performed dozen of times to audiences like the one here on Thursday at the Kapor Capital investment firm.

This time, however, the 46-year-old software veteran wasn't the only black person in the room, as is often the case at fundraising meetings in Silicon Valley.

Williams is a member of the NewMe Accelerator's inaugural class. The tech incubator was formed to help minorities get advice from successful executives and put their new Internet ventures in front of investors.

For two months, eight black entrepreneurs worked (and some lived) together in a rented house in Mountain View, California, which is the same city Google, a NewMe sponsor, calls home.

Having removed himself from the Silicon Valley technology scene for a decade, Williams re-emerged on Thursday to demonstrate the project he's been working on for four years with two colleagues in New York.

When Spaces begins testing in the next few weeks, people will be able to sign up for an online storage locker, which allows them to organize, search and transmit various types of data. It can handle files, e-mails, calendars, Twitter messages and other digital information that competitors generally don't facilitate.

The concept is unique, yet familiar to investors salivating over the unexpected success of another new Web-storage service, Dropbox. Williams' has been self-funded so far, but he is about ready to exchange equity in his company for cash.

Before the dotcom bubble burst a decade ago, Williams had raised $40 million for an Internet music service called Clickradio. But he is an anomaly of sorts in the Silicon Valley institution, where black people don't typically start Internet businesses and, for that or whatever other reason, rarely receive venture capital.

Despite his legacy and deep connections in Silicon Valley, Williams was nervous on demo day.

"I will never go up there in front of a roomful of people and not be nervous," he said in an interview afterward. "The tech industry is pretty clubby," he said earlier, and it often shuns prospects who "didn't go to Stanford or work at Google."

Among the presenters, Williams stood out not because he's a person of color but because he's the grayest of those who presented on stage, with salt-and-pepper hair on his head and face.

The rest of the class is fairly green when it comes to raising capital. Associating with this minority-focused Web startup group, an innovative idea in Silicon Valley, has helped them to secure meetings that they otherwise wouldn't have gotten, said several of the entrepreneurs.

"People like to think of us in terms of what they already know," said Crisson Jno-Charles, one of the NewMe Accelerator participants. "The way Silicon Valley works is word of mouth."

Last year in Boston, Jno-Charles, a black computer programmer, began building Fetchmob, along with Alisa Boguslavskaya, who is not an ethnic minority but as a woman, is likewise a minority in the tech industry. Fetchmob is targeting colleges with an online marketplace for ordering groceries that other students can volunteer to deliver.

Another male-female duo started BeCouply, which makes an application for scheduling and chronicling dates. Statistically, blacks and women get little venture funding -- less than a tenth combined, according to some studies. BeCouply founders Pius Uzamere and Becky Cruze have another factor stacked against them: investors tend to shy away from entrepreneurs who are romantically involved, they learned.

"He's black; I'm a woman; we're a couple," Cruze said in an interview. "So we're screwed, right?"

Angela Benton, the NewMe event and group organizer who also pitched an app called Cued that offers restaurant recommendations based on a person's interests, said she would consider the incubator a success if three of the companies received funding.

Some investors here were more optimistic.

"The expectations aren't set, and we need to do something about that," said Mitch Kapor, a software pioneer turned venture capitalist who lent his office and contacts to the NewMe Accelerator.

James Joaquin, who attends the top incubator events and pitch presentations, said of the NewMe crop: "These entrepreneurs, these startups are at the same caliber."

Matt Van Horn, an executive at the venture-backed social networking company called Path, spoke at an event for the NewMe class and he agreed. "I've just seen a lot of growth," he said.

Joaquin is the CEO of a popular service for synchronizing bookmarks between Web browsers. He also finances young companies, a practice called angel investing. He added, "I think the majority of these companies will get angel investments."

He named Pencil You In as one of the standout presentations. The service, led by Tiffani Bell, lets people schedule haircut appoints online.

Other presentations included:

Aislefinder is a digital grocery list that tags each item with the aisle number the store stocks it in, as long as the product is among the 80,000 at 1,300 stores in the database. Users have made 12,000 shopping lists so far.

Playd, an app geared toward video-game players, is expected to launch this month. has a drag-and-drop website geared toward small businesses and is already bringing in revenue.

Wayne Sutton, whose service called Vouch lets users endorse associates via social networks, offered what sounded like music to a tech financier's ears. "We're going to have an API integrated with mobile apps, and we're going to make some money," he said in rapid succession, to laughter.

In a business environment that values teamwork, at least one person in this crop of entrepreneurs possesses a skill uncommon among the typical pasty-faced programmer.

Hajj Flemings, who co-founded a personal website builder called Gokit, concluded his speech saying: "I'm a former college athlete, and I always play to win."


Most popular Tech stories right now