Colorwave: Driving Diversity and Equity in the Startup Ecosystem

Colorwave is a program designed to increase access to opportunities and support for underrepresented leaders in the tech industry.

In this interview, John Roussel, the Executive Director at Colorwave, shares how the organization is working to build a more equitable and inclusive innovation economy.


What inspired the creation of Colorwave?

Colorwave was born to address the lack of opportunity available to professionals of color within America’s booming venture-backed startup ecosystem.  

While the global start-up economy is worth more than $3.8 trillion (Startup Genome) and has been an engine for societal change and wealth generation for many, communities of color, notably Black and Latinx, have been broadly excluded and underrepresented in this space. In 2020 alone, 14 companies generated nearly $450b via IPO. However, Black, Latinx, and Native Americans were not in leadership of most of the companies. In addition, those most likely to experience the substantial economic upside of a tech company are often the earliest employees – this lack of representation exacerbates wealth inequality within this sector.  

Black and Latinx workers comprise 31% of the US workforce combined. Yet, they are just 12% of the tech workforce (Kapor Center). They are even more sorely underrepresented at the highest levels of tech, comprising roughly 7% of all tech leadership roles (Kapor Center) and less than 5% of startup executive roles (MaC Ventures/Kauffman). Early start-up employee pools often rely on network-based hiring; however, at least 67% of white citizens have white-only networks (PRRI). This lack of diversity often creates less inclusive work environments, as illustrated by many of the large tech companies’ annual diversity reports. The lack of opportunity for communities of color in the workplace has contributed to various societal and business issues.

John Roussel, Executive Director at Colorwave

Beyond these sobering facts of underrepresentation in the innovation economy, Colorwave’s origin story shares a connection to my own personal and professional experience. While growing up in California during the era of multiple tech booms in the late 90s (AOL, Netscape, eBay, Amazon) and early 2000s (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Skype, Youtube), a few things were clear. First, there was little understanding of these nascent technologies within my networks and community as a Black man and almost no pathway to finding a job at these companies at the earliest stages.

Despite being a student in the Bay Area at one of the top places to find talent, UC Berkeley, these companies and industries might as well have been on another planet in terms of our two worlds being connected. The net effect of this as a mid-career professional is that many of my peers went into ‘stable’ jobs in government, legal, nonprofit, healthcare, etc., mainly due to network, knowledge, and access gaps. While others went on to make large or mini-fortunes by working in venture-backed tech, my friends and I remained locked out of this sector’s career and economic upside.

Armed with this proximate understanding of the problem, we officially launched our first program, the Colorwave Fellowship, in January 2021 with 22 fellows. This program was designed to do the following: 

  • Help working professionals from traditionally marginalized communities better understand the venture-backed startup ecosystem
  • Learn about what it’s like to work in a venture-backed startup
  • Support the job search and preparation for open roles across the ecosystem
  • Connect them to growing companies through our venture and startup partnerships

Please describe your model

Colorwave takes a two-pronged approach to make the VC-backed startup sector more equitable and inclusive.

  1. On the talent side, we recruit high-potential, early-to-mid-career professionals of color as Colorwave fellows. Candidates participate in a free, virtual, eight-week educational and networking program that helps them understand and navigate the venture-backed startup industry more effectively. At the end of the eight weeks, we facilitate connections and placement in roles with our partner companies and the startup sector more broadly. Upon completion and placement, we continue to engage program alums with career pathways, industry networking, and entrepreneurship advisory support.
  2. On the industry side, we partner with venture capital funds, their portfolio companies, and other venture-backed startups to unlock access to opportunities for our fellowship participants and support companies in building more inclusive pipelines and organizational culture practices.  

Ultimately, Colorwave is building a virtuous network of investors, startups, and diverse talent committed to making the innovation economy more equitable and inclusive of all communities. 

In just two years, nearly 300 fellows across 60 cities have completed our program. More than 100 and counting have transitioned into new roles across the innovation economy, with most seeing an average $52K increase in their total compensation. We are building a movement to inject more leaders of color into the startup ecosystem. We are encouraged by the progress we have seen thus far and hope to continue growing our movement and impact.   

How do you select partners? Which have you identified as doing impactful work in this space?

We take a targeted approach to our fund and company partners. We prioritize partners committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion and are aligned with our organizational mission to increase access to opportunities for underrepresented leaders. 

A few of our fund partners have made impactful efforts to advance inclusion within the ecosystem. One is Concrete Rose Capital which has not only built inclusion into its investment approach but has also committed to giving 50% of its fund carry to non-profit organizations helping to close opportunity gaps for communities of color.

In addition, at the fund level, Concrete Rose supports its portfolio companies in designing inclusive cultures from Day 1, helps connect those companies to diverse talent as they scale, and connects companies to their well-respected network of operators and LPs. Seven of our alumni have worked within their company portfolio network. We believe they’re building a model that demonstrates outsized returns and transformational social good are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist in investing.   

Another fund partner we work closely with who is doing transformative work to build more inclusivity in the space is Insight Partners. In 2020, the fund announced a bold commitment to support diversity, equity, and inclusion within the fund’s broad sphere of influence. We have worked closely with their Talent Center of Excellence to support connecting candidates to roles across their expansive portfolio of companies. In addition to supporting their portfolio companies in tracking and benchmarking key diversity metrics, we were excited that their pledge removed minimum commitment requirements for Insight’s future funds to enable HBCU Endowments to invest and that they recently were an LP in Monique Woodard’s of Cake Ventures most recent fund announced in January 2022.

A more recent partner, Andreessen Horowitz’s Cultural Leadership Fund, is also doing impactful work to attract Black LPs into their funds and building out a network of cultural icons, talent, and community organizations to broaden access to the tech ecosystem. These particular funds’ management fees and carry generated are donated to nonprofit organizations showing their commitment to doing well and doing good.     

A few other funds and portfolios that have caught our eye include Base10 Ventures, with their Advancement Initiative aimed at leveling the playing field for HBCU endowments and their students. Additionally, Kapor Capital has focused on investing in new companies that close gaps of access for all and often integrate efforts with the SMASH program and Kapor Center into their company support. Lastly, Slauson & Co., via its investment thesis and Friends & Family program, has prioritized broadening access for traditionally overlooked communities.    

All of these efforts are helping to advance inclusivity in the ecosystem. Meaningful change will occur when embedding more inclusive practices into investing criteria, company building, and organizational culture development becomes the norm across the sector.  

 How do you identify ideal candidates for your program?

Our programming prioritizes early-to-mid career, underrepresented professionals with transferable skills to a startup environment. 

The majority of our fellowship participants have come from referrals. Our program has a 100% recommendation rate. We accept candidates twice per year, usually during the Spring and Fall. Applicants undergo a two-part screening process: an initial application review and a virtual interview with our Interview committee, including staff and alumni.

The typical candidate has roughly six years of work experience, proven functional experience, and a desire to transition to a venture-backed startup. Participants come from various industries, including consulting, banking/finance, big tech, higher education, nonprofits, and government. Roughly 75% have non-technical backgrounds such as finance, HR, operations, and strategy. Another 25% are technical, which includes engineers, product managers, data scientists, and designers.    

We encourage candidates to check our website and Linkedin pages for application alerts and other opportunities to join our talent community.     

Can you share any success stories or notable achievements that your organization has had in placing Black talent in these types of roles?

To date, our fellowship program has supported roughly 300 fellows across 60 different cities and six countries. Approximately 110 and counting have transitioned into roles across the venture-backed startup ecosystem. Once placed, our most recent survey in 2021 found that fellows experienced a $52k increase in their total compensation when transitioning. 

There are many success stories from our first couple of years, but the stories below demonstrate different ways people find successful outcomes. 

  • Colorwave Industry Network – Through our relationship with a fund partner, Insight Partners, one of our alumni connected to a growing clinic trials SaaS company. He took a role under the CFO, seeing both a jump in his salary and earning equity ownership in the company, which is an essential aspect of our curriculum and model. More on this here
  • Colorwave’s Peer Network – Four of our alumni could transition to a late-stage, e-commerce company by connecting with a previous alumni who connected them to roles across the company. Three of those who transitioned came from higher education and nonprofit roles, which significantly improved their salary and provided them with company stock options. More on this here
  • Colorwave’s Curriculum and Resources – A recent alumni leveraged the curriculum to narrow down roles at several startups. Using our resources and tools, she landed a job with a growth-stage healthcare startup helping to scale their model. She now has a meaningful role at one of her top-choice companies. 

What future do you envision for Colorwave?

We envision a future where many of our alumni are in prominent positions across the startup world as executives, entrepreneurs, and investors. We see our alumni as leaders who will help transform the future of tech and societal change by holding seats at companies and within industries that are shaping society. In their personal family legacies, they will represent generational change by accessing more opportunities and income to help close the wealth gap and improve their local communities.  

In this particular segment of our economy, we want to play a supportive role in getting companies to think about and embed inclusive practices in their earliest stages. We’ll know our efforts at Colorwave and so many others within this space are impactful when we no longer need to ‘make the case’ for diversity; instead, it is a modus operandi for a successful high-growth business.

by Tony O. Lawson

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