Diversity & Inclusion

A Rude Awakening: A Surface-Level Understanding of the Barriers Black Founders Face

Graham North has always had a penchant for reinventing the creative process.

Graham North Headshot

“I didn’t realize there were invisible forces propelling some people forward and holding others back.”
– Graham North, Senior Brand Strategy Consultant at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Co-founder of Weekend

A senior brand strategy consultant for four-time Emmy Award-nominated advertising agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, he works with major brands such as SodaStream, Method and Lunchables to run “brand therapy” sprints that help their leadership teams figure out who they are and why they exist.

Graham also founded Weekend, a brand consultancy that runs 48-hour startup accelerators designed to “distill your brand in a weekend.”

He recently served as a mentor to the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center's Mentorship Circle program to advise founders and entrepreneurs on business and personal branding.

In our interview (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), Graham discusses:

  • The killing of George Floyd simultaneously being a seminal moment in U.S. history and a time of intense personal and professional reflection;
  • His initial lack of awareness of the forces at play in society that work for and against different color groups; and
  • The practical implications of the VC community not understanding the lived experience of Black people.

Do you have (or have you had) a mentor(s) and, if so, what impact has this relationship(s) had on the trajectory of your professional life?

GN: I’ve had mentors in different phases of my life.

Some of them saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Others helped channel my energy outside my sphere of motivation or they redirected it to something that I didn’t think was possible.

Why did you decide to mentor at this time?

GN: Last year (2020) was a year of extraordinary self-examination for me –specifically, after the murder of George Floyd, the impact it had and the reexamination of power dynamics in the U.S. and across the world.

The opportunity to mentor on the program came at a time when I didn’t realize there were invisible forces propelling some people forward and holding others back. Black people are held back in so many ways, but we don’t acknowledge it or seek to break down these invisible barriers.

The program was a thoughtful way of giving Black founders a chance at something that is normally a privilege of connected white people.

What are your expectations of a mentee?

GN: Curiosity and open-mindedness are at the core of the mentoring relationship.

It’s a mutually beneficial experience when a mentee asks questions that their mentor doesn’t expect. In doing so, there’s a sense of deep mutual growth versus a mentee just being a receptacle of advice.

The truth is that the mentees had experiences I’ve never had in my life. Their questions drove me and hopefully my responses pushed them and it’s this push-and-pull effect that was probably the most important aspect of the program.

What are the biggest obstacles facing Black founders and what is one thing that must be changed immediately?

GN: Frankly, as a white male, I’m probably ill-informed to truly understand all the issues facing Black founders. So, I’ll speak from a brand perspective.

Firstly, Black founders are deeply misunderstood by a predominantly white investment community that doesn’t have the lived experience to understand how powerful their idea is or could be.

Black founders are deeply misunderstood by a predominantly white investment community that doesn’t have the lived experience to understand how powerful their idea is or could be.

For example, there was a founder who started a company selling hair extensions for Black people. They brought their product to Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, but investors declined to invest. They couldn’t fathom that the market was big enough simply because they didn’t live the Black experience, which completely undermined the potential of the idea.

Secondly, there aren’t enough people of color in positions of peak power to open the doors for Black founders.

What was your favorite moment of the program?

GN: At the start of the program, the mentees did an elevator pitch and, at the end, they shared a culturally-resonant brand story or brand point of view.

Watching the founders transform in a short amount of time and articulate – in a new way – why they do what they do was pretty special, especially given how emotional some of the founder stories were.

These weren’t 30-year old white kids trying to build technology for what their mom doesn’t do for them anymore. They were people with real stories of how to use technology to stay connected to incarcerated loved ones, for example. It was really profound.

What did you learn from your mentees?

GM: Now I have a surface-level understanding of the barriers Black founders face and the whole ‘death by a thousand cuts’ analogy – that small things add up to make life more difficult for Black founders.

Now I have a surface-level understanding of the barriers Black founders face and the whole ‘death by a thousand cuts’ analogy – that small things add up to make life more difficult for Black founders.

Did you reap any unexpected benefits or face any unexpected challenges and, if so, what were they?

GN: I run brand schools with founders and I have a ton of examples I pull from, which I realized all came from white founders.

So, I had to research examples of Black founders doing amazing things, unpack their brands and critically analyze what made them special. Now, I carry these case studies forward as North Star examples of best-in-class entrepreneurship. I wasn’t aware of Black founders because I was blind to looking for them. That was an unexpected benefit.

But being white forced me to realize that I had limited relevance in this space. The biggest challenge involved reconciling the places where I have strength, experience and something to share with the places where, as a white man, I have blind spots in terms of showing up for Black founders.

How did the experience differ from any previous mentorship programs you may have been involved in?

GN: The program was special because, from the start, it was building towards something.

It was so meticulously organized that each week was a building block on the previous week. This got the founders to a place where, at the end of the program, they could pitch a holistic business model that spoke the language of Silicon Valley much better than they could at the beginning.

What advice (if any) did you give your mentees on the last day of the program?

GN: From a brand perspective, the top line was that everything you do communicates something and the sum of these communications is your brand.

Every conversation that founders have, every piece of copy they create, every product they release builds their brand and so on.

What excites you most about this new class of founders?

GN: I have a problem with technology for technology’s sake.

At my most cynical, I think Silicon Valley has fallen into a vanity trap where people are trying to build ‘sexy tech’ simply to raise money, get an IPO and tell their friends that they’re entrepreneurs.

What excited me most about this group is that I didn’t catch a whiff of that. In fact, I found the opposite. The founders were frustrated by a genuine problem in their community and were trying to find ways to leverage technology to solve problems in a smarter, more scalable way. They were really inspiring.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Kieron Johnson

Kieron Johnson is a content/communications consultant to emerging and established brands.

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