Diversity & Inclusion

“Lenders Look at Us as Black Before They Look at Us as Entrepreneurs”

There has been little to celebrate over the past twelve months for many reasons.

Trevor Parham Image

“Capital is not validation.” – Trevor Parham, Founder and Director at Oakstop

A deadly virus raged across the globe, there was growing civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd and a violent insurrection on Capitol Hill attempted to strike a blow to the heart of American democracy.

Recognizing that celebration wasn’t in keeping with the tenor of the past year, the San Francisco Business Times felt that commendation was more appropriate to acknowledge the unsung heroes of the city during these unprecedented times.

The weekly newspaper awarded California-based entrepreneur, Trevor Parham, ‘Executive of the Year 2020’ for being among “a group of people in business who had emerged to stand strong in dealing with everything the plague year could throw at them.”

The Founder and Director at Oakstop, a co-working location, event space and gallery,  Trevor started his company in 2014 and bootstrapped it until it became the profitable outfit it is today.

A trained artist, Trevor recently participated in the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center's Mentorship Circle program as a mentor. He was on the VC panel for the four-minute pitch event.

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

  • The mentorship relationship that inspired him to launch Oakstop;
  • The idiosyncrasies of seeking funding as a Black founder; and
  • His core message that ‘capital is not validation.’

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?

TP: I’ve had mentors – of all different types – throughout my life.

I started working with one of my mentors about eight or nine years ago. He’s a Black real estate developer about 25 years my senior.

That mentoring experience was less about learning real estate and more about understanding the practical implications of owning real estate. A lot of our conversations helped me understand the historical context of why real estate development was important, especially for the Black community in Oakland.

My mentor made me realize two things. Firstly, there aren’t enough Black people in real estate who own property – especially commercial property – in downtown Oakland. And secondly, if Black leaders and communities focus on securing and owning real estate, it would significantly advance their socio-economic position. These realizations actually led me to create the business I now run – Oakstop.

Why did you decide to mentor at this time?

TP: I’ve reached a point where all I want people to do is figure out what it is they want to do and what they can unlock within themselves to pursue it. The more people I can help ‘activate,’ the better.

I also want to de-mystify success and mentoring is a perfect opportunity to do that.

What attracted you to the Mentorship Circle program?

TP: It appealed to me because there’s a high concentration of Black founders out there doing great work and one of the main hurdles they have to overcome is access to capital. So, it seemed like a great opportunity to provide some insight and perspective.

What are your expectations of a mentee?

TP: I consider a mentee the lead in terms of their motivation. I just help to steer them if their foot is all the way down on the gas.

A mentee should not only be driven, but level-headed and able to absorb multiple perspectives.

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

TP: The biggest obstacle facing Black founders lies in that very grouping, ‘Black founders.’ We’re still looked at separately.”

The biggest obstacle facing Black founders lies in that very grouping, ‘Black founders.’ We’re still looked at separately.

Funders and lenders look at us as Black before they look at us as entrepreneurs. This means there will be additional barriers to get past in terms of accessing capital. Funding bodies and lending institutions will ask different questions. There will be different people in the room, more often than not without any decision-making power.

In addition to mentorship, what else is critical to an entrepreneur’s success?

TP: One thing that is vital to an entrepreneur’s success is that they need to embrace what they do from the perspective of craftsmanship.

I’m a trained artist and this approach has had a major influence on my work as an entrepreneur. This means an entrepreneur’s work should be tied to a greater vision than any that they may have had for it. It means entrepreneurs don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and they’re always open to pivoting and innovating.

As I said earlier, a mentee must have drive and that drive must be unending.

What was your favorite moment of the program?

TP: I really enjoyed the pitches.

These were great opportunities to witness a convergence of mentees, mentors and others on the program not just to discuss ideas, but to demonstrate the drive and support that exists on the program.

What did you learn from your mentees?

TP: Overall, I learned that there’s an infinite number of ways for someone to enter the world of entrepreneurship.

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

TP: In terms of unexpected benefits, I assumed I’d be mentoring developing entrepreneurs, but I ended up mentoring people who could actually serve as mentors to me in some of the other work I do.

As for unexpected challenges, much like being a parent to a child, I assumed that I’d have most, if not all, the answers. But there were times when I realized that I didn’t have an immediate answer or I wasn’t familiar with the subject matter. So occasionally, I challenged myself to say, ‘I don’t know’ even though my mentees were looking to me for answers.

The lesson here is that it’s important for people learning from you, such as mentees, to know that it’s okay not to know something.

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

TP: Most entrepreneurs on the program were quite developed and exceeded what I’d normally expect from mentees. They all had experience, a lot of confidence and were only working with mentors to accelerate the pace they were going at.

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

TP: Some of the mentees asked me about access to capital and I said, ‘not all money is good money’ and ‘capital is not validation.’ Oftentimes, these are the messages I lead with.

Some entrepreneurs conflate access to capital with their product being successful. So, I try to reassure them that they need to pursue the success of their product from the standpoint of how well it aligns with their vision. I tell them that, while it’s important to pursue capital as a means to an end, it’s more important not to lose sight of the end goal, which is to design a beautiful product that sells.

What excites you most about this new class of founders?

TP: The entrepreneurs on the program are responding to a major economic meltdown across the globe and have a fresh perspective on how to build their business with this in mind.

Not to mention the recent conversations about race relations that can also get built into some of their products. For example, I’ve seen products dialed into this new context of racial discrimination and police brutality.

It’s really exciting to see entrepreneurs who are using 2020 as a case study for how to make their businesses more resilient if something like this were to ever happen again.

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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