At Silicon Valley Boot Camp, A Startup's Success

fromKQED

Only 1 percent of high-tech startups in Silicon Valley are run by African-Americans. The number of women is less than 10 percent. The NewME minority accelerator is trying to change the face of the industry by encouraging, mentoring and training women and minorities to test their ideas in the high-tech and venture capital world.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Today, we conclude our series about an attempt to diversify Silicon Valley. It's called NewME, which stands for New Media Entrepreneurship. Seven entrepreneurs, women and African-Americans, are getting a crash course on how to launch a start-up. And as Amy Standen from member station KQED reports, one of them is getting more attention than he bargained for.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Naithan Jones quit a perfectly good job to pursue his start-up dream in Silicon Valley. He's 37, with a wife and two young daughters back in Kansas City. He misses them.

NAITHAN JONES: You see your little girls on Skype, and that's all you get. You don't get the hug that you need at the end of that really long, grueling 16-hour day when you've been working on your product.

STANDEN: Nate's company AgLocal is a website where small meat producers can sell their products to customers.

JONES: The best example I can be is by going and doing this, and then coming back and saying now dad's home a lot more because he was successful.

STANDEN: And success, he can almost smell it. He and a couple of other NewME participants flew out to Texas for South by Southwest, where Jones took part in a start-up pitch contest.

JONES: We created AgLocal to make the relationship between local buyers and farms more equitable.

STANDEN: And he was the audience favorite.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. AgLocal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

STANDEN: Features about AgLocal started showing up in Fast Company, Mashable, Business Insider. A week later back in San Francisco, Jones says it's been a bit overwhelming. It's a workday, and he's in full multitask mode, so he shoehorns our interview into a coffee break.

JONES: We've received an incredible amount of hype, buzz. We went on a rocket ride for the entire week.

STANDEN: He says the temptation is to soak it all up, to bask in all the attention, but the fact is he hasn't even launched his company yet. He's worried about peaking too soon.

JONES: Silicon Valley's attention span is short. Once investors and magazines pay attention to your product and say that it's interesting, you better make it interesting real fast.

STANDEN: Of course, NewME has been getting press all along. Here in Silicon Valley, only 1 percent of start-ups come from African-American entrepreneurs. So, when a program aims to change that, it's news. But sometimes the attention is a double-edged sword. Last year, CNN did a story on NewME and on black entrepreneurs, and probably the most controversial - or at least cringe-worthy - moment was this: when tech impresario Michael Arrington explained why he had recently offered a plum conference spot to a black CEO.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

MICHAEL ARRINGTON: It's a cool start-up. His start-up's really cool. But he could have launched a clown show onstage, and I would have put him up there. Absolutely.

STANDEN: Entrepreneur and NewME participant Tendi Muchenje comes from Zimbabwe by way of Duke University. He says there's just no point in worrying about people who might think he hasn't earned his place here.

TENDI MUCHENJE: If someone feels I got the opportunity because I'm black or whatever, the only way I can show my worthiness of even of that opportunity is execution, right? If I can execute and have the product work brilliantly, then I probably deserve that opportunity, right?

STANDEN: It's a lot of pressure, and, in fact, even taking race out of it, the pursuit of fame and fortune in Silicon Valley can seem wildly ambitious.

ERIK MARTIN: Yeah, you're crazy to do this, but you're almost more crazy to work at some big company.

STANDEN: Erik Martin is general manager of the social news site Reddit and a NewME mentor. He says, sure, the odds of any start-up becoming the next Instagram or Dropbox, let alone Facebook, are long.

MARTIN: So are the odds of working at some big company that doesn't give a crap about you and is making much more money off of you than they're paying you.

STANDEN: And that, in a nutshell, is the spirit of entrepreneurship. It's what drives Naithan Jones, why he's willing to risk everything for this one chance at Silicon Valley success.

JONES: I'm exciting to tell you about how we're going to change the way that meat is bought and sold.

STANDEN: It's the last day of the program, and Jones is making his well-polished pitch, this time at the Google headquarters in San Francisco in front of a room of potential investors.

JONES: Like I said, we've got some customer commitments so far, and we've got some venture interests. What we're really looking for is venture partners that can give us some deep domain contacts...

STANDEN: Two months after his NewME training wraps up, Naithan Jones gets some good news: his company, AgLocal, has pulled in a million dollars in financing from a well-known venture capital firm. I emailed Jones to suggest a follow-up interview. Sorry, he says. His board has told him to cool it on the press for a while. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco.

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