Venture investors need to invest in Black-owned businesses

Less than 1% of all venture capital funding in the US is given to Black entrepreneurs. Now is the time for that to change.

  • Abner Mason, CEO and founder of health care startup ConsejoSano, is calling for all venture capital firms in the United States to pledge to invest 13% of their funds in African American businesses.
  • Currently, Black entrepreneurs receive less than 1% of all venture capital funding.
  • The 13% target reflects the percentage of Black Americans and is a nod to the 13th Amendment.

The murder of George Floyd has brought America to a much-needed reckoning on the racism in American society. Young people are marching, white people are reading, and churches are preaching about ways we as people can transform the way we treat Black people. Notably, many business leaders are pledging to end racism. But once the marching ends what will be different in America?

As a Black business leader, this newfound desire to address America's original sin is a breath of fresh air in the midst of this pandemic. But I wonder how long this new zeal to change will last and, more importantly, what practical steps and sacrifices will be made to make the promise to end racism real.

Here is one practical solution that all investors can take to make their promise real. I'm calling on all venture capital firms in the United States to pledge now to invest 13% of their funds in African American businesses. I suggest 13 as a target to both reflect the percentage of Black Americans and a nod to the 13th Amendment. I'm reaching out to friends in the social impact space to help me set up the organization that will monitor this.

Here is one practical solution that all investors can take to make their promise real. I'm calling on all venture capital firms in the United States to pledge now to invest 13% of their funds in African American businesses.

My life reflects both America at its best in terms of ending racism and at its worst.

As an African American CEO of the health care startup ConsejoSano, I've focused on using technology to connect low-income and multi-cultural people to care in our health care system where their needs are often overlooked. Also, I've lived a blessed life. I grew up in an integrated public school in North Carolina where my parents and church taught me never to judge a book by its cover. They taught me that not all white people were motivated by racism and to seek out white allies in my life path.

This advice paid off. I found my way out of NC to a prep school in New England where I was one of seven Black students out of three hundred. I then made my way to Harvard College where Black students were less than five percent of my freshman class of thousands. I faced a choice that most young Black men of my generation made: Will I define myself solely by my race or pretty much ignore my race, ignoring racists, and look for allies? I chose the allies path.

After a short stint in the management consulting field, I found myself working in state government in the MA Department of Transportation where I learned a powerful truth about life—good intentions are not enough. No one cared that we had good intentions to get buses to passengers, we had to get the buses out to waiting passengers. Visible results, not intentions mattered. This lesson speaks to me today when I consider America's response to racism.

I went on to advise three governors and launched a nonprofit to address the AIDS crisis in Africa, helping to created what later would be called the PEPFAR program. What I learned through this entire career path was that I could pretty much sense and ignore racists and seek good white people at every level. These were my survival techniques.

This strategy hit a wall when I entered the venture capital arena launching a health tech company where I was asking wealthy white men to invest in the leadership of a Black man. In the more than 40 pitches I made to create our Series A, I encountered 99% white male investors who were blunt saying they were not investing in my product or projections; they would be investing in me. I could no longer follow my life strategy of ignoring investors with racist views. I was pitching the 1% of the 1% who lived lifestyles and had social worlds completely different from my own. We both could sense the cultural and lifestyle disconnect. Following my pitches I heard comments such as, 'I'm not comfortable with you being in charge,' or 'I'd imagine you being good at sales,' or 'Let's keep you as Chief Evangelist or something like that.'

What became clear to me was that uber-wealthy white men could imagine a Black leader as a minister not as a CEO. In my conversations with other Black startup leaders, I realized I was not alone. Then I looked at the data which confirmed my experience. I found only 1% of venture capital-funded startup founders are Black. Ultimately, I did find investors who believed in me and my product and I was successful in gaining my Series A through white male investors who cared.

Today, I'm no longer a young Black man navigating the corridors of white power, but even as a successful entrepreneur I'm still facing the greatest degree of discrimination I've ever encountered in my life. Corporations posting 'Black Lives Matter' is nice, but as I learned in my job in transportation, the young Black entrepreneurs can no longer praise good intentions. They need results.

If America is serious about the desire to end racism, Black Americans are going to have to follow the lead of Langston Hughes who famously said, "I will not take 'but' for an answer."

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Credit: Gene Gallin via Unsplash
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  • Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
  • The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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