A Look Back at our SOCAP Diversity & Impact Gathering

As we enter the winter season approaching the end of the year, we wanted to reflect on one of the highlights of the previous season. In October, we attended SOCAP19 in San Francisco. As every year, this impact investing conference created an amazing space for connecting to other change-makers, sharing information and hearing from industry leaders. The reason this year was particularly special was that Beta Boom co-hosted a happy hour mixer that brought together diverse founders, impact investors, and supporters for an evening of conversation.

Our motivation to host was clear. First, SOCAP is a huge conference that can feel overwhelming. After a day of inspirational addresses, panels, and networking it’s important to decompress and talk with people who share our interests. Second, since starting Beta Boom, we’ve had the great pleasure to connect with national organizations that are promoting inclusive entrepreneurship across the US (such as the Kauffman and Case Foundations), as well as many local groups supporting female entrepreneurs and people of color. Our work also builds ties to individuals seeking to invest in more diverse founders. While all these groups are working toward a common goal, they aren’t often in the same room together. 

In short, we hear all the time about the need for greater connection and collaboration between founders, investors, and supporters, so we endeavored to bring them together in a relaxed setting to further build these connections.

Co-host Monique Aiken, VP of Programs at Mission Investors Exchange (MIE) came wearing multiple hats including as a member of the steering committee for the SEO impact investing network and as an alumna of the Tiogo Foundation. In the spirit of collaboration, Monique merged MIE’s 4th annual happy hour event with this gathering, inviting all threads of her connections to attend as “a testament to the spirit of the night.” She encouraged the room to “work in coalition and build community to go further, faster together.” 

The founder conversation highlighted the need to focus on the user and chart one’s own path

In a room overlooking the Bay, with food and drinks in hand, conversation flowed and connections were sparked. We wanted to give our guests a window onto the important work founders and supporters do, and highlight how these roles intersect, so we organized two informal Q&As. Our founding partner, Sergio led the first conversation made up of three founders/CEOs: 

  • Meena Palaniappan of Atma Connect, a non-profit tech company working to build resilience in low-income urban communities worldwide; 
  • Amanda DoAmaral of Fiveable, an EdTech livestream platform that prepares high school students for AP tests; and
  • Erica Plybeah of MedHaul, a company providing transportation solutions for medical patients in low-income and rural urban communities.

They started by discussing the most important lessons they’ve learned as founders. Erica confessed she’d been a perfectionist before she became a founder, “and any founders out there know that doesn’t work well. I also had to realize I can’t do everything in one day.” She advised fellow entrepreneurs to take work/life balance seriously, and explained she spends a couple mornings a month volunteering in her son’s classroom. “I don’t bring my phone, I don’t check my email, which is very tough. It’s a very exhilarating experience.”

Meena continued by noting the lessons her users have taught her, explaining that “purely as a result of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people [we serve],” Atma has gone from “a way for urban poor people to share water price information,” to a tool for building resilience to future disasters. “I’m just constantly humbled and amazed by that.”

Amanda, who didn’t come from a business background before launching her startup, talked about how she’s learned that “Everyone is making it up as they go.” While finding investors and advisers who can help you get from A to B is key, she’s also learned that there are really no specific markers of success, so founders should “Just keep going.” She also touched on how her platform can address the immediate needs of her users, saying, “We all think that education needs a big overhaul, and that’s true, but the kids right now need it tomorrow. They don’t have time for us to get it together and overhaul it.”

All three women closed by mentioning how partnerships could help take their companies to the next level. Amanda and Fiveable are looking for a way to help students pay for livestreams. Meena explained that entering the disaster space has brought Atma into conversations with insurance companies like SwissRe, (whose tagline is “Making the world more resilient”) and she’s been buoyed by the realization that there are “big institutional sectors that are driven by the same goals that our users have.” Erica and Medhaul have already partnered with Lyft, and she noted, “Solving issues in healthcare is not something that one company can do,” so she’s open to “nontraditional” partnerships with big companies like Google or Walmart. 

Sergio concluded by reminding the crowd that one thing Beta Boom really believes in is helping entrepreneurs in ways beyond investing capital. Supporters “can provide connections to customers, to mentorships, to strategic partnerships, and there’s also a huge value in providing visibility into the work that founders are doing. So when you do meet a founder I would really challenge you to ask yourself, ‘What other ways can we help them be successful and better serve their users, their customers?’ ”

Investors and supporters challenged us to check ourselves, think of unintended consequences and to perhaps not run fast and break things

Kimmy led the second conversation featuring investors and supporters from innovative organizations:

This conversation zoomed out a bit to address the differences these panelists see between predominant models of investing and thinking about tech and the ways they and their respective organizations see and do things. 

Eliza set the tone in her intro about why she’s currently focused on poverty and inequality in the US, saying, “we’re at a critical juncture… and there’s massive urgency around how we think about and start to shift systems here.” She continued by explaining her approach to investment, adding, “I’m somewhat contrarian in the venture investing world in that I don’t want my entrepreneurs to run fast and break things. I want them to be thoughtful and deliberate and energized.” 

After explaining that her org “believes that dignified job creation is the best way to tackle poverty in emerging-market countries,” Nathalie stressed the importance of “hacking” in a very particular sense: “Working with people who have done [similar work] and are willing to share their results.” This approach is currently playing out in an initiative she’s working on that will integrate gender-equity metrics into the enterprises where NESsT invests.

As one of two developers of the first CRM system and co-founder of the People-Centered Internet, Mei Lin took a moment to emphasize that investing and innovating “isn’t just about getting money and doing things” — it’s also paramount to consider the unforeseen consequences of the technology we are working to create.

Building on the notion of thinking beyond the current moment, Dustin stated that the most important thing he’s learned in the impact investing space is the need to “Check yourself. Always. It is my absolute privilege to be able to work with entrepreneurs that are changing the world, and I come to things from my very own perspective, [which] is white, male, and privileged. I’ve had to learn to actually engage with people and understand what their struggles are and, honestly, to always try to provide value to the other person in conversation.”


Founder Spotlight: Cindy Mi of VIPKid

Here in the US, the fable of the dropout-turned-tech-billionaire is a familiar one. But it doesn’t usually bring to mind a young Chinese woman reinventing her country’s foreign-language education system.

Cindy Mi_2019Meet Cindy Mi, the 35-year-old founder and CEO of the online teaching platform VIPKid, who’s bringing new life—and considerable business savvy—to the bootstrap stereotype.

Hailing from the northeastern region of China, Cindy developed an early passion for all things English. Books, magazines, comics, newspapers: she read it all. And it worked. By the age of 15, she found herself tutoring her peers in English, even as she chafed at the inflexible nature of the traditional Chinese education system. In particular, Cindy remembers a math teacher who wouldn’t call on her or explain concepts when she had questions. This led Cindy to hide magazines inside her textbook to read in class. Once her teacher caught her reading a sci-fi magazine and tore it into pieces, then threw her out of the classroom.

Still, Cindy’s early proficiency and passion for English catapulted her toward a career path she had never envisioned. Down with the old, tired, and broken system of education, she thought. Maybe there was a different path: one where technology, education, and English all worked together. 

The Successful Dropout 

Weary of the assumption that quality English instruction was the stuff of dreams, Cindy dropped out of school at the age of 17 and immediately founded a chain of English academies alongside her uncle. That chain—ABC English—would expand all over China.  

But even after her success in the world of brick-and-mortar tutoring centers, she felt something was missing. With firsthand knowledge of the huge demand for quality English instruction in China, she realized physical classrooms could only go so far. 

Her answer? Return to school, earn an MBA from a top-tier Beijing university, and start an online teaching platform that would revolutionize the way Chinese students learn English. 

In 2013, Cindy pitched the idea of teaching English online to Sinovation’s Kai-Fu Lee. Just over a year later, she and her compatriots had a working platform. Enter VIPKid.  

Changing the Game 

VIPKid matches Chinese students with native English speakers for real-time instruction. The idea is simple: native speakers make the best language teachers, but they’re often separated from students by thousands of miles. Use the Internet to connect students with teachers and everyone wins. 

Students use VIPKid to schedule 25-minute classes with their teacher. The teacher, in turn, works from a set of established curricula based on Common Core standards. The teacher presents their lesson directly to the student in a one-on-one video chat. Both parties can communicate back and forth, share feedback, and ask questions. 

With a single keystroke (and, well, years of business planning), Cindy solved the problem of English education in China. An entire generation of Chinese youth now has access to quality, affordable English instruction via a medium designed to accommodate both parties.  

VIPKid’s Meteoric Rise 

Cindy’s brainchild found its legs in October of 2013. Within three years, VIPKid’s total revenue exceeded $300 million. A cool $500 million funding round (at a staggering $3 billion valuation) in 2018 showed the world that Cindy had effectively cornered the market on online teaching.  

Numbers continue to rise, but as of March 2019, nearly 70,000 teachers work directly with over 500,000 Chinese students. These are promising numbers, especially when one considers that VIPKid taught only 3,000 students in 2015.  

A Philosophy of Caring 

Despite VIPKid’s rapid growth, Cindy’s underlying philosophy remains the same. Quality, she says, is the sole metric on which her teaching platform is built.  

“What keeps me up at night is not growth, it’s quality,” she says. Her dedication to her company hasn’t slowed, and if users are any indication of the platform’s quality, her success should not come as a surprise. 

Indeed, Cindy’s philosophy speaks to a broader set of changes she wants to embody. Efficiency, not time spent, should be the focus of quality instruction. Parents want what is best for their children—and their wallets. If two 25-minute VIPKid sessions accomplish the same as a week’s worth of in-class time, everyone wins.  

Following her Instincts to Success

Cindy Mi’s success story is both typical and atypical. Like some Silicon Valley wunderkinds, she followed an early passion along an unconventional path, and turned her personal dissatisfaction with the status quo into an innovative business plan. She also earned an MBA and the chance to pitch her idea to one of the world’s most notable funders (Sinovation’s Kai-Fu Lee). But it’s also important to remember where she started: as a high-schooler—living 1500 miles from Beijing and oceans away from Silicon Valley—reading sci-fi during math class and thinking, there’s got to be a better way to reach students.

Dane S is a freelance writer who writes about lifestyle and travelWhen he’s not riding around sunny Southern California, Dane can usually be found typing away furiously on topics including educational technology and finance.

Banner photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Introducing the New Pattern Spotlight Video Series

After speaking with countless founders throughout the U.S. from underrepresented groups, we kept hearing a common lament, “I never see founders like me in tech media.” By failing to give founders that don’t fit the standard Silicon Valley mold, media organizations are furthering the narrative that women, people of color, immigrants and other overlooked groups cannot build successful startups.

This leads capable innovators to further question their potential and makes the often lonely startup journey even tougher for entrepreneurs. Moreover, a lack of representation in the media also undermines investors’ and ecosystem leaders’ conviction to support more diverse founders despite their involvement being critical in ensuring that such entrepreneurs succeed.

We grew frustrated at the status quo and set out on a project to highlight, via video, some amazing founders from diverse backgrounds. Each founder brings a unique perspective and story, and this variety is important because it shows that there is no playbook in tech entrepreneurship. Hopefully, seeing and hearing the founders’ stories will inspire and educate the next generation of tech tycoons.

At the same time, the old adage that it takes a village could not ring truer in startups. That is why we are also featuring investors and other supporters of diversity and inclusion in tech. We hope that this will both shine the spotlight on these dedicated individuals and organizations as well as demonstrate to entrepreneurs that they do have resources to help them on their journey.


It’s Time for Tech to Step Up

There are many sad truths about the state of tech today:

It’s this last point to which I want to speak more about here (though I could talk on end about the first two). In fact, the first two are in many ways feeding the third. It has been acknowledged that the center of the tech industry, Silicon Valley continues to be obsessed with myopic first-world problems in part due to an ongoing lack of diversity (gender, race, and socioeconomic). This is the reason I have chosen to focus on rising tech cities — to avoid some of the past mistakes in these new ecosystems and broaden the scope of companies that are being funded.

Impact is not a dirty word

We understand that it’s easy to go after frivolous and trendy problems, but to leave the greatest issues to non-profits, philanthropy and governments to solve is putting us greatly at a disadvantage as a society. Further, the myth that alpha cannot be gained in a mission-based company needs to be debunked if we are to see this tide change.

Melinda Gates recently drew light on this issue, stating:

One thing that does bug me is that, even for the big world problems Bill [Gates] and I are talking about, sometimes the tech world thinks the solution is to give somebody an app. Well, that’s not going to change everything. I would also love to see more tech innovation on behalf of the world. “Let’s create the next thing that tracks my dog” — that’s fun and nice, but come on, there are people dying.

Melinda Gates on Tech Innovation, Global Health and Her Own Privilege
You would perhaps be demonstrating an excess of sympathy to feel sorry for ultrawealthy philanthropists. But it’s fair…www.nytimes.com

Entering the VC space, I have been bothered by this as well. I am considered an impact investor, which can often seen to in be in conflict with venture and as deleterious to returns. But why? Are we to believe that asking ‘does the world need another one of these’ is a bad thing that can reduce potential profits. 

I often advise companies that if the way you make money and the way you positively impact the world are in-line, or better yet interdependent, then your triple/double-bottom line will grow together. 

These are the kinds of companies that we must seek to make the new norm. We need to stop believing that conscious companies are bad investments. And we certainly must stop being complacent with the deficiencies of tech based on historic biases.

The future is in the whitespace

In the same way that data is compiling to support that startups led by women outperform (returning 78% of every dollar vs. 31% otherwise), that diverse teams outperform (35% more likely to beat national average performance) and rising tech cities can produce higher multiples (Midwest and South yields the highest multiple in the US), so too do I believe that investing in mission-based companies can match or outperform the status quo. 

It’s time for both founders and investors to start digging deeper and acknowledge that the way capital is concentrated today is not the most efficient and a better path is emerging to follow if we wake up. Creating a better world and making a profit are possible, but it requires us to step away from the biased track record of the past.


Why the next tech boom will be led by a different type of founder

The tech boom of the 1990s was largely driven by “business guys” with MBAs or career experience as well as entrepreneurs that crossed over to tech from unrelated industries such as real estate and consumer packaged goods. As the tech boom euphoria rose, venture capital and angel investors showered these business types with capital based on their pedigrees and beautifully-designed business proposals rather than the merit of their innovations in meeting customers’ needs.

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