Colorwave: How We Turned America’s Racial Awakening into Action
A model for uplifting communities of color after 2020
You Can No Longer Turn Away
May 25, 2020 represented a moment in time where America, as a nation and institution, could no longer hide from itself. The eight minutes and forty-six seconds that squeezed the life out of George Floyd was yet another grim reminder of the struggle of people of color, particularly Blacks, to live freely in America. Floyd’s tragic and gruesome passing was compounded, at the time, by a raging coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately decimated communities of color. For Blacks and other marginalized communities, the summer of 2020 was very much like a three-layered cake: the first layer of police brutality, the second layer of racial health disparities, and the top layer persistent systemic inequality in access to opportunity and wealth in this country.
From a personal standpoint, as a Black man of color, the summer of 2020 was an affirmation of my own and Black people’s current standing in America. As a teenager in the early 2000s, myself and a handful of my peers, were consistently harassed by police. At 16, I vividly remember being held at gunpoint by a Southern California police department because we ‘fit the description’ of robbery suspects. Never did it occur to the officers to ask or find out that we were all college-bound high school students. It was these early types of interactions with America’s criminal justice systems that make George Floyd’s and other prominent deaths of people of color at the hands of police more visceral. No matter how much you think you accomplish in life, your life can be at risk, at any moment — from a cop or raging pandemic.
For many of our white peers, the potent mix of police brutality and an unforeseen health crisis in 2020 created a seminal moment in American history — one where you could no longer merely look away or go about your daily life as usual. It was another awakening moment in time, where ignoring the plight of your fellow man meant complicity in his fate. In response to these events, there were many immediate, grand, and performative actions. Companies granted Juneteenth as a holiday. Bank of America committed one billion dollars to address racial inequality. Paypal created a $500 million fund to support black and minority businesses.
While all of these major announcements and initiatives were a step in the right direction, they overlooked the challenges they were meant to resolve. Foremost, there have not been any convictions or legal consequences for the string of prominent deaths of Black men and women from Breonna Taylor to Rayshard Brooks. More importantly, holidays and grandiose financial commitments doesn’t solve the underlying issue of agency, freedom, and equality that marginalized communities seek as citizens of our nation. Such pronouncements are not an absolution from actually working to change the conditions faced by people of color.
Traditionally marginalized communities are not seeking a ‘hand-out’, but a ‘hand-in’ — an equal seat at the proverbial ‘American’ table.
And that is where the story of Colorwave begins.
The idea to start Colorwave originated through a 134-year-old organization, Stiles Hall, whose mission is to create pathways to self-determination for first-generation, low-income Black, Latinx and Native students. From a conversation between a handful of former UC Berkeley alumni who passed through Stiles Hall as undergraduates, this organization started with a simple question: how do we connect communities of color today, to the companies of our tomorrow?
When one examines the growth of most modern, high-performing companies, they tend to be particularly white and male. Many of the VC-backed startup companies we know today are often pulling talent and growing by virtue of networks that are largely homogenous. Such uniformity is dangerous for a couple of reasons: (a) we perpetuate systemic racism by excluding diverse communities from the economic gains that can often occur in high-growth startups and (b) we create less diverse and inclusive work environments long term for companies.
Colorwave was therefore created to make the VC-backed startup sector more equitable and inclusive, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Native communities. Our founding team seeks to ensure that as the world continues to be transformed by high-growth startup companies, many based in the Bay Area, people of color have access to join this thriving ecosystem not simply as consumers, but as leaders and architects of these companies. This mission is particularly personal for a pair of our Colorwave Board members, Joey Zwillinger and Leandrew Robinson, who have founded innovative companies and understand firsthand the inequities around fundraising and access to leadership opportunities within America’s VC-backed startup ecosystem and hope to right these wrongs for founders and companies after them. Thus, Colorwave is an opportunity to help current and new, innovative companies build diversity into the fabric of their foundation and enable leaders of color to experience more of the economic freedom that is often derived from building a high-growth company.
How Our Model Works
Colorwave takes a two-sided approach to making the VC-backed startup sector more equitable and inclusive.
[Side A] Talent Pipeline
- We recruit high-potential, early-to-mid career talent of color as Colorwave fellows. Candidates participate in an eight-week educational and networking program that helps them understand and navigate the VC-backed startup industry more effectively. At the end of the eight weeks, we facilitate placement in roles with our partner companies. Upon completion and placement, we continue to engage program alumni with career and entrepreneurship advisory support.
[Side B] Partner Companies
- We partner with venture capital and startup companies to hold them accountable for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals. We serve as an accountability partner, helping to establish key performance indicators around DEI, assist with monitoring performance toward goals, and providing diverse talent or other resources where needed.
Our inaugural cohort launched in January 2021comprised of 22 Black and Latinx fellows. We aim to serve between 75–100 Colorwave fellows in 2021.
Colorwave’s Piece in the Puzzle of Diversity in Tech
We believe there are a number of organizations already doing impactful work to make the VC-backed sector more equitable and inclusive for Black, Latinx and Native communities. Organizations like the Kapor Center’s SMASH program are broadening the pipeline of diverse talent in engineering and technical fields. HBCUvc and BLCK VC are working to increase representation on the investment side of venture capital. And Project Include is tackling critical advocacy and policy issues around diversity, equity and inclusion for tech companies. Colorwave hopes to dovetail these efforts by providing high-potential talent of color with an understanding of the VC-backed startup space and access to opportunities to work for reputable companies in the sector.
We believe there is immense talent of color ready to lead and build the next great companies — they just need to be connected to the networks.
On the talent pipeline side, our goal is to support the gap between gaining experience and becoming a company founder by providing opportunities to help grow current companies, with a lens toward helping program participants become senior executives or eventually found their own companies. On the company side, we hope to alleviate the challenge of finding diverse talent for growing organizations by locating and connecting talent of color to company partners within our ecosystem.
Ultimately, we envision Colorwave serving as a powerful community and ecosystem where:
- Leaders of color can access roles at some of the best startup companies
- Companies can help meet their DEI targets via our talent pipeline and by our accountability work together
- Investors eventually have access to deal flow of strong and diverse company founders, with proven experience in building companies
A future more perfect. A future more inclusive.
As one who has dedicated his life to eradicating the achievement and opportunity gaps in America, Colorwave represents a powerful combination of ambition and hope to make our nation more inclusive. Everyday companies are defining what the next century will look like. We are acknowledging that people of color should have a voice and valued perspective in those plans. Colorwave will serve as a vessel to ensure these communities are both contributors to and benefit from the economic gains these companies create.
As we move beyond the flashpoint of racial strife from 2020, Colorwave represents the byproduct of what happens when disparate communities come together for good. It is a symbol of turning awakening into action. Beyond the symbolic gestures, talk and frankly noise, a group of allies have rolled up their sleeves, put their networks on the line, and are ‘doing the work’ to seed the change they want to see. This model of ‘allyship’ across races to root out inequality and deliver greater equity should be happening in every sector, every company, every government agency, right now to deliver on the potential America has as a nation.
In closing, one of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes is ‘The best way to predict your future is to create it.’ We see the future in color, where the greatest, enduring companies will tap into the diversity of our changing demographic. The future is Colorwave and we are planting its flag in the ground as a model of what can be done when we join forces for change!
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About the author: John Roussel is the Executive Director of Colorwave. He’s spent his career working to stem the achievement and opportunity gaps in America as a former Teach for America corps member, Education Pioneer, and senior executive for a national charter school back-office provider, EdOps. Originally from California, he currently resides in the ‘D’ (where yes, it is quite cold) with his wife and newborn son.