Q&A with Preston James II Founder and CEO of DivInc

Kennedy Nuñez
Q&A with Preston James II Founder and...

During the monumental events of 2020, there proved to be a silver lining in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. It served as a wake-up call for many businesses to take a step back and assess whether they were contributing to the problem by not incorporating enough black, POC, and women’s voices into their company.

As a black man, Preston James is well aware of racial disparities, not only in a broad sense, but as an investor as well. In 2016, James decided to launch DivInc, an accelerator that assists startup founders from underrepresented groups in Austin and Houston, Texas.

Below, we sat down with Preston to discuss how DivInc continues to take a stance for underrepresented founders as well as how to promote equality and equitable representation in the workplace and in the world of fundraising.

What event or events in your life inspired you to found DivInc?

It’s a long journey, but after working at Dell for 20 years, I left to see how I could get involved in the startup ecosystem. Shortly after that, I was invited to become a mentor at Capital Factory, and then a good friend of mine convinced me to become an angel investor. They said, “I’ve been at this for a while and I don’t recall meeting any black angel investors.” I went home and did some research and was only able to find 10 or 11 publicly known black angel investors. I decided I was going to try my hand at being an angel investor. 

When entrepreneurs were coming to pitch to me and tell me about their companies, I realized that there was this really interesting gap. When white guys would pitch to me, the quality and specification of their businesses were high level, generally speaking. When people of color pitched to me, their pitches were not on the same level, so I was like, why does this gap exist? I talked to a lot of people. What came out of that was sort of this programmatic thing, and I was like “this sounds like an accelerator program.” That was the drive. There’s this gap, and we’ve got to go fix it. 

What are the first steps startups should take to be accepted into DivInc?

The very first step is to check out DivInc. Go to the website, do your homework, do your research, come visit DivInc so we can get to know you. Whether you’re ready or not, we can share that insight. At the end of the day, our mission is not just for the companies and the founders that go through the DivInc program, it’s for any person of color who wants help. If we can, I think that’s a big thing to say, but if anybody wants to, I will try to meet them and try to help them in any way I can.

What words of encouragement do you offer to founders who don’t get accepted into your program?

That’s just one “no” out of 1,000. Build a thick skin. Just because we’re telling you “no” that does not mean you’re not good enough. It may mean it’s not the right time. You might not be at the right stage. We’re always going to give it to you real and explain why you didn’t get into the program. “No” does not mean you can’t do it. It just means at this point you’re not ready for this program or there may be other companies that are further along. Keep going, do the work, and always be coachable.

Why do you think startups struggle with incorporating a diverse workforce?

The startup environment is very fast. You have to hire people and hire them quickly. The way to do it quickly is to tap into your network. The typical white male network is pretty white. The people you hire are coming in as referrals. It continues to build, and then all of a sudden, you have 100 people and you look around and you don’t have too many people of color here.

The second thing that I want to say is that founders and leadership aren’t always intentional. If you’re not intentional about diversity, then it will just get away from you. They’ll say they can’t find them (POC and women) but the problem is that they’re not looking in the right places or looking hard enough. If you’re saying that, you need to partner with someone who can help you and get you connected to a broader pool of talent.

What advice would you give to any aspiring Black, POC or women investors?

For those that aspire to be venture capitalists, there’s a tough path ahead. It’s very hard to get into. You have to immerse yourself in the community of investors. You have to learn the language. Learn the jargon. Learn the ins and outs. Find a firm that has women only or a person of color who’s a general partner. Try to connect with them. Try to become a venture scout. It’s not going to be a comfortable thing. You’re going to be the only person of color. You’re going to be the only woman oftentimes, but you’ve got to dive in and learn it. It’s a stepping stone process to get into it.

We need more people of color, more women becoming investors in any way shape or form. Angels, VC, I don’t care. We have to spread that love around more.

What is the most significant barrier Austin must overcome in order to close the funding gap for underrepresented groups?

It’s greater access. Greater access to education. Greater access to human social capital, networks, and greater access to financial capital. Those lead to greater access to opportunities. We need more opportunities to grow our companies. Folks need to be very intentional. I’m using that word again, but they need to be intentional in making that happen and create greater access for people of color and women.

If we are intentional in creating access to the networks, talent pools, mentors, serial entrepreneurs, and the financial capital which opens doors to opportunities, the doors will blow open to really change everything. Yes, you need to write the check, but we need these opportunities to build our businesses. That’s what DivInc is doing.

What do you hope DivInc achieves in the next ten years?

I’m going to tell you what we said when we first started, “In 10 years I hope there’s no need for DivInc.” That’s the vision.

About Kennedy Nunez: Kennedy is a Business Development Associate for Swyft, which is a tech PR firm in Austin and Houston and a top digital marketing and PR agency in Denver since its founding in 2011. Swyft also has a small satellite office where it offers tech PR in San Francisco. Swyft has been listed as one of the top tech PR agencies in Texas for two years running by the B2B services review site, Clutch.co.

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