Black founder pipeline problem? Not a chance, says SoftBank’s Shu Nyatta
By Nancy Dahlberg
Four months ago, SoftBank announced it would be launching a $100 million Opportunity Fund to invest in companies led by founders of color. At this weekend’s Black Men Talk Tech conference, SoftBank Managing Partner Shu Nyatta, who has been involved with the fund from day 1, gave attendees an update.
The headline news from the session: SoftBank bucks are going to Black founders already. He said that the fund has already reviewed about 800 companies and has invested in 21 startups so far. A website will be forthcoming soon, but will be found at theopportunityfund.com when launched, he said. There founders can submit their information for future consideration.
In the fireside chat with Boris Moyston, Nyatta shared his story and answered questions. The Black Men Talk Tech’s Unicorn Ambitions Conference, Oct. 23-25, was the second annual gathering for the young Miami-based organization, but this year it was of course virtual. Other sessions included advice on founder-investor relationships, how to pitch a VC, building an MVP with no-code, doing business with the government and more and ended with a pitch competition (Winner: Courmed of Dallas).
Born in Nairobi, Nyatta said attending Harvard changed his life. “It was a paradise, the amount of resources available for whatever it is you want to do was inconceivable. … So I worked my butt off and tried to do right by all the people many thousands of miles away who made sacrifices to send me to Harvard. Showed up with just suitcases, it was just the classic immigrant story.”
His adventures after Harvard included attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then working in Dubai with McKinsey, where he also helped build a media company in Saudi Arabia. But a couple years later it downed on him that “I’m missing the boat, and the boat is tech … and I need to be in San Francisco.”
Through a job with Morgan Stanley in New York, he made it to San Francisco and that’s where he met and joined the then-small SoftBank team that was just starting to set up in the Valley.
“If I think about all the big decisions I’ve made, it’s essentially been ‘do I want to do what everyone else is doing or do I want to do something different?’ So that’s why I took the leap [into tech investing], because Masa [SoftBank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son] is a bold thinker who’s going to try a bunch of new stuff.”
Of SoftBank, he said : “We have made a lot of mistakes. But we really are truly a band of outsiders, and what happens when you can’t get into the clubs that everyone is holding the velvet rope to is you try to figure something else out. And, and we did it, perhaps sometimes awkwardly and with too much capital … but the true north hasn’t changed, Masa wants to change the world with tech and make it a better place. Simple as that.”
A couple of years ago Nyatta got the opportunity to launch SoftBank’s $5 billion Latin America fund (now called the SoftBank Innovation Fund). “It’s been running for almost two years now and it’s doing quite well,” he said. “There’s nobody else providing capital to the region in a sustainable way and there are great companies being built there.”
This year, he was asked again by Marcelo Claure, SoftBank’s COO, to launch the $100 million Opportunity Fund. “It’s not a crazy big number because it has to be successful,” Nyatta said. “We have to walk and then run. We cannot fail.”
But he also said, $100 million is just a start. “What we’ve discovered is these entrepreneurs are everywhere.… It is real entrepreneurship, real ingenuity, everything from 3D avatars for next gen media creation to healthcare to e-commerce.”
“I challenge anyone who says there’s a pipeline problem to show me the data” – Shu Nyatta
Nyatta said SoftBank can bring to startups it funds a post-investment value creation capability because that has already been built for its $100 billion Vision Fund. He said SoftBank won’t be taking board seats in all the companies but it can make sure there is a good partner fund at the table to help with early stage co-founder type of work. SoftBank will focus on all the infrastructure that Softbank provides that will add real tangible value, he said.
Black founders already bring the thing that Silicon Valley likes most – grit, he said at the conference. “We don’t even have to solve for that – that came with your color… You come pre-prepared to be be an entrepreneur. The black founder finds a way.”
His job is to find them and invest. Nyatta adds, “If we can help people go a little bigger, dream a little more, that should do the trick.”
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