March brings a new month and a new look for Launch DFW. While the revamping is finally finished, there’s some catching up to do with posts from February. Launch wants to take this moment to continue the Black History Month Startup Profiles that were featured during the month of February.
Black History Month was created and is observed annually for remembrance and appreciation of notable people and events in the history of descendants of the African diaspora or people of African ancestry. This month gives us a chance to highlight what these notable people and events not only mean to Black history but to general history at large. Within the startup and entrepreneurial community, black men and women are increasing their contributions but are still behind other racial groups in owning their own business or creating a product. Less than 1 percent of Black Americans receive the venture capital necessary to get their business or product off the ground. Despite those setbacks, there are Black men and women, especially in North Texas, who have been successful. Here are some of their stories.
Could you give a summary of what your company does and the idea or inspiration behind it?
Bennie King: VenueCenter is an online database for venues, for any type of event. We’re set up so when people go to the site and find your exact venue using 35 unique filters. Our goal is to modernize the venue booking process and streamline it in the same way Expedia or Priceline does for hotels and flights.
Shawn Scott: I guess the biggest thing is to help people quickly find the information that they’re looking for and also connect directly to that venue without having to dig through 10 pages of Google or other websites to get information.
BK: And so, if a person were looking for a venue in downtown Dallas that has a city view, Wi-Fi and free parking that will allow that person to bring their own caterer, you could do that search in 15 seconds on the site and you can populate that list with venues that match the criteria. The idea came from when my wife and I were planning our wedding.
We knew we wanted a destination wedding, we knew we wanted it to be on a beach and we didn’t really care where, we were looking at California, Florida and Hawaii. So we started searching, and hours would go by and we still wouldn’t get the specifics that we needed. After doing all of the initial searching, we would then have to call the venues to see what amenities they offered. At that point, a week of working on it, trying to find the right venue, we were thinking there has to be a better and easier way of doing this. That was the genesis behind Venue Center – a way that people can find a venue that they need with the amenities that they need without spending a week on it.
What got you into entrepreneurship?
BK: This is my first startup. I’ve worked for a pharmaceutical company for seven years after graduating college and did event planning on the side.
SS: I’ve done a number of startups over the last 15 years or so. I came on board initially, we have a mutual friend that referred me as kind of a technical advisor to Bennie when he was first getting along. Situations changed, and one thing lead to another and I came on board as a CTO [Chief Technology Officer] to oversee all the technical aspects and that’s how I got involved.
As an entrepreneur who is Black and a man, how have those intersections affected how you do business or how you approach your market?
BK: If you’re in a room of entrepreneurs, you don’t really see a lot of us [Black people] in there. I feel people work with what they’re used to or what they’re comfortable with. It drives me to strive harder, so we can make sure that our business is successful and hopefully, open the door for the youth and get a lot of youth of color into coding and entrepreneurship, in general. You could easily be singled out because there isn’t a lot of us in any room, whether it’s entrepreneurship or technology.
SS: I think, to a degree, that things are starting to change. At an event we were at this past weekend, half of the room were Black people, out of a hundred or so people. People are starting to see that this is an issue. We’ve had some diversity events at the DEC, you start to see around the country different pockets of the tech industry are seeing that this industry should be more diverse. It’s nice to go to events and not be the only Black face in the room or go to a meetup and see other Black people there.
And for women, it’s the same thing; women want to see other women at events. I can definitely tell it’s getting better, but it is what it is. I think this gives us the opportunity to be examples and role models for people. One of the things is that you just have to know that it’s possible for someone who comes from the same background to start a business. We’re both from inner city Dallas, and you don’t see a lot of people of any color coming from the inner city and starting businesses these days. It’s a tough environment to come from, but we’ve become more successful and people will see that and maybe want to aspire to do that.
Do you feel that it’s important to have people of color, especially Black people, in the entrepreneurial/startup field?
Both: Definitely, yep.
BK: The more people from different backgrounds, the more ideas and viewpoints you get and the better your product will be. You want to include everybody, from all sexual orientations, all genders and races. The more you have, the better.
SS: I would definitely agree and it shouldn’t be limited to just people of color but even within people of color you want to get different backgrounds. While Bennie and I sort of grew up similar, we have a lot of different experiences, so there’s lots of things we think differently about. All that stuff makes for building a better business because you’re able to relate to a broader set of people, as opposed to a small set of people that identify exactly with you.
What advice would you give anyone about becoming an entrepreneur?
BK: What got things off to a rough start initially with me, I relied too heavily on friendships and taking people for their word. The advice that I would give is to treat it [your business] like a business. Keep your friendships separate from your work. Obviously, you’re going to develop friendships with the people you work with, just don’t take people at their word. It’s a business and you need to hold certain people accountable for whatever they say, even if they are your friends.
SS: I would say surround yourself with people who know what you don’t know. There are lots of people in the entrepreneurship community, especially in Dallas, that are here just to help and a lot of that help is free. If you get to know those people and reach out and say, ‘hey, what do you think about this?’ you can get a lot of knowledge and avoid mistakes and pitfalls by going that route, rather than trying to make those mistakes by yourself.
BK: You miss every shot you don’t take, if you feel passionate about something and you’re holding on to something that may be more secure if, at all possible, I say go for it. Take that chance. That one thing you’re passionate about may not be successful but you can take a lot of the bumps and bruises along the way and it will help you in whatever your next step in life is.