Make It Black

Building a tech start-up in Silicon Valley: 'Not only am I Black, but I am also a former athlete'

Mike T. Brown pitching at the demo day for 500 Startups in Spring 2017.
Photo courtesy Mike T. Brown

This is part of CNBC Make It's series on what it's like to be Black in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has long been a culture dominated by white men, with a fraught record of following up on commitments to fix its race problem, from major tech companies that have barely moved their numbers on diversity to a lack of funding for Black founders. Here, CNBC Make It spoke with Black professionals to hear their experiences.

Mike T. Brown figured that after he spent four seasons playing professional football — one season in the National Football League with the Indianapolis Colts and three seasons in another pro league, the equivalent of today's XFL — he would go on to Rice University in Houston, Texas, to get his MBA.

But then a friend and former teammate told Brown about the legendary venture capitalist Tim Draper (whose investments include Skype, Tesla, Hotmail, SolarCity, SpaceX) and his namesake educational program, Draper University, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurship program.

That program would change the trajectory of Brown's post-athletic professional career, and bring him, a Black man and former NFL-player, to and through the center of the start-up world, Silicon Valley, a notoriously white world dominated by technologists. 

"I had never even heard of Silicon Valley, the tech start-up, none of that. It was so foreign to me," Brown, 33, tells CNBC Make It.

The idea that there is a place where the culture revolves around raising money and creating businesses was intriguing to Brown. "I am from Houston, went to the East Coast for college and spent most of my time in the Midwest and other places playing ball," he says. "So I just wasn't exposed to what was going on out west in the Bay Area specifically — until 2013."

Brown applied for and was accepted to the first official batch of students at Draper University that year.

He was all in from before the program even started. "When I say I dove in, I tried to do as much research as I could on what Silicon Valley was at that point with a few weeks before the program," Brown says. "I just went in very green and knew nothing and came out finishing top of the class and on fire to get into tech and ultimately move to Silicon Valley."

Moving to Silicon Valley and being the only Black person in the room

In 2014 he moved to the Bay Area, worked at marketing start-up and learned how to code. "Turns out I was the only Black male there. There was one other Black woman there who was an assistant," Brown says.

It wasn't the first time Brown was the only Black person in a room, but "it was something I recognized," Brown says. He started trying to network. "A lot of the meetups and things I was going to, I typically would be one of the only Black folks there," Brown says.

He sought out affinity groups and did eventually find communities of other Black technology workers and founders which helped him. There is "a network that you can tap into so that you didn't feel so isolated, and that's when I realized that okay, there is a good number of us out here that I wasn't aware of in various capacities."

Being Black and a former NFL player, Brown is also accustomed to being the recipient of others' stereotypes.

"Not only am I Black, but I am also an athlete," which typically comes up "pretty quickly" whenever Brown mentions he went to Duke University, he says. "Oh really!? Did you play ball?" Brown says he is asked, with people ignorantly assuming a Black man would only be admitted to such an elite academic institution to play sports.

"People were so blown away by how smart I was," Brown says. "Like I said, I graduated early from Duke. I was a public policy major, I was always just as active off the field as I was on the field. I always told people that it just so happened that I know how to tackle people.'"

People would say, "Hey, you are so well spoken," Brown says. "Well, what did you expect? There is usually some stuttering and stumbling and then we usually end the conversation from there."

And then there are stereotypes about the academic prowess of athletes too. "For me, it felt like a double whammy at times where not only am I Black, but I am also a former athlete and so there are some preconceived notions that come with that." 

Brown was on the receiving end of such microagressions "definitely in Silicon Valley, because that is where I did a lot of my pitching" to investors and to potential collaborators," he says.

Focusing on success

While none of this feels good, it is not enough to slow down Brown.

"I feel sorry for the people, you are limited by your own ignorance," he says. "For me, my experience of being in Silicon Valley and being Black, those [microaggressions and comments that result from unconscious biases] were happening — not all the time with every person I came in contact with — but it happened enough to where it stood out and you just learned to deal with it." 

Instead, Brown stays focused on achieving his goals.

In 2016 he launched Win-Win, a technology platform that gamifies charitable giving by allowing users bet on real and digital sports events and then donate proceeds to a cause. Win-Win was part of early-stage accelerator 500 Startups in the spring of 2017, where Brown worked to grow the business.

In its early days, Win-Win made money by taking a percentage of the money that users donate. But the start-up has pivoted its model slightly and now, it has shifted to a software as a service model, where it sells its software technology to operate the gamified philanthropy model to other businesses. "We've validated gamified giving the past couple of years through our athlete celebrity hosted campaigns and are excited to now provide our [business-to-business] customer segments with this new innovation," Brown tells CNBC Make It. Potential customers for the gamified philanthropy include pro sports teams and leagues, colleges and universities looking to boost their alumni fundraising, non-profits, and corporate brands, he says. 

Brown has raised $1.8 million funding for Win-Win, and of that, $1.5 million was from accredited investors and funds including Arlan Hamilton and Backstage Capital, Sandhill Angels, his almamater Duke University, 500 Startups, and Black Star Fund, he says.

The other $325,000 of he raised via an equity crowdfunding campaign on as way to democratize the pool of people who could invest in his start-up.

"I recognized that one path to wealth creation is via investing and ownership and I wanted to provide an opportunity for people who typically don't have access," Brown says. "Many people who invested told me it was their first investment, ever.  While it's unlikely they'll get a 'life-changing' return from their small investment — usually about $250 — it's important that they simply start investing and learning about opportunities like this. My hope is that they will continue to see other investment opportunities on equity crowdfunding platforms and begin thinking differently about investing." 

Education is key for the community of Black tech start-up founders to grow, too. 

"It is hard as hell — I don't care what color you are — to build a company. To build something that has never existed before in the world, it's hard as hell for anybody," Brown tells CNBC Make It. "Now the differences are the knowledge and the network that you have around you when trying to build this very hard thing — and that's where the disconnect and the difference is because our [white] counterparts, they have that natural network, typically."

But as the network of Black founders and tech workers grows, Brown says the case for investing in Black founders will become increasingly advantageous.

"As the gap of knowledge and network continue to decrease for Black founders coming into the game, I think it doesn't really matter where it is Silicon Valley, Atlanta or wherever, you are going to start to see us on the same pace and maybe even better [as other founders]. Because one thing I can say that is an advantage that I have noticed is that we have typically have to overcome quite a bit of adversity just in general in our lives and that is what building a tech company is, particularly in the first few years is overcoming adversity and persevering thorough payroll issues.... product market fit issues, you have just got to get creative and figure it out. And we have been doing that a lot in our lives."

And indeed, as Brown mentions, more diverse teams are statistically more successful

Moving to Houston and moving forward

Brown launched and grew his company in Silicon Valley, but in the summer of 2019 Brown relocated to Houston. Cannon Ventures, a Houston-based network of angel investors, recruited Brown to move back to town, and as part of the move, Brown negotiated free office space in The Cannon, a community of entrepreneurs and angel investors with a office space. (Some of the angel investors who are part of The Cannon consortium are investors in Win-Win, Brown tells CNBC Make It.)

The move was a sort of a homecoming for Brown. He grew up in Alief, Texas, a suburban area outside of Houston, which, "while it may technically be considered a suburb by definition, it certainly had the issues typically associated with an inner-city upbringing (gangs, crime, drugs, etc)," Brown tells CNBC Make It. When he moved back to Houston last year, he moved to a different part of Houston on the Northwest side of the city where Alief is in the Southwest.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced Win-Win to adapt. Originally users bet on live sporting events, most of which were shutdown for months. So Win-Win built technology to stream simulations — instead of betting on real events, users can now also bet on iconic virtual matches between the likes of Michael Jordan of the 1998 Chicago Bulls and Kevin Durant of the 2017 Golden State Warriors, for example.

As Win-Win was pivoting its technology, George Floyd was killed. In response, Brown wanted to "pivot towards triumph," he says. So Win-Win launched three-day virtual festival to showcase Black excellence. 

In approximately two weeks, Brown and his small team produced the Black-IN Freedom Festival, which started on Juneteenth and featured 40 speakers and special guests including NBA Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O'Neal, the musician Tobe Nwigwe and many black business leaders including Sheena Allen, the CEO of the mobile banking company, CapWay. More than 3,500 people registered for the event, which streamed on Twitch, Facebook and YouTube, and participants could donate to Black Girls Code. The event raised $4,500 and all of it went to Black Girls Code, Brown says.

Brown recently took his quarterly "Three Day Think Trip" at an "undisclosed location," which he says on his Instagram is "inspired by Bill Gates' annual 'Think Week,'" (the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire would take a week at a time alone in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest to read and strategize) Brown says he is now is rejuvenated and ready to keep working.

The recent global conversation about racial injustice "makes me feel a little optimistic, but it doesn't necessarily change my outlook," Brown says. He wants to see companies and investors do what they have promised — hire black people and invest money in Black start-ups.

"Certainly I do look forward to them standing behind what they've committed and getting us Black founders that capital and approaching you know our companies the same way they would approach any other" company, he says. 

See also: 

25-year-old Black tech lead in Silicon Valley: I want to use my influence to combat systemic racism

Being a Black founder in Silicon Valley after George Floyd: 'I honestly feel more safe'

Michael Tubbs: From son of a teen mom and incarcerated dad to one of America's youngest mayors

How a 10-year-old launched a T-shirt sensation worn by Alicia Keys and Lupita Nyong'o to combat racism
How a 10-year-old launched a T-shirt sensation worn by Alicia Keys and Lupita Nyong'o to combat racism