Jewel Burks Solomon is a 31-year-old Black woman heading a key division of Google. She is also the co-founder of a tech company that was bought by Amazon. In her short career, she has already hit more professional milestones than many people twice her age.
And beyond her own professional success, she is now committed to teaching, funding and empowering other Black founders.
"My 20s was really dedicated to knowing the process of building and growing and even selling a business, and now that I'm in my 30s, I think this decade is really dedicated to me teaching other people how to do the same thing and being a resource and support system for people who want to be successful in the tech industry," Burks Solomon says.
Burks Solomon has been business-minded for as long as she can remember. Her mother, Valinda Burks, has been running her own insurance agency for 25 years, and her father, William Burks, managed convenient stores, a laundromat, and real estate properties that his father owned. Burks Solomon's grandfather first began his collection of businesses in the 1960s in Mobile, Alabama.
"You can imagine that's a huge feat for a Black man to do, at that time, in that location," she says.
Burks Solomon worked at her family's businesses, "probably from the time that I could speak and count," she says. As a kid, "I really didn't have exposure to much else besides business," says Burks Solomon. "So I always knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur. That was the goal from an early age."
To help reach that goal, Burks Solomon studied business at Howard University in Washington, D.C., during which time she interned at Google in Mountain View, California. After graduating in 2010, she returned to work at Google in sales through 2012.
But it wasn't until after Burks Solomon moved back East to the Atlanta area for personal reasons that she found an idea for her own business.
Solomon took a job as a customer service manager at a company that sells industrial parts to other businesses. Working there, she realized how hard it was for suppliers to identify the parts that their customers were looking for — a fact that hit home when her grandfather's tractor broke down and she couldn't even help him figure out what part was needed to fix it.
So in 2013, at age 23, Burks Solomon decided to create a business that solved the problem.
At Google, she had exposure to the idea of technology being used to solve problems. Burks Solomon decided to she could use some kind of visual recognition technology to help ease the search for hardware and mechanical parts.
"I didn't know exactly how to do it, but I knew that it was possible, so that's really all I needed to know," Burks Solomon says.
In 2013, when Burks Solomon and her co-founder Jason Crain (whom she met at Google), launched Partpic — where users could take a picture of a part they needed and have the tech platform find it for them — she had been saving money to get her MBA. Instead she used the money for her business.
"I was willing to take a risk. That's probably the biggest thing. I saw it as relatively low risk in my case because I was so young," Burks Solomon says. "Worst case scenario would be I have to move back home with my mom. And my mom is great, so it wouldn't have been so bad at that time."
Burks Solomon had also created relationships and a network that was invaluable. She had an MBA coach, and she attended events and networked at nearby Georgia Institute of Technology (aka Georgia Tech) to recruit talent.
In addition to using the money she had earmarked for grad school, Burks Solomon needed to keep working to have an income, and she also had to raise additional capital from investors. So she went to her mentor from Google for advice and he brought up the idea of her becoming an Entrepreneur in Residence for Google.
From January 2014 to October 2016, Burks Solomon held the position, setting up workshops for small-business owners to teach them how to use Google tools, speaking at conferences and coordinating Google's outreach strategy to small-business owners. In 2015, she attended the White House Demo Day and showed President Barack Obama Partpic's visual search technology.
Even that, however, "was not enough to get the business to the finish line and most investors did not have enough conviction in me/the business to reinvest when they had the opportunity," Burks Solomon says. She liquidated stocks and put that money into the business. "I had enough conviction to cover that gap, and had faith that my hard work would pay off."
Working at Google and at her own start-up meant sacrificing virtually all free time. "[I] just spent all day and — many nights and weekends — on my work," Burks Solomon says. But she was young and didn't have a family, she says, so it was possible.
What kept her going was her drive. "I definitely didn't have a passion for car parts," she says. "It was really a passion for solving this problem that I saw was such a big problem."
In May 2016, an Amazon representative saw Partpic's chief technology officer, Nashlie Sephus, presenting at a deep learning conference and approached her afterwards. That contact lead to a deal. In October, 2016, when Burks Solomon was 27, she and Crain sold Partpic to Amazon for an undisclosed sum. Burks Solomon left Google and was brought on at Amazon to help integrate Partpic's technology into its mobile shopping app (the technology became as Amazon PartFinder).
In the summer of 2019, Burks Solomon was having lunch at the Google offices in when she ran into a friend who was working on the Google for Startups initiative. She helped that friend coordinate an executive visit to Atlanta and it was that series of conversations that lead to Burks Solomon being offered the role as the head of Google for Startups in the U.S. late last year.
She took the job because it gives her the platform and leverage to advocate for under-represented entrepreneurs. "It's a theme throughout my entire career ... to make sure that as I'm learning things, as I'm building I'm also helping other people as well," Burks Solomon says.
"Providing people with networks, best practices, and a community is enormously valuable," she says. "I know it first hand, and know I'm helping Black founders make those connections every day."
Burks Solomon led the team that came up with Google's program giving $5 million in non-dilutive cash awards (meaning Google does not get a stake in the companies in exchange for the money) to 76 Black founders, a program inspired by the larger conversation on systematic racism spurred by the death of George Floyd in May at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting protests around the world.
Of course, $5 million is pocket change for a company like Google. But Burks Solomon points to the fact that it is part of a larger $175 million "series of racial equity commitments" Google's CEO Sundar Pichai announced in June.
"When you fund Black founders, you help create systemic, generational change," Burks Solomon says.
In addition to her work with Google, Burks Solomon invests in Black innovators through Collab Capital, an Atlanta-based investing company where she is a managing partner.
To hear from top experts in personal finance and get critical advice on spending and saving to stay financially afloat, join the CNBC Path Forward: Your Money Summit on November 17, featuring Suze Orman, Patriots linebacker Brandon Copeland, The Budgetnista founder Tiffany Aliche and more.