Tristan Walker is in the house.
He is posted up in the vestibule of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, California, where the hottest venture-capital firm in Silicon Valley, Andreessen Horowitz, has just hosted a screening of a new documentary starring the rapper Nas. Nas is here, too, but from the way Tristan Walker works the crowd of nearly 1,000, you’d think it was his premiere. Sporting a light-gray Bailey fedora and a speckled charcoal sweatshirt bearing the logo of his new startup, Walker & Company Brands, the debonair 30-year-old dives into the masses, vanishes, reemerges in a corner deep in conversation, and makes introductions all around, exclaiming, “You two should meet!” During a stationary second, a young black man who can’t be more than 20 years old walks over. “I’ve been following your moves,” he says. “And I’ve been really inspired by you.”
Walker is a celebrity in Silicon Valley, known primarily for his success and creativity as head of business development at Foursquare, which he joined in 2009 and left in 2012. Foursquare was one of the original location-based “check-in” apps, and Walker put the startup on the map by landing hundreds of partnerships with merchants and brands such as American Express and BravoTV. His regular appearances at South by Southwest, on television, and on Twitter–where he’s garnered an audience of nearly 300,000 followers–promoted both Foursquare and Walker himself. By the time he left to become entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, everyone wondered, “What’s next for Tristan?” Walker’s hustle and charisma aren’t the only reasons for his fame. Walker is black. In Silicon Valley, even in 2014, a visible, successful African-American is big news. The technology industry‘s lack of minority representation is deplorable. Venture capitalists, startup founders, and big-time CEOs like to brag that the tech business is a color-blind meritocracy, but their boasts don’t reflect the facts.
The truth hit like cannon blasts this past summer, when tech’s largest firms released figures on the racial and ethnic makeup of their companies. They’d kept this data hidden for years, insisting that it was a “trade secret,” but they finally yielded under pressure from civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and others. Google was the first, revealing that out of its 46,000 employees, just 2%–and just 1% of its technology workforce–are black. Next up was Yahoo: 12,300 employees, 1% of its tech workforce, are black. Facebook? You guessed it: 1%. Apple’s total workforce is 7% black–but, of course, Apple has 425 retail locations. In case you were wondering, blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population. “The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of qualified people of color out there, who can and should be working in the tech industry,” says David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer at Google. “Releasing the numbers creates the opportunity for us to make this more visible, and to do something about it.”
While Drummond is, arguably, the highest-ranking black executive at a major company in the Valley, Walker is its highest-profile African-American startup founder and CEO. And he has set Walker & Co. on a decidedly unorthodox course for a Silicon Valley enterprise.
As he tries to turn this startup into what he considers a great company, Walker will face all the usual obstacles that confront a young entrepreneur. But he will also be carving out a narrative with unique challenges. More often than not, the tech industry’s heroes are boyish white males from wealthy suburban enclaves–the Zuckerbergs, Dorseys, and Systroms. Despite the fact that African-Americans have risen to the highest levels of every other aspect of business and popular culture, not a single black entrepreneur has attained that level of success and influence in tech. Against considerable odds, Walker is working to rewrite that playbook, even if his startup has a modest $9.3 million in funding. If Walker can build a world-changing business, he will serve as an extraordinary role model for younger African-Americans. And perhaps he will prove to those who hold the keys to the Valley’s kingdom that those coming behind him, and those who haven’t benefited from the kind of exposure he has garnered, are worthy of much more than the cursory glance they are now given. As if proof should be necessary.
Walker’s challenge is multiplied by his unusual goal for his company. Walker & Co. isn’t an app; it won’t make you instantly famous for kooky videos; it doesn’t even automate anything in your life. Instead, Walker & Co. aims to be the “Procter & Gamble for people of color.” While the company is armed with Silicon Valley money and infused with Silicon Valley concepts of design and startup culture, it will try to create health and beauty products for minorities, solving problems overlooked by the reigning consumer-goods giants. Its first product is a single-blade razor system, called Bevel, which makes it possible for men with coarse or curly hair–the kind that I and most other black men have–to shave without developing razor bumps or other skin irritation.
Can a razor be the foundation of a great business? Can it lure young black men and women to Silicon Valley? Can it be a catalyst for real change?
Walker knows that his every move will be closely dissected, given his status. While he is adept at turning on the networking charm when necessary, he is not naturally at ease with such public attention. “Man, that is not my scene,” Walker says, slowing to a red light on a desolate highway after we leave the Nas screening. “I don’t really go to those events by myself, unless I’m accepting an award or coming out to show support. Or if I’m with my friends. What am I going to talk to people about?”
Inside an appropriately hip, appropriately spare coworking space in San Francisco’s Mission District, a young Asian woman named Misa is addressing an audience assembled by Code2040, a not-for-profit Walker cofounded in 2012 with a former business-school classmate, Laura Weidman Powers. (The organization’s name nods to the fact that current demographic trends suggest that the U.S. will have more “minorities” than whites by 2040.) Its mission is to connect young black and Latino engineers with tech companies such as Facebook, Jawbone, and LinkedIn. Misa, who works for the global design firm Ideo, is hosting a session on ways to close the diversity gap. She begins with slides of products that Ideo has helped to develop, ranging from Apple’s first mouse to a simpler, safer vegetable peeler. “We came to all of these solutions by using design thinking,” she says, referring to one of Silicon Valley’s favorite approaches to solving problems, which Ideo popularized in the early 2000s. She then turns to the audience: “So we’ve brainstormed some reasons why minorities are not more represented in tech, and I wanted to ask you for a few thoughts on why that is.” She can barely finish the sentence before a woman at the back of the room blurts out, “WHITE RACISM!!!” The room goes silent. Misa stammers for a few seconds before asking for other opinions.
The outspoken attendee isn’t wrong, but the answer to Misa’s query is more complex, of course. “Racism, sexism, and other forms of exclusionary behavior are in and of themselves nuanced and multilayered,” says Freada Kapor Klein, a prominent advocate for tech diversity and founder of the not-for-profit Level Playing Field Institute. “We don’t have intentional bigots, but we have very smart, well-meaning, creative people who are systematically engaging in biased behavior.” It is racist, for example, to approach a recruiting firm with the mandate to fill an engineering position only with someone from one particular Ivy League school, where blacks comprise a single-digit percentage of the student population. It is racist to rely on employee referrals for hires, when the typical social network of a white American is 1% black. And it is racist to impose standards of “culture fit”–the absurd notion that employees must behave (and sometimes appear) in a way that makes others feel comfortable–on job candidates. These are typical, and convenient, hiring practices of startup founders. Under enormous pressure to grow their companies fast, they feel entitled to dismiss niceties such as an HR department that might seek out minority candidates. But their very inaction is a manifestation of extreme bias, even if it’s subconscious.
The problem does go that deep, into our subconscious and our collective history. After the Ideo presentation, the audience breaks into groups. One proposes that kids might be encouraged to pursue a tech career by Fleer-like Silicon Valley trading cards featuring images of role-model engineers instead of basketball or baseball players. They certainly would have been a different kind of inspiration for young Tristan Walker, who, like many African-American boys, idolized sports figures on magazine covers, dreaming of living their lives. This was partly because he was a good athlete, but mostly because musicians, entertainers, and sports heroes tend to be the most visible models of black success for young African-Americans. He claims not to have even known of Silicon Valley until he moved there.
Walker was raised in a couple of the roughest neighborhoods of Queens in New York City. He was one of the 50% of black children in the U.S. who grow up in fatherless homes–his was shot and killed when Walker was only 4 years old. “Me being introverted is partly a function of my upbringing,” Walker says of his generally reserved demeanor. “You couldn’t go outside as much, out of fear of what might happen.” Walker’s brother, Sean, who is 14 years his senior, filled in as a father figure, pushing him to excel in sports. His mother, Bettie, worked two jobs, six days a week–as an administrative assistant at the New York Housing Authority from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then at Time Warner Cable from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.–and enrolled Walker in an after-school program at the Boys Club of New York. In eighth grade, he tried out for a basketball team that played against a variety of prep schools around New England. He didn’t make it, but one of the coaches knew that Walker was a straight-A student and suggested he take the SSAT and apply to one of the boarding schools the team played. He did, and one day found himself with a full scholarship to Hotchkiss, a prep athletic powerhouse perched aside bucolic Lake Wononscopomuc in Connecticut. Hotchkiss features prominently in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and boasts such alumni as Henry Luce, former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and the scions of Henry Ford. It bears little resemblance to the housing projects of Queens.
Walker readily acknowledges that attending Hotchkiss gave him an experience that was “markedly different from a lot of folks.” He calls his time there the “four most transformative years” of his life. Instead of navigating the shoals of New York City’s public school system, he went to a place where the average class had just 14 students. Computers and other technologies were plentiful and up-to-date, and classes are offered in AP statistics, microeconomics, and computer science, along with Java programming and robotics. “I got to see how the other half lived,” Walker says.
Walker would learn much more than math and science at Hotchkiss. The air among his peers, mostly offspring of the economically elite, could easily become racially charged. “Sometimes it felt like we were part of a social experiment for rich white kids,” says Ajene Green, who became close friends with Walker at Hotchkiss, and who is now a senior account executive at Spongecell, an ad-tech firm in New York City. When Green and Walker would show up sporting Sean John or Rocawear–popular urban fashion for teens in the early 2000s–there were snickers from the crowd wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and Birkenstock sandals. Students asked to borrow the pair’s clothes as costumes for “Spirit Week.” Green remembers one student’s post to the school’s online forum, questioning why, in light of a “no hats” rule, black students were allowed to wear do-rags (meant to maintain cornrows or the wavy texture of military-style cuts), and Jewish students their yarmulkes. Walker wasn’t the type to protest these types of incidents. “I was able to compete,” he says, “not only athletically, but academically.”
It was during these years that Walker would develop and hone something widely considered a requirement for the survival, and success, of young black professionals in a white-dominated environment: the ability to be, essentially, two people at once, allowing one’s true self to coexist with an “other” self that is just authentic enough to be unthreatening and to avoid unwarranted stereotypes. Walker has a more euphemistic way of explaining this. “I’ve been given so many experiences to understand how to weave in and out of different social group types,” he says. “That’s where I [first] learned how to do that.”
After graduating from Hotchkiss and then excelling at Stony Brook University in New York, Walker landed on Wall Street through SEO, an organization that offers training and internship programs to underrepresented minorities in business. He traded stock for Lehman Brothers and J.P. Morgan, and dreamed up any number of moneymaking schemes over long lunches with Green, who worked near him at L’Oréal. Nothing clicked. These were dark days for the Street. Walker decided to try to develop his entrepreneurial skills at Stanford Business School. He was accepted just after losing his job in the first round of layoffs during the 2008 financial crisis. Coming from the literal depression of Wall Street, Walker was struck by the vibrant, inspiring environment of the Bay Area. “I thought it was the most amazing place in the world because there were other 24-year-olds not only making millions of dollars but also changing the world,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”
As had been true of Hotchkiss, Stanford presented more than just a classic education. Walker may have learned the most from a particularly unlikely class, an elective called Acting With Power, in which students would perform scenes to help them become “more comfortable with different hierarchical organizational roles.” “One of the first things actors learn is how to get into character,” says psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld, who developed and taught the class. “How to show up physically and psychologically, as people who they are not. It gives students permission to access parts of themselves they aren’t so familiar with.”
Toward the end of his first year in business school, Walker sent an email to David Hornik, a partner at August Capital, and asked to stop by his office and pick his brain. “He was incredibly charming,” says Hornik. “[People] come to Silicon Valley to make money and engage in transactions, rather than to build relationships. His goal is not to optimize the economic value of any given relationship, but to meet smart, interesting people. If it provides value to him in the long run, it’s a lucky circumstance.” Hornik, who knows Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, helped Walker land an internship at Twitter. Walker spent the next five months leading a team of other Stanford grad school students performing market research on how Twitter could be used for business applications. The project formed the foundation of what is now the “Twitter 101” section of the platform’s site for corporate users.
But Walker’s career didn’t really take off until the following summer, when he emailed Dennis Crowley, cofounder and CEO of Foursquare, eight times asking for a job. After Crowley half-seriously offered to meet him, Walker hopped on a flight to New York the next day and showed up at their offices, laptop in hand. Stunned, Crowley and cofounder Naveen Selvadurai challenged him to sign up 30 small businesses as Foursquare merchant partners within a month. He found 300 in a little over a week. After that, he was asked to become the company’s first director of business development.
Hotchkiss, Wall Street, Stanford, Twitter, and now Foursquare: Bit by bit, Walker had been accepted by an establishment he could never have imagined accessing as a child. Nonetheless, if it was easy for Crowley to offer Walker the job, it was hard for Tristan’s wife, Amoy, to understand why he would even consider it.
Walker met Amoy, whose family had emigrated from Jamaica to New York City, while at Stony Brook. Her first move was to “poke” him on Facebook. “He was like, ‘Could you send me a close-up pic?'” she says, cupping her hands on her very pregnant belly. “I called my best friend into my room to take the pic and told her, ‘He is so good-looking! This is going to be my husband!'” We are in the Walkers’ dining room on a warm August afternoon, and Tristan is cringing as his wife goes on. Amoy, a seventh-grade humanities teacher at a private girls’ school, is every bit the extrovert that Walker isn’t. She is humorous, quick-witted, and outspoken, always at the ready to vocalize the things that he won’t.
“I didn’t get it,” Amoy says about Walker’s decision to accept the gig at Foursquare, where he took only a $1,000 stipend for the first couple of months, and to turn down a lucrative offer from the well-established Boston Consulting Group. She turns toward him and says, “I remember, babe, because for a long time that annoyed me.” Turning back to me, she continues: “As a black man, you don’t take risks like that. You don’t get your good degrees and go work at a company that makes no sense. You just don’t do that!” Amoy adds that Walker cried when he left the company for Andreessen Horowitz in 2012. Walker cringes again.
To this day, Amoy struggles to explain to her mother what, exactly, it means to work in Silicon Valley, where a black entrepreneur bucks the safety and prestige of becoming a doctor or lawyer, for example, to compete with a cozy network of white men who don’t feel a historical responsibility to pull their entire family into a new level of economic security. “When she came out here to visit,” Amoy continues, “she was like, ‘Why don’t you guys have a new car?’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t you understand that my husband goes to work and gambles every day?’ She just could not understand why someone as smart as Tristan would live his life in this way.” Amoy herself has come around, although she does like to note that if she’d had it her way in the beginning, he’d have taken the consulting gig and they’d have moved to Atlanta. “We would have fit into Atlanta like a hand fits into a glove,” she says.
The Valley is nothing like Atlanta. One afternoon, in between interviews, I grab a coffee from the Coupa Café, a venue so famous for business deals that its signature, colorful to-go cup made a cameo during the deposition given by Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in the movie The Social Network. I’m not able to discern any pitch meetings, but I am treated to another spectacle that’s a bit less welcome: As I head over to the counter to get some cream for my red-eye, a woman sitting nearby snatches her purse from the chair closest to me, making it pretty clear that I don’t strike her as a regular at the Coupa.
Walking the block back to Walker’s three-bedroom condo, I wonder what it must be like to work and live in an environment that is still uneasy with his arrival. When he and Amoy bought their apartment two years ago, he was surprised to find that the real estate agent, with whom he had been negotiating only via phone, had already checked “White/Caucasian” for Walker’s race on the final paperwork. “So I said, ‘Well, this is wrong,'” Walker remembers, grinning.
In a cutthroat world like Silicon Valley, having a support system of others navigating a similar professional journey is crucial. I meet many in Walker’s network at his 30th birthday celebration, a crab boil held at the house of Faith and Tyler Scriven. Tyler is chief of staff at Palantir Technologies, a data-analysis company backed by the CIA and cofounded by Peter Thiel, who also helped launch PayPal. The party is a wormhole to an undocumented dimension of the Valley. For the first time, I am witnessing a sizable, concentrated group of black technology executives. The couple dozen attendees include Marlon Nichols, an associate director and VC at Intel Capital; Erin Teague, director of product at Yahoo; Tony Gauda, cofounder of the “Dropbox-for-enterprise” startup Bitcasa (and another data-protection service, ThinAir); and his wife, Jaimel, who runs Walker & Co.’s customer support. There’s music, a feast of succulent seafood, exchanges of top-five lists, and jokes about everyone’s reluctance to connect to the Scrivens’ Wi-Fi for fear that the NSA will snoop on their phones. There’s a palpable, familial vibe. Everyone, including Walker, seems more himself or herself than they usually would be with other professionals. Here, Walker doesn’t have to be “on.” His charisma relaxes into goofiness as he greedily hoards a pile of crab legs from his friends or causes a spontaneous eruption of laughter. He also feels comfortable enough to slip back into his introversion as he pleases, observing everyone else while pecking away at stubborn hangnails.
Not too long into the festivities, I’m struck: Here is one of the most popular figures in mainstream tech, and yet not a single white person is celebrating his birthday. I cannot help asking Gauda how this could be. He encourages me to pose my question to the group and calls everyone’s attention to me. “Well, I’m just curious,” I begin. “Why aren’t there any white people here?” Not a single person responds; instead, eyebrows raise. There’s silence, with one exception: Gauda is chuckling away, thoroughly amused at having set me up for such an uncomfortable moment.
Later, I catch Walker staring at the sky, and I ask what he’s thinking about–partly out of curiosity, but mostly to make sure I haven’t embarrassed him or ticked him off with my observation. “I’m chillin’, man,” he casually responds. “You need to decompress sometimes, you know? It’s good to have these folks here. This is a safe place.” He’s comforted, but I’m disheartened, even though I can empathize. In an industry that deems itself progressive, innovative, liberal, and “color-blind,” it still feels “safer” for blacks to turn inward socially, rather than risk judgment from a world that has often been less than embracing.
After Walker left Foursquare, a slew of venture-capital firms offered him positions as their entrepreneur-in-residence. Ben Horowitz, the partner at Andreessen Horowitz who made his firm’s successful pitch, has become a friend and mentor to Walker. He confesses to being “suspicious” of the quantity and swiftness of offers Walker received. “Diversity is kind of a funny thing, in that–” he pauses, searching for the right words, as we often do when grappling with the thorny issue of race “–many people look at numbers and perceptions. For somebody as talented as Tristan, for him to go into a place that doesn’t fully understand him and utilize him, but just likes the idea or perception of being associated with him . . . I was just concerned.” To put things bluntly, Horowitz is saying that he worried Walker would be used as PR to counter the Valley’s image as a fraternity of white guys.
Horowitz, who has been called Silicon Valley’s “most inclusive investor,” is himself a case study in the complications of America’s great national disgrace. His father, David, is a former Marxist turned hard-right-winger who has been excoriated for books and speeches advocating what some call racist positions. Ben, whose wife, Felicia, is black, loves hip-hop so much that he leads his Andreessen Horowitz blog posts with choice verses, has rapped on a VH1 TV special, and reportedly dubbed a Brooklyn artist named Divine the “official Andreessen Horowitz rapper.” He knows what he’s talking about, and is unlikely to ever slip up the way Y Combinator president Sam Altman recently did on Twitter, when he attributed Wu-Tang Clan’s classic “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)” to Wyclef Jean–and even got the title wrong. Horowitz has dedicated time and resources to the success of black tech talent–he sits on the board of Code2040 and has led Andreessen Horowitz into investments in black-run startups, including AgLocal (which was featured in the November issue of Fast Company) and Bitcasa. As his own profile has risen, Horowitz has used it to loop celebrities like Nas into Silicon Valley, which could, celebrity be damned, help to create a bigger pool of people who understand and invest in minority entrepreneurs. (Nas is an investor in Walker & Co. and Proven, another A.H. portfolio company that functions as a job-search app and was cofounded by Pablo Fuentes, a Chilean immigrant.)
Horowitz gets a fair share of criticism for his public persona. Several articles from Valleywag, including one titled “Ben Horowitz Is Desperate for You to Think He’s Cool,” drew Horowitz into an epic Twitter feud with the writer. Some people still find it awkward to watch a white man freely express himself in ways they feel they can’t. “With the utmost respect, it’s easy for Ben Horowitz to tweet rap lyrics, but I have to think twice and three times before I tweet rap lyrics,” says Kanyi Maqubela, who has backed Walker & Co. in his role as partner at Collaborative Fund, a seed investor for “mission-based” companies. “We both like rap lyrics just as much. When this Ferguson situation was coming apart at the seams,” he continues, referring to the killing of a young, unarmed black man by a police officer in that St. Louis suburb, “there were levels of outrage and betrayal in my [Twitter] stream, which I wanted to retweet. But I don’t want to be an ‘angry black man.’ I don’t want to be pigeonholed to the stereotype.”
Whatever this says about Horowitz, he was an effective sounding board for Walker as he used his months as entrepreneur-in-residence to figure out what kind of startup to launch. Walker came up with several ideas, including a service to connect truck drivers to more freight jobs and a financial service for people who don’t have checking or savings accounts. Horowitz vetoed them all–not because they weren’t good, he says, but because he sensed Walker was too focused on creating something that looked typical of Silicon Valley.
“There are things that almost no venture capitalist knows that Tristan knew,” Horowitz says. He pushed Walker to create something unique. “But he was very hesitant to do it,” says Horowitz. “Could he end up being the guy who failed while trying to build an infinitesimal company? That would be the worst.” In fact, Walker’s very first brand idea, inspired by the Warby Parker try-by-mail model, was a direct-to-consumer service providing hair extensions–a $250 million business in the U.S. “A couple of days went by, and he said, ‘A black man, doing a weave company in the Valley?'” says Amoy. “[He] ultimately decided that if he started it and failed, people were going to say it wasn’t intellectual to begin with, so he walked away.”
But then he came up with the idea for Walker & Co., a concept both he and Horowitz believe could grow over time into something big. The largest American consumer-goods companies have focused on the largest domestic market, and in so doing have neglected the different needs of minorities. African-Americans have grown accustomed to limited, second-class options when it comes to the health and beauty category. For men, these include depilatory creams and powders like Magic Shave. Its copper-colored branding and packaging–often the hue chosen for products targeting black buyers, which generally reside together on what’s come to be known as the “black shelf” or “black section” of a drugstore aisle–is nearly identical to what it looked like when it was created in 1901. Then there are the desultory products created to combat razor bumps, a problem that, according to Walker, arises for around 80% of black consumers when they use three- and four-blade systems like the ones popularized by Gillette and Bic. Those razors can cut beneath the skin, leading to irritation for customers, especially African-American men, when their coarse or curly follicles start to grow back. So the “black shelf” is also home to Bump Fighter disposable razors, made by the American Safety Razor Co.–which was bought by Energizer (yes, the bunny battery company)–and aftershave creams such as Bump Patrol, by the M&M Products Co. “I personally haven’t experienced any brands that I felt proud to support,” says Walker. What ultimately solidified his idea for the Bevel shaving system was a visit to the high-end retail chain the Art of Shaving, which touts customer experience as its defining trait. “Every time I went in there, I’d say, ‘I’m a black man, I have to deal with this razor-bump issue, what should I use?'” he says. “And every single time, they’d suggest these off-brand safety razors.”
While African-American women also share the “black shelf,” it’s possible that they could have even more troubling issues that are off the radar of mainstream health and beauty companies. During one of my office visits, I spot a cluster of sample shampoos and leave-in conditioners on Walker’s desk. After some needling, he texts me a link to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that shows a strong correlation between the harsh chemicals in hair relaxers–commonly used by women of color–and the development of uterine fibroids, which can lead to infertility and miscarriage. “It’s sad, and it pisses me off,” Walker says, explaining that he didn’t understand this issue until Amoy became pregnant. “If it actually is a lot more prevalent than we think it is, someone should be effecting change on that.”
There seemed a need for Walker & Co.–and an opportunity, especially if the company could eventually customize products for a range of minorities. The trick was conveying this need to Silicon Valley’s customary pod of investors. “Pitching to a VC is already a tough experience,” says Erin Teague, a close friend, “but it’s even harder if none of them can really relate to the problem you’re describing. It requires that much more courage.” In one meeting, a white venture capitalist announced to Walker that another black person told him that razor bumps weren’t a real problem for men of color. This inability (and in some cases, unwillingness) to relate helps explain why just 1% of venture-backed startups founders are black. While Walker is thrilled to have made it into that tiny cohort, his company’s funding pales next to that accorded Harry’s, a shaving startup that uses a multiblade razor and targets a broader consumer market. Ten months after its founding, Harry’s had raised $126.5 million in seed funding. Ten months after Walker & Co. was founded, it had raised $2.4 million in seed funding.
Silicon Valley wants its founders to shoot for the biggest customer base possible, but in so doing they risk missing a chance to back companies that might very profitably rule a strong minority niche. Late last year, Nielsen published a report on the spending habits and media consumption of African-Americans, urging corporations to “think and behave differently toward valuing African-Americans and their economic impact.” The report indicated that black consumers, whose buying power is estimated at $1 trillion, spend nine times as much on products in the “ethnic hair and beauty aids” category than other groups. In other words, it’s a lucrative market that deserves much more than copper-tone boxes on a shelf.
“Okay, let me take a look,” Walker says, as I lift my head toward the ceiling of his guest bathroom. He’s teaching me how to use Walker & Co.’s Bevel razor, but he’s also teaching me how to shave. (It’s my first time–since I don’t grow a thick beard, I just use electric clippers when I need to remove unwanted scruff.) The most important thing, he keeps reminding me, is to shave with the natural grain of my hair–not against. “That’s very clearly ‘down,'” he says, analyzing my neck to see how the hair grows. “It’s not moving in too crazy a direction. You’ve got it easy!”
Walker finally founded Walker & Company Brands in spring 2013. The company shipped its first Bevel last February. Through the brand’s website, customers purchase a $59.95 starter kit, which includes the Bevel razor, brush, and an initial 30-day supply of shaving cream, priming oil, and restoring balm. Ongoing subscribers pay a monthly fee of $29.95 and receive a steady supply of replenishments. (If you’re thinking that this sounds expensive, you’re not alone–as this story went to press, Walker told me he is reexamining Bevel’s pricing strategy.)
Walker guides me through the whole morning routine. First, he instructs me to insert the blade into the razor. It’s a single double-sided blade–none of that three- or four-blade stuff for me. Then, he shows me how to spread an olive oil–based liquid called “priming oil” on my face, which he says will let the razor glide across my skin easily. Finally, I apply the shaving cream, which is made with shea butter, white tea, and aloe vera. “Remember, no pressure!” he reminds me. “A lot of people say that audible feedback is good,” he says, and I do indeed hear the hair coming off on the blade.
There’s an excitement in Walker’s voice when he describes the Bevel’s design. “Think about the winged edge of our razor,” he says, which sheaths the blade on the sides, protecting men from nicks during replacement. “It’s about being thoughtful of someone who’s never even used a razor.” He worked with the New York design firm Bone & Black to ensure that the aluminum razor’s handle had a matte finish for a nice grip and that the head feels a bit heavy, to ease the task of maintaining the razor at a 30-degree angle while shaving. Right down to the tea-tree oil in the “restoring balm,” which is applied after shaving for a cooling sensation, he believes he has come up with a bevy of little surprises to delight users. “I think you’re good, man!” he says as I mow the last patch of hair from my face. Amoy peeps her head in to ask, “Tristan, did you make sure he exfoliated!?” (I did.) The next day, she checks to make sure I didn’t develop any razor bumps. (I hadn’t.)
Walker is now building his ideal company, slowly, with all the care that he put into teaching me how to shave. Walker & Co. is housed in a smallish, open-layout, street-level property just a five-minute walk from his apartment. The day I visit, a mid-volume Spotify playlist runs down hip-hop and R&B classics including “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” by Missy Elliott and Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real.” Walking beside me, Walker whispers as if he has a secret no one has discovered yet. “If you just look at the team,” he says, “this isn’t typical of Silicon Valley.” He’s right–it’s not exclusively white and Asian, for one thing, and it’s truly diverse, for another. Marketing is run by Michael Plater, a dapper, light-skinned, young black man who is standing at his computer barefoot, checking the performance of online Bevel ads. The engineering team is comprised of Isaac Elias, who is Latino, and Rachel Heaton, a purple-haired white woman. Cassidy Blackwell is a black woman who writes content for the company’s website. Fulfillment operations are run by Mir Anwar, a Pakistani-American who recently left another supply-chain position at DIY–electronics manufacturer littleBits. Tom Hanley, who is white and enjoys Hawaiian-patterned shirts, is the company’s “lead architect” and Walker’s first employee. Walker randomly tweeted one day that he needed to learn how to code, and Hanley, who tweeted back and offered lessons, eventually quit his job at the camera startup Lytro to join the company. When D’Angelo’s version of “Cruisin'” wafts through the speakers, Hanley comments that he likes the original Smokey Robinson track better. Mishearing him, Walker pauses our interview and exclaims, “Hold up, you don’t like Smokey Robinson?!?” Then he turns to me: “Quote that!” This sounds like Walker from the crab boil.
Building a team that looks like this doesn’t come easy just because Walker is African-American. Walker specifically asks investors and other contacts to first consider candidates diverse in race and gender when he’s looking for leads to fill new positions. “In my mind I was like, On behalf of humanity, thank you,” says Romy Macasieb, Walker & Co.’s senior product manager. “Because what could have happened was, Tristan could have hired all black men.”
If you believe the existing research, Walker & Co.’s diversity could prove an enormous asset as the company moves forward. Professor Ronald S. Burt at the University of Chicago pioneered an aspect of network science called “brokerage,” which has shown that individuals connected to disparate “clusters” of people have more creative ideas than those with homogenous, closed social networks. In his book The Difference, Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan, went so far as to create a statistical model that showed how diversity can trump even skill when people work in a group to solve a problem.
Despite this, and despite the fact that blacks overrepresent on many technology indices–for instance, 22% of black Internet users are on Twitter, versus 16% of whites–most Silicon Valley startups don’t make a conscious effort to tap into the existing pool of minority tech talent. “The majority of employees, managers, and engineers in tech agree that innovation and creativity is served by diversity, but a majority are not in favor of company-wide practices to increase diversity,” says Kapor Klein, referring to a 2011 survey of tech firms, called the Tilted Playing Field, conducted by her not-for-profit. “So that disconnect explains the problem. The starting place is, ‘The system is a meritocracy as it is, and if we tinker with it, we’re introducing bias.’ That needs to be flipped on its head.” For now, Silicon Valley likes the idea of more Tristan Walkers, but doesn’t want to have to work too hard to make that happen. “They very much are rooting for Tristan,” says Walker & Co.’s Plater. “But I always feel there’s that butting of heads, where, okay, yeah, you want this guy to win: But is it really because you don’t want your industry to look that way, or do you actually care? They want to be able to point at Tristan and say, ‘Look, that’s an example.’ ”
Walker and his diverse team are not even close to being able to declare victory. In so many ways, he’s another first-time company founder trying to find his way. “You can win on customer experience in a whole bunch of ways,” he says, guiding me over to a dry-erase wall in the office, “from overnight shipping to video chats to shipping blades to their destination if they don’t get past TSA.” On the wall is a replica of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s famous “flywheel” approach to revenue growth–an interweaving chain that shows how starting with customer satisfaction helps drive site traffic, which helps drive distribution, which generates cash, which helps lower fulfillment costs, and so on. Next to the flywheel are lists of hypothetical models of Bevel customers. Walker gives the rundown on one, Jamal, who’s 27, lives in Chicago, and works as a marketing executive making $80,000. His 51-year-old mom, Janet, just bought an Android phone, makes $35,000, and listens to the Steve Harvey Morning Show religiously. “If she wants to gift him a subscription, what does that look like?” Walker says. Walker says Bevel is doing well, that subscriptions are growing an average of 50% month over month, with more than 90% of customers returning. (He’s got an app on his phone that sets off a ka-ching sound every time there’s a new Bevel sale or replenishment.) One long-term hope is that white customers too will gravitate to Walker & Co. products, drawn by their sheer excellence. But Walker has got a tendency to reach for the stars when he needs to focus on the day-to-day. (“I don’t want to crush his dream,” says Hanley, “but I also want to make sure we keep him realistic about what can happen. It’s like when you’re a kid that gets a big plate of ice cream–you want to eat with your eyes.”) The longer it takes Walker to make Bevel a household name in the black community, the longer P&G and Gillette have to thwart his ambitions.
It is unlikely that they will soon develop Walker’s feel for his target market. Bevel’s marketing reflects a mix of his online savvy and his African-American heritage. Its Instagram profile features daily style tips and slick yet gritty professional photography of cityscapes, vintage album covers, and, of course, the Bevel razor and kit. The Bevel Twitter feed might offer followers an Arthur Ashe quote or a retweet of a satisfied customer. (“When I get that new suit and power it up with @bevel, I’m putting society on notice,” reads a recent one.) Bevel Code, its online men’s magazine, is full of brand ambassadors including musicians, star athletes, business executives, and, most important of all, barbers.
Yep, barbers. “People believe that this culture leads culture,” Walker says, referring to a study that found 73% of whites and 67% of Hispanics feel blacks influence American mainstream culture. “A lot of times that culture starts in barbershops and salons.” Walker & Co. has enrolled 20 barbershops across the country in a referral program, in which barbers use Bevel on customers and receive a commission if the customer later goes online to purchase the product. And this fall, the company plans to take over barbershops in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, and New York for events. Walker & Co. will moderate Q&As, play music, and host food vendors, all while allowing members of these communities to touch and feel the product, ideally while getting their hair cut. In the long run, Walker & Co. may open its own retail locations. But for now, finding a permanent home for its razors (and its upcoming set of electric clippers) would be a big win for the company. Another focus for Walker is men in the armed forces. Today’s military is 30% nonwhite, a number that has risen in the past two decades. With this strategy, Walker is borrowing from Gillette’s company founder, the irrepressible King Gillette, who, during World War I, got a contract to become the exclusive supplier of razors and blades to young soldiers. They continued to use the product when they came home, and they encouraged their sons to do so as well. Great companies can flourish as a result of such small but clever moves.
In a quaint park in Walker’s neighborhood, he’s shooting hoops alone on an asphalt court with a netless goal, wearing one of the many Foursquare T-shirts I’ve seen him in–today’s is in Chinese. “Hopefully someone will drive by and see him and stop,” says Amoy, perched beside me on a blanket next to Walker’s black Jambox, wishing her husband could get a game. I inform her that his first opponent won’t be me, since whatever athletic gene my family may have once possessed stopped with my dad. Eventually, Walker comes over and plops down beside us on the blanket. “It took me finally realizing that it’s good not to give a shit what people think about me,” he tells me, when I ask him how he overcame the pressure to build the next great social media network. “I didn’t think I could build as great a company with those other ideas as I could with this one.”
Silicon Valley is obsessed by the concept of a “great company.” One less-noted fact about the Valley’s breakthrough companies is that they can spawn new networks of entrepreneurs hell-bent on creating yet another one. The foremost example of this is the famed “PayPal Mafia,” the group of tight-knit employees that were assembled by cofounders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin but dispersed after the company was bought by eBay. Helped in part by the fact that they invest in one another’s startups, the collective value that the group members–which include the founders of YouTube, Elon Musk, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and “super angel” investor Dave McClure–generated through their own ventures has dwarfed the value of that sale. (There is some overlap between that group and Walker’s budding network of black friends. Scriven, of Palantir, and Chris Martinez, who cofounded the data-based fertility app Glow with Levchin–both entrepreneurs of color–are associated with both the PayPal network and the group of professionals who make up the Walkers’ circle.) If Walker & Co. is successful, its ripple effect will be large and transformative, Walker hopes. “I believe Code2040 and Walker & Co. have the exact same mission, one is just for-profit and the other is not,” Walker later tells me.
“The changing demographic in this country is the greatest economic opportunity of my lifetime,” Walker says. “There’s an inevitability to this, and I think some of the greatest companies that will be built in the next 50 years will keep that in mind.” Presumably, it will be easier for them to “keep that in mind” if they come from the rising portions of that demographic shift. If Walker & Co. endures, it could help lead the way for Silicon Valley to embrace a larger group of diverse entrepreneurs to serve this larger pool of diverse customers. In such a future, being a black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley will no longer be remarkable in and of itself. Speaking in July of his yet-to-be-born son, Walker said, “If he realizes sooner rather than later the importance of not only being a consumer but also a producer, I’ll be a very proud father. Create for the world, right?”
On September 26, Walker and Amoy welcomed Avery James into the world at 6 pounds 13 ounces. Between his parents and the Glow fertility calendar app they used to help conceive him, he is already a product of his environment.
Photos: Damon Casarez