The Bowery Capital Team explores diversity in entrepreneurship as a 4 part blog series. Throughout this series, we will discuss with Founder/CEOs in our portfolio the impact diversity has had on their startups and careers. This week, Yiannis Yiakoumis, Co-Founder & CEO of Selfie joins us to share more about his experience.
The Bowery Capital Team recently launched a new blog series titled “Diversity in Entrepreneurship”. Throughout this series, we will discuss with Founder/CEOs in our portfolio the impact diversity has had on their startups and careers. This blog series is just one initiative we are taking to better educate ourselves on diversity-related challenges and under-representation among high growth startups. We strongly believe in the power of representation and hope that through storytelling we can help encourage and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders in tech. You can check out the introduction to the series here.
For the next installment of this series, we sat down with Belsasar Lepe, Co-Founder & CEO of Cerby. Cerby is a horizontal SaaS platform that helps enterprise companies harness “Shadow IT” to manage their corporate identity over social media. Before founding Cerby, Belsasar (Bel) was Head of Product at Impira where he increased revenue by 4x and managed their Product Lifecycle. Previous, Bel was also the Co-founder/CTO at Ooyala which achieved two exits totaling $440M. Bel started his career at Google as an engineer after graduating from Stanford University with a Computer Science degree. Bel is an investor and advisor to several startups, focusing specifically on Latin American related ventures.
What does diversity mean to you? How is this important to you and your company’s values?
Diversity is a central component of Cerby. Our founding group is 100% from underrepresented groups in terms of backgrounds that receive funding and occupy leadership and management roles. This is why it isn’t just about setting diversity goals and measuring them. That is important, of course. For us, we know we need different voices, perspectives, and profiles on our team. So, we actively pursue having team members of different ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds - starting with the founding team.
Why do we do this? Committing to diversity is a core component of developing a winning product and service. When you have a diverse team, you are better positioned to build a global company. At the most basic level, this means a broader ability to understand the different forms of UX, design, and localization. From a go-to-market perspective, diverse teams can also better understand customers, use cases, and convey thoughtful feedback to engineering and product teams. This is why diversity is critically important at Cerby - we know it is a necessary ingredient for both short and long term success.
How has diversity played a role in your career? How has your background shaped the progression of your career and startup?
I am a first generation Mexican American and I am acutely aware of how Latinos are underrepresented in Silicon Valley and tech in general. This reality has impacted how I've gone about pursuing my career and the two startups of which I have been a part. I've learned that I need to be very meticulous in the opportunities that I pursue and that I need to be smart about finding or working with the right sponsors for any given goal I have in my sights. Success, when you are from an underrepresented minority, takes a village and I've been extraordinarily fortunate to have amazing sponsors throughout my career - from great managers to awesome investors to wonderful role models within my friend and family circle. My brother, for example, is a highly successful, repeat entrepreneur and having this reference point unquestionably gives one an edge.
What challenges have you faced within the entrepreneurship and venture community?
I've come up against the stereotype of what a founder should look like and what a talented engineer's background should be countless times. Twelve years ago - this manifested as entrepreneurs or VCs ghosting me and my co-founders. Nowadays, there is a lot more transparency around an element not meeting the profile or thesis of a partnership or investment. There is a ton of capital out there and a lot more examples of top tier firms, like Bowery Capital, that have several successes with founders of diverse backgrounds. This means more opportunity for founders of different and varied profiles. Another positive development is the inclusion of BIPOC perspectives both on the venture and entrepreneur sides of the community. This significantly expands the aperture of investments into more diverse founders and companies.
What kind of strategies have you used to respond to diversity-related challenges?
There is no one size fits all strategy. For me, this is what I have found to work both for me and for peers with whom I've worked:
1. Operate with empathy and a willingness to build shared context on why a diversity challenge might disadvantage one group more than another group
2. Do more than what is asked of you in your role - managing to the standard or the average won’t cut it
3. Find sponsors who have been "there" before and/or who embrace diversity; leverage them to open doors for you and to provide you context on what's working and not working
4. Don't be afraid to move on to other contexts and opportunities; if you are talented, you will find the right situation in which you can thrive
5. If all else fails, start your own business and build the team and culture you aspire to be a part of
What advice would you give to someone trying to get involved in the startup ecosystem that comes from a diverse background?
Seek out successful founders and entrepreneurs that have a profile similar to yours. They aren't always easy to find - but they exist and I bet they will be willing to help. I am a firm believer that we all need examples of what we want to become and connecting with those individuals not only strengthens the community but allows you to stand on the shoulders of their learnings and successes.
One positive outcome of the pandemic is just how many more events have moved online to be 100% virtual. This has made networking opportunities that were previously out of reach far more accessible to a broader audience. All of a sudden, entrepreneurs from more diverse backgrounds can network with global founders and talent.
Is it the same as meeting individuals in person? No, but it does facilitate making that initial connection where before it simply would not have happened.
How do you try to value diversity at Cerby, specifically? Previous interviewees discussed various initiatives or goals they have set forth, etc.
We are presently a sub-20 person company, so we need to be smart about the forms of diversity that we pursue given our company stage. At the same time, we also know the team we hire now will set the tone for diversity for years to come. So, we are hyper focused on diversity goals that push us to invest a little bit ahead of where we are and what feels comfortable. For example, we are committed to seeing a far more balanced representation of gender across our entire team. In terms of areas where we have made progress - we have focused on hiring across the US and Mexico. This has given us great Hispanic representation across our engineering team, especially relative to other technology companies and that has become an asset that more than offsets the complexity of operating across two time zones. We have also invested in bringing on backgrounds that come from the traditional security space and some which have less to do with security. This has given us a great balance when it comes to developing a truly user-focused culture and security product. On the flip side and per the above, we are not where I would like to be when it comes to gender diversity representation on our team and so this is a key area of focus for us as we make our next several hires over the next six months. My sense is that as we continue to invest in these areas, we are setting the right foundation for a company whose diversity will be a strategic and competitive strength.
You've discussed being a first-generation Mexican American. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing entrepreneurs today concerning diversity? Are we making progress to mitigate those barriers?
There are so many challenges which is why there isn’t a silver bullet solution to the various diversity-oriented problems facing entrepreneurs of non-traditional backgrounds. To provide just one example - the process of fundraising can be extraordinarily anti-diversity. Why? Consider that just about every piece of writing on building a founding team and raising a round suggests you should have a co-founder and that it is less likely you will be funded if you don’t have one. Well, what if you come from a disadvantaged background and/or can’t draw on the networks you develop when attending a top tier school or working for a name-brand technology company? It means your chances of finding a complementary and quality co-founder are much lower, which - in turn - drastically reduces your ability to get funded and be taken seriously (after all, if you can’t find a co-founder to join you in your venture, how can you convince a VC firm to do the same?). Being able to follow many of the well worn paths for an entrepreneur requires you have a certain profile and it makes success for anyone who even slightly deviates from that profile much, much harder.
Now, there is progress being made but it is “three steps forward, two steps back” style progress. For example, you look at how funding to female entrepreneurs took a significant hit in 2020 after two years of meaningful improvements in 2018 and 2019. It suggests that when it came time to deploy the significant capital that still exists in the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, there was a collective fall back to funding the profiles that are known and understood. Sadly, that profile was decreasingly founders who are female. When you combine this with the fact that nearly 2.2M+ women have had to leave the workforce during the pandemic, the work ahead seems intimidating but it also serves to underline how critically important it is to put diversity in the start up ecosystem front and center. More than any other ecosystem, I firmly believe the startup community can lead on a number of diversity initiatives.
How do we do that? For starters, it is an extremely positive development how many more firms are bringing on BIPOC investment partners. This opens up a network of talented founders and opportunities most investors would simply never come across or have access to.
What are the advantages of having a diverse workforce and company?
Statistic after statistic shows that a more diverse workforce and company consistently outperforms those that are not as diverse. The reason is simple - the more diverse a knowledge base you can draw on across your company, the better positioned your company and your products are to thrive in a wider array of situations and for a wider set of audiences. This highlights an important element as well - diversity can’t exist just on an HR report representing the ethnicities, genders, and so on at your company. Organizations need to be built in such a way that they can leverage a company’s diverse talents. This means representation, promotion, and retention of diversity at all levels and within all functions of a company. The way you get to this state is by setting goals for your organization and holding yourself and your teams accountable to measuring them and meeting them.
Most companies are focused on representation. It is when you nail promotion and retention that a company truly starts to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce and company.
If you liked “Diversity in Entrepreneurship” and want to read more content from the Bowery Capital Team, check out other relevant posts from the Bowery Capital Blog. Look out for more content on Diversity in Entrepreneurship from us in the coming weeks.
The Bowery Capital Team explores diversity in entrepreneurship. Throughout this blog series we will discuss with Founder/CEOs in our portfolio the impact diversity has had on their startups and careers. This week, Kate DeWald, Founder & CEO of Oncue joins us to share more about her experience.