Camelback Ventures Makes Its Unique Way

column | Entrepreneurship

Camelback Ventures Makes Its Unique Way

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Sep 23, 2015

Camelback Ventures Makes Its Unique Way
Members of the first cohort of the Camelback Venture fund.

Aaron Walker, former attorney turned entrepreneur, remembers flipping through Forbes’ “Thirty Under Thirty” feature when it debuted in late 2011, searching for examples of minority entrepreneurs. They were scarce, even if you included LeBron James and Donald Glover. Walker was sure that there were at least as many good ideas bubbling in the minds of minority entrepreneurs as others. But something was missing.

“What you don’t know is what you don’t know,” Walker quips. Or put another way: those minority entrepreneurs lacked the mentors, networks and connections to catapult them ahead.

And that’s what he hoped to do by starting Camelback Ventures.

Camelback Ventures is a two-year old “incubator” that aims to brew entrepreneurial talent, particularly for those creating organizations in education or building “economic opportunities.” The twist: Camelback caters to entrepreneurs of color and women.

“If we believe in talent and need all hands on deck, then there’s a huge missed opportunity if we don’t bring everyone in-- especially entrepreneurs of color who represent the backgrounds of the kids we’re trying to serve,” says Walker.

His incubator’s name pays homage to the can-do spirit: Toward the late 1880s, New Orleans city government calculated homeowners’ taxes based on a property’s frontage. To keep their taxes low, freed blacks built “camelback” houses, which featured a partial second floor in the rear of the house. “It exemplifies the ingenuity of this group of people,” Walker says, and of entrepreneurs, who “do more than anyone thinks possible, with less than anyone thinks possible,” as venture capitalist John Doerr noted.

Minority entrepreneurs contend with more challenges, too. “We all bring biases to the table,” Walker acknowledges. According to a study by New York University professor Deepak Hegde, VCs typically invest in people of the same ethnicity. And a whopping 87 percent of VCs are white; barely 11 percent are women. Only 2 percent of VCs identify themselves as black or Latino—percentages that hardly match the demographics of say, California, where Latinos have outnumbered whites since 2014.

“That’s the challenge,” Walker says, “How do we help folks to broaden their mental frameworks?”

Sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack calls this the "doubly disadvantage" phenomena--namely that academically gifted and driven underprivileged students enter college with less exposure to the unsaid expectations of elite academic settings.

To begin to change this, Walker started Camelback. It was a big move: he quit his day job, pulled together $30,000 in initial funding for startups and began coaching minority entrepreneurs, relying on Google hangouts and other virtual networking tools. Like other incubators, Camelback offers a tiny amount of funding, often in exchange for equity. Unlike some, Camelback also accepts nonprofit entrepreneurs. More important that the cash, Walker believes, is the coaching that Camelback provides and the connections with other entrepreneurs and with the funding world.

After a promising pilot, Camelback picked its first dozen entrepreneurs from more than 60 applications in 2015. The program application is tight: This year, Camelback opened its application process on Sept. 14 and will shut the window on Oct. 5. (Applications are here.)

The entrepreneurs gather for a full cohort meeting about three times a year. In between, Walker arranges opportunities for the entrepreneurs to attend significant industry events and meet the people running the philanthropy or investment funds.

And they bond. During one early meeting, entrepreneurs began sharing tough stories. “I had a board member walk out on me,” confided one. Other heads nodded.

“Those kinds of stories of struggle—and success--are empowering,” says Jacob Allen, cofounder of PilotEd, which is establishing middle schools in Chicago that help students at risk stay on track. “A lot of being an entrepreneur is being alone. Everyone looks at you like you’re crazy. It was truly lifesaving” to hear stories of challenges and success.

“Camelback had to emerge,” says Aimée Eubanks Davis is the founder of Braven, and formerly an executive with Teach For America. Braven helps young post-grads of color find the kinds of jobs that will put them on a leadership path.

“We saw groups of students [of color] who had done everything right,” she says. They had gone to the “right” schools, succeeded in their academics and yet still stumbled as they tried to launch out of college into the job market. “There’s this other invisible thing happening,” she observes. “We thought the stopping point was getting them through the doors of college. But then what happens when you get out and try to get that first job.”

When Davis decided to leave TFA and branch out on her own, she was shocked to discover that even her years of professional experience weren’t enough to help her build a new platform.

“Even with my track record of achievement—and I sit on boards!--I was beginning to see the headwinds,” she said. “I realized, this whole Camelback need is real, even for someone who has been inside the system, who has built the system. I was going to need some assistance.”

That first cohort will debut their organizations in November. Among the 11 cohort members, about half were building startup companies; the others are working to start schools or education programs for teachers.

Camelback is “doing the hard work of developing people, of ensuring people have the skills and the mindset to operate at a high level,” observes Davis.

“Camelback is my vision for pursuing justice,” Walker wrote to the members of the cohort after the shooting in Charleston this summer. “When I think about each of you fellows, I don't just see an idea, a corporate form, a team or technology. I see justice in action.”

Camelback 2015 Cohort Members

  • Braven: Supporting first-generation students graduating from college find strong first jobs
  • Calolo: Helping disadvantaged students, especially immigrant students—with guideposts on how to get into college
  • Heart of Man: Supporting students to engage their own entrepreneurial energy while still in school
  • Kudzoo: Developing an app that reward student achievement with scholarship opportunities and other incentives;
  • pilotED: Helping middle school students in Chicago to stay on track
  • PinkThink: Supporting girls studying (STEM) science, technology, engineering and math
  • Smart Coos: Developing a platform to be a personalized online language tutor
  • The Knowledge House and Brooklyn on Tech: Teaching kids coding and entrepreneurial skills
  • Rooted School: Providing students with economic opportunity either in school or when they graduate
  • Yenko: Giving kids the tools to stay in higher education and keep their financial aid
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