READ STORY ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT FORBES.COM
16 MAY 2022
By Rebecca Szkutak
The venture capital industry has been reckoning with its lack of diversity since George Floyd’s murder in 2020. But despite firms putting more effort into hiring more diverse talent and backing more underrepresented entrepreneurs, the needle hasn’t moved much. The issue is that many firms are trying to retrofit this new lens onto existing strategies while unlearning biases. But what could the industry look like if future investors were taught to be conscious of diversity and inclusion from the beginning?
That’s the idea behind Emory University’s Peachtree Minority Venture Fund. In 2020, ‘21 MBA student Willie Sullivan got involved with a school consulting project that looked at how Emory could best support Atlanta’s diverse set of entrepreneurs. When he interviewed Black entrepreneurs about the biggest hurdles they’ve faced, time and again the answer was lack of capital. How to help these startups became obvious to Sullivan, he says: Emory should launch its own fund to back them.
A student-run venture fund isn’t a unique concept. Many colleges have started them, including those not often associated with the venture capital ecosystem, such as the University of Connecticut and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But a venture fund with a diversity mandate makes Emory’s program novel. It not only gives students the knowledge of how to be successful future venture capitalists, but how to approach the industry fully aware of current biases and equipped with the tools to invest in opposition to them.
“Wouldn’t it be great if those students went to work for a venture capital fund after having worked with a fund that caters to those communities?” Sullivan says. “Currently, a Black entrepreneur walks in and no one in the room understands. Our goal is not just provide the equity investment but for students to be able to educate themselves on underrerpensted minorities and entrepreneurs.”https://d1c7e51a51029057ff54b248bfc70612.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
After a year of planning with the school, and fellow cofounders Kristen Little, Alan Quigley and Chris Anen, to figure out the logistics, Peachtree Minority Venture Fund launched with $1 million in capital from Emory’s endowment and its corresponding class ran for the first time this past Spring semester. The course attracted both undergrad and graduate students in both the business and law schools.
Julian Smith, a ‘23 MBA student, says the formation of the fund was one of the factors that drew him to apply to Emory. “The focus and the motivation behind establishing a fund with such an inclusive and exclusive mandate focused on minority founders was huge to me because of my knowledge on how the disparities in the industry play out,” he says.
The students were taught about the entire investment lifecycle. Classes contained activities like learning about how to do diligence on a pitch deck before the class broke into groups to analyze a real one or having diverse VC talent including Shila Nieves-Burney and Tristian Walker come to speak about their experiences. The class was split into groups — investment committees — that each had a focus area ranging from sustainability to financial services. Each group performed diligence on companies in their sector. The fund backed three companies in its first semester.
“Each team has dealt with 10 to 15 companies from the pipeline and sourcing themselves, they are having amazing conversations,” Humza Mirza, an Emory ‘22 MBA student and managing partner of Peachtree tells Forbes. “A lot of [the students] have investment banking and venture capital internships coming out of it which was a huge part of it.”
The class also learned how to support portfolio companies beyond just monetarily too. Hussain Punjani, a ‘22 evening MBA student, says that because of the fund’s small check sizes and limited capital pool it was beneficial to learn about the other side of the job. “You support companies through thick and thin through marketing, brand recognition, providing pilot feedback and hiring, it’s a lot more than just supporting with capital,” he says.
One of the companies Peachtree backed was COMMUNITYx, a social media app that helps connect social justice activists with other activists, demonstrations and causes. Founder Chloë Cheyenne says that she reached out to Peachtree when it was still in formation and built a relationship with firm cofounder Miguel Vergara for six months before her startup became one of the first investments in the portfolio — which mirrors how many actual firms approach deal sourcing. Cheyenne tells Forbes that working with the firm was no different than her other venture backers and that she really admires the firm’s mission.
“The way that they go about evaluating companies, and selecting companies from the standpoint of making sure they are looking for diverse founders and companies that are building world-changing solutions, is something that I hope becomes more relevant in venture,” Cheyenne says.
While Peachtree was the first student-run firm focused on backing diverse and underrepresented founders, they hope it won’t be the last. And signs point that there will be copycat programs sooner rather than later. “It’s already happening,” Smith says. “I had a call with students from another VC and PE club. We had an hour-long conversation as they start to think about a similar venture fund with a focus on D&I.”