Bronze Valley is a nonprofit, early-stage venture investment platform that supports high-growth, innovation, and technology-enabled companies created by diverse, underrepresented, and underestimated founders. Launched late in 2017 with support from Alabama Power, the organization is also certified as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).
In September, three Bronze Valley portfolio companies — Acclinate, Lillii RNB, and Mixtroz — were named among 50 startups nationwide that comprise the 2021 cohort of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund. The fund provides non-dilutive cash awards to Black-led startups, which also receive Google Cloud credits, Google.org Ads grants, and hands-on support.
Recently, Acclinate Co-Founder and Chief Development Officer Tiffany Whitlow, Lillii RNB Founder and CEO Barbara Jones, and Mixtroz Co-Founder Ashlee Ammons answered questions about Google’s investment in their ventures, what it means to their plans going forward, and what the future looks like for diverse founders and companies.
Q: What is your reaction to this recognition from Google? How will the funding from Google impact your plans for continued growth?
Ammons: At first it was shock. Now, it is determination to not only meet but exceed the expectations of this prestigious recognition. While the capital is meaningful, the other resources, in the form of technical support from tools and teams across Google, will likely have an even greater and longer lasting impact. The ability to work alongside and be affiliated with a global brand, with their full support, is priceless.
Jones: We were surprised and so thankful when we were told that we were accepted into the program. I could not believe it and was dancing for joy! We have been trying to hire someone to lead our Sales department as our VP of Sales. Our offers were not being accepted because we could not afford a high base salary. Now, with the non-dilutive funding from Google, we can offer more of a base salary, and we know this will help us recruit our VP of Sales.
Whitlow: I was ecstatic! We’ll be able to increase our depth of work and reach farther into our target communities. This level of support makes it possible to do the work we’ve set out to do with advanced collaborations, resources, and results. It represents an inflection point for our company, and the support will be used to further accelerate our AI/ML platform and effectively scale to meet the needs of our enterprise clients.
Q: How important is a continued emphasis on diversity and inclusion in building networks of investment and support for minorities, women, and other underappreciated founders?
Ammons: We must continue to support DEI initiatives until the moment it is no longer necessary, until the number of underappreciated founders is on par with the number of appreciated founders of today. When underappreciated founders aren’t afraid to fail, with the fear that they will never get another shot. When we can all run the innovation race without our current 10-second delay. Until we can all play, we will never know how great entrepreneurship and innovation can be.
Jones: The funding we received this year was our first funding ever. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to raise money in the past, but was never taken seriously. This year, with the focus on diversity and inclusion and black-owned businesses, I have had more people ask, “How can we assist you?” versus begging everyone to please fund us. It’s so important. The funding we received has given us the traction we need to triple our revenue this year. We are not asking for handouts, we are asking just to be given our fair chance.
Whitlow: A continued emphasis on diversity and inclusion in building networks remains important for two reasons: First, if D&I is not a focal point, there are many founders who will miss the opportunity to benefit from programs like this one. Second, that missed opportunity flows both ways. Without diverse and inclusive representation at these tables, there is a lack of varied input, opinions, and ideas that could directly benefit those providing funding, as well as those seeking it.
Q: Can you share a challenge that your business has faced and overcome and/or one you continue to encounter?
Ammons: Although we have been working in this business since ideation in 2014, we are arguably still at the beginning. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that it took from 2014 until 2018 to raise meaningful funding, even with traction throughout the journey. This lag stunts the potential of would-be entrepreneurs. Most people do not have the finances or familial situation to allow income to cease for years. In addition, and likely more importantly, when you are starting the business at the beginning, you have an immeasurable amount of grit and hustle to make it happen. Over the course of the journey, particularly a journey like this one, that can naturally wane, and it is up to us to keep one another motivated because we’ve stayed the course, and this is our time.
Jones: Our biggest challenge this year has been recruiting. We were spending so much time trying to post jobs on job boards, track the respondents, screen, and hire. We were not making much progress until we raised funding — over $1 million this year — and hired a recruiting firm to help us.
Whitlow: One challenge that is ongoing is engaging minority communities, helping them to make better, more informed health decisions, including participating in clinical trials and research. This is a challenge mostly because of a lack of trust in the medical community. For that reason, our strategy is what we call “move at the speed of trust.” We look at it as less of a challenge and more of simply what we must do to best serve our target community.
Q: What does the future look like — for you individually, for your company, for minority- and women-owned businesses in general?
Ammons: The future is bright for all of those. In entrepreneurship, your job is to ID a problem and think of the solution to that problem in a way that has not been done before. The problem comes first, then comes a solution that matters, which is why Mixtroz is still in the game today. For minority- and women-owned businesses, the problem has been identified and we are now on the road to solving it.
Jones: The future for me is very exciting. I want to be one of the Black Women Unicorns in Atlanta. For my company, we will be able to save retailers millions of dollars from fraudulent returns. For minorities and women, we will be able to get the funding we need and prove that we can build unicorns with the funding we secure — and make a ton of money for our investors.
Whitlow: For me, the future looks bright. I have been entrusted with some tremendous opportunities and tasks and I’m definitely up for the challenge. I feel like everything I’ve experienced before now has prepared me for this time. I have a supportive family, investors, and an encouraging co-founder and leader. I know we can do this! As for the company, we’re on the cusp of truly changing the way minority communities and the medical industry see and interact with each other. This is a change that must occur for either or both to thrive in the future. Hopefully, the future of minority and women-owned businesses will mean that they receive a solid chance to thrive. That means funding, mentorship, and exposure. It means a seat at the tables where decisions are being made.
Q: In the uncertain times in which we live, what gives you hope?
Ammons: That even in the scariest of times, we — my family, my friends, my team, my colleagues — continue to do just that: live.
Jones: I’m hopeful when I see large companies like Google, Morgan Stanley, and many others who are making a difference by putting their money into the things they believe in. I’m hopeful when I see my colleagues and fellow diverse entrepreneurs getting the funding they need, building their teams and growing and scaling their businesses. It’s beautiful to watch and fills me with so much hope.
Whitlow: The idea of what’s possible. Despite how bleak everything may look at times, I know there is a silver lining. My job is to wake up every single day and do what I can do to find it for myself and others.