“There’s four trillion dollars in purchasing power” controlled by people of color today, said Tristan Walker, CEO and founder of Walker & Company Brands, at the 2021 Carta Equity Summit. “One hundred percent of net population growth comes from folks of color in this country. Three-quarters of all Americans believe folks within this consumer group guide culture. The majority of this country in 20, 30 years will be folks of color. Folks who aren’t treating this as the most important economic imperative that exists today…I think they are going to be irrelevant in 20 years.”
After raising $40M from Silicon Valley to start Walker & Company Brands, Tristan became the first Black CEO of a Procter & Gamble subsidiary. He sat down with Kobie Fuller, general partner at Upfront Ventures and diversity advocate, to talk about why he often tells founders not to raise money, how selling to P&G made him know what freedom felt like, why Atlanta is the most important city in the world, how the venture ecosystem can better support Black founders, and why the proudest moment of his career happened in a Target.
Kobie Fuller: Hello, Carta Equity Summit! Very, very excited to be here today with my good friend Tristan Walker. I’m Kobie Fuller. I’m a partner at Upfront Ventures, and I’m also a founder of Valence. It’s a platform I created a couple years ago to help connect the Black community in a manner that’s never been done before, in an effort to drive Black wealth. So Tristan, how are you doing today?
Tristan Walker: I’m good. And I have to say, Kobie, that you are not allowed to have a better-looking beard than me. Don’t do it. I don’t get to see you that often, but I’m grateful for it.
Kobie: You know what? I mean, a lot of that, honestly, it’s due to you. So you get attribution because I have to call out my amazing trimmers. [Pulls out Walker & Company trimmers.] If you don’t have these, you need them in your life. But if you’ve got the trimmers going, you’ve got to have your restoring balm. [Pulls out a bottle of Walker & Company balm.] This saved my life. This product came out initially, if I’m not mistaken, when you started Walker & Co, and this was the money product for me.
But maybe you can give a little bit of your background that’s not like the LinkedIn stuff you see in the magazines, to be able to give some context. Then, we’ll just hop into a lot of your journey. We’re going to discuss your entrepreneurship journey, your current experience at P&G, and also how it is to be a Black founder right now—and more.
Living life by three themes
Tristan: Yeah, no doubt. So probably the most efficient way I can talk about my background is to talk about the three themes of the world that I care about, exclusively.
Really, the first theme is the demographic shift happening in this country and the cultural influence of Black people within it. I think it is singularly the most important theme of my lifetime, and I’ve dedicated my life to it.
Second, technology, of course, and its impact on organizations. But I think a lot of that maps back to this demographic shift. How do we equip these curators of culture with the tools they need to spread that culture?
And then lastly, I love great brands. I love great brands because they’re fun and sexy and cool, but I think the greatest brands are almost like the kindling to the brush fire of public opinion. If you really get it right, you can change things.
So every single thing that I’ve done over the past decade—and god willing, the next five—are in full embrace of those themes. Whether it’s the company I founded—Walker & Company, a direct-to-consumer beauty business, focused on the needs of people of color—or Code 2040, a not-for-profit that aims to get the highest-performing engineers out to Silicon Valley and provide them the tools to be successful. I sit on the board of Foot Locker; I sit on the board of Shake Shack. Everything that I do deliberately is really an embrace of those themes.
Being a Black founder in Silicon Valley
Kobie: I’d love to change gears a little bit and talk about the time you were in Silicon Valley—and what that experience was overall as an executive, and as a founder raising capital. At Upfront, we wrote the first check into Walker & Co, so I’ve seen some of that journey from the periphery. So maybe just talk about that journey. And I know you and I both share some frustrations around how it is to be a Black person in Silicon Valley and the complexities there. So maybe shed some light on all that.
Tristan: Yeah. I mean, before I get into that I think it’s important to really level-set a little bit. I came into Silicon Valley with a little bit of privilege. I grew up as I did, but at the end of the day I got to go to one of the top boarding schools in the country on a full ride. What led me out to Silicon Valley was going to Stanford Business School, which gave me access. This was in 2008, when Silicon Valley wasn’t the Silicon Valley that it is today, from a pop culture perspective. I was one of the few Black folks out there. I had the good fortune during my business school years to work at Twitter fairly early and at Foursquare really early, funded by Andreessen Horowitz, where I was an entrepreneur in residence.
A lot of my career is the culmination of the compounding of some of that privilege—but notwithstanding that, it wasn’t easy to raise money for the things that I felt a unique and authentic connection to. When I was thinking about Walker & Company, I got a lot of detractors. It was really the first time that I started to hear “no” in my life. And I had to learn that perhaps the reason I was hearing “no” wasn’t a function of my having a bad idea. It was perhaps a function of—for lack of a better phrase, the capital interests—not having an authentic connection to the things that I was trying to solve. So I had to get out of myself a little bit and not take offense, but go on offense, and recognize that I was uniquely positioned to do something, even with the privilege, that other folks were unable to.
So I’m thankful for all the folks that really turned us down for Walker & Company specifically. There are folks like Upfront and Google and Andreessen Horowitz, who continued to back the vision for as long as we were around before acquisition.
Kobie: What kind of advice do you give to a founder who’s not starring a company that’s in a relatable use case to a venture capitalist? It’s so easy, if you’re sitting on a board of SaaS software business and then you hear some other fellow board member of the company say, “Oh, yeah, this other company we happen to use.” Or you see in the board deck they’re using some tool. Then suddenly everyone gets FOMO: “Oh, I’ve got to call that founder up and try to get in on the Series A or Series B.”
And then comes along someone like you, or the next founder working on a business, and maybe it’s a business that’s incredibly viable for their community, that potentially that non-Black VC cannot relate to. But still, it could be in a multi-billion-dollar category where technology could be an incredible vehicle to drive this disruption. So, what advice do you give that founder who’s dealing with that dilemma that is the reality of Silicon Valley?
Tristan: I mean my answer is perhaps going to be unsatisfying. First, I encourage people to respect the math. It’s hard to raise money, period. Period. Not only that but, 90-plus percent of these things that do raise money fail. So one thing that I encourage entrepreneurs to ask themselves is, “Do I need to raise money? Is there another way to build this thing in a bootstrap capacity with extreme focus and clarity?” Get yourself to profitability, and let that be your leverage to go out and raise money on your terms—if you so choose.
The other thing that I share with them is I raised tens of millions of dollars and doing that actually hampered our opportunities quite a bit. We had to chase a growth imperative that our company was not ready for, and that I wasn’t ready for as a CEO. I hadn’t gone through that. It took my having to raise all that money to realize that I probably didn’t need it. And only to realize now that going forward, I probably wouldn’t want it.
So I try to give folks a different alternative view that you don’t hear very often, however unsatisfying. That said, there are companies that just need the money. And the only advice that I can offer there is: You just got to hustle your way through it. And again, I’m blessed and fortunate to have the network that I have, and it’s not easy for me to advise someone to say, “Just go and keep pitching people.” If you don’t have the network to pitch people, then it’s hard to do. But it’s one step at a time. One step at a time. If you’ve already put yourself in a frame of mind of not feeling like you have to raise that money—that might help at least offer some relief.
Kobie: Yeah, I think that’s great feedback. Lots of times when I get the same question from a founder, the first thing I ask is, “Why do you need venture capital? What’s the reason why you need to take someone else’s money to help this business grow? Do you even know what’s the product-market fit first, before you even put capital behind a go-to-market engine? Or maybe a product doesn’t need to be invested in, to get some feedback on whether it should exist.”
Tristan: I tell a lot of folks: I sold my company to Procter & Gamble on December 12th of 2018. So I guess next week it’ll be three years, which is crazy. And on December 12th of 2018, I had a bit of an epiphany, and I had a feeling that I never wanted to get rid of. For the first time, I felt what freedom felt like. For a while, I had a feeling of what it felt to feel free, but I didn’t know what freedom was. And on December 12th of 2018, I defined it for myself. And freedom to me was not owing anybody anything. At that point, I didn’t owe my investors anything. I didn’t owe P&G anything. I didn’t owe my colleagues anything.
I don’t mean in a crass kind of way, just that the feeling of ownership and autonomy was a feeling that I didn’t get to experience until that exit opportunity. And I encourage people to optimize different things, potentially. To me, the thing that I’m trying to optimize for going forward is ownership and autonomy. And that doesn’t necessarily mean raising money for it—naturally, because you have to give up some of it for that.
“Atlanta is the most important city in the world”
Kobie: Let’s give a plug to the ATL. Talk a little about what’s going on in Atlanta right now. It’s a place that’s near and dear to my heart. Obviously, you left Silicon Valley to lay roots in the ATL. So maybe give the audience a bit of a glimpse of what it is to live in ATL, to build a company in ATL. Talk about the burgeoning tech scene. And also we got a new mayor there now who’s really supporting tech, so maybe give us a glimpse of what’s going on
Tristan: I think Atlanta is the most important city in the world right now. We moved two and a half years ago, so a part of the acquisition was to ensure that we made the move to Atlanta. That was not only an ask of mine, but a real demand. We needed it, not only for the business, but also personally, and I’ll share more about that in a bit. Atlanta: I think that there are a few places on Earth—you can probably count them on one hand, if that—that have such a density of Fortune 500s (I think it’s 17 or 18 here); a burgeoning entrepreneurial, culturally connected class; and academia. The only other place that I felt kind of like that was Silicon Valley. But Atlanta has it and it has a cultural influence. I don’t think that there’s any city on Earth that has such a compelling density and I think folks are starting to realize it.
Now, we have a lot of folks who are flying over to go into Miami and we can talk ad nauseam about that. But I think that Atlanta is a quality of life arbitrage, a business/economic imperative arbitrage, that will likely close in five to ten years. And so that’s from a business perspective. And personally, frankly, man, I’m raising two young Black boys and I want them to see Black success. And Atlanta is, I think, the best platform in the world for them to observe that. And I’m very, very fortunate that we were able to make that decision when we did.
Kobie: That’s awesome. Anything in particular you’re excited about, at least from a startup perspective, that’s going down in Atlanta right now?
Tristan: It’s interesting. What I’m most excited about, actually, is—of course there’s a lot of startups, but also the VC activity. There are a lot of great current and former operators and entrepreneurs. They’re actually raising the money they need to support an ecosystem. So in Atlanta, we can cherry-pick examples of really great and compelling startups. The one that folks have been talking about over the past year, of course, is Calendly. Tope [Awotona] over there is just crushing it and killing it. There are some other really, really compelling ones, but I think about what Collab [Capital] is doing, among others. There’s a new, burgeoning group of emerging managers and entrepreneurs that are coming together in a way that feels catalyzing. And that’s really, really exciting for me.
Kobie: Yeah, that’s great. And since COVID hit, I’ve definitely been depressed around the fact that I can’t be out there nearly as much. I was spending time at least once a quarter in Atlanta. I saw it a while ago, and it’s only become more and more evident that Atlanta’s going to be such an important city. It’s not only the most important city in the world, as you say, with regards to so much. Not only from a technology and entrepreneurship perspective, but also from a political perspective, as we’re clearly seeing these days.
Tristan: Well, look, man, I think, and rightfully so, over the past decade, everybody’s been, “Tech, tech, tech, tech, tech, tech, tech.” But over that same period of time, the message I’ve been trying to promulgate is that there’s tech, but then there are people who have to use it. And now the tech has been built.
Kobie: Come on, now.
Tristan: And now the question is: Who takes over? I think the opportunity for the next decade-plus is to find those cultural curators who are leading and guiding and shaping it. And I think the folks who are getting in early on that, and who have an authentic connection to that, are the ones who are going to drive the outsized returns in a way that folks hadn’t expected 10 years ago.
Kobie: Yeah, that’s right. And honestly, that’s where I’m spending all my time as an investor—it’s exactly in that area. The last decade-plus in my career, I’ve been deploying lots of capital, a lot of software, infrastructure, tools—even hardware, like Oculus. And now I see the differentiator is the cultural layer. How do you actually think more about the consumers, the people actually using these products, and use it as a weapon to create unmatched growth and opportunity? And do it for a community. I’m just so focused on trying to find ways to architect wealth in a period of time where it’s needed the most. So it’s definitely a personal area of focus for me, and that’s why I’m so excited when we are able to collaborate on so many different things, because we’re like-minded in that respect.
Tristan: Yeah man, we’re in an environment right now where there’s four trillion dollars in purchasing power. One hundred percent of net population growth in this country. One hundred percent—not 99, not 98, not 90. One hundred percent of net population growth comes from folks of color in this country. Three-quarters of all Americans believe folks within this consumer group guide culture. The majority of this country in 20, 30 years will be folks of color. Folks who aren’t treating this as the most important economic imperative that exists today…I think they are going to be irrelevant in 20 years.
Sitting down with your values
Kobie: Yeah, I fundamentally agree. Can you talk a little bit about how you balance being a leader for the community, in addition to your day job, and raising two boys? I know how that feels, having two boys myself. It pulls on your time.
Tristan: I’m very choiceful. When I was 30, I started the company. About two weeks before we raised that first round of funding (from Upfront actually)—famous story: I went to Starbucks on El Camino Real in Palo Alto and I sat down and wrote what my values were. I tried to think about what brought me to the point where I was about to raise this money for this wonderful company. What values had guided me? And I spent about 45 minutes—that’s all it took to write them down. It was courage, and inspiration, and respect, judgment, wellness, loyalty. I defined them. And I wanted them to guide every decision I was going to make—not only for the business, but also in my personal life.
And you’d be surprised, after you write it down, how much scope you have to reduce in your life. I only want to hang out with people who share my values. Once you think through that filter, you get rid of a lot of people in your life.
I want to make decisions objectively. So, when there’s a hard thing to think about, one thing that therapists and executive coaches always ask me is, “What do your values tell you to do?” And I know the answer right away. So you win back time. The opportunities that I take, whether it be the boards that I sit on, the not-for-profits that I support, the initiatives that I start myself—they have to be in line with those values, which means that there are a lot of things that get turned down.
It’s funny, but my life has been very much in balance for the past seven or eight years, because I try my best to make all of my decisions and encircle my life in those values. I know it sounds very cheesy, but honestly and frankly, it is the only way to live, in my opinion: as objectively as possible.
Kobie: Yeah. One thousand percent agree with that. Switching gears a little bit, can we talk a little bit about the other entity you started, Code2040? What gave you the impetus to build that platform? And maybe talk about what it’s doing, and where you see it going in the future?
Tristan: So Code2040, we started it in 2012, about a year before I started Walker & Company. At the time I was at Foursquare, and I just started to ask myself a couple questions, like, “Why didn’t I know about Silicon Valley until I was 24 and going to business school?” And that’s even with all the opportunities that I’ve had. I had no idea that this place existed. This place of extreme wealth creation and opportunity, of peering into what the future looked like. So I dedicated the rest of my time to thinking about how I can prevent other folks from making that same mistake.
So withCode2040, at least as a start, I wanted to go out and find the best and brightest Black and Latino engineering undergraduates and get them internships out in Silicon Valley at some of the best companies that we can find. And provide them with all the tools to ensure their success. Media training, fireside one-on-one chats with tech luminaries, interview bias training. Because there’s a lot of potential bias in the interview process. We started with a fellows class of five folks in our first year, and then it eventually graduated to like 50 and 100 each year, which has been really, really wonderful. We had a 90-plus percent full-time offer rate, which is higher than the Silicon Valley standard intern to full-time offer rate. We’ve graduated 600-plus fellows through the program. Now they’re all in the industry, shaking stuff up within those organizations. There was one gentleman who was in our first class, Chaz, who this past summer ended up raising $50 million from Tiger. So we’re starting to see the full circle moments happening, which just gives me so much joy.
Kobie: Yeah, I missed that.
Tristan: Touché. So did I. So Code2040 started an embracive intern class, but now there’s a wide-open opportunity to really lead out front on all issues related to equity and technology. If you have this extreme wealth creation happening, we should be able to participate in that at every part of the stack. And Code2040 in this case has not only a unique and authentic point of view, but also a plan to do just that.
How to support Black founders
Kobie: Can you talk a bit about your opinion, or reflection, on the state of Black-founded companies today? I know that Carta released a report suggesting that over the last five years, the number of companies started by Black founders has doubled. Where do you feel like things are at right now as it relates to the volume of companies from Black founders—and where we should truly be at right now?
Tristan: That’s a great question, man, because I ponder on this every single day. Those stats are only from the founders that we hear about, right? Or know about. The crazy thing about the pandemic is that it’s forced, out of necessity, an innovation mindset that I’m jealous of, frankly. A lot of folks have forced themselves to create a new normal for themselves, recognizing that the status quo—going into an office, sitting in a chair and being told what to do—doesn’t work for them. And folks are realizing that they have the power in themselves as these cultural curators to create and earn, right?
I think the number of entrepreneurs in any of those reports has to undercount in a big way. And I am most inspired by the folks who have started on their own without the help of anybody else. Because we can’t wait for that. It’s going to take too long, and frankly, I still think that there’s a combination of both laziness and stubbornness from a lot of the capital interests to invest behind some of this wonderful strategic opportunity.
So, the state of Black-founded businesses? We need more of them. But I think what we need even more of, Kobie—whether Black-founded or not—are companies that are serving the interests of the end consumer. Yes, we need more Black entrepreneurs. I would like more Black entrepreneurs serving Black consumers. But I think we could have it all at the same time. I want more white entrepreneurs serving Black consumers, too. I’d like to see a hell of a lot more of that. If we can focus on some of that over the next decade, we’ll be in much better shape…and people will make a lot of money.
Kobie: What do you think the ecosystem should be doing better to support those founders?
Tristan: A whole bunch. I mean, now we’re talking about a huge activity system thing, right? Number one: I’ve learned, in my public board directorships, the importance of governance. And how some of the things that I say in the boardroom are actually leading in a straight dotted line to results now—from things I said a year ago. Just having that diverse point of view in the room can actually move things in a way that I didn’t expect.
Now, if we think fundamentally about the way that VC is done today, there’s a financial investor who sits on a board with, naturally, a conflict of interest in a lot of ways. This idea of independence of governance is one thing that when I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, I try to get them to at least think about it. I think it starts with that board stuff. Then as you build the activity systems for your business: How do you think about equity more broadly and make “DEI” (quote, unquote) not just an HR thing, but a marketing thing, an operations thing, et cetera.
For us, the way that I thought about it in the most seamless way are those values. We have values that are not gender-specific. They’re not ethnicity-specific. They are values that we could all love. And guess what? We have a majority person-of-color company, majority Black folks in positions of leadership in my company—without even trying. And it has been that way since we started the company.
And then once you’re serving external consumers that are diverse authentically and asking them to hold you accountable, you’re establishing a flywheel and an activity system of scalability. That will work when I’m inside the room or outside the room. So there’s no silver bullet approach, because there has to be “flywheel and activity system” thinking around some of this stuff.
We all have to appreciate that it’s going to take 10, 20 years to get some of these large slow-moving organizations to shift around, but I’m seeing it on some of these boards. And I think if you can start as a founder and really think about that from the very beginning—look, the math is what it is. More diverse teams lead to better outcomes and profitability. So if you are not embracing that—again, you’re either lazy, stubborn, or there’s something more sinister at play.
What happened in the personal care aisle at Target
Kobie: I know we have a few minutes left here. Maybe tell us a little bit about your most proud moment—or anything that you’ve created since your time at P&G where you’re just like, “Yeah, I feel really good about what I and my team did here.”
Tristan: Just since the acquisition or in general?
Kobie: In general, over the life of Walker & Company.
Tristan: The proudest thing, the story that I always give, is when I saw our products in Target for the first time. It had nothing to do with me personally. This was probably about five years ago. The way that they do their resets, they usually put in new stuff in February, but we were busy because we were launching a whole bunch of stuff. So I didn’t actually see it in-store until like April or May of that year.
I took my oldest son with me at the time—he was two—to the store just to go see. It was a Target in Mountain View, California. And I wanted to see what it looked like in the aisle. A big, important thing for me for this business was that we were in the main aisle, not on some ethnic shelf in the back. And we had prime positioning. So I walked up to the personal care aisle, and I actually didn’t see it. We turned in, and then my son pointed behind me, and he said, “Daddy.” The reason he said, “Daddy” is because he saw my photo on the box. I was on the back of the box.
And at that moment, I had this recognition that this was his first time in a retail store, and he was going down this aisle not treated like a second-class citizen. That’s something that he won’t realize now, but he eventually will. And not only that, but he was pointing and saying, “Daddy,” his dad, the creator of this thing as a producer—he’s encouraged by the fact that he can now produce at a level equivalent with the other folks that are on that shelf. That respect as a consumer, the respect as an eventual producer, to me was the proudest moment of my entire career—that we actually did it.
Kobie: That’s dope. That’s dope. I mean, I could imagine the feeling, seeing your son seeing that and reacting to that.
Tristan: Very cool.
Kobie: That’s special. Maybe the last question here: What do you see next for you in the next five to 10 years that you’re able to say?
Tristan: Yeah. It’s funny as I get older, my answer to this changes a little bit. Usually, I know exactly. “I want to join this company” or “I want to join this industry.” As I’ve gotten older, those three themes in my life start to guide me. If I have those themes with those values that keep me honest and tight, as long as things fit within those, I’m going to be very, very happy.
So as I talk about demographic shift, technology’s impact on that, and my appreciation for brand, anything that I do next is going to be an embrace of that. I still have work to be done at Walker & Company. I have not finished my work there, so fortunately, P&G has given us a platform for creation that’s, for me, kid-in-the-candy-store-type stuff, which is wonderful.
Number two, I still have an excitement for supporting entrepreneurs that were like me eight years ago. If I can ever get in a position where I can start supporting them, investing in them in line with those three themes that I care about, wonderful.
At some point in the future, there comes a life after Walker & Company, whether it’s starting a company, partnering with one…hell, getting into politics one day, who knows? The thing that I care most about is that those themes in my life are embraced with precision and authenticity.
I’m in a wonderful position right now where our family’s in Atlanta in a wonderful home, our kids in great schools. I have time to breathe a little bit. But in that breath, I really want to be patient, to ensure that whatever I do next is the right thing. Because whatever I do next, in my opinion, will probably be the last thing.
Kobie: Amazing. Well, I think it’s great to end on that note. It’s always a privilege and a pleasure to sit down with you and chop it up. And thanks everyone at the Carta Equity Summit joining us today and hearing Tristan’s story. And enjoy the rest of the programming today. Thank you, Tristan.
Tristan: Thanks, everybody.