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‘I Don’t Give a S*** About What VCs Think About Me’

Breaking down racial barriers in Silicon Valley prepared entrepreneur Tristan Walker for his next conquest: the aisles of Target.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Tristan Walker
Job: Chief executive officer of Walker & Company, a startup that aims to solve health and beauty problems for people of color
Age: 31  
Residence: Palo Alto

Growing up in the housing projects of Queens, did you aspire to be the next tech titan?
I had one real goal in life when I was younger, and that was to get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible.

How did you set about doing that?
I realized then that there were three ways to do it. The first was to be an actor or an athlete, but that didn’t work out. Then I thought: Wall Street. That didn’t work out either. Then I discovered entrepreneurship. It’s not about wealth in and of itself. It’s a means to ensure that folks who grew up in circumstances like mine don’t have to go through that.

After getting an MBA at Stanford, you became the director of business development at Foursquare, then an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz. What drives your career choices?
I’m laser-focused on what I want, and I don’t get distracted. Even in business school, not once did I go into the career center. The thing that separates me from a lot of folks is that I’m willing to ask “Why?” six times, when other people stop at five.

Walker & Company’s first two products, the Bevel shaving kit and the Bevel trimmer (at Target this spring), purport to prevent razor bumps—not exactly the greatest crisis of our time. Why tackle men’s grooming?
Initially I was tempted to do things that I probably wasn’t the best person in the world to do. I wanted to start a bank; I wanted to build an app to fix obesity; I wanted to do something related to trucking and commerce. But what the hell do I know about any of those things? If I was going to dedicate the next 20 years of my life to something, I wanted to fundamentally feel I was the best person to solve that problem.

As a man launching a health and beauty brand, was there a fear that you wouldn’t be taken seriously?
It’s more a feeling of “Guys, you still don’t get it?!” All that [VCs] had to do was get on the phone with 10 black men, and 8 or 9 of them would have said: This is an issue I’ve had to deal with my entire life, and it is terrible.

Raising seed funding for Bevel was more of a struggle than you anticipated. Why was the product a hard sell initially?
A lack of context clouding VCs’ judgment. I’d get crazy comments like “Did you see Chris Rock’s Good Hair documentary?” When that happened, I knew that I wouldn’t get money from them.

Having raised $24 million in Series B funding last year, do you find it satisfying to prove the naysayers wrong?
I don’t give a shit about what VCs think about me. I care about serving our customers the way they deserve and building a business that works.

Why haven’t giants like Procter & Gamble been more successful in marketing to minorities?
Because they lack authenticity. If the leadership teams aren’t reflecting diversity, they’re going to fail.

On that note, 75 percent of the staff at Walker & Company are people of color. You also cofounded Code2040, a nonprofit that places minority students in tech roles. Why take that on?
We’re bringing in a whole new pool of folks who would never have had this opportunity. Over 90 percent of our fellows get full-time offers, and they’re engineers. So when a lot of these startups say they can’t find talented minority engineers—bullshit. They’re just not looking hard enough.

Launching your own brand is inherently risky. You could have stayed in the venture capitalist realm. Is your career trajectory part of some master plan?
None of this was in my plan. Me, living in Palo Alto? No way. Look, I want to actively spend time doing things that change my life for the better. And along the way—if we build a great company—we’ll change the world, everybody here will get fabulously wealthy, and we’ll pour that back into our community.


This interview was originally conducted for the March-April issue of
Silicon Valley, a new sister magazine to San Francisco.

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