The Transformative Power of Social Capital

An original cartoon show block capital letters spelling out social capital. People are standing on the letters and helping others to climb up.

As published on LinkedIn as part of the SheMoney newsletter.

What will it take to get more money into the hands of more diverse fund managers and founders? More specifically, women and people of color. This is a question that I have been asking myself for a long, long time. Especially since my now infamous Cheerios article, and yes, I am going to talk about my Cheerios article again. That article (rant?) was inspired by the fact that 0.2% of all VC funding dollars in 2020 went to Black women and Latina founders. When you include the men, Black founders received 0.6% and Latinx founders received 1.7% of all VC funding dollars in 2020. And that is simply not acceptable. Full stop. Period.

It is too soon to know if 2021 as a whole was better for founders of color, but preliminary data shows that for the first five months of 2021, Black founders received 1.4% of all VC funding dollars, more than double the rate in 2020. However, analysts are quick to point out that this increase might only be a temporary boost stemming from the sudden interest in supporting Black-owned businesses in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement revival. And frankly, we should not be touting 1.4% as a success in the first place, because it’s not. Not by any metric. And I am committed to doing what I can to create more inclusive financial systems. Thankfully, I am not alone.

That’s why I would like to introduce you to Claude Grunitzky, the CEO and Managing Partner of The Equity Alliance. The Equity Alliance was founded in 2021 to invest in diverse, emerging venture capital fund managers, with a focus on managers of color and women. They seek to democratize access to capital, and expand opportunities to partner with investors and entrepreneurs who would otherwise remain outside of our collective field of vision. If anyone might have the answer to my question, it would be him.

Continue reading for the interview with Claude and join for a LinkedInLive Conversation tomorrow, see below for details.

A headshot photo of Claude Grunitzky looking straight at the camera.

JZ: Claude, I would love to hear about your background in terms of what brought you to this work at Equity Alliance.

CG: I came to New York two decades ago as a Togolese immigrant with my own vivid American dream. I created TRACE, a Black culture magazine, in my bedroom, and during my first couple of years in New York, I was living hand to mouth, struggling to make ends meet as a young Black entrepreneur who couldn’t woo any investors for my startup, even though there were early signs that the magazine had some traction. Perseverance paid off, however, and Ray McGuire, a prominent Black executive on Wall Street, ended up investing in TRACE. That changed everything for me, and for my team. TRACE magazine eventually became a successful media company that received funding from Goldman Sachs. In addition to the magazine, we launched a TV network and a marketing agency.

I sold that company, and for the past decade I’ve been doing a lot of pro bono work, angel investing, leading workshops at MIT, Harvard, and other academic institutions, and helping young entrepreneurs launch their own social enterprises and impact ventures. In 2015, I launched TRUE Africa, which is a Google-funded media company championing Black innovators all over the world. TRUE Africa gave birth to TRUE Africa University, a remote learning platform currently incubated at MIT’s J-WEL (Jameel-World Education Lab). I have always felt that I could help nurture Africa’s talent; those young people who will accelerate the continent’s development.

In my early days as a media entrepreneur in New York, I met Dick Parsons, back when he was the Chairman and CEO of Time Warner, which was then the world’s largest media company. We immediately hit it off, and I built a relationship with him over a 15 year period. Dick was always a huge inspiration, to me and to many other ambitious Black professionals. Here was an African-American Brooklyn guy who rose through the ranks to become one of the most important corporate leaders in the world, at a time when few Black people were in positions of power. A few months after George Floyd was killed, Dick reached out to me with the idea of the Equity Alliance. He asked if I would be interested in leading a fund that would invest exclusively in people of color and women. That is how the Equity Alliance was started.

JZ: Why this model and this mission?

CG: A study by the Knight Foundation found that, in asset management, a $70 trillion industry, only 1.4% of those assets are managed by diverse-owned firms. As we surveyed the venture landscape, we realized that a critical gap in the ecosystem was institutions that were positioned to put capital in the hands of diverse emerging fund managers. We know that beyond the fundamentals, investors also make decisions based on their lived experiences and problems that they can relate to. (me saying.. heck yes!!!!!) Our model is built to empower diverse fund managers who are fully dedicated to creating additional opportunities for diverse founders. In order to democratize access to capital for diverse founders, we need to drive capital to diverse investors. We also believe it is critical to support emerging fund managers because of the uphill battle they face when raising a first time fund. We invest more than money. We also provide additional support through what we’ve been calling our Social Capital Playbook. By focusing on social capital, we feel we can drive greater access to economic capital beyond the investments we make.

JZ: You have some very well known co-founders and collaborators. How did this group come together?

CG: The vision for the Equity Alliance came from our Chairman and Co-Founder, Dick Parsons. He did a lot of the early ideation with his close friend Ken Lerer, a Managing Partner at Lerer Hippeau, New York’s most active early stage VC firm. Ken Lerer is also a co-founder of the Huffington Post. The other Equity Alliance Founders are Benjamin Lerer and Eric Hippeau, who are also Managing Partners of Lerer Hippeau; Ronald Lauder, Board Member of the Estée Lauder Companies; Eric Zinterhofer, Founding Partner of Searchlight; Scott Kapnick, CEO of HPS Partners; and Michael Novogratz, CEO of Galaxy Investment Partners. We had a lot of heavy hitters back us as soon as we started raising money. One early backer was Schusterman Family Investments as our first anchor investor. They were followed by our two other anchor investors, which are Bank of America and the Ford Foundation.

JZ: You just closed on your first fund, oversubscribed at $28 million, and have already made some first investments. Can you talk about them?

CG: We have made 13 fund investments thus far. One recent fund investment we’re excited about that we made in the Fall is Divergent Capital. Divergent Capital is a deep tech pre-seed firm led by Katie Shea and Lucy Wang. While being sector agnostic, Divergent specializes in the combination of deep tech and innovative business models. Thus, companies with machine learning, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, and robotics would be typical targets, however, ed-tech and beauty companies also fit their bill. The fund managers bring several years of investing, operating, and technical experience to the fund. Katie, as an operator turned investor, wears the CMO hat when assessing potential opportunities, while Lucy, a data scientist turned investor, applies the CTO lens.

I think it’s important to highlight that Equity Alliance also has the ability to make direct investments into start-ups, and we have made one direct investment thus far. When it comes to direct investments, we look for standout, mission-aligned companies that have already received investments from one of our funds. We made our first direct investment in the Series A round of Esusu, which had already received investment from two of our portfolio funds; Concrete Rose Capital and Serena Ventures.

Esusu was founded by first-generation Americans Abbey Wemimo (a Nigerian American) and Samir Goel (an Indian American), to address the fact that 45 million Americans, a majority of people of color, have too little history to qualify for a credit score. Esusu automates credit building by reporting monthly rent payments to credit bureaus, boosting credit scores for tenants one rent payment at a time. Esusu sells to property managers, who provide this service to their renters in order to increase retention and to be able to intervene with microloan solutions when the data suggests a renter would benefit from intervention.

Esusu recently announced a nationwide engagement with Freddie Mac, the largest financier of multifamily housing in the United States with over $2 trillion total assets. This collaboration set the stage for Esusu’s most recent Series B round of financing, led by Softbank, where the company achieved unicorn status in January 2022.

JZ: You’ve obviously put together a great team to support Equity Alliance. Can you comment on your efforts to bring in more women as LPs?

CG: Creating a diverse cap table requires intentionality. We wanted our LP base to reflect our values and mission to democratize access to capital. One of our biggest anchor investors is Stacy Schusterman, and as we got to know her and her team, we saw how deeply committed they are to the causes of racial equity and gender equity. Another early investor is Jacqueline Novogratz, who invested personally and not through the Acumen Fund. Her brother, Michael Novogratz, is one of the Equity Alliance’s original investors, and I believe she saw the kind of impact she could make through our fund. We are also seeking to deliver competitive returns for our investors, and feel it is critical for women and people of color to share in that success. To that end, we worked with our lawyers to make the fund available to investors who weren’t “qualified”. It was definitely more work on our end, but as we engaged with women and people of color who would become our LPs, we made it a point to ask them who in their networks might be interested in our efforts. For some of our LPs from this group, this was their first time investing in a fund vehicle like ours, and we took the time to connect authentically to explain what we were seeking to accomplish. If we are going to create a diverse venture ecosystem, it will require these kinds of targeted efforts on the behalf of venture fund managers.

JZ: If you had to sum up why so little funding has yet to find its way into the hands of women and people of color, what would you say?

CG: There are a number of compounding systemic reasons why so little capital flows to women and people of color. One critical piece that we have identified is the lack of social capital that women and people of color have access to.

Our Equity Alliance fund is positioning itself as a prime conduit to meaningful connections between many investors, VC firms, early stage companies, and women and people of color who are looking to gain a foothold in the world of venture capital. Despite being busy leading major firms on Wall Street, in VC or other industries, all of our main investors are leaning in to help various members of the wider Equity Alliance community. People like Scott Kapnick and Eric Zinterhofer have been leaning in for real. In addition to their financial investment, we expect their commitment to invest time and resources into the Equity Alliance’s Social Capital Playbook to become, over time, a major driver of success for underrepresented investors and entrepreneurs who would not benefit from this level of access were it not for the Equity Alliance.

If we don’t increase social capital by growing the size of the pie for people of color and women so that this new social capital leads to more economic capital for the people we set out to empower, we will consider that the Equity Alliance has failed.

Because we know that, traditionally, people of color and women endeavoring to access capital for startups or venture capital firms may be constrained by larger structural issues such as law, policy, racism, sexism, and implicit biases, our approach to living up to ESG promises is driven by the works of the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu argued that analyzing the relationship between socio-economic background, natural environment, and access to capital can illustrate hidden structures that facilitate or inhibit an individual’s life. One of our Equity Alliance board members is Renée Richardson Gosline, an African American MIT professor who studies social capital. Renée has been helping us to better understand how Bourdieu’s theories are relevant in 21st century America, which is incredibly polarized and stratified as a society. Particularly, Black people are still at the bottom of American society, and we have to work together to level the playing field.

Given that so many successful investors and institutions have already backed the Equity Alliance, we believe our focus on social capital can ultimately help change power dynamics in America as more people of color and women gain economic capital after gaining social capital.

JZ: What does success look like for you and Equity Alliance?

CG: In the near term, it is critical that the fund managers we support successfully execute on the funds they now operate. For this reason, we strive to create a vibrant community amongst our fund managers that will allow them to learn from one another and leverage our Social Capital Playbook to further the growth of their funds. We chose this strategy because of the potential impact fund managers can have on their underlying portfolio companies. We are excited by the fact that the 20+ funds we invest in will impact the way that 400+ start-ups operate with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through our educational programming and engagement, we will equip our fund managers with the tools they need to better support the diverse founders within their portfolios.

Our long-term vision is to have each of the fund managers we invest in raise subsequent top-quartile funds, and be in a position to support and make investments in the generation of diverse fund managers that follows them. We believe that our investments can spark a virtuous cycle that builds parity within this crucial financial sector of our economy that drives innovation. We will have succeeded when the community of fund managers we invest in become leaders in the venture capital space, and when our track record serves as evidence that investing in diverse-owned firms is not only impactful in addressing the wealth gap that exists for women and people of color, but can also deliver superior returns. We hope that this evidence ultimately drives further investment by larger institutions in diverse-owned firms, helping to grow the total assets under management (AUM) allocated to these firms.

JZ: So what will it take to get more money into the hands of Black founders?

CG: It probably won’t surprise you that our solution is around empowering Black investors who will, in turn, drive capital to Black founders. In order for our industry to change, we need LPs around the table who are willing to support diverse emerging managers. It will mean taking a more holistic perspective on how to assess a fund manager’s track record beyond traditional institutional investing experience. At the Equity Alliance, we evaluate early investments made out of the fund, angel investing track records, and even relevant industry experience as another lens on the return potential of the funds we invest in.

Beyond our investment in funds, there is an important education piece. We want to provide our fund managers with the tools they need to become better investors. These tools will help them to better support Black founders, most of whom never really had any access to real money.

JZ: Anything else you would like to add?

CG: Look out for Equity Alliance Fund II, because we’ve got big plans.

JZ: Thank you Claude. What a powerful interview and big !!!!!! from me to all your answers. It should be no surprise to the readers that I too invested in Equity Alliance and will look forward to championing you, your team, your managers, and your founders. Count me in!

An event banner announcing the LinkedIn Live event, with headshots of Jacki and Claude.

Join Jacki Zehner and Claude Grunitzky, Founder of Equity Alliance, for a live conversation about the current landscape of venture capital, the untapped power of social capital, and the impact possible in supporting diverse fund managers and founders.