229. Racism in Venture — A White, Male VC Threatens Black & Brown Founders (featuring Taranvir Johal & Salman Elmi)

229. Racism in Venture -- A White, Male VC Threatens Black & Brown Founders (featuring Taranvir Johal & Salman Elmi)
Nick Moran Angel List

Taranvir Johal & Salman Elmi of Tavolo and Top Figure join Nick to discuss Racism in Venture — A White, Male VC Threatens Black & Brown Founders. In this episode, we cover:

  • Quick personal backstory and origin story for Tavolo — Taranvir
  • Quick personal backstory and origin story for Top Figure — Salman
  • So, there was an incident last week in Minneapolis where venture capitalist, Tom Austin (who has since been fired by F2 Group), confronted you in your building’s exercise room.  You guys captured a video of the incident and it begins with w/ Mr. Austin pointing his mobile phone camera back and forth at the three members of your team — as he confronted you. Walk us through what happened before and after the video recording.
  • Very, very reminiscent of the Amy Cooper video from NYC’s Central Park — shocking similarities between your situation and the Cooper situation.  It’s nothing short of tragic.  What were you feeling as this was happening to you?
  • What has it been like growing up in a society that is not structured to promote your success?
  • Tell us about your experience as black and brown founders in the startup world?
  • How does what happened change the way you go about business in the future?
  • Thoughts on the murder of George Floyd and impact on the black community?
  • What are some of the changes you’d like to see most from a systemic point of view?
  • What do you think are some actionable steps investors and founders can take to respond to what’s been going on?

Guest Links:

Transcribed with AI

Intro 0:03
Welcome to the podcast about investing in startups, where existing investors can learn how to get the best deal possible. And those that have never before invested in startups can learn the keys to success from the venture experts. Your host is Nick Moran and this is the full ratchet.

Nick Moran 0:22
Welcome back to TFR. Today we have a special installment as we feature two founders from Minneapolis, Taranvir Johal and Salman Elmi that are at the center of a pervasive issue. These founders were racially profiled and threatened by a white male VC that didn’t believe they belonged in their own office building. As a nation addresses the murder of George Floyd the venture community is not immune to the effects of systemic racism. And in a very unfortunate circumstance, founders Tanveer Abdi and Salomon felt those effects firsthand. Apologies in advance for the audio on this one had to record in a pinch and couldn’t use the studio. Coming up next is my interview with Karen bear, Joe Hall and Solomon Elmi of Toffolo.

Derringer Joe Hall in Solman Elmi join us today from Minneapolis, Minnesota, they are founders of top figure a consultancy helping founders build successful e commerce businesses. They’re also founders of to volo, an app, allowing customers to reserve tables or items and pay for meals at restaurants. Over the past week or so they have been a focal point highlighting the injustices and racial divide within the startup and investing ecosystem. Turn bear and Solomon, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks. Thank

Unknown Speaker 1:38
you for having us. Yeah, guys.

Nick Moran 1:41
So you know, you, you represent both the black community, the Brown community, you had a pretty egregious and terrible event happened to you. We’re going to talk about that a bit today. But before we jump in, maybe we’ll start out with Taran beer. Can you give us kind of a quick personal backstory, and also the origin story of tavola? Yeah,

Speaker 2 2:00
so I’m an Indian American living in the United States. So I grew up about half my life in Queens, New York, the other half of Carver, North Dakota. I’m currently student at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management about to enter into my senior year. And then I founded Toffolo, with Salminen, OBDII, a couple of years ago, because what we noticed was that there’s a huge kind of gap in the restaurant industry, we noticed there’s a lot of delivery services. But what we realized that when we went to go sit down at restaurants a lot of times are the really long wait times, or one of the biggest issues that we faced was that even when we were done eating our meal, we would have to wait sometimes over 20 minutes, just wait for a server to bring us a check. So we thought that we could create a solution for the whole dining experience and how we could improve it as a whole. So that’s why our tabular kind of came into fruition. The initial concept was that Tableau would be an app that allows diners to reserve a table Order menu items and pay for meals at restaurants that they love, in hopes that we can help support the restaurant community as well. And because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we’ve also pivoted to allow for pickup orders to occur on our app, which has done a pretty good job of helping support the restaurant community, especially in Minneapolis, which has been struggling over these last few months. So basically, the backstory of Tableau and about myself. Good for

Nick Moran 3:19
you guys. Yeah, it’s it’s funny because we have a investment in a company called tovala, which is also a food tech business. It’s not on the restaurant side. They they actually announced their series B today 20 million, and led by first year but similar name and overall similar segment. Really love what you guys are doing that sounds like a significant problem. But let’s, let’s talk to Solomon briefly here. Solomon, can you give us your quick backstory and also the origin story on the other business that you’re on top to you?

Speaker 3 3:49
Yes, so my name is Salman Elmi, and you know, grew up and I was born and raised here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My parents are refugees from Somalia. They, you know, raised us here and I’ve lived here all my life into what I did is you know, I worked at a digital agency coming out of college, and that’s where I met my co founder Abdi. And we started a digital consultancy and working on helping you know, businesses grow on E commerce grow on a digitally online, you know, through social media, we absolutely loved it, enjoy using social media. And really, you know, it was awesome for us to really see clients grow on social media and get customers and we worked with brands, ecommerce brands, and we eventually started our own e commerce brands. And that took off and that allowed us to really work for ourselves. And having this financial freedom, what we decided to do is really create an educational segment of top figure and that’s what you see on top figure, Instagram where we help educate and inspire people to start their own ecommerce brands. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since for the past year and a half. So that’s a quick backstory on top figure, and myself. Very

Nick Moran 4:59
good. Is it difficult balancing two businesses?

Speaker 3 5:02
Um, it’s very fun, I guess, like, you know, really, because the main thing is, they’re all centered around our passions, you know, it’s really centered around just what we do what we love to do. And it’s just, you know, it’s amazing to be able to just bounce between just solving and the thing is, top figure allows us to build the community, it’s allowed us to really create and curate the community that is using Tableau. So it’s kind of goes hand in hand without each one, the other one cease to exist. Yeah,

Speaker 2 5:30
one big thing about having top figure alongside Tableau is that these both come experts have marketing, which has been a huge advantage when we’ve been signed up, publicized Cardinal Health, help the app grow as well.

Nick Moran 5:44
So guys, I want to discuss the murder of George Floyd and what’s going on in America later in the interview today, but first, I’d like to address what happened to you guys, specifically. So there was an incident last week where venture capitalists Tom Austin, who has since been fired by f2 group, confronted you in your buildings exercise room, you guys capture the video of the incident. And it begins with Mr. Austin pointing his mobile phone camera, you know, back and forth at the three members of your founding team, as he confronted you. I’m going to play the audio from that incident now. Everyone in the audience was listening.

Speaker 1 6:25
Would you say? I’m Tom Austin, I’m a tennis in the building? Are you were we have an office here. And this guy came accusing us we can’t be here. What are you when that Oh?

Nick Moran 6:46
Wow. Okay, well, just to start guys, walk us through what happened before and after the video recording. So

Speaker 3 6:55
essentially, what happened is, you know, me and my other co founders were in the building, just working out, that’s a place where we attend, you know, all the time, we work pretty much all day, you know, we enjoy running our business, and we we go down into the gym that particular day. And as we’re working out a gentleman, you know, tamaskan walked into the gym, and he seemed very angry, or he was, you know, very upset at something. It came into the, from the locker room and into the gym. And that’s when he confronted us and asked us, Hey, are you guys tenants of the building? And that was before we started recording? He asked us this question many, many times. And we kept on repeating to him. Yes, we are tenants of the building. We are part of the we work and you know, he kept on asking and demanding to see our key cards, you know, and once we told them, Hey, you, you don’t have any right to see our key cards. We’re all tenants just like you. He got very confrontational, started taking pictures of us. And that’s when my buddy Zach, our team member started to take his phone out and to document the incident. And that’s where you guys see where he says, I’m Tom Austen, and I’m attending. That’s what happened. And it was very unfortunate. And it’s very upsetting, you know, especially how it went. And yeah. So

Nick Moran 8:11
sorry to hear that you guys went through that it. It’s very, very reminiscent of the Amy Cooper video from Central Park, New York very recently where she was calling the cops on Christian Cooper while he was birdwatching. Right? She was saying to him, I’m gonna call 911 and tell them there’s there’s an African American man threatening my life. And she knew how powerful that statement was. He wasn’t threatening anything. And similar to your case with calm Austin, I think it it exemplifies the systemic racism in our country. No, it was Trevor Noah was just talking about this, and I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect of, you know, it tells you how Amy Cooper perceive the police. It tells you how she perceived her relationship with the police as a white woman, the relationship between police and black men, and that as a white woman, you know, she can weaponize the message and use it as a tool against a black man. And when the situation finally gets a resolution of who’s right or wrong, there’s a pretty good chance that she will have won, and he will have lost that, you know, that was Trevor Noah’s account of the Hooper situation with you guys. I think there’s some shocking similarities between what you dealt with and what was dealt with there. It’s nothing short of tragic, you know, what, what were you feeling as this was happening to you?

Speaker 3 9:42
So we were feeling you know, we couldn’t even continue working. It was just such an uncomfortable feeling. You know, like when he said those words like essentially that’s, that’s really especially during these time, that’s like a death threat. You know, that’s what we would consider it as because he knew clearly what he was doing, you know, and the thing is, you know, too use those words and to weaponize that, especially for such a non emergency situation in which we were not aggressive in any sort of way. And he was being very confrontational. We felt so uncomfortable, and we felt so at unease that we were like, We were just wondering, you know, what would happen next, then really, we were such an uneasy and it was just, it was so uncomfortable. I can’t say anything else. Like, it’s,

Nick Moran 10:22
it’s really unfortunate. You know, what do you guys have to think about, as you know, a team of three black and brown founders? What do you have to think about and be aware of that white people don’t?

Speaker 2 10:35
I think one of the biggest things is just how we’re perceived by the public, there was a really interesting story that I just read of a man who’s talking about even like when he goes for a jog, he’s very aware of when he’s running, and he sees a person, a white person, like walking their dog along the sidewalk, he’s very aware that he should stay at least a certain amount of space between them just so that they’re not frightened by him going for a run. I think that especially being black and brown founders, especially, you know, obvious, I’ll also being two Muslim founders. I’m a co founder, there’s definitely a different perception when we walk into a room, especially since most VCs are, you know, as we talked a little bit about earlier, they’re most you know, Harvard, Stanford grads, white men, and they usually they’re used to seeing white founders walk into a room and do their pitches. There’s also you know, statistically founders of color. And women also are less likely to receive funding from VCs, which is, you know, not a statistic that you want to hear. But there’s definitely you’re always very cognizant of your day to day activities, and how you’re kind of perceived by people almost like every minute of your life. Yeah,

Nick Moran 11:44
my, my wife came home last night, she works in the mental health field. And they had a sort of a group zoom call with many colleagues, many of which are from a variety of minority races, and one of her black co workers that she respects a lot. So it’s akin to going through life, or it feels like going through life, and always been undervalued. And I think the reality is that white people enjoy rights and safety and privileges, that black people and brown people don’t. You know, what is it been like growing up in a society that is not structured to promote your success, the way it may promote white people success.

Speaker 2 12:31
I think one of the biggest things is especially like growing up. So I grew up most of my life, actually, in Fargo, North Dakota. So there wasn’t too many black and brown people in my elementary school, middle school or high school, I was very, very aware that I was the only brown guy in my school. So you hear a lot of statements come at you regarding your race, or religion, or kind of like revolving around that entire thing. And I think one thing that has really impacted me was the way that I perceived myself, I think that I realized early on that although that systemically I’m not at at an advantage as my white peers are. I know that I have a work ethic that will allow me to succeed. And I know Sal can attest to this as well. Obvious. Well, you know, although that we are founders of color, one of the biggest things we know is that we can work two times harder. And we’re willing to work two times harder than somebody who has to work who doesn’t have to work as hard as us to achieve the same thing. Especially you know, growing up in a community where you don’t have a lot of people who look like you, you just become very aware of some of the disadvantages you face. But you you almost get really thick skin. So you’re you’re you’re prepared for what life has to throw at you. Once you grow up, and you’re an adult, and you have to deal with stuff in the workplace, especially after you’ve left school.

Nick Moran 13:55
Really important for launching a startup. Yeah, exactly. Having, having that resilience, right. And that fix. Yeah, thick skin. I’ve been curious to hear about your experience, as, you know, black founders and brown founders in the in the venture world and in the startup world.

Speaker 2 14:12
There’s actually one really interesting story about so the first time that we kind of came up with a concept we talked about, we spoke to a venture capitalist. And in that first meeting, we did our whole pitch and he sat down, he started talking and he started asking us specific questions. And he asked, obviously, he’s like, What do you guys African Somali, they looked at me, he’s like, I don’t even know what the hell you are. And then he went on to any proceeded to talk about how people will not want to invest in us specifically because we look a certain way. And after that first meeting, we knew from here on out that it was going to be kind of an uphill battle the entire time that we’re trying to build tavola and we’re trying to build a tech company where there’s very, very few founders that look like us in our field. Wow. She’s from

Nick Moran 14:58
the very beginning, huh? VC was not representing itself. Well, you know, how does this nice again, and your collective experiences shape how you go about business in the future and where you go next?

Speaker 2 15:11
I think that, uh, one of the as I mentioned earlier, I think one of the biggest things is just to continue to be cognizant, but I think it’s really important for not just ourselves, but for other founders of color who are watching this video. And they’re kind of relating it to it, relating to it with their own experiences, I think it’s that to not get disheartened and to always kind of have hope that things get better. The outpour of support that came after the video came out was, was absolutely incredible. There was people from all over the world talking about how they were on our side, how much he supported us, they wanted to support our businesses. But I think that although there is people like that, that exist in the world, I think there’s a lot more good than there is bad at work right now. And I think that’s kind of what the situation has kind of taught us.

Nick Moran 15:59
And good for you. To transition a bit, you guys are in Minneapolis, of course, the situation and the murder of George Floyd occurred there. I think for for many of us, that have watched the video watching somebody murdered, especially by someone whose job it is to protect and serve was just horrific. And no one else that was present did anything about it, which, which just made it more traumatic and scary. You know, what are your general thoughts on what’s going on, you know, amidst the the George Floyd murder, and in the situation with the black community, in Minneapolis and beyond?

Speaker 3 16:43
I think, you know, like, really, what’s been happening is we took part in the protests, and the thing is, it’s very difficult, and the climate is very just, people are fed up, you know, they’re kind of fed up with what’s been going on, especially with the Minneapolis Police Department and police injustice is happening all over the country, you know, especially people of color and black people. And the thing is, it’s just this ease, people are just over the edge, they’re not going to take this anymore, and they want to see change happen, and they want to see something, you know, as far as legislation and responsibilities of police officers being prosecuted. That’s the main thing that they’re trying to get out of here and that we’re trying to fight for it. We live in America, we’re already being labeled as, as a minority. And it’s hard to you know, you have to make sure everything is you have to dot your T’s and like figure out everything that you’re doing is in a right way. It’s just crazy. Like, I really think that the conversations that are happening, are leading in the right way. And just, it’s wild.

Speaker 2 17:46
I think, you know, kind of, as Sal said, the video was very, very horrific to see happen. You know, especially as more and more footage came out of what actually happened. It became very, very apparent that George Floyd did absolutely he was he didn’t do anything wrong. And I think that the police did not handle that situation. Well, and I think that this was the boiling point to what the black community has experienced over the last 400 years since the creation of the United States. And I think that it’s it’s opened up a lot of really uncomfortable, but really, really important conversations that need to happen. There was a video that I actually saw earlier today of George Floyd’s daughter mentioning how her daddy changed the world. And she’s absolutely right, this incident has really, really opened up, you know, a lot of hearts around the United States. And you know, I have a lot of friends who kind of reached out to sow and OB DNI, to speak about how they want to do what they can to support the black and brown community to, to do whatever they can to understand the issues that Abdi in south face, they want to help support black businesses and read books that were written by black people. But I think that the situation is, is a very, it’s a very pivotal moment in American history. And my hope is that there is legislation put forth that helps support the black community as a whole.

Nick Moran 19:19
That’s a really positive and optimistic outlook. I mean, amidst such a terrible events that’s just unforgivable, on so many levels, you know, to have some optimism that this can affect some systemic change. I can certainly appreciate that from your guys’s perspective. And I know you’re not the authority on this and you don’t speak for everyone but what are some actionable steps that investors and founders in the tech community can take to respond to this and and have some positive influence?

Speaker 2 19:55
I think one of the biggest things is just to be very aware of The things that black and brown founders face as they go and pitch to VCs, I know, there’s already been a few venture capital firms that have been created specifically to fund black and brown startups, which is absolutely wonderful to see. The thing is, like a lot of these people who grew up in these communities, they have a different background. And they present themselves a different way than I think a lot of the VCs are used to. And I think that most VCs are not, they’re not used to having that experience whenever they walk into a meeting. But I think the biggest thing is just be very vigilant and cognizant of how they behave. And try to be very aware of the experiences that black and brown founders have. And to to not judge them based off of the color of their skin. Even if it’s subconscious, I think I think that’s the very important thing. It’s very, very uncommon for somebody to be outwardly racist, is more so subtle racism that kind of builds up over time. And that’s what kind of creates that damage to the black and brown community. But I think that for VCs moving forward, I think this, this is very important situation for them to kind of be aware of, and to basically just take black and brown founders seriously as they would anybody else you want to be on the same playing field, as anybody else who walks into a meeting with any great idea. Well,

Speaker 4 21:18
Sal, any thoughts on that? Absolutely.

Speaker 3 21:21
That’s the key thing, really, it’s, you know, the seeds to start taking action and like put their money where their mouth is really just start to invest in in more color founders, in more black businesses, and to really just take that action steps. And I think that that is the key thing. And like, really treat every, you know, just look at the pitch deck and to look at our business model. And we have thick skin like we we can take any sort of criticism, but we don’t want to take criticism based on the type of person we are, we want the criticism to be directly related to our business model. And you know, like, that’s the main thing and like, we’ll work on that we’ll we’ll take steps to resolve it. And we’ll fix that, but we’re just sick and tired of dealing with, like Terran says, It’s not outwardly spoken, but the internal racism, where people are like, you know, hey, I don’t think these guys are worth it or anything, you know, I don’t think they can do it, I don’t think they have the backing or the family, to support them to repair stuff like that, you know, I just think that it’s, we can do it, it’s just we just want to be treated the same way. We want to be criticized on our idea and our business, not the color of our skin.

Nick Moran 22:24
Well, guys, I’m very sorry that this happened to you, I don’t think you’ll be getting an apology from Tom Austin, but you’ll get one for me, you know, as a white male VC, I’m ashamed of what happened to you. And I apologize, you both and your co founder for what happened and for all the situations that aren’t captured on video, that are a part of the racism that you guys face in that other founders face.

Unknown Speaker 22:48
Thank you so much. We really appreciate that.

Speaker 4 22:50
Any any final thoughts or words for the audience?

Speaker 2 22:53
I think one thing that I just want to leave the audience with is that this is a very pivotal moment in American history. And there’s a lot of momentum behind the movement. And I just really, really hope that we don’t stop pushing it forward. And it does lead to systemic changes that stop hurting the black and brown community around the United States.

Nick Moran 23:15
Very good. So any last thoughts from you?

Speaker 3 23:19
Yeah, no, really, to be honest, I’d say really, for NBC to you know, step up and invest in more black businesses and to really just give them a chance and just judge them on their business plan.

Nick Moran 23:30
Very good. We’ll turn it over. And Sal, thank you so much for joining me today. The startup is Tovolo as well as their e commerce consultancy and social media consultancy top figure, guys, this is a real pleasure. Again, my condolences for everything that happened and I’m really glad that you guys are being a force for change. I’m challenging myself to be a force as well and all the listeners in the audience, take some action, and don’t just listen.

Unknown Speaker 23:57
Thank you so much. Appreciate you having us.