How to build a nationwide community of diverse entrepreneurs
Aaron Walker is part of an emerging network of innovators who are solving problems through entrepreneurship
In celebration of Black History Month, Allstate is spotlighting three African Americans who are making a positive impact on their communities, part of its annual “Worth Telling” campaign. The Renewal Project will share these local leaders’ stories. You can learn more at Allstate.com/WorthTelling, and on social media using the hashtag #WorthTelling. The Renewal Project is made possible by Allstate.
Aaron Walker is helping to build a national community of entrepreneurs. As the founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures in New Orleans, he is part of an emerging network of innovators who are helping to improve the city through entrepreneurship.
Walker, 35, believes that every budding entrepreneur has the “genius” to succeed, and he wants to help them cultivate it. Even the name, Camelback, refers to the resourcefulness of early black families in New Orleans who added a second level to their shotgun-style homes that made them appear, from the side-view, to look like a camel.
Since its launch three years ago, Camelback has worked with 21 entrepreneurs, and at the end of this year it will be 33. Though the New Jersey native has helped build a community in his adopted hometown, the entrepreneurs who come to Camelback for guidance and funding are from across the country, places like D.C., Chicago, New York City, Oakland, Durham, Los Angeles. Ninety percent have been people of color and about 60 percent have been women.
We spoke with Walker recently about building this community of diverse entrepreneurs. You can follow him on Twitter @walker_at.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to do this work?
AARON WALKER: I’ve always considered myself fortunate. I grew up on the last street in this suburban town; 100 feet away was Newark, New Jersey, which is an amazing, awesome city that has been neglected in all types of ways. I realized that I was fortunate to grow up on the right side of that very thin line, and have always felt that given the opportunities that I had … how was I going to use those opportunities to erase those lines that tend to divide those communities?
For me seeing that situation and saying that, for whom a lot is given, a lot is required. I have been given a lot, so there is a lot that is required of me.
How are you helping your community thrive?
WALKER: First is just creating a platform to elevate the genius of the entrepreneurs that we work with. One of the things I often say is genius is equally distributed, but access is not. For me, it’s a deep belief in the first part, that there is not anything lacking within people of color—they have all the genius they need within them. How can we provide access for those people to elevate their genius? That’s what we’re trying to do every day. I think we’ve been pretty successful. The thing that stands out for me the most is, in the last two years our fellows have been 10 percent of the Forbes 30 under 30 in education list.
Second is providing what we call friends and family funding. There is no accurate number on this, but about $90 billion moves every year in what is called friends and family funding, a minuscule part of that goes to support African American entrepreneurs. One of the things we’re trying to do is fill that gap. The entrepreneurs we work with receive $40,000 in friends and family funding, to try to step in the place of that person or uncle who you may or may not have who can say, “Hey, we believe in you; we believe in your idea,” and fill that gap and get them going.
There are a lot of brilliant people out there that just lack access to the resources.
What do you love about your community?
WALKER: One of the things that I love the most is a deep sense of equity and justice that entrepreneurs have. Being able to work with them every day, to help them make that vision come to fruition, that’s one.
Two is the sense of family that we’ve been able to build over the last couple of years. One of my prouder moments, we had a fellow last year who was in another highly prestigious probably more well-recognized accelerator program in Silicon Valley. He told his wife, “you have to spend at least a couple days with me while I’m in the fellowship because I want you to see and feel what this feels like,” as compared to being in the other space, and that meant a lot to me. For entrepreneurs of color, there aren’t that many safe spaces, and so they have helped us build that.
What’s the one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
WALKER: Oftentimes there are these narratives of trying to bring something to those who do not have or do not know how to do. That’s an erroneous narrative. African-Americans have been entrepreneurs for decades. Obviously necessitated under duress when you think about someone like Harriet Tubman, who was an entrepreneur trying to figure out where can you go to lead hundreds of people to freedom.
You go from situations like that to situations like today where you have Tristan Walker and Paul Judge, and a whole host of other folks, who are amazing entrepreneurs today.
I saw the movie “Hidden Figures” recently. I feel like for a long time there are many African Americans who have been hidden figures, and we can flip that narrative multiple generations from now: folks who have been doing things for a long time will not just be hidden figures.
Who has inspired you?
WALKER: My first inclination is to say our former president for reasons that are probably really obvious. But if I were to think beyond the immediate, two people stand out. One is Jackie Robinson. I was a kid growing up who loved baseball, and was one of the few, if not only black kids on the team, from Little League all the way through college, playing club and traveling deep into Virginia and North Carolina. Because of that I always felt inspired by the Jackie Robinson story. Not just the baseball part: before Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson actually got court martialed for refusing to give up his seat on the bus. Stories like that always inspired me to try to be consistent in those ways around what your values are.
And the second person, I’ve begun to have this fascination with Gordon Parks. I love the dexterity of his artistry, from being a photographer to being an author to doing movies. There’s a different part of me that wants to explore those things. I love writing and storytelling and things like that. The ability to tell stories in a multitude of mediums.