The People There in the Beginning: Why Investing in Diverse Leaders Matters

September 6, 2016
Guest Post by Aaron Walker, Founder/CEO of Camelback Ventures


“Always remember the people who were there in the beginning.” This advice was given to me more than three years ago when Camelback Ventures was just an incomplete idea.   Today, having touched the lives of more than 24 diverse entrepreneurs, I know I can never forget.

Camelback Ventures was an idea that began because I deeply believed in the untapped potential among those of us wanting to improve public education.

I’ve seen first-hand how much entrepreneurial talent is left sitting on the sidelines or working in the margins – especially among Black and Latino leaders. They have compelling ideas for new school models, education technologies and high-impact direct service nonprofits, but because they lack access to financial and relationship capital, they have a hard time even beginning, let alone scaling.  Their dreams suffer, and so do our most vulnerable children.

And with this conundrum as a backdrop, I, too, had a problem I wanted to solve. As a black man with an entrepreneurial idea to change education, I was trying to figure out how to get my idea off the ground. In late 2013, I cobbled together a few dollars to conduct a four-month pilot of my infant idea – a pre-accelerator focused on diverse education entrepreneurs. It was not perfect; I worked from my living room, I had no employees, I provided no funding, I was not getting paid and I had no proven program model. It was the equivalent of your aunt making dinners out of her kitchen and running a restaurant from her dining room table until she could open a storefront.

But that pilot allowed me to work with three amazing Black entrepreneurs. It gave me an opportunity to tell their stories – the stories of teachers turned change-makers who wanted to use their experience, knowledge and talent to create ventures that had the potential to create new paths to community college, STEM careers and opportunities to the C-suite for Black and Latino leaders.

As we told that story, some asked why diversity mattered. I often heard refrains of “many Black and Latino entrepreneurs need just a little more experience” – forgetting that we all start off a little inexperienced, and so did the founders of some of the education organizations we now revere.

Others listened, though. NewSchools Venture Fund was one of those organizations.

They knew that it was not about anything Black and Latino entrepreneurs lacked intrinsically.  Rather, the lack of access to coaching, connections and capital needed for good ideas to flourish was the root cause. Simply put – our society was not setting them up with an equal chance to succeed.

Nearly three years ago, Dr. Deborah McGriff of NewSchools Venture Fund led an investment in my organization, Camelback Ventures. That investment was the catalyst for more funders to come on board – Kapor Center for Social Impact, Lumina Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation, among others.

That investment has led to powerful new connections with individuals such as Christal Jackson, founder of Head and Heart Philanthropy.

That investment has allowed me to learn from Dr. McGriff during our monthly calls for the last two years. Her advice enables me to be better tomorrow than I am today; her strategic mind has made me a better leader; and her patience has let me make my own mistakes without judgment.

Thank you to NewSchools – thank you Dr. McGriff – for being there in the beginning. I will always remember.  And, that’s why investing in diverse leaders matters so much.  If you or someone you know has an idea for diversifying education, please make sure that idea gets to NewSchools Venture Fund.


NewSchools is accepting submissions for the second Diverse Leaders funding opportunity from August 1 through September 16 at 5pm PT.