Do it Now Now was started by Bayo Adelaja, an ex-social policy researcher at the London School of Economics. Through the power of introductions, she’s managed to help Black-led tech and social enterprise start-ups in the UK and Africa secure millions of dollars worth of early-stage funding. She speaks to DiversityQ about why investors are hesitant to fund Black-led ventures.
“Spaces determine our experience of society and the development of our future,” says Adelaja. “The decision-makers that invest in tech choose what we all use.”
By decision-makers, she means investors such as venture capitalists that tend to give their money to start-ups whose leaders look like themselves; and with venture capital firms being white and male-dominated, it’s not hard to guess the types of businesses they’re likely to fund.
“The lack of understanding of different experiences and perspectives by decision-makers means that those that don’t fit the rubric of what a business ‘should’ look like end up not being valued or respected to the same level as businesses that fit that status quo,” she says.
Faced with systemic bias, which was cemented in a 2020 Sifted study that found that under 1% of venture capital investment in the UK went to Black entrepreneurs over the last decade, where only one Black female founder secured Series A funding; Do it Now Now is acting as the inclusion middleman to ensure their selected start-ups meet the right funders.
“Our start-ups have raised millions of dollars based on those introductions,” says Adelaja, who adds that the most successful transactions have come from American funders who “praise the money more than anything else” and “don’t need to like you” but “just need to know what you’re going to do.”
Funding by bias
While Adelaja admits that venture capital firms are trying to become more diversity and inclusion aware, she says they continue to make judgements based on emotions such as affinity and likeability when deciding whether to push the fund button. “At the end of the day, most people make a decision based on who they’d rather go for a drink with. It takes a very specific type of person to say, ‘I don’t like you, and I think we have nothing in common, but I’m going to go to bat for you every single day for the next 10 years.'”
She adds that in tech, personal bias is prevalent as investors like to point to comparisons, such as a successful business that has come before as a reason to give a certain firm funding. “The amount of times people pitch themselves as being the next Amazon or Facebook – and really the whole system is predicated on institutional racism that enabled those founders to succeed when people of colour didn’t, despite having just as good ideas or just as much potential. So, you’re just creating a vicious circle that continues to shut out some really great people.”
Racial capital in the start-up world
While funding is a critical juncture for start-up founders to get their business off the ground, there are other barriers the underrepresented face, including lack of networks and access to knowledge: “Most people, particularly white people, that enter the tech space already have a network they can tap into, whether that’s a school friend who is now an investor or another who works at a start-up,” says Adelaja.
“It’s the ability to tap into those relationships and say, ‘hey, you have this access that I don’t’, which is an extremely upper-middle-class and typically white person experience,” she continues.
“When you strip it down, it means that you have a specific group of people starting from a really privileged position, and everyone else is playing catch up.”
Adelaja breaks down funding bias by region, which she equates to a ‘boys’ club culture’ in the US and UK. “In America, the boys’ club is a private bar, and everyone knows where the door is – you’re just not allowed in. The British boys’ club, however, is a private club that no one knows the entrance to, and if you are initiated, you can’t tell anyone. It’s like Fight Club – the access is a lot more difficult.”
Adelaja goes on to say that the UK ecosystem does offer support for underrepresented founders, but it’s often mentorship at the expense of targeted investment. She says the situation in Europe is worse and lacks even mentorship: “It’s every man for themselves,” she says. “I speak to Black founders across Europe, including places like Amsterdam and Berlin, and they are envious of Black founders in the UK, even though Black people in the UK will tell you it’s not great.”
Breaking down barriers – what Do it Now Now is ‘doing’ to help
Adelaja knows the funding reality for Black entrepreneurs well – but she is trying to shift the narrative by giving them the support they need.
Under her leadership, Do it Now Now is behind the opening of a free workspace for Black-led tech start-ups in London, set to open in the coming months. There, early-stage firms will gain access to experts across different fields from taxation to legal aid and fundraising to help them establish their businesses. Start-ups can also expect support on developing pitch decks where submissions will be reviewed so firms can have “the comfort of a sounding board.”
In December, Do it Now Now will be running a business event for 10 Black tech start-ups who will have access to leading UK organisations, investors, and what Adelaja calls “some really strong infrastructure organisations” to help them scale-up
With Adelaja’s passion for democratising access to funding, it can be easy to forget that she’s an entrepreneur herself, who, as a Black founder, has battled her own lack of access to growth facilitates. In this regard, she says working with London & Partners, the business growth and destination agency for London and their Business Growth Programme has been a lifeline: “One of the things that hurt Black-led organisations the most is that we don’t have access to people in decision making roles, or people in specific industries that can help us understand how specific things affect our own organisations. London & Partners has given me access to lots of different experts that have helped us understand what we should be doing, how to grow, and has helped us win opportunities that we wouldn’t have won otherwise.”
To find out more about London & Partners and their Business Growth Programme, click here.