“Is your leadership team still black?”
I will never forget when a venture capitalist asked me this in a meeting. Much had changed since the last time my black co-founder, black CTO and I had connected with this insensitive investor, but certainly not that. I answered in the affirmative and quickly, awkwardly ended the meeting. The firm did not invest. Perhaps it was our business model they didn’t like.
This was one of the most overt, but certainly not the only time, my identity was at the center of an outsider’s analysis of the worth of my company.
This was one of the most overt, but certainly not the only time, my identity was at the center of an outsider’s analysis of the worth of my company. I started Partpic because I observed a significant pain point that I wanted to solve. While working at an industrial distribution company, I found our customers struggling to describe the parts they wanted to purchase from us. Agents on my team would try their best but often err in trying to help customers locate products. Based on customer feedback, it seemed taking a picture would be a better way to search for items that were not labeled with a part name or number. Partpic was created to solve this problem for everyone. We built a computer vision API that can recognize part images and match them to a specific SKU.
I had no idea how much my identity would play into starting and growing the business. I selected my co-founder without thinking of the optics of two black people at the helm of an early stage tech company. He was one of the smartest people I’d worked with at Google. From Google, he went to work on product marketing at Shazam. I wanted to create “Shazam for Parts”, so I thought he was the perfect fit to help me build something great. Race didn’t come up in my decision, but I often wonder how things would have gone if it had. Perhaps we would have had an easier time fundraising if investors could have seen themselves in us. Maybe more customers would have signed up had we been members of their country clubs. I’ll always wonder.
I watched both my parents run businesses when I was a child. I learned from the hardships they faced in managing staffs, making payrolls, and keeping their customers happy. I also saw how their racial identities impacted their businesses. My father had to clean and rebuild one of our stores after vandals attacked our buildings because they couldn’t stand the idea of a black-owned business prospering in the neighborhood. I watched my mother build an insurance agency despite constant waves of prejudice for over twenty years. She was transferred a book of business from a white male who retired from his agency. Many of his clients refused to be serviced by my mother and were explicitly vocal as to why. The color of her skin was enough to make them take their business elsewhere.
I mention these stories to express my awareness of race and how it can impact business and life. I was not a person who grew up in a “colorblind” world. I was the kid who was constantly made aware of my differentness. Even with the context of my parents’ experiences as entrepreneurs, I was still blindsided by the challenges my identity brought me in my own journey. The awareness process went something like this:
Phase 1 – Surprise: I was surprised people focused more on the makeup of my team than the efficacy of our technology. Questions about our credentials always monopolized meetings, where we expected to deep dive into how we built our training models or acquired images and data. Early on, I was aware that things would be different for us as we built Partpic, but I was hopeful our product and business could overcome the pervasive doubt.
Phase 2 – Bitterness: I became bitter when I compared our experiences to other founders and teams with whom I compared notes. Starting a company is hard for anyone, but I couldn’t help but notice how the hoops we were asked to jump were always higher. I contemplated finding a white male to help fundraise and “front” the business because I felt my identity was holding us back.
Phase 3 – Understanding: At a certain point, I realized that there are macro systems that impact thoughts and behavior. Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, and the election of Donald Trump put my experiences in perspective. Racism is alive and well in the United State of America. The tech industry is par for the course in that way. I understand that now. I have a strong desire to change the system, and I’m working to use myself as an example of what can be when black people create.
Today, I manage a team of 12 engineers, product managers, and quality analysts — 50% of whom are black. We are responsible for making unmarked products searchable with a smartphone camera. Our technology will change commerce forever. The people who use it will likely never know how we look. How ironic.
Jewel Burks is a Technical Product Manager for visual search at A9, an Amazon company. Prior to joining A9, Jewel founded Partpic, an Atlanta-based startup designed to streamline the purchase of maintenance and repair parts using computer vision technology. Partpic raised over $2 million in seed funding to integrate its proprietary technology into mobile apps and websites of part distributors, manufacturers, and retailers. Jewel has been featured in numerous publications including Forbes, Wired, Black Enterprise, Essence and Glamour. Prior to founding Partpic, Jewel served in management and sales roles at McMaster-Carr and Google. Jewel is a native of Nashville TN, and graduate of Howard University. She currently serves on the board of directors for Amplify 4 Good and Atlanta Tech Leaders.