Black users drive culture within the most coveted social media platforms that shape digital society, influencing much of the information and knowledge we receive in the real world. As early adopters of online networking platforms and majority users of smartphones, research shows that Black users dominate in online spaces like Facebook and Instagram. And a 2015 study in Pew Research revealed that African-Americans represent roughly 28% of all users on LinkedIn, which reports a total of 660 million users worldwide.
But more than just claiming profiles and posting professional updates within these spaces, Black founders are building versions of their own. Within the last year alone, Black tech platform creators have emerged to claim their stake in the multibillion-dollar professional networking scene. As networking offline and online converge, Black founders are developing digital tools to help users access deeper social connections that spill over from online environments into the real world. The benefits of these connection points on both ends of the spectrum have the potential to pay dividends particularly to the Black users who select to participate in them.
Leading The Way
Investor turned entrepreneur Kobie Fuller, general partner at Upfront Ventures, recently announced the release of online networking community Valence. It’s a two-year endeavor he and cofounders La Mer Walker and Emily Slade built, armed with $2.5 million and the goal to help create an explicit space for Black talent around the world to make connections around Black in the professional world. We’re sitting in silos like Black alumni associations, employee resource groups, or among individuals who curate independent Black executives in some industry to get together to have conversations around building their careers, explains Fuller. We realized there’s a way that all [these communities] could be centralized so people could find each other and build with one another through collective growth. If that destination existed, we know it could be special.
Valence features an online dashboard that feels straight out of a Star-Trek film, with visual effects and bold, cinematic imagery. The central site offers spaces to make connections, post events, and read spotlights of seemingly successful Black founders and executives.Long term, Fuller anticipates Valence to be a response to the low representation of Black talent within high-growth and high-tech roles at leading firms.
Blending Online and Offline Connection
Events are also becoming part of the product offerings of professional networking platforms like LinkedIn, which announced in October a feature that allows people to plan and invite people to in-person meetups.Black platforms are prioritizing getting into the event space as well. Prior to the launch of the Valence online community, the company partnered with Netflix to host a screening of The Black Godfather in Los Angeles for Black professionals. Valence also hosted a series of panel discussions in Atlanta at Black-owned co-working space The Gathering Spot.
IRL connections are also at the heart of Squad built by Isa Watson, who joined the growing cohort of Black women who have raised over $1 million in venture capital when she picked up seed funding north of $3 million from Harrison Metal, New Voices, and Precursor Ventures. Launched in New York City in 2018, Watson says that Squad will expand to 12 to 15 new markets within the next year.Without a specific emphasis on where you work or where you went to school, Watson says that Squad emphasizes real-life, meaningful connections among users who come from a variety of backgrounds not just clustering around familiar social circles.
At one event, one of the co-founders of Venmo was talking to a Black girl in the fitness space the entire event, explains Watson, who says the two may have never crossed paths based on existing clustered social circles.Other Black entrepreneurs creating professionally linked platforms include companies like Birmingham, Alabama-based Mixtroz, founded by mother-daughter duo Ashlee Simmons and Kerry Schrader. The founders picked up $1 million in seed funding last year for their mobile app that helps facilitate event networking by asking attendees to respond to a series of questions from the event host or sponsor, then groups people based on their answers. Author and women leadership coach Tiffany Dufu launched The Cru last year, offering a platform for women to jumpstart their professional development through a $499 annual subscription peer-coaching service. Dufu recently announced the closed of her first $1 million investment and has since hosted live events for Cru users across the country.
Reducing Inequality, Raising Social Capital
For many Black professionals, these online tools are needed to expand access to professional relationships since data shows our networks tend to be mostly comprised of family and friends.In her 2013 research study on African-Americans’ participation in social networks, professor Danielle T. Smith submits that online networks provide more social capital connections and diverse networking for African-Americans. These online connections help to mitigate the number of offline disadvantages and racial inequalities resulting from limited socially mobile networks.
Recruiters and hiring managers looking for diverse talent often say they don’t have diverse talent within their networks; these platforms, in turn, provide an opportunity many Black professionals would not otherwise have to get on their radar or make those connections directly on their own.