two people sitting with each other
Johnnie and Alexa Turnage co-founded the donation app EvenScore alongside partner Averett Barksdale. They are working to help other Black tech founders navigate the challenging startup process. (Courtesy photo)

After leaving her reporting job at USA Today in 2014, Ashley Williams said she spent the next day crying in her apartment over what she had done.

Eight years later, Johnnie Turnage made a similar move, quitting his job at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 876 in Southfield within the first year of his marriage to wife Alexa Turnage. 

All three say they were ready for a change but initially overwhelmed as they set out on their journey into full-time entrepreneurship. 

Ashley Williams sitting in a chair
Ashley Williams of Detroit is the creator of RIZZARR, a content marketplace that matches content creators with brands. Williams is co-hosting an event Thursday with other Black tech founders to help startups with networking and navigating  funding opportunities (Courtesy photo)

Williams created RIZZARR in 2015, a content marketplace that matches content creators with brands. Native Detroiters Johnnie and Alexa partnered with Averett Barksdale and co-founded the donation app EvenScore last year. EvenScore is expected to go live later this year. 

But as Black tech founders new to the industry, the journey wasn’t easy. They have navigated racism and sexism, as well the lack of knowledge on how to network and secure investors, they say. 

Now, Williams and the Turnages want to help others working to get their startups off the ground. The three are co-hosting the event, “Changing the Narrative: Celebrating Black Founders and Inspiring the Future of Black Entrepreneurship in Michigan” Thursday at Centric Place, a Black-owned coworking space in Farmington Hills.

“At the very beginning, I knew we needed capital, but it was so hard to be able to get capital,” said Williams of Detroit. “And on top of that, I didn’t even know how to put together a pitch, I didn’t know all these different things.

“Caucasians have all those resources already,” she added. “They have people in their networks who have raised capital or they have access to raise capital. And even if they say that they don’t, it’s easier for them because they are the stereotypical-looking founder to be able to, if they needed that, to find someone who will vouch for them.” 

The Thursday event from 6-8 p.m. will give tech founders the opportunity to network with each other as well as investors. One of the guest speakers will be Luke Cooper, the founder of Baltimore-based Latimer Ventures, which invests in companies led by entrepreneurs of color. Representatives from Black-owned bank First Independence will be there as well as Chase and Fifth Third banks, Alexa said. 

For those in need of a new professional photo, a photographer will be at the coworking space providing free headshots, Johnnie said. 

To attend, RSVP here. 

Johnnie said building a network of fellow entrepreneurs and investors is essential for founders of color in the tech industry. According to software company Braze, only 1% of founders backed by venture capital in the United States are Black.

“To get any investments, somebody has to validate and say ‘I believe in you first,’ which means you have to have a network already,” Johnnie, now a Farmington Hills resident, said. 

“And that’s the biggest hurdle for getting any type of capital in this space,” he said. “As an entrepreneur, you could build a very interesting kind of network, but most underrepresented founders don’t have those organic pieces to even start with, so you’re just running a different race.” 

A way to uplift Black founders 

Johnnie, 29, said the idea for “Changing the Narrative” came up one night after he and Alexa, 32, attended a happy hour hosted by the Michigan Founders Fund (MFF), a nonprofit that provides startup programming and support to high-growth entrepreneurs. As members of the organization, they realized there wasn’t an event planned for Black History Month. 

“Around that same time, I was having a long conversation with Ashley on some of the things she was going through trying to fundraise in this space and her experience over the last few years,” Johnnie said. “And just the struggles and how we both have been hearing that founders are really struggling with mental health issues, getting connected and figuring out how to overcome those hurdles.” 

The Turnages reached out to the MFF, which liked the idea. MFF is also an organizer of the event, as well as The Song Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to investing in people and organizations that are improving the quality of life in Southeast Michigan. 

“When you’re starting a business, one thing that has been really helpful for me…is underrepresented founders–Black people, brown people, women–coming together,” Johnnie said. “When we help educate each other and show what’s going on or how to get ready, it helps erase some of those hurdles.” 

When Johnnie was starting EvenScore, one of the people that was helpful to him was Sergio Rodriguez, co-founder of startup ToDooly. Johnnie said Rodriguez was supportive as he developed the app, which gamifies the experience of donating to political candidates and nonprofits through things like giving donors scores, ranking campaigns that donors have contributed to, and making it easy for anyone to share a campaign’s story and call-out. 

Meanwhile, Williams, 34, said her self-esteem plummeted when she faced rejection after rejection when trying to secure investments in RIZZARR. But the Detroit resident said having a strong support system helped her stay in the industry and eventually she received interest from investors. 

Williams said events like “Changing the Narrative” will help hold investors accountable when they say they want to support founders of color. 

“We’re watching as entrepreneurs and we’re gonna hold them accountable, and not in a way that’s trying to be rude and shady, but it’s the fact that you can’t just say what you are going to do and not actually do it,” she said. “There has to be some real legitimacy and truth behind that.”

Another event will be held in March Johnnie said, but a date and place have not been determined yet. 

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