SaLisa Berrien, the entrepreneur behind a startup that helps companies eliminate energy waste, says she’s putting to use as many crucial lessons from her family as from engineering school.
“What we have learned from our grandparents and parents is that you have got to learn how to make something from nothing,” said Berrien. “You come up with an idea that’s based on a pain you have experienced or the folks around you have experienced.”
Berrien is one of a small but rising number of Black founders joining the fast-growing tech sector in New York. As THE CITY recently reported, they come armed with ideas and energy but can encounter steep challenges in attracting start-up money.
With the tech industry booming in the city and barely over 1% of start-up investment going to Black-owned firms nationwide, New York has a “generational opportunity,” as one think-tank executive put it, to deliver on its promise of a more equitable post-pandemic economy.
Here are the stories of four of the 10 New York Black-owned tech start-ups awarded grants of up to $100,000 and other help from Google’s Black Founders Fund as they attempt to make their mark.
‘Make It Easy to Pay Workers’
After earning a scholarship to attend Washington and Lee, Eli Polanco left the Dominican Republic at 18 to study economics and Chinese at the college in Virginia.
J.P. Morgan Chase snapped her up and brought her to New York where she spent about a decade focusing on innovation and technology involving payments.
She was the only Black woman on the team.
Just before the pandemic hit, she had decided she wanted to start something from scratch and focused on a goal that would improve finances for low-income workers — getting them paid faster.
She took a sabbatical and traveled around the country focusing on the problems and opportunities in payroll disbursement.
Polanco “bootstrapped” the early development, by putting in her own money and selling stock. She also convinced a small number of companies to sign on for pilots of what would become her payments company Nivelo.
Last year, she raised $2.5 million from venture funds, including Firstmark and Barclays, as well as early-stage “angel” investors and other founders who liked her idea. While she won’t disclose the number of clients, she says she’s facilitated $17 billion in payments to workers while building out her company.
“We want to make it as easy as possible to pay workers,” she said. “We move it from account to account faster.”
‘An Obvious Need for Tech’
After finishing high school in Dallas, Andrew Hill studied information management at the University of Texas at Austin and got a big break: The giant consulting company Deloitte hired him.
He helped start the company’s Deloitte Digital unit for large-scale technology implementation. But after five years, he burned out on the endless travel, decided to take advantage of the company’s willingness to pay for an MBA and was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley.
“I have a lot of peers who didn’t go to UT or Berkeley,” he said. “It afforded me an opportunity to get to Deloitte.”
Just before heading to Berkeley in 2014, his sister asked him to spend some time with her over the summer.
A district coordinator for special education in New Jersey, she found the system of monitoring progress of individual students, allowing the team of teachers and service providers to collaborate and report to parents and administrators, ridiculously complicated.
“There was an obvious need for tech here,” Hill said.
While the technology is aimed at serving all special education students, Black and brown students are disproportionately given that designation, he notes.
Hill spent his time at Berkeley building his app to connect families and educators. He won a series of competitions that helped fund the initial costs and eventually raised $2.2 million over six years. LiftedEd had signed up 20 districts, representing 130 schools, when the pandemic hit and disrupted school systems, reducing his client base by 50%.
The goal this year is to take his evolving product and land between 30 and 50 new clients this school year.
‘Show People You are Passionate’
Renee King calls herself a “Tri-State Baby.” She was born and raised in The Bronx, but her mother was so determined that she get the best education possible that she kept moving her from schools in her home borough to ones in Manhattan and then on to Greenwich in Connecticut.
After graduating from SUNY Albany, King joined Pfizer in Brooklyn and then a series of media companies where she developed the desire to start a company.
FundBlackFounders is essentially creating a system to crowdfund the crucial friends-and-family round for Black entrepreneurs without wealthy parents or friends.
Her company won $50,000 in a competition that it leveraged into $1.7 million in funding for 50 Black entrepreneurs. The Google grant will allow her to more than repeat that performance.
King is also working with NBA All-Star Jrue Holiday and two-time Olympic gold medalist Lauren Holiday to give out $1 million in grants to Black-led nonprofit organizations and Black-owned businesses in underserved areas of Greater Milwaukee, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles.
FundBlackFounders has hit 4,000 members who have been vetted for an idea worth funding, a sign of the growing number of aspiring Black entrepreneurs across the country.
She said she’s learned that getting investors takes exceptional perseverance.
“You have to show people what you are passionate about,” she said. “You have be the person who waits at a conference to talk to a venture capitalist after having Googled and researched them. And you have to keep the relationship going.”
‘Repurposing Waste for Good’
SaLisa Berrien grew up in a family of seven in Allentown, Pa., and remembers how despite her father’s job at a steel plant they frequently had the power turned off because there was no money to pay the bill.
After graduating from high school, she studied mechanical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the only Black woman in the program.
She spent the first half of her career working for utilities when she decided to try the startup world — and learned an important lesson.
Negotiating for a job with a startup, the company offered her $1,800 less than she was asking. Her prospective bosses didn’t want to increase the salary at first so they offered her 1,800 shares of stock instead. She said no, demanded the $1,800 — and got it, to her everlasting chagrin.
Eventually, the company went public at $26, jumped to $52 and split its stock several times.
“If I had taken those options I would have been an instant multi-millionaire,” she said. “But where I came from, I didn’t know anything about the startup world.”
She learned. In 2016, she founded her own company, called COI, which designed to help companies eliminate energy waste by combining all the various elements of energy management. Rather than pay for each service, her customers sign up for subscriptions.
The environmental impact of more efficiency could be significant since businesses waste 30% of the energy they use each year. A portion of the money saved goes to underserved communities affected by climate change.
Berrien financed the earliest stage by bootstrapping — using her savings and selling stock. Eventually she raised $3 million in venture funding.
Customers now total 350.
She’s seeking more money to build out her team to expand the platform for the 1,500 clients she needs to break even. She also just received her first patent for the new technology she has employed in the business.
“It’s really how we look at detecting and eliminating energy waste in buildings and making that excess capacity available to others,” he said. “We’re repurposing that waste for good. And so I don’t see anyone else looking at it that way.”