Two years ago when I interviewed Tristan Walker, he shared a simple message: Companies are “doomed if they don’t start changing” and taking diversity seriously.
The founder of Walker & Company Brands --- a health and beauty startup catering to people of color – Walker has in many ways become an iconic symbol for Black male founders. A graduate from Stanford Business School who was named a USA Today Person of the Year, Walker gets the kind of media attention that most founders would dream of. He was an Entrepreneur-in-Resident at Andreessen Horowitz before launching his own startup now with more than $30 million in funding and his popular Bevel razors are now sold widely at places like Target.
Despite all the perceived success, Walker is less than optimistic about where the technology industry is headed. Just last week at The New York Times’ New Work Summit, I caught up with him again and asked him how much from a diversity perspective has really changed. His answer? Not much.
“It’s the same as two years ago. Maybe this is a contrarian view, maybe it’s not, but I don’t think anything has changed,” he said. “It is going to require more folks than I to change this thing. But if they don’t want to change it, that’s their problem. We want the best people with the most diverse ideas and if you are unwilling to hire or fund those folks, it is your loss.”
In the wake of Uber’s internal investigation into its company culture, Walker and I talked about the importance of building diverse and “courageous” teams, running a startup as a Black founder and the progress he feels the industry must make in the next 10 to 20 years to stay competitive.
CF: It’s challenging recruiting diverse talent in tech right now. How have you created a culture at Walker & Company that has allowed you to do that?
TW: Walker & Company is 25 employees now. We have the right talent come work for us. We are majority minority and have reached parity on gender. Most of my senior leadership members are women of color. Most of them also come from the East Coast, which means people self select into this. Walker & Company didn’t mean anything three years ago. We only find our meaning through our values and that carries the brand into what it will become. But the fact that we have such a diverse group of folks come work for us lets me know that we have done something right.
CF: Uber is dealing with what can be described as a company culture crisis right now. How would you advise tech companies to be more inclusive?
TW: I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole idea around diversity committees at all these things at companies. They are in every single industry. Whether it is tech, finance or insurance, companies have these diversity committees. That just shows that there is no way that it will be a default state. It will always be some project and it shouldn’t be. At Walker & Brands, we made it our default state. Now the only thing we have to worry about is almost becoming too diverse, which doesn’t make any sense. So my advice to them would be to think about what it would take to make diversity your default state. Maybe that will take 10 to 15 years, but you have to have a plan and that plan is different than how you fix things in the next nine months to get people off our backs.
CF: Are you surprised that this is still an issue among tech companies?
TW: There is no shortage of research that shows that diversity leads to better outcomes, so why aren’t people taking this more seriously? I don’t understand the logic. We are sending rockets to the moon in 18 months, why can’t we figure this out? And actually, we do ourselves a disservice by saying we need to “figure out” diversity because, it just is. And if it isn’t there at your company, it will be, because America is changing very quickly.
CF: You are a Black founder creating products that predominately serve people of color. How does that impact your success?
TW: Everyone always talks about us about being a niche Procter & Gamble or a niche Johnson & Johnson. But the majority of the world is people of color. Why do you think that is niche? It’s laziness and an unwillingness to acquire that context. It’s on me now to prove that we are right. That’s entrepreneurship at it’s most pure, which I can appreciate. It also makes us focus even more on building a business that is great and can sustain itself. There is a reason we don’t need to hire so many people or spend a lot on marketing. If folks are not going to acquire the context to understand what we are doing, it will just be harder for us to raise money down the road. So we want to create our own destiny rather than just grow for growth’s sake.
CF: Did you set out to become the symbol that you have become for Black male founders?
TW: I had no idea what Silicon Valley was before I came here. I fell into this. Folks think I had some plan. I have been very lucky and I had great timing and great supporters. It wasn’t all that and me is fine. As long as we are serving our customers in the best way that we want to serve them, that is all that I can do, and that creates a virtuous cycle. We get more appreciation for the brand and better recruits and it makes people want to promote us more. It will never be my plan to be an icon of sorts. If anything, I want to create way more of those folks. There is also something to say about people talking about me way too much because it is a crutch. There are plenty of great founders who look like me and deserve that recognition. That is the one thing I want to evangelize.
CF: How do you think about prioritizing your time?
TW: It’s easy. I only care about three things in my life: My faith, my family and my work in that order. I only allocate my time to those three things and anything else is superfluous. My team knows that I come into the office between 8:30 and 9 and I leave between 6:30 and 7 because I have to eat with my son and put him to bed. There is no question about that. I need to practice what I preach. I don’t have email on my phone. What’s fascinating is that if something blows up, someone would call me. No one ever calls me. It shows that it is easier than people make it. You just need to define it. That is something that I planned.