FROM CHILDHOOD TRAGEDY TO LEADING VOICE AMONG YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS IN SILICON VALLEY.
Smarter. Faster. More colorful.
As the year ends, USA TODAY recognizes people in the news who embody these qualities. Today in Tech we profile Walker & Company Brands founder and CEO Tristan Walker. Even in Silicon Valley, where outsized ambition gives the biggest overachievers pause, Walker, 30, is betting he can use his know-how to take on industry giants and transform the health and beauty market for people of color. He has emerged as a rising star on matters of tech and diversity.
Even here in Silicon Valley, where this generation’s brightest minds dream up big ideas to smash the status quo, Tristan Walker’s level of ambition stands out.
He is not building another social network or a mobile app to solve First World problems, say, how to order a gourmet dinner or hire a private car on your smartphone.
Instead, this 30-year-old is betting he can use his Silicon Valley know-how to take on industry giants and transform the health and beauty market for people of color.
His company is called Walker & Company Brands, and its first product is Bevel, a single-blade razor system for men and women with coarse, curly hair.
Walker says he’s addressing the problem of razor bumps and skin irritation that affects up to 80% of African Americans and up to 30% of people of other races.
“It’s crazy that no one has developed something like this in the hundreds of years that shaving has existed,” Walker said.
Bevel started taking pre-orders in December 2013 and officially launched in 2014. Walker & Company Brands raised its $6.9 million Series A funding this year.
Bevel was inspired by Walker’s own frustrations with shaving.
“I couldn’t find products that worked for me, where I felt respected as a consumer, and I felt that needed to change,” Walker said. “We feel like we are working on something really, really, really necessary and important for the world.”
If the grateful e-mails he receives from customers are any indication, he’s on to something. A single mom wrote to Walker that Bevel helped her teach her son to shave. A member of the U.S. Army said razor bumps had been as big a part of his military career as his uniform.
“Those are the only stories we need to hear to know we are on to something fairly significant,” Walker said.
Yahoo executive Erin Teague says Walker, a top Silicon Valley executive who made his mark as head of business development at Foursquare, could have pursued any idea or built any company. Instead, he took a huge risk.
“Building a set of products targeted at people of color is not something people in Silicon Valley do,” Teague said. “He is throwing all of his resources, energy, time and dedication into this company. This is his life’s passion.”
A SMALL BUT AIRY OFFICE
Walker & Company Brands is tucked away in a small but airy ground-floor office on a quiet Palo Alto street in the heart of Silicon Valley.
R&B tunes play on Sonos. Vinyl album covers — Little Richard, Al Green, Michael Jackson, Nas, Whitney Houston, Prince — line the conference room wall.
An inspiration wall features African-American greats such as Spike Lee and Ray Charles as well as a tender photograph of the NBA’s Chris Paul and his young son and another photograph of a boy getting his first haircut. The newest addition: a restored 1920s barber chair.
The energy is palpable, lit up by Walker’s broad grin, which he flashes regularly.
Something else is very different about this start-up. Silicon Valley companies are dominated by white and Asian men, but Walker & Company Brands has only one white man on the 15-person staff.
The staff is majority minority and majority women — and that is by design. Walker says it’s a comparative business advantage.
“Our employee base really reflects the customers we want to serve,” Walker said. “There is no shortage of research out there to suggest that more diverse teams lead to higher profits, and that is something we recognize in a very big way.”
Silicon Valley is just now starting to face up to its diversity problem as companies look to compete in an increasingly diverse global marketplace. Just a tiny percentage of workers in major high-tech companies are black or Hispanic.
“I didn’t know Silicon Valley existed until I was 24, and that’s a problem,” Walker said. “When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be an actor or an athlete. I knew I wanted to work on Wall Street. Because they were archetypes I wanted to aspire to be like. In Silicon Valley, there were none, and I’d argue that there still are none. We have a lot of work to do to really build and create those archetypes to inspire a generation of folks to want to really participate out here in a big way.”
Walker — who has emerged as the highest-profile African-American CEO and founder in Silicon Valley — is now that archetype. And he is using his success to nurture a new generation.
With Laura Weidman Powers, he co-founded a non-profit called Code 2040, which finds top Hispanic and African-American engineers and gets them internships with tech companies.
His reasoning: Black and Latino consumers are the greatest consumer demographic in the world. “Imagine America’s competitiveness if we could help the greatest consumer demographic in the world be the greatest producing demographic in the world,” he says.
SILICON VALLEY BOUND
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SOURCE: USA Today – Jessica Guynn