Editor’s note: As Black Business Month comes to a close, WRAL TechWire takes an in-depth look at the rise of “Black angels” who are looking to close the gap in funding for minority owned businesses. This is the first of three parts.
RALEIGH – By age 42, Greg Boone had his hand in three successful exits.
First, it was I-Cubed acquired by KPIT in 2014. Next came iCiDIGITAL, where he served as CEO until it got sold to Beringer Capital in 2017. That merged to form Blue Acorn iCi, which exited to Infosys in 2020.
“It created an inflection point in my life,” says the Durham native who currently serves as co-CEO of Blue Acorn iCi.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, I could get used to this. Growing something, exiting at a bigger valuation. Rinse and repeat.”
Perhaps more importantly, as an African American, he finally found himself in the position where he could use his own dollars to invest in other Black-led startups.
One of his earliest ventures was Creative Allies, a Raleigh-based marketing firm led by a Black female CEO. He’s also an investor in The Diversity Movement, diversity training for organizations founded in 2019.
Boone, now 43, says he tries to invest in one small company every year, and estimates around 70-75 percent of them are Black-led.
“If you want to see more Black-owned businesses and more Black leaders, put your money where your mouth is,” he says.
“Someone gave me a shot,” he adds, crediting his former mentor, Donald Thompson, veteran investor and former CEO of I-Cubed. “Now I’m in a position to pay it forward.”
The rise of the Black angel
Boone is something of a rarity, but that could soon change.
With less than 1 percent of venture capital going to African American entrepreneurs, a growing number of angel investors who happen to be Black are stepping up to close the existing funding gap, both in the Triangle and nationally.
Often fondly referred to as “Black angels,” they are single-handedly expanding access to capital, networks and opportunity. But this isn’t philanthropy, they say. While their reasons and approaches may vary, all share one thing in common: they want to make money. More to the point, they feel opportunities in the Black community are being overlooked, and they’re ready to capitalize.
In the last few years, Black angel investors have been behind a string of well-publicized investments into Black-led startups in the region.
Among them: Cary medtech startup NeuroVice landed $300,0000 from two Black angels; Raleigh’s Substantial Media pocketed $10,000 from Donald Thompson; Beyu Group, owner of Durham’s popular Beyu Caffé, raised nearly roughly $220,000; and Raleigh-based sports tech startup Gryppers secured $215,000 from nine investors, many of them Black angels.
Back in 2018, meanwhile, Durham social media startup SpokeHub defied expectations after raising a whopping $2 million from only Black angel investors.
However, these investors are still scarce on the ground.
Dr. Shanté Williams, author of the recently released book, “Black Angels: The Wealth Edition,” estimates only 1.3 percent of angel investors are Black.
It’s not much better in the world of venture capital (VC) where VC firms reported 4 percent Black investment professionals (compared to 3 percent in 2018), and 4 percent Hispanic or Latino investment professionals (down from 5 percent in 2018).
“This low participation rate means many African Americans do not know other investors to help them get started,” she says.
She says the solution is education.
“Angel investors tend to invest in companies that look like them,” says Williams, whose book serves as a “practical guide” to help people, especially women and people of color, mobilize their dollars to become angel investors.
“By educating more African Americans on angel investing we are able to create more check writers of color and potentially help to close the funding gap for more Black and brown founders.”
Building generational wealth
Colton Palmer, 31, CEO of Gold Group, started angel investing at the ripe age of 19.
It started with his parents and friends who had created an investment club called MMIC. Together, they would invest together in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and eventually startups.
Growing up, Palmer would eavesdrop on their meetings. Then one day, as a college student at NC State, he was finally invited to hang around for a meetup.
Pitching that day was Duke grad Dorian Bolden, who was looking to start a coffee shop in downtown Durham.
“I was hooked and wanted to invest, but just like most college kids had no money to invest,” he recalls.
Unbeknownst to him, however, his grandfather had been stashing away money in a college account for him. But since he’d gotten a full wrestling scholarship, he was able to access the funds early.
“I made my first angel investment in 2009,” he says. “I viewed the investment not just as an opportunity to make money, but also an investment in my future.”
More recently, he’s invested in Durham-based Graybeard Distillery, which produces Bedlam Vodka and is not Black owned; and Cary medtech startup NeuroVice, founded by a Black female founder.
While he admits he does target Black-owned businesses, he’s not exclusive.
“My goal isn’t to just look for equity opportunities but rather work with and serve as a resource for Black businesses,” he says. “If that work leads to equity, great. If it doesn’t, I’m good with that, too.”
‘This is not philanthropy’
Bill Spruill is another Black entrepreneur and local angel investor. However, he doesn’t like to use the term “Black angel investor” to describe himself; he prefers not to be defined by his skin tone.
“Being an ‘angel investor’ is the equality I am striving for, but the reality of the here and now is that I am a Black angel investor.”
Spruill knows first-hand the hardships of raising capital as a person of color.
Back in 2011, he was forced to bootstrap his global identity verification platform, The Global Data Consortium, when he couldn’t find any investors.
But things have changed. Last year, his firm raised $3.5 million and is scaling quickly. It has 35 employees and counts Amazon Payments and DHL eCommerce among his clients.
When it comes to his own investing, he takes a more nuanced approach. While he’s always looking for “interesting minority-led deals,” it doesn’t define his strategy.
Currently, he has one active investment that in a Black-led startup — Durham’s Courtroom5.
“It’s important for me to clarify that I don’t do this strictly to invest in African Americans because I’ve been approached along those lines,” he says. “People say, ‘Okay, you’re a Black investor so you probably want to or should invest in my company.’
Ultimately, it comes down to deals that will “make me money and generate a return.”
“I don’t focus on it strictly being about an African American. I think it’s important to invest in good business deals. Otherwise, it’s philanthropy.”
Building equity ‘one minority investment at a time’
William (Tré) Clayton, 26, says his first exposure to angel investing came through the lens of watching the hit TV show “Shark Tank” as a freshman in high school.
Fast-forward a few years later: After graduating from Howard University, the Clayton native found himself working at an investment banking firm in New York City.
He started learning more about venture capital and felt driven by a personal mission: “to transform humanity through financial literacy and equitable opportunities for people of color — one minority investment at a time.”
In addition to serving as vice president at Siebert Williams Shank, he’s now a venture fellow at NY-based Collab Capital, a $50 million fund dedicated to Black founders.
Like Palmer, he recently invested in Cary medtech startup NeuroVice, founded by Black female founder, Ashlyn Sanders. However, his investment is a personal one, not through Collab’s fund.
“I was made aware of NeuroVice through a Forbes article that had been written,” he recalls, “and decided it was a great candidate for me to start off my journey as an angel investor.”
He’s not looking back now.
“Ensuring a successful exit is top of mind for us now. I also hope to have another investment under my belt before the end of the year.”