Charlton Cunningham serves as the Head of Programs at HBCUvc, an organization dedicated to bringing more diversity into the venture capital industry. He formerly was Executive Director of Startup Atlanta, a City of Atlanta-funded non-profit focused on economic and community development.

Prior to Startup Atlanta, Charlton held roles in brand strategy and member experience design at Roam Innovative Workplace and Sandbox ATL, both entrepreneur-focused co-working and community spaces. He also served as Director of Oust Labs, a consumer-focused, early-stage business accelerator, and as Startup Community Manager at venture firm BuiltTech Labs.

Charlton began his career in the design space, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a Construction Management minor from Kennesaw State University. He volunteers his time in the community as a Council member of the Atlanta Black Tech Coalition and an Ambassador for Nashville-based Build In SE.

“How can we make it easier for people who are just starting out to start a business? How can we make that American dream true for everyone? There are such high and deeply rooted barriers to entrepreneurship that by far not every American can pursue that dream. And I want to change that.”

Meet Charlton Cunnungham of HBCUvc, a non profit organization training the next generation of venture capital leaders with the mission to direct how capital is formed and distributed to increase opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx innovators. Charlton is also the co-founder and co-host of the Keystone podcast, the first podcast for entrepreneurial ecosystem builders. In our conversation, we talked about 

  • The importance of training the next generation of diverse VCs
  • Giving each other grace as we all learn how to become dedicated allies
  • The long-term nature of cultural change, and
  • Family.

I love making it easier for someone else coming behind me. When I stumbled into the work of ecosystem building, I was often frustrated because there were no blueprints or role models. Now that I know a little more, I try to make things easier for those who come next.

“In an ideal world, anyone who wants to start a business has the resources they need at every stage. If they’re looking for a co-founder, they can find the right people to be on their team. If they’re looking for capital, they can find the right funding mechanisms for them. For me it’s all about equity. When we talk about VC funding, we talk about people getting capital that reflects the cities that they’re in. I’m in Atlanta and we’re an overwhelmingly Black city. So what do the capital and overall resource allocation look like? My ideal future is one where everyone has the ability to start and there’s equity across the board.

By increasing the amount of investors of color and women investors, we create greater equity in the VC world. 

At HBCUvc, we’re looking at that funding gap issue for underserved entrepreneurs: less than two percent of VC funding is going to Black founders, which actually even went down for Black women in 2020. This is a serious problem. We know that if we can increase the amount of investors of color and the amount of women investors, that will inevitably help resolve the funding issue for New Majority entrepreneurs. With our theory of change, we’re looking at how we might increase that metric of more VCs of color. We start with at the student level from awareness, exposure, connecting them to mentors and to internships.  We have a five- to ten-year window; by then, we want to see the students from our programs working at VC firms where they have check-writing authority.

We mostly work with students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). We make them aware of and expose them to the VC industry. One of our newer programs is our ecosystems program, which I lead: That program is a ten-week internship that happens in the summer; it’s two weeks of venture capital training and eight weeks of placement at a VC firm. We manage the whole recruitment process and help the firms get matched with these amazing students. We piloted it in Los Angeles and 2019 and we ran it again last year – though fully virtually due to COVID-19 – and now we’re expanding it to Chicago to the Bay Area to Baltimore to Birmingham. That program is open to not just HBCU students, but students who have traditionally been marginalized and haven’t had the access to these opportunities. 

We’re really excited about providing more opportunities for students to learn about their seat at the VC table to get paid for it.

We are really blessed and excited to work with a number of incredible partners who are really passionate about creating that alternative future with us. They’re hosting office hours and are really excited about either hiring from our pool of talent or bringing on an intern themselves. We really find that the folks who have a passion for equity and inclusion don’t just want to have someone as part of their team, but they want to give them a voice and a seat at the table. Those are people we want to work with.”

Challenging the status quo

“I think there needs to be grace for folks who haven’t done it well. I would say even over the last year and certainly through the the protesting and the police violence throughout 2020, we saw a big shift among folks who came to the realization that they’d been ignorant for too long. They came to us saying  “We not only want to do better, but we want to put our money where our mouth is and really step into this work.” So we’ve gotten a lot of partners from that springtime in 2020 who have really stepped into this work and we’re happy to walk with them. We hope that through our partnership we can see some change in their teams.

There are, in fact, huge industries that traditional VCs don’t know anything about because they’ve been largely untapped.

The key, I find, lies in helping them see their function in the ecosystem through a race-conscious lens. For example, they might have a founder who pitches them a product the VC is not familiar with because they simply haven’t walked in the founders’ shoes. Let’s assume a Black female entrepreneur pitches a haircare product specifically for Black hair. As a non-Black VC, they might not be familiar with the market and question that this is even something that people want. We help them understand that you need to reflect on your own biases and have the humility to ask questions about markets and spaces that you’re unfamiliar with. There are, in fact, huge industries that traditional VCs don’t know anything about because they’ve been largely untapped. 

Our hope is to teach partners to develop relationships with our students that allow them to have these conversations and insights. There’s a different communication style between West coast startup founders and, say, a student from an HBCU. Take, for example, students from Morehouse college, an HBCU here in Atlanta. They wear suits, they look the nicest, and they’re taught to always have an answer for everything. They’re prepared and on top of their game but to a VC used to the West Coast style – flip-flops and a hoodie – a Morehouse entrepreneur comes off differently and not always to their advantage. There are some culture clashes that we really have to coach VCs through and it requires them to be humble and admit that they don’t know everything:

 When it comes to creating a more diverse and equitable startup ecosystem, we all could use a little coaching and teaching.”

Shifting culture long-term

“The time horizon for the change we’re working towards is at least a decade. It’s ten years before you can see whether there’s a return on the investment you made. That’s why we need partners who are willing to go on that long walk with us. It’s a long-term commitment. 

You also need to find venture capital firms that are passionate about bringing on new talent, that  have the space and dedication to host an intern for the summer. That direct experience is super helpful: We find that a lot of our students will either be really interested in the VC world and want to enter that space full-time after college or they want to start their own companies; some of them are passionate about working for big tech. There are a lot of different pathways in the startup world and their experience with the VC world is something they can always go back to, be it right out of college or after a few years on the venture side. But having the opportunity to work in venture capital very early on to see whether this is something that they are  interested in is key. So having those VC firm partners is very helpful and so we love to talk to everyone who’s interested in what we’re doing. 

What personally helps me to continue this work is that we’re a family. At the end of the day, we’re a full team of color and we’re passionate about seeing this work done because we see ourselves in the students. We all remember what it was like when we first learned about startup ecosystems, and venture capital, in particular. Suddenly we discovered this whole other side to entrepreneurship that none of us had access to when we came up. We want to open the students’ eyes and broaden their horizons to ensure that they have all the possibility ahead of them. We want to make sure there are no barriers and that mission is what keeps us going; it’s what makes us get out of bed in the morning every day to do this hard work.”

On Charlton’s radar

“Mac Conwell is a VC in Baltimore. He used to work for the Maryland Technology and Development Corporation (TEDCO) and now he started his own fund called RareBreed VC. He’s all about finding the rare breed founders, Black women entrepreneurs, in particular.  Mac’s been around for a while and I want to give a shout out to him because he’s doing a lot of great work hosting office hours, clubhouse pitch rooms etc. He eats, sleeps and breathes this stuff.”

How can we support you?

“If you’re interested in our work, connect with me at [email protected] Also, fund more women and people of color!”

Charlton Cunnungham

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Head of Programs. Opener of doors and remover of barriers. Co-founder of the Keystone podcast.