Leyla Seka and Letty Ledbetter of BVI: We’re going to increase the appallingly low number of blacks participating in venture capital

leyla seka interview

It’s a small world.  So when I had a recent LinkedIn Live convo with Leah-McGowan Hare of Salesforce and Bevy’s cofounder Derek Andersen on to talk about the company’s efforts to recruit black investors in their recent $40M round, Leah’s story about attending the Black Venture Institute’s (BVI) two-week venture education program really intrigued me.  So much so that when I checked out the BVI website I noticed that one of the cofounders was buddy of mine from her days at Salesforce – Leyla Seka.

The last time I had spoken with Leyla was about 18 months ago after she left Salesforce and became a partner in Operator Collective, a VC firm founded by long-time tech executive Mallun Yen with the goal of broadening the pool of those participating in venture capital investment.  In fact 90% of these limited partners (LPs) are women, and more than 40% of them are people of color.

I recently caught up with Leyla about why she co-founded BVI, the goals set for training black investors, and what the endgame was for this initiative.  And just as I was setting this conversation up, I saw a glowing post from another good friend of mine, communications executive Letty Ledbetter, who was sharing her experiences going through the most recent BVI cohort while pointing out the role Leyla played in her becoming a part of the BVI family.  So I was glad to have her join the conversation and share her perspective going through the program.

Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation.  Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.

What is the Black Venture Institute and the importance behind it

Brent Leary: What are you looking to accomplish with the Black Ventures Institute?

Leyla Seka: So Operator Collective was cooking, and we were seeing a lot of activity with female operators, much like myself, much like Letty, who hadn’t necessarily been in venture or put their money there. Mostly because it’s access, right. It’s really about access and understanding how to do that. And so, when I had started in venture, I said to my partner Mallun, I was like, “I wish I could go to a class for a week and learn what’s a SPAC, and why do I care about information rights, and how do I negotiate a term sheet.” And all these things that, really, is not that complicated once you learn what it is, it’s just like any other thing. But when you don’t know what it is, it feels really complicated. So, when George Floyd was murdered, and the pandemic, and this last year, I just couldn’t sit for another minute and not do anything.

So, I sit on the board of the engineering school at Cal Berkeley. I called up the Dean and said, “I know we run a class on venture capital. Get me to the professors.” So, then I met with Toby Stuart who became a professor of BVI, and he had this course. And I was like, “Okay, here’s what I want to do. We’re going to take all the white people out and we’re going to put all Black people in, except for me and you, and everyone in the course is going to be a Black operator.” And then we started talking about it. It was expensive, so we needed to figure out how to pay for it. Then I went to Salesforce, which I left. I worked at Salesforce 12 years. I had deep roots there. I went to the ventures team. I hooked up with Jackson Cummings there.

Salesforce decided to sponsor it. And then I said to Jackson, “I really don’t want to create a program for Black operators that’s done by two white people. That’s not what we’re doing here.” So he said, “I got it. We’re going to hook up with this organization called Black VC.” Enter Fred Groce and the Black VC team. We spent all of last summer working on this, and trying to figure out how to make this happen, and how to get it paid for, and what it would look like, and who would come. What we ended up creating is a two-week Zoom course that runs twice a year. It is a mix. And Letty can tell you this because she went there, but it’s a mix of content and academic content, as well as networking, and meeting people like the CEO of Calendly, like Phaedra Ellis, all these people that will blow your mind.

Because you’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’re the coolest person I’ve ever met.” And hearing about how they did it and sort of breaking that down. So, we ran a cohort through November, BVI One, and that far exceeded anything I ever thought would happen. Then, we just finished BVI Two a couple of weeks ago and that exceeded my expectations yet again. And one of the primary things was, before we started BVI, only 75 Black people were writing checks in Venture, which is appalling, right? I mean, it’s just appallingly low of a number. So, the idea of the program was we’re going to graduate a hundred new check writers every year. And whether they decide to write checks or not is their business, but they will know how, and if they want to go into venture, they can, and the access will be opened.

Brent Leary: So how did you select the first folks to go into these classes?

Leyla Seka: We used our network, right? I mean, it’s a network driven organization. So, we used our network. We also called for applications, and they applied to BVI and the Black VC folks. That team really runs that selection process and runs through it. And we have a lot of people interested, so we already have way more people than we can get. And then, every cohort recommends folks for the next cohort. We’re really trying to build a network. And some really interesting things have happened.

Going through the BVI program

Brent Leary: Letty, you’ve been in big tech enterprises for a long time, starting early. But how did you get involved in this? What drew you to this?

Letty Ledbetter:  Leyla. I wrote in a post that I met Leyla when I was at FinancialForce, which is Salesforce backed, and we worked on the Salesforce platform as well. So, we were at a reception. I didn’t know who she was. And then found out who she was, who she is, and what she’d done for equal pay at Salesforce, and I was like, “This woman is on the ball.” And so I just started following her, if you will, on social media and LinkedIn. I was nominated for a leadership program. It was funded by Salesforce Ventures. Leyla spoke there. Reconnected with her. And then, a couple of years later, again on LinkedIn, I saw that she had left Salesforce and she was at Operator Collective.

I was like, “Hm, how do you do that?” Still, it hadn’t occurred to me. And then, it may have been in January or whatever when I heard about the first cohort, and I pinged her. I finally got the nerve to ping her. “I don’t know if you remember me, but how do I get involved in this?” She pointed me to the link. I applied. 

At Oracle, I worked with comms for a lot of the acquisitions. I had a working familiarity with acquisitions, with pre IPO companies, but I always was curious about how the checks actually got … how the sausage was made. And here was an opportunity. And what I found out after going through BVI is that I had been an investor.

A couple of years ago, I had written a check, invested in a business for… It was a small business. Woman owned business. But that was, to me, it was more like, “Oh, here’s a friend to help out.” But now, after going through BVI, term sheets, and cap tables, and the language, it’s kind of like a treasure chest. You find it, you open it, and you go, “Oh my God, there’s so many things in here. So many things that we can do.” And it’s interesting, because our cohorts, we have met a couple of times after we graduated just to go over cap tables more. We’re going to meet again. A couple of us have gotten together and said, “Hey, how can we start writing checks? What can we do?” And I’ve also pinged Leyla. I said, “So, could you tell me more about this angel funding?” It’s been amazing.

Clearing up misperceptions on venture capitalism

Brent Leary: So, Letty, what was one of the misperceptions that you might’ve come into this with, that you found out, “Hmm, not what I thought.”

Letty Ledbetter:   I thought that you had to be a finance person to do this. And part of the two week sessions we have, these founders panels, we have guest speakers that run the gamut. One of the case studies, and I can’t remember which one. I’m not even sure I’m allowed to say, but one of the case studies featured someone who was in communications and became a founder. 

I thought everyone had to be an engineer or in finance. And there are so many ways to participate, to get access. And so that was, again… And I told Toby later. Toby is a professor. I said, “That’s where it kind of clicked for me that I could do this too.”

Creating Black Check Writers

Brent Leary: So, Leyla, I think I saw something on the BVI website that says the objective is to create 300 folks that have the ability to write checks within the next several years. So, talk about how you see… There’s this story that Letty has related. Is that a story that is kind of the usual story people are starting to tell as they go through this process?

Leyla Seka: Yes. Yes. It very much is like, “I can do this.” And I had the same awakening, quite frankly, while I was at Salesforce, where I was like, “Wait a second, I can invest my money in these companies. Like, why am I…” It’s an awakening. It’s also… We’re community driven people. That’s how humans work. And when you meet a community of people that are interested in something you’re interested in, everyone starts working together, things happen.

The cohort one team of Black Venture Institute, they meet one Saturday a month and they do angel. They listen to angel pitches and they angel invest together. A woman’s network was born out of that. The ladies of BVI, we meet fairly regularly and talk about topics from board readiness to whether or not to invest in this.

There’s lots of deal flow sharing. There’s a really active Slack channel that Black VC helps manage for BVI. Rich people get rich by putting their money to work, not by putting it in the bank. Right? And for those of us that didn’t see that all our lives, how are we supposed to know that? So, once we break that open and we’re like, “Oh, I can make this money, make more money by just… Wow. Why wouldn’t I want to?” It’s all a little “gambly” so everyone has to be careful, I will say that, but knowledge is power.

Corporate participation

Brent Leary: Leyla, maybe you could talk about getting the investment in from companies like Salesforce Ventures. How important is it to have these folks be a part of this process?

Leyla Seka: It’s really important. It’s really important. First of all, this is expensive and we don’t want to create just one more boundary. Like, “Oh, here’s BVI. Give me $80,000 and then you can come.” That’s not the point. The point was to take barriers down, not create new ones. Right? And also, look, a company like Salesforce, big companies supporting Black VC, Google supports them a lot. These companies are showing a commitment to changing what’s happening here by putting their money where their mouth is and supporting us.

And Salesforce has been a great partner of BVI. They really have. They’ve shown up time and time again. And it’s Salesforce Ventures. But I also think that we all have to attack the problem together. I learned this with equal pay. If it’s just me and my girlfriend screaming, nothing’s going to happen. Right? It was when Marc Benioff said something that everyone was like, “Whoosh.” Right? So we all got to work together. We need everybody in the fight.

Bringing diversity to the advisory board

Brent Leary: One of the things that you said about a year and a half ago was… It was kind of surprising to me, because all the experience that you brought to the table, you said you weren’t really getting asked to be a part of advisory boards for some of these tech companies. You were getting asked to be advisory boards for things that were not tech related, let’s put it like that. Does this also play a piece in changing the look, the makeup of advisory boards and decision-makers at tech companies?

Leyla Seka: Yes. Yes. Look, people grow up in the neighborhood, they look like the exact same people. God bless a lot of the white execs I grew up with, and they’re all nice people, and I love them, but they only grew up with other white people. They didn’t grow up in Berkeley, California where I did. They weren’t bused around. They didn’t have all different types of people in their courses. They only knew white people. So, in order to break through that, you have to shift the way people consider advisory roles, and how they think about sharing equity in their company, and doing nontraditional things to make their cap table look more interesting than just the same guys who worked at PayPal and are making all the money. I mean, God bless, but we all need a cut here.

I think that it takes a lot of work to change stuff like this. I’ve said this before, you have to sort of do Herculean things, extra big things. BVI was a big thing. I was supposed to not work last summer, and my family was like, “All you did was work on BVI. You were nowhere. You didn’t go fishing. You didn’t leave the house.” My mother in law was like, “Who’s going to charge…” I was yelling on the phone all the time. But it was a big thing, and hearing what Letty said, are you kidding me, Brent? That’s like the best thing I’ve ever heard. Outside of my children and my marriage, hearing stories like Letty’s and what’s going on with BVI, that is the thing I’m the most proud of.

Becoming a check writer

Brent Leary: And Letty, if you look out two, three, four, five years from now, what do you want to accomplish with what you’ve learned with BVI?

Letty Ledbetter:  I’m looking to be LP or GP somewhere, but at the same time, for me, it’s about community and making sure that my thesis is tight and I’m focused on where I want to channel my money. Do I want to go into Big VC? I don’t know. But I’m learning. I’m more equipped now than I was a year ago.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.