By Scott Thacher and Danielle Hayes
We Tha Plug is a global virtual ecosystem that works with Pan African, Latinx, other under-represented founders & early stage startups from ideation phase to pre-seed and series A round. Luis Martinez, Founder/CEO and Christiana Russell, Partner/COO described We Tha Plug and answered questions with Taylor Moyer, former President of SDEE, at a virtual SEE event December 9, 2020.
Luis first gave some history on the founding of We Tha Plug. Luis had volunteered for a couple of years for Startup San Diego and other local groups. Responding to the lack of access for black and brown entrepreneurs to resources and capital in the startup ecosystem, he became Director of Inclusion (D&I) at Startup San Diego.
Luis, then in discussions with Christiana, concluded there was a real need for a dedicated organization. During a visit to the Bay Area, Luis put out the word for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs to meet and discuss common issues. Much to his surprise and delight, this Bay Area coffee shop meeting was packed. We Tha Plug grew out of that meeting and Luis’ and Christiana’s personal experience with the limitations of mainstream D&I efforts. The name signifies the mutual assistance that entrepreneurs provide through the organization: putting in plugs for one another.
We Tha Plug also addresses the obvious fact is that workforce access intertwines with entrepreneurship. Luis commented that, “access is a not a talent problem but a talent development problem.” To be effective, We Tha Plug runs grassroots programming, including a coding school locally. Luis has also worked with Stanley Maloy, Associate VP for Research and Innovation at SDSU, to bring Black and LatinX students together locally for internships and training. Luis does outreach nationally to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to support the program.
Luis described We Tha Plug’s 1,000 – 100 – 10 initiative: to help 1,000 people of color (POC) to start tech & innovation companies, help 100 POC find jobs in tech and innovation, and to visit 10 cities to raise awareness and develop programming for careers in tech, entrepreneurship, and innovation for POC.
Christiana commented that We Tha Plug also pays attention to the mental health piece of being an entrepreneur: Counselors and therapists are available through We Tha Plug to help entrepreneurs with “the weight of the world,” she said. The goal is to look at the whole person with mentoring and coaching to make sure that successful entrepreneurs can sustain their work.
We Tha Plug runs virtual entrepreneur mentoring workshops that are effectively global, involving entrepreneurs all over the world. Christiana pointed to some global hotspots for entrepreneurs of color: Atlanta, Great Britain, Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria—all of which have strong local and governmental support. We Tha Plug has similar ambitious goals for San Diego.
As part of the event, Luis and Christiana introduced Kaila Wilson, a biosystems engineer in Kansas City, Kansas and founder of Biostrandz, a hair science and biotech company. One of Biostrandz objectives is to monitor health through the biochemistry of hair. We Tha Plug provided crucial mentorship and programming on technical issues needed for her startup to take form, Kaila said, and helped overcome her relative isolation in Kansas City.
As Luis described, the mentoring model addresses common problems familiar to SDEE members: as one example, lack of general business skills for accomplished executives taking their first step as entrepreneur, or mental health challenges. The incubator and mentorship model of We Tha Plug values flexibility and access to expertise to support entrepreneurs. Christiana guesses the most members of We Tha Plug are in the tech or ed tech space. But there is considerable interest in biotech opportunities.
Taylor asked how SDEE and We Tha Plug might collaborate in the future. Luis would like to organize a local conference to give We Tha Plug members greater visibility and attract entrepreneurs from outside San Diego.
As a final thought: the State of California is now mandating diversity on corporate public boards. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors wants to declare racism a public health crisis and design policies accordingly. SDEE has a role to communicate these new state and local regulations to its members. But we can do more, and it is fortunate that We Tha Plug is based in San Diego. There is overlap between the goals of SDEE and We Tha Plug. In our opinion, SDEE will become stronger by exploring a collaboration.