A CEO's Journey into Venture Capitalism
During the pandemic, many people wanted nothing more than to get away from their thoughts.
Late into the second year, on an early February day, the Backstage Capital apprenticeship program concluded and Lewis, along with 19 other individuals submitted their last hopes for an upcoming investment.
The journey for many apprentices started in April 2021 with taking the Investing as a Catalyst course created by founder, Arlan Hamilton. Although not required, it's essential for those wanting a quick overview of the sometimes confusing and often opaque world of venture capitalism. Coupled with live discussion, the course allowed anyone who wanted to learn about the ins-and-outs of the distinct types of investing to talk directly to leaders in the field. Lewis followed up with Investing Prep 201, which takes a deep dive into topics covered in the previous course.
Why Venture Capitalism
Lewis started off by simply trying to figure out what venture capitalism was. Despite all the definitions and sometimes heavily cloaked legal speak, investing money in companies was the heart of what she wanted to do. She began an internet search for venture capitalist firms, learned what she could, and finally realized that many companies started off with endowments or large sums of money given by relatives, friends, or earned through high wage employment.
Lewis's mother had always been a champion of creating ideas, businesses, and industries where people could help community members, in addition to creating a source of income for themselves. With that, Lewis decided to take her ideation to the next level and figure out a way to create a venture fund for people very much like her mom and others she grew up with. That's when she ran across an article by Hamilton titled Dear White Venture Capitalists: If you’re reading this, it’s (almost!) too late.
Learning the Ropes
After leaving her full-time job in April 2018 and creating L. M. Lewis Consulting, Lewis decided that she'd tackle diversity issues in employment. "Instead of complaining, the right move seemed to be to actually help out companies. I used what I learned as an employee and manager, and created the basis of my service offerings," said Lewis.
By July 2018, Lewis had been recruited as Chief Technology Officer at a startup which looked to network independent coworking spaces together. A few months later, she took on the position of Director of Aerospace IT at another startup that focused on creating sensory capable drones for first responders and search-and-rescue teams. Lewis still maintained the diversity consulting business she began, helping organizations of varied sizes create business-driven initiatives to help resolve diversity issues.
It was during her time with these organizations that Lewis was nominated for and received the Diverse Business Leaders award for 2018 along with that year's honorees. In the interview, Lewis highlighted how one of her inspirations was Hamilton. "Arlan went through extreme depths to ensure that there was money for businesses founded by LGBT+ individuals, women, and people of color," said Lewis. "I admire her tenacity as a venture capitalist and hope to follow in her footsteps one day."
Making the Next Move
After becoming entrenched in the startup world, Lewis quickly learned firsthand the ups-and-downs of attracting and solidifying venture capital investment. Both startups folded and a substantial portion was due to a lack of funding. Ironically, both startups were founded by entrepreneurs from marginalized communities, and contained excellent and bright employees.
During late 2019, Lewis learned that a program she was previously involved in as a participant, the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective (STLEEC), was looking to hire their first full-time employees. In January 2020, Lewis was named its director. From there, Lewis began to learn the intricacies of entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) and worked with entrepreneurs across the region.
Like many businesses, Lewis had to learn how to pivot hers to account for the many ways the pandemic limited access to both her own clients from L. M. Lewis Consulting and the entrepreneurs she supported for STLEEC. Again, money and access to funds became a key issue. Lewis learned about the COVID-19 relief funds offered through the federal government but saw that many entrepreneurs were hesitant to apply. Through STLEEC, Lewis and her team created a three-part financial webinar that included banks, tax attorneys, and local chambers of commerce. The webinars detailed how entrepreneurs could apply for the funds, which financial institutions were accepting applications, and any organizations that could help prepare the necessary paperwork.
By the end of 2020, Lewis learned that STLEEC was taking a different direction. She continued to keep an eye towards equity and began helping nonprofits while volunteering in executive board positions with the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District, the Saint Louis Downtown Neighborhood Association, and the International Institute of St. Louis.
A New Direction
2021 proved to be a year of change for Lewis. She was sought for a board position with a local grassroots organization, Show Me Integrity (SMI). At the time, the organization was focused on changing the political landscape in the St. Louis region - although it always had an eye on policy restructuring for the state of Missouri - had recently worked on an effort to promote diverse ways of voting. Approval voting raised to the surface with the organization's STL Approves initiative.
SMI was looking to protect this initiative which was already passed by voters in November 2020 but imbued as an ordinance which could be overwritten by the local legislators. A charter amendment was being created to not only protect that piece of legislation but cement it further with policies that would call for further transparency and accountability for city legislators while creating an independent citizen's commission to help redraw ward lines after the decennial census. The effort, called Reform St. Louis, became Lewis's next focus.
Coming Back Full Circle
Within 2021 while working on what would become SMI's Proposition R, Lewis learned about a new series of courses that Hamilton was debuting for Backstage Capital, leading to an apprenticeship pilot program. After being steeped in the entrepreneurial support system and understanding more about policies that drive legislative decisions more than she ever intended, Lewis was steeped back into the world of venture capitalism.
"Completing this apprenticeship program has given me a perspective that I never imagined I'd have," said Lewis. "I hope others take advantage of opportunities like this. I learned so much and am looking forward to using it on some projects I have in the works." Lewis has planned to create a fund that will support entrepreneurs from low-income backgrounds, just like those from her hometown in East St. Louis, IL.
Lewis has credited her stint in policymaking with helping her to overcome an insecurity she had with legal paperwork, which is often required in understanding the intricate process to create agreements when investing in companies. "The entire experience helped the scales fall from my eyes," said Lewis. "It helped me feel more confident than ever in starting this journey."