The following series features interviews with Black dealmakers and trailblazers in the private equity and finance community. To help us spotlight professionals making a difference in their career pathways, please email Greg Kilpatrick at email@example.com, Rubin Pusha III at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Gerald Thomas at email@example.com.
Q: What attracted you to PE and venture capital?
Alex King: My pathway to private equity and, more significantly, venture capital was part of my entrepreneurial journey. That journey started when I was in high school. I was an avid reader of BusinessWeek and Forbes. I was always attracted to those who put capital to work to launch innovative companies that changed industries, impacted local economies and scaled globally. I always wondered why I didn't see more people who looked like me — more African Americans — doing this kind of work.
I worked at a family-run law firm when I was in high school. One of the attorneys there, Ronald J. Pressley, always challenged me to further my reading. He gave me a book, "Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?" It's about Reginald F. Lewis. The autobiography was one of the books that inspired me to strongly consider building businesses with private capital. Far too often, we fail to realize the impact of positive reinforcement through profiles of people who share a similar background. Many of my fellow African American peers reference this book as a catalyst in their professional journey.
At the same time, I was fascinated by Warren Buffett. I think the book I read at the time was "The Warren Buffett Way." I also read "Black and White on Wall Street," the autobiography on Joseph Jett. I was taken by the overall investment industry. One of the individuals who inspired me is a former founder and managing partner of Upfront Ventures, Mark Suster. He has a blog, "Both Sides of the Table." When I was co-running my second startup, we constantly listened to Mark Suster and others like Fred Wilson, Chris Dixon and Brad Feld, to name a few, to get insights into the startup ecosystem and how venture capitalists thought about investing in early-stage companies.
Listening and learning from these experts also inspired me to realize that I wanted to provide access to capital for those who come from a background such as mine — from an underrepresented group. I understand some of the challenges of navigating the fundraising ecosystem. There's constant pattern matching. But I also feel like there are some self-inflicted issues preventing us from pushing forward and raising capital.
I've come to really enjoy sharing my experiences with founders. I enjoy meeting with founders. I also enjoy the opportunity to invest in unique, smart and driven teams.
Q: What is something few people know about you?
AK: This is one of my fun facts and icebreakers, so I guess it won't be so much of a fun fact and icebreaker moving forward. I'm an avid coral reef hobbyist. I've been in the coral reef hobby for well over 20 years. I've kept fish as pets for basically all my life, but I'm deep in the coral reef hobby. I like to purchase and propagate primarily aqua cultured corals.
What people don't know is this is an amazing hobby within a hobby. There's science, there's technology, there's engineering, there's art and there's mathematics, so it covers the whole STEM spectrum. Eventually, I would like to launch a nonprofit that introduces youth to the marine biology field via the coral reef hobby.
Q: Why do you actively support providing capital to Black entrepreneurs?
AK: Plain Sight Capital provides capital to underrepresented groups, not just Black entrepreneurs. We define underrepresented as African Americans, Latinos, indigenous Americans, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, individuals with disabilities and veterans of the U.S. military. We find that last group to be highly important and deeply overlooked. My partner at Plain Sight Capital, Sylvester Mobley, served in three branches of the military, so we have that internal, veteran military connection.
I feel underrepresented groups need to know they have outlets and access to capital outside of what people typically describe as tier-one and mainstream firms. I think there is, at times, an intimidation factor for early-stage companies going to these firms. When we're one of the first stops for these companies, I think it helps better prepare them for when they eventually have the opportunity to go to some of those publicly known firms.
We also believe it's important to support underrepresented groups because if you look at the statistics, you see that underrepresented founders receive a very small fraction of available private capital. There are various arguments as to why. One argument is that there's not enough underrepresented founders. But we beg to differ. We have found countless underrepresented founders working on really large opportunities.
We think it's also good when you're thinking about the economic opportunity that develops when founders gain the ability to create large liquidity events for not only themselves, but their team members/employees, partners and their community at large. For example, Philadelphia is, by some reports, the city with the greatest percentage of poverty among African Americans. You look around and ask, "How does one change the dynamic of a city?" Some people believe it's by developing and offering programs centered around jobs. While that's all well and good, we feel like some of the largest drivers of job and economic creation within urban centers is through investing in entrepreneurs who will build the transformative companies of tomorrow. This, in turn, should support their respective local ecosystem.
Plain Sight Capital is a returns-focused firm. We want to drive returns for our limited partners. We want to beat the market, as most venture capitalists struggle to return capital. But we want to look at some of the good that can come out of what we're doing as well.
People should know that we incubated our venture capital fund out of a nonprofit called Coded by Kids that provides multiyear tech leadership programming for young adults in the Philadelphia region. That development focuses on providing them with the hard and soft skills to launch careers in technology, whether as a user experience (UX) designer, an engineer or future startup founder. Part of what people should know about Plain Sight Capital is that ecosystem and community are deeply entrenched in our company culture.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Black entrepreneurs? What advice would you provide to overcome it?
AK: There are systemic issues, but I think one of the risks Black entrepreneurs can mitigate is removing themselves as an obstacle when it comes to raising capital. Far too often, I run into African American entrepreneurs who are out raising capital. They might have a viable idea and they might be a strong founder, but they don't cast a wide enough net when it comes to raising capital. They might only strike out to their backyard. They might hear a couple of noes and then they get extremely discouraged. A common belief is that our white male counterparts do not get nearly the same number of rejections, but if you've spent the amount of time in this industry that I have, you've come to realize they hear a majority of noes as well. When you're out fundraising, there needs to be a focus on learning from the rejections, refining your pitch and value prop, and refining your idea, and then taking those lessons learned and continuing to move forward with the fundraising process.
What you also need to understand is this is a people's relationships business. It's also business development at its finest. You need to harness a business development mentality. As the CEO of a startup, you're not only selling and recruiting team members. You're selling and acquiring customers, and you're selling yourself to investors. Pattern matching does exist, but we must continue to push forward.
I also think Black founders, especially when they're entering the tech field, if they're not technical founders, meaning they're not engineers or designers and lack product development experience, they need to actively recruit a co-founding team that complements their skills and can build product. Far too often, we see marketing, operational and sales professionals trying to launch startups in a technical space and trying to compete with engineer-led founders. The sad reality is you could come to the market with a great idea, but in today's market, it's too easy to build and deliver software applications. If you are competing against engineer/product-led teams, they can quickly bring their products to market, gain traction and take market share.
People always ask how they can be helpful for emerging and diverse managers of color. I would suggest opening up your network. Be willing to make connections. Again, this is a relationships-based business. Anyone who succeeds has already passed the bar for being intelligent, smart, hardworking and, one hopes, for having great integrity. What often limits Black entrepreneurs and fund managers is access to networks. If we can continue to open those doors, I think we'll have a more collaborative and inclusive ecosystem of investors and entrepreneurs.
About Alex King
Alex Vaughn King is the co-founder and managing partner at Plain Sight Capital, where he oversees business operations, investor relations and legal. King serves on the Ben Franklin Technology Partners' IT external review committee. He also advises numerous early-stage tech startups led by founders of all backgrounds.
King started his career in media as an advertising sales representative for the CBS television stations group. He has significant experience as an operator gained as CSO of University Bay, CEO of the digital agency Defined Clarity and CEO of the applicant tracking startup gatherDocs. At Defined Clarity, King and his team successfully delivered brand development, media placement, graphic design and web application development services for more than 40 companies, including the development of software applications for The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and The University of Rhode Island. The Defined Clarity team eventually acquired a lesson plan submission platform named Lessonsmith, which it pivoted into one of the first applicant tracking systems that allowed national quick-service restaurants and retailers to recruit applicants via their mobile devices. King eventually led gatherDocs to an exit through an acquisition by Efficient Hire.
King has provided consulting services to startups, private equity/venture groups, family offices and foundations. He holds an MBA in finance from Temple University's Fox School of Business and a BA in marketing from Howard University. King is an avid sports card collector and coral reef-keeping hobbyist.