Note: FreightWaves is posting several articles this week profiling black founders and investors, who shared insights about their journeys as well as steps companies and VC firms can take to close the racial gap in the freight-tech ecosystem.
Part 3 of that series features Eghosa Omoigui, managing partner at EchoVC Partners, a seed, early stage and growth technology fund investing across Europe, Africa and North America. The firm’s transportation and logistics portfolio includes the logistics coordination platform Lorisystems and QuickBus, a long-distance bus company.
“Diversity is a label that tends to mask the real problem.”
Like many VCs reflecting on the events of the past few weeks, Omoigui is critical of the startup ecosystem referral process, in which investors depend on insider networks for connections to promising founders.
“The way the system works, it is designed to keep a population or two out,” said Omoigui, a Nigerian native who previously worked at Intel for nearly 10 years, with his most recent role as director of Intel Capital, overseeing strategic investments, consumer Internet and semantic technologies.
In a conversation with FreightWaves, Omoigui offered a fresh way of thinking about the inclusivity challenge, one that highlights the importance of using the right words to describe the problem and solution and, more specifically, the need to align language and action.
A case in point: The term “diversity” itself is troubling, Omoigui believes, inasmuch as the word is overly vague, not to mention it is a feel-good moniker that means radically different things to different people.
“Diversity is a label that tends to mask the real problem,” he said. “The real question is, how do you bring more racial diversity into this world — racial diversity, not diversity.”
Language as action
A similar if more expansive argument underpins his analysis of “allyship,” a relatively new buzzword that refers to people who promote and advance a culture of inclusion.
The term “is great, but insufficient,” according to Omoigui.
“The concept of ‘allyship’ is used by many people to refer to ‘one of the desires the underrepresented want to see white fellow travelers fulfill,’” he said. At issue here is the phrasing lends itself too easily to passivity — “do no harm,’ but that’s about it.”
That risk — of passivity — more often than not “means that the injury to be healed is just concealed, without applications of Neosporin+Pain Relief, for want of a better metaphor,” Omoigui explained.
A slightly stronger descriptor for those who want to aid the project of racial equity, Omoigui believes, is “sponsorship” — but is still “arguably quasi-passive,” in the sense that a sponsor might nominate someone but not necessarily “pound their fist on the table in favor.”
Omoigui proposes another term: the powerlifter. A person who goes into powerlifter mode — in weightlifting, the term describes a test of maximum strength — takes aggressive action and leads with intention and effort. You can have an ally during wartime, Omoigui observed, but an ally doesn’t necessarily lift you up into a position you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.
Omogui cites a relationship with his former boss at Intel Capital, the VP and corporate treasurer, as a classic illustration of powerlifting in action. Introduced when Omogui was in the Intel Capital Legal Group, the two men bonded over a shared love of cars, and over the course of three years would periodically discuss a range of issues: economics, tech, emerging markets and more.
At the time Omoigui, a lawyer, didn’t have an MBA and had not attended one of the elite schools — Harvard, Stanford and the like — that dot the resumes of the VC elite. What is more, he didn’t know a single black person at the senior VC level in Silicon Valley. Wanting to take a shot at an investment career, he decided to enroll in business school while working full time, “as it seemed that having an MBA was the base entry ticket to just being allowed into the conversation.”
One day in 2004, Omoigui received a call from his boss asking if he wanted to be his chief of staff. “The job was probably the most sought after in Intel Treasury and Finance,” according to Omoigui, and the call changed his life and career trajectory.
“He saw something beyond the paper qualification and direct experience — or lack thereof. He still put me in a high-powered position to be visible, valuable and venturing. I am forever grateful for the powerlift.”
Extending the example into the broader VC community, Omoigui said the takeaway is that being “blinded by bias limits our ability” to pair the undiscovered with the unknown. “We will never know the scope of the value that could have been created otherwise.”
He pointed to statistics showing that first-time fund managers tend to outperform any other type of manager, a data point he explained as a combination of “being given a shot and concurrently underestimated.”
Tapping into change
Just before the coronavirus lockdowns in February, Omoigui was in Orlando, Florida. Walking through his hotel, he came upon a huge crowd attending a logistics conference. “I looked around and thought: If this conference is representative of the industry, if that is what the status quo is today, we have a long way to go.”
The logistics sector not only remains almost entirely white (and male), it has also been slow to adopt new digital technologies. Turning weakness into strength, black entrepreneurs can tap into the new sector with transformative startups, Omogui said. “Freight is still a very analog business,” Omoigui says, but even if racism persists, they “will never deny that product.”
Still, the product has to be top notch. “If you are a minority entrepreneur trying to get into a traditional offline industry, take that as your table stakes: You need to have a high-resolution understanding of industry, its problems and how you are going to solve those problems at scale.
“It is a slow process, but the best products in these industries can win, and they can be driven by minority entrepreneurs.”