Mr. Michel began to tell his story to local business publications, and it resonated. “There weren’t many voices, Black voices, that were asserting themselves in this space,” he said. “I happened to be one that someone caught wind of.”
A report in Black Enterprise Magazine was spotted by the mother of a reporter for TechCrunch, who then contacted Mr. Michel for an article. “That was the interview that changed the future of Black Founders Matter, because she asked what I wanted to do besides sell T-shirts,” he said. Without hesitating, he blurted out an idea about starting a venture fund for Black-owned start-ups. When the reporter asked how much money he would raise, he picked a number — $10 million — and was surprised when it became the headline.
Mr. Michel’s advisers — including Mr. Turoczy — saw an opportunity for him.
“They said: ‘We love what you’re doing and we want to help,’” Mr. Michel said. He put Werkhorse on hold, and the Portland Incubator Experiment’s leaders introduced him to the managing director of a Portland-based venture capital fund, Rogue Venture Partners. Mr. Michel spent six months at Rogue absorbing the customs and procedures of venture capital investing.
By March 14, 2019 — his 35th birthday — Mr. Michel was ready to share a pitch for a venture fund. He presented it to a packed theater in Portland for the incubator’s annual pitchfest: Pie Day, the crowning event of Portland’s start-up scene.
Mr. Michel explained to the crowd how the hurdles that Black business owners face make their businesses more resilient and safer for investors. He pointed out that only 1 percent of investment in tech start-ups went to Black entrepreneurs, and that although Black women owned 12.5 percent of all businesses in the United States, they got only 0.02 percent of investment. And he highlighted examples of Black founders who had excelled — and made boatloads of money for the investors who dared to help them.
“Investing Black is financially viable,” he told the crowd. Then he announced the creation of the Black Founders Matter fund.
Stephanie Kelly and Jason Saunders, a white husband-and-wife team of start-up investors, were drawn to the potential of the companies Mr. Michel wants to support. “If you look at the return on investment there, it’s stratospheric compared to the broader venture universe,” Mr. Saunders said. “It’s kind of the other end of the spectrum from the Bay Area tech bros who have an idea and get $100 million.”