New York VC Gayle Jennings O’Byrne on Tech Scene: “There’s Nothing Philly Can’t Do”

Gayle Jennings O’Byrne speaks at the third annual Women in Tech Soiree at WeWork during PTW17. Image courtesy of Stimulus.

Philly Tech Week this year gathered thousands of people around 100 events, and one person who stood out from the crowd was Gayle Jennings O’Byrne.

A venture capitalist based in New York City, O’Byrne made her way down for tech week to check out a few events and speak at the third annual Women in Tech Soiree hosted by Mogulette founder Brigitte Daniel Corbin and Stimulus founder and CEO Tiffanie Stanard.

As the keynote speaker for the night, O’Byrne had tons to say about the state of women in tech. After all, she recently left JP Morgan where she was for nearly two decades to launch the investment management firm Harriet Capital and its venture arm the Harriet Fund, which has been covered by publications like Forbes, Inc., Self Magazine, NBC News and Black Enterprise. The Harriet Fund will exclusively back ventures led by women of color, and O’Byrne says there’s much need for this focus especially in cities like Philadelphia.

BizPhilly caught up with O’Byrne during Philly Tech Week to learn more about the Harriet Fund. We also got the opportunity to ask O’Byrne, a Penn alumna and Silicon Valley native, how she views the Philly tech scene as a venture capitalist on the outside. O’Byrne offers insight on Philly as a beacon for diversity in tech, corporate and university partnerships and how Philly entrepreneurs can attract investment capital. This is the first part of BizPhilly’s interview with O’Byrne. Check back for part two next week.

BizPhilly: You’re a black female venture capitalist. That’s uncommon. Can you talk about your path and how you came to where you are now?

O’Byrne: I’m a California girl. I grew up in Northern California, Silicon Valley. My mom was one of the original “Hidden Figures.” She was a math major, statistics minor and knew COBOL, FORTRAN — all those programs they talked about in the movie. So I grew up in the shadows of Silicon Valley, with the lack of diversity that was there. I came east to go to school in Pennsylvania at Penn and the moved back to California to work at Sun Microsystems. At the time they were launching things like Sunsoft and Java coding. After that, I went to Wall Street, and I’ve been a New Yorker for the past 18 years.

Now I’m a venture capitalist and founder of Harriet Capital because Silicon Valley in many ways hasn’t changed that much from when my mom was there, particularly the diversity and the opportunities for people of color and, in particular, women, unfortunately.

BizPhilly: What else propelled you to leave JP Morgan after 17 years to found Harriet Capital and the Harriet Fund?

O’Byrne: Harriet Capital and the Harriet Fund came out of marketing realities that were documented in a report called #ProjectDiane that a business partner at Digital Undivided produced and researched. A couple of troubling statistics came out of it.

One was that out of all 10,000 venture capital deals funded between 2012 and 2014, only 24 of them were with companies led by black women. So statistically, only about .002 percent of deals were with black women. This didn’t add up for me because we know women of color are very entrepreneurial. They’re building companies at a rate of about 800 a day. I don’t want it sound like all 800 are ready for investment or are investable companies, but a recent report on the state of women said that there are four million companies owned by black and Latina women that generated $150 billion as of 2016. So when we put this information next to #ProjectDiane’s VC funding statistics, the math is just bad.

We also saw through the data that black women raised $36,000 on average when they went to the market for funding. The average guy, white guy predominantly, raises $1.3 million. We decided we have to fill that void. There are amazing women out there who can build great companies and the education and professional attainment of these women is at the top. They have, in many ways, followed the American Dream. But now, they need those critical first dollars because the friends and family dollars aren’t always there, and Wall Street, Silicon Valley and venture capitalists don’t even meet them halfway.

Silicon Valley got the way it is because of its culture of failing, but women aren’t even getting enough money to fail, let alone succeed. With the Harriet Fund, we’re getting equity, and we’re giving venture capital that gives women that runway to build a company, learn some things, try some things, fail at maybe a product or two in a market or two, and then go back, rebuild and keep building.

BizPhilly: Are you able to disclose how big the fund will be?
O’Byrne: Yes. Our target is 20 million. We are in the process of securing five million and with that, we can start making investments. My goal is that this year we’ll start making investments, and I’m already looking at a number of companies and doing due diligence.

BizPhilly: How do you identify these women of color in need of funding especially if they might already have the mindset that no one is checking for them? How do you create a presence in the community and let them know that you’re here?

O’Byrne: That’s where my business partner Kathryn Finney comes in. She is a successful African American entrepreneur who sold her company and then built the platform DigitalunDivided and its incubator and accelerator program — the BIG Innovation Center — which mentors and coaches women over six months to help them build their companies.

She was in New York but she went ahead and built the BIG Innovation Center in Atlanta. We’re very interested in getting outside of the normal markets that people think of. New York and Silicon Valley are both very good markets but are also very expensive. There are other places like Atlanta and Philadelphia that have ecosystems that can support entrepreneurs and good tech entrepreneurs in particular.

Mogulette founder Brigitte Daniel Corbin and Stimulus founder and CEO Tiffanie Stanard, hosts of the third annual Women in Tech Soiree at WeWork during PTW17. Image courtesy of Stimulus.

BizPhilly: Can you say more about how you see Philadelphia? What can entrepreneurs do to attract VCs like you to Philadelphia since accessing capital is getting easier but still remains a challenge for folks here?

O’Byrne: I think it’s hard for the individual companies themselves to do that because they’re building companies, which is a 24/7 job. Entrepreneurship is hard enough on its own, and having to go knock on every VCs door just gets exhausting.

I think what’s happening here in Philadelphia is that there’s some organic, and maybe not organic, but intentional ecosystem being created to support entrepreneurs that provides a hub for streams of capital to come in. And this ecosystem should allow entrepreneurs to be smart about the dollars coming in. What you don’t want is a lot of dumb money coming in. Once you have a lot of dumb money and some bad experiences, the well can dry up. As a city, building these hubs of intelligence is going to help the entire community, and that’s how more Philadelphians will get in front of the right VCs and the right capital.

For someone like myself, I’m excited when I think of this kind of system because it signals that the entrepreneur is not siloed, that they have resources and an ecosystem with other supports and even other entrepreneurs that they can talk to. Places like Philadelphia get me really excited because I see market factors that help entrepreneurs to succeed.

BizPhilly: Another factor that plays into Philly’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is the city’s rich suite of universities and corporations. While some are getting in on the innovation action to varying degrees, others are slow to get on board. Think back to your time at JP Morgan when you were in finance, investment banking and philanthropy, was partnering with startups a priority? And can you offer any tips for Philly corporations on how they can get the ball rolling with their support for the innovation community?

O’Byrne: I’d say in the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s, people gave lip service to “partnership.” Everyone used it. It was a buzzword; it was a catchphrase. “Synergy” was complimentary. All of these were out there and overused to exhaustion. What’s different now is that the consumer problems that challenge us, the social issues that exist, have us at a place where we have to come together. Governments, whether at the local, state or federal level, are stretched to capacity. We can no longer say, “I can succeed to your detriment or without you.” Now it’s, “I actually need you to succeed.” And we see this in a couple of different ways. For instance with philanthropy, it used to be chic to have your name on the wing of a hospital or an academic building. Now, everyone should understand that it takes a lot of different stakeholders to reach impact. My suggestion is that everyone must come to terms with the idea that it can’t just be one wealthy family, one major philanthropist, or one grant to have impact. Instead, it’s going to take many. That’s where things like public and private partnership come in. There’s a sense of urgency to wanting to solve these problems, and I think people are now more focused on getting stuff done.

BizPhilly: Another challenge for many innovation hubs across the country is diversity and inclusion. Philly’s tech scene is not representative of Philadelphia’s diversity. Do you think tech companies actually care about diversity and inclusion? Because if they did, wouldn’t things look and be much different?

O’Byrne: I would say it’s not a matter of whether they care about it, but it’s a matter of how they prioritize it. And at the same time, it’s a matter of how well the arguments been made for why diversity matters. Tech companies are like everyone else. They’re in the business to make money, earn revenue, return that revenue and those profits back to their shareholders and service customers well. All those business attributes don’t go away. It’s not an either/or, like you either build a company, you run it successfully, or you do diversity.

What I think needs to happen is we all have to get better at making the case for how and why diversity is going to add to the bottom line. We need to talk about it in a way that helps people operationalize the case that’s been made. For me, the clearest to demonstrate that is to go and help women build amazing companies. It’s not just talking about it, and it’s not just celebrating it. It’s getting the dollars in their hands so that they can go build companies.

BizPhilly: When Mayor Kenney kicked off Philly Tech Week 2017, he harped on the need for more diversity. He even suggested we start a “North Star” conference in Philly as an alternative to SXSW, which he felt lacked diversity. As an outsider looking in, can you see Philly becoming the nation’s beacon for diversity in tech and innovation?

O’Byrne: Yes. Philly actually has the perfect storm coming in that you have a generation of millennials that have really good ideas and have this courage to go out and build companies and not necessarily go and follow the traditional corporate path.

On the other side, you’ve got a really neat group of established professionals that have been sitting in corporations and academia that are now coming out of that, either because they’re retiring or they’re looking for the next chapter of professional experiences. And then you’ve got leadership, like a mayor who’s putting this front and center and saying, this is a priority for the city. So when you take all of that and underpin it with corporate support, there’s nothing Philly can’t do.

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Josh Kopelman on Being a VC: Luck Plays a Big Role

L to R: Apu Gupta, Josh Kopelman, and John Swartley at the Pennovation Center. Image courtesy of Penn Center for Innovation.

L to R: Apu Gupta, Josh Kopelman, and John Swartley at the Pennovation Center. Image courtesy of Penn Center for Innovation.

Monday night, Philadelphia’s entrepreneurship community got treated to a refreshingly honest discussion as part of Philly Tech Week 2017 about the emotional and hopeful journey of being both a successful entrepreneur and a successful venture capital investor.

The panel discussion was convened by the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) in partnership with PACT at the Pennovation Center, Penn’s new incubation and startup space that opened last fall. The space serves as a very visible symbol of the university’s focus on contributing to Philadelphia as a center for tech innovation and startups.

John Swartley, PCI’s Managing Director, moderated two of the most successful Philadelphia-based entrepreneurs: Josh Kopelman, now a nationally prominent venture capitalist and founder of First Round Capital and Apu Gupta, CEO of one of First Round’s local portfolio companies, Curalate.

Both Kopelman and Gupta provided some compelling insight for the standing-room-only crowd of mostly entrepreneurs and investors. Here are some of the key takeaways from the talk:  Read more »

25 Tech Leaders Share Their Can’t-Miss Events for Philly Tech Week

Philly Tech Week signature event at Comcast Center. Image via Visit Philadelphia.

Philly Tech Week signature event at Comcast Center. Image via Visit Philadelphia.

Philly Tech Week 2017 officially kicks off this afternoon, but some of you may still be feeling (happily) overwhelmed by the week’s 100 options. There’s everything from the inaugural innovation crawl around Center City to panels on every topic you can think of and networking soirees with Philly’s best.

To help you finalize your Tech Week schedule, Biz Philly reached out to some tech community leaders to see where they’ll be and why. Here’s a list of their top picks:

Jeanne Mell
VP Marketing Communications & Community Engagement, University City Science Center

Image courtesy of Jeanne Mell.

Image courtesy of Jeanne Mell.

Top Pick: A New Reality: How Virtual and Augmented Reality are Shaping the Future
Tuesday, May 2, 3-6:30 pm: Microsoft Reactor at the Science Center

AR/VR trailblazers can be the first to experience the new Mixed Reality Café at the Microsoft Reactor featuring Microsoft’s HoloLens.


Luke Butler
Strategy and Operations, Curalate

Image courtesy of Luke Butler.

Image courtesy of Luke Butler.

Top Pick: Curalate’s Scavenger Sprint & Sips
Tuesday, May 2, 5:30 pm: Start at Curalate

Umm…because we’re organizing it! And because all proceeds go towards supporting Coded by Kids, an incredible organization doing important work in our city. Best deal at #PTW17 – 10 bucks to charity gets you all the Starr food you can eat washed down with Yards beer and Stateside Vodka, plus $250 to the team that completes the scavenger hunt first. AND Mayor Kenney is kicking off the whole thing at Curalate HQ.


Yifan Liu
Founder, WISE; Analyst, Osage Venture Partners

Image courtesy of Yifan Liu.

Image courtesy of Yifan Liu.

Top Pick: 3rd Annual Women In Tech Soirée
Wednesday, May 3, 5 pm: WeWork Northern Liberties

I’m the founder of WISE (Women Investors, Startup Leaders, and Entrepreneurs), and I want to support women in the local tech scene.


Bob Moore
President, Philly Startup Leaders; Chairman, Stitch; Head of Magneto BI, Magento

Image via Twitter.

Image via Twitter.

Top Pick: Accessibility Hacks: Keeping Tech Inclusive for Everyone
Tuesday, May 2, 6:00 -9:00 pm: Benjamin’s Desk

#techInColor hosts great events that celebrate the diversity in our technology and entrepreneurial communities. At this year’s event, attendees will share strategies and tactics for ensuring tech is kept accessible for people with disabilities, an important topic that every technologist should consider when building a product.


Mayor Jim Kenney

Photo | Jim Kenney

Photo | Jim Kenney

Top Pick: Mayoral Tech Town Hall
Monday, May 1 9:30 am- 12:30 pm: PHL Next Stage Med @ Schuylkill Yards

I have to include a shameless plug – come hang out with me on Monday morning so we can discuss all things Philly tech. We all know innovation and tech will be driving our local economy for years to come. I’m fresh off a trip to SXSW in March, so I’m excited to keep that conversation going. Once my Q&A is done, stick around for an expert panel on the economic impact of tech, featuring the City’s Director of Entrepreneurial Investment Archna Sahay. Read more »

36 Ways to Dodge the NFL Draft This Weekend

Tania Isaac performs at FringeArts this weekend. (LBrowning Photography)

Tania Isaac performs at FringeArts Friday and Saturday. (LBrowning Photography)

FRIDAY, APRIL 28

Star Party @ The Mann
This sounds pretty cool: a free concert and stargazing get-together at the Mann featuring telescopes and astronomers who know where to point them. The current forecast for tonight is “partly cloudy,” so fingers x’d. Part of Science Fest.

Hot Chip (DJ Set) @ Coda
Alexis Taylor and Felix Martin of the band Hot Chip spin records because they’re DJs, too.

Spirit of the Beehive @ Everybody Hits
Idiosyncratic indie rockers Spirit of the Beehive celebrate the release of Pleasure Suck in their hometown. Actually, “idiosyncratic” doesn’t cover it. This band seems to be infected with a rare strain of deep-tissue, Philly-borne weirdness once fleetingly observed in bands like Man Man and Echo Orbiter. It’s not just a sound, it’s an aesthetic illness that prizes catchiness and freakiness equally. This is beautiful mutant rock ’n’ roll. Read more »

Six Signs It’s Tech Week

Philly Tech Week is now in its seventh year.

Philly Tech Week is now in its seventh year.

Philly Tech Week is back (April 28-May 6), promising fun events, hands-on workshops and rare access to some of this city’s most interesting hives innovation (and the brains behind them), occasionally with a beer in your hand. The full schedule is here, but let’s look at some highlights:

Innovation Crawl @ Center City | Friday, April 28
See what’s cooking at several downtown hives of the tech industry at your own pace. Maybe start at Technically Media HQ where you can pick up a map and a drink, and check out Quadratron Games and Super Rock Blasters, whatever they are. See also: augmented and virtual reality at PhillyCAM, kinetic backpacks at MakeOffices, a cell counting device for chemo patients at CultureWorks and more stuff all over the placeRead more »

What Do You Get When You Put Curalate, Starr Restaurants and Coded by Kids Together?

Image courtesy of Curalate.

Image courtesy of Curalate.

Philly Tech Week is back, and it’s more creative than ever. Case in point: On Tuesday, May 2, Curalate will challenge a group of as many as 200 people to a Center City scavenger hunt.

Teams will make their way around Center City to unlock and solve random challenges designed by Curalate engineers. And there are two end goals here: Unlock the location of your prize – a swanky party catered by Starr Restaurants that evening – and give kids across Philadelphia their next coding lesson. Curalate says the $10 cost to participate in “Sprint & Sips” will go directly to Coded by Kids, the Philly grassroots organization that’s giving students access to technology education. Plus, the first team to solve all of the clues and make it to the secret location will win a $250 Starr Restaurants gift card.

“We needed to do something different for Philly Tech Week this year,” Curalate co-founder and CTO Nick Shiftan told Philadelphia magazine, “And we wanted to combine the two things that Curalate does best – competitive problem solving and partying.”

Shiftan says Curalate has had much success with internal scavenger hunts and wanted an opportunity to try it again. But more importantly, the company wanted the chance to promote the importance of tech and computer science fluency and education.  Read more »

A Black, Lesbian Robot is Coming to Philly This Weekend

Bina48

Bina48

Philly Tech Week is officially upon us, which means we’re in store for a week’s worth of forward-thinking, innovation-driven events that give us a peek into what the world may look like 10 to 20 years from now.

As LGBT folks, when we look ahead we probably envision things like equal rights, a growing number of LGBT-parented families and maybe even a Cher farewell concert or two—but can you fathom sidling up to a bar next to a lesbian robot?

As you’ll learn from a couple Philly Tech Week events this weekend, the notion may not be as far off as we think. Tomorrow evening, Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Movement Foundation (TMF) will be in town to introduce folks to Bina48, a shockingly lifelike humanoid robot that was built to mimic human personality traits—including independent thought and emotion.

Read more »

9 Cool Events to Do at Philly Tech Week

ptw

Philly Tech Week is upon us! It certainly has come a long way in five years. Just look how dated this website from the first one looks! It would still be functional now, but it’s nowhere near as nice as the fancy, sponsored-by-Comcast look of this year. Plus, Christopher Wink and Brian James Kirk got their own profile here in Philadelphia magazine this year.

Right: Philly Tech Week is bigger than ever. That means there are even more cool events to go to this year than in previous years. Here are nine event picks for Philly Tech Week, one for each day. Read more »

Make a Shark Tank-style Pitch in an Uber on Friday

uber-pitch-940x540

Getting 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to pitch an idea to a venture capitalist has quite a bit of value. So does a free Uber ride. Put them together and you have UberPITCH.

If you request an Uber on Friday between noon and 4 p.m., your car might show up carrying the likes of Josh Kopelman (First Round Capital founder) or Philip Moyer (Safeguard Scientifics senior vice president). Read more »

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