Venture capital fund aims to invest in diverse group of entrepreneurs

Black woman looking to make her mark in venture capital space
Through her Zane Venture Fund, Shila Nieves Burney is looking to fund diverse entrepreneurs. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Through her Zane Venture Fund, Shila Nieves Burney is looking to fund diverse entrepreneurs. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

The first time Osayame Gaius talked to Shila Nieves Burney, he knew their encounter would not be the same as the others.

Gaius, an engineer, had made more than 100 phone calls over two months to various venture capital firms, trying to get funding for a mobile payment platform that he had built.

Most of the people he talked to were white men, who run a majority of the pooled investment funds that finance startups.

“It is very difficult for a Black founder to raise money,” Gaius said. “Shila understands what it looks like to be a founder and try to start something when the color of your skin looks different than the people sitting across the table from you.”

As a Black woman busting into the venture capital space, Burney is trying to change the narrative of who is investing money and who is getting the money. She started Zane Venture Fund and is the managing partner.

Gaius’ company — Parrot — is one of the businesses that Zane helped finance.

This month, Zane closed an initiative aimed at attracting diverse investors. Twenty-five people committed a total of $1 million. Of those investors, more than 80% are Black, Hispanic or Asian. Most are women. The fund will exclusively back minority-owned businesses.

Counting all investors in Zane, Burney has raised about $3 million so far and hopes to procure much more to invest in tech companies started by diverse entrepreneurs, or founders.

“The goal with the fund is to create equity on both sides of the table, for entrepreneurs and for investors,” Burney said.

According to a 2020 study by the Harvard Business Review, 81% of venture capital firms have no Black investors at any level and only 2% of senior positions are held by Black people. In addition, 65% of venture capital firms have no female partners.

But race isn’t the only thing that separates Burney from many venture capitalists. She also doesn’t have the typical work background.

A native of Orlando, Burney worked for the Orange County Public Schools prior to moving to Atlanta and joining the features department of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the early 2000s. After leaving the AJC, she went to the American Cancer Society, where she created programs for marginalized communities.

Burney soon started getting interested in creating opportunities for Black businesses and entrepreneurs. In 2018, she studied under Sig Mosley, one of the best-known venture capital investors in the Southeast.

The next year, she started Zane.

Mosley estimates that, over the course of his career, about 16% of the founders that his firm, Mosley Ventures, invested in were people of color. That’s better than most funds, he said, but still paltry. He became a limited partner in Zane about two years ago.

“Minority founders don’t generally get the opportunity to show what they can do,” Mosley said. “White people tend to invest in white people.”

Initially, other than Burney and Tope Awotona, chief executive officer of the scheduling platform Calendly, all of Zane’s investors were white men. In other words, Burney’s fund looked like all the rest; she wasn’t being the disruptor that she wanted to be.

“That was a problem,” she said. “I am trying to create equity on both sides of the table. For the people who invest in my fund, if they are just white men, I am just gonna keep making white men wealthier. I want to make people of color wealthy, too.”

With Zane’s Diverse Investor Initiative, Burney lowered the $100,000 minimum investment requirement and offered slots at $25,000 and $50,000 to attract diversity.

That’s needed, said Barbara Jones-Brown, who owns Lillii RNB. The Atlanta-based company specializes in technology to help retailers increase efficiency and decrease product theft.

“When I first started raising money, I thought it would be a slam dunk,” Jones-Brown said. “But I remember walking in meetings and everyone would be looking at their phones and ignoring me. Then, white people, with half of my experience, would come in and land deals. It was frustrating.”

Burney wanted to help change that.

So far, Zane has invested in five companies, including three based in Atlanta.

Gaius eventually raised over $2 million through several sources. His company has offices in Atlanta, Seattle and San Francisco, where he ended up moving. Had he met Burney earlier, he said, he would have stayed in Georgia.

She backs his business from afar, investing $100,000.

“As a Black ma

Barbara Jones-Brown, Dwight Zane Burney Sr., Shila Nieves Burney and Sig Mosley talk over breakfast at The Gathering Spot in Atlanta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Credit: Phil Skinner

n starting a company, having a resource like Shila would have been invaluable,” Gaius said.

Zane has also made an initial investment of $25,000 into Jones-Brown’s Lillii RNB, which she started in 2013.

Jones-Brown said that helped her land a key partnership and contributed to her raising more than $900,000 from investors this year, her best ever.

“Sometimes, people think it is charity to invest in Black businesses,” said Jones-Brown, who is having ongoing conversations with Burney to increase Zane’s investments. “But I am building a company that is gonna be worth billions. People can’t get over the fact that Black women want to build these types of companies. But they need to start investing in Black.”