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Rising Startups To Watch With Diverse Founders

As much buzz as you may be hearing about diversity right now, the stark fact remains that most VC funding is still going to startups founded by white men. As recently as 2017, less than 1 percent of total VC funding went to women of color. And when women of color do get a shot, they’re often scrutinized far beyond what the average white man goes through to gain funding.

Diverse founders see the world from a variety of perspectives, notice problems others don’t see and devise innovative solutions to those challenges. It’s critical that the startup world feature a wide range of faces.

January Ventures (my firm) recently organized a virtual pitch series called PitchCollective that’s designed to source diverse founders and give them the opportunity to efficiently pitch a group of investors at once, no warm intro required. Here are rising startups to watch with diverse founders that we met through this pitch series.


In order to meet enrollment goals, including gender equity and diversity goals, colleges and universities spend over $10B a year recruiting students. A lot of the processes they use are not just expensive, but inefficient and unreliable. Founded by Samuel Okpara in New York City, Academicly brings students, high schools and colleges together into one ecosystem to better manage the college application process. Through real-time document sharing and communication, it’s already expanding opportunity and access to education for over 2,000 students.


Finding activity partners and travel buddies is harder than it seems for a lot of people. There are dating apps and community organizer platforms — but nothing in between. Adventurely’s app connects activity partners safely, easily and spontaneously, coming to the rescue of the millions of solo travelers worldwide. Founded by Mita Carriman in New York, the app launched in 2019 via the Backstage Capital Accelerator.


Arnie is an automated portfolio builder for the ethical investor. Founded in 2019 in San Francisco by Izabel Arnold and Eliza Arnold, Arnie democratizes access to sustainable and impact investing by serving the 95 percent of American households that don’t meet the wealth threshold needed to access a private advisor. Arnie blends the ease of use of a robo-advisor with the customization of a personal advisor to address a growing market that currently holds $14 trillion in investable assets.

Aquifer Motion

Aquifer Motion is an AI-powered cinematic video platform for creators, media companies and brands. 3D animation is explosively popular, but notoriously complex and time-consuming to make. With Aquifer Motion, a single creator can produce animated content at a rapid rate that once required entire teams, and increase brand engagement at a low cost. Founded in 2018 in Austin by Chen Zhang and Matt Udvari, Aquifer Motion’s customers include top-tier creators such as Ryan’s World (36M subscribers) and Night Media.

FanFest by VICI TV

For all the sports teams, film studios and record labels with empty stadiums, theaters and concert halls right now, the New York-based team at VICI built FanFest, a “Twitch-in-a-box” platform for ticketed live events. Delivered virtually, it includes built-in merchandising and sponsorship capability. Founded in 2018 by Adam Jones and Robert Gordon, VICI’s Techstars backed team has decades of experience scaling media companies from prior work at Verizon, Real Madrid, Fox Sports, Uber and Elite Daily. In less than eight weeks since FanFest hit 1.0, and as leagues resumed with fanless games, they’ve landed five deals helping sports teams convert their 200M+ total social followers into paying customers.


Founded in 2019, Forage is a mobile app that allows users to save money on groceries without risking their health by shopping in-store. This California-based startup founded by Anthony Grullón, Justin Nicodemus Intal and Victor Fimbres helps users save, but also optimizes profit margins for grocery chains. Today, the growing $60B food-stamp market is online for the first time, allowing Forage to help the most vulnerable populations, which are composed of people just like one of its founders—who grew up on food stamps himself.

Frame Fertility

Founded by  Jessica Bell van der Wal and Corey van der Wal in Charlotte, NC, Frame Fertility is a personalized digital platform that allows users to take control of their fertility before conception and avoid expensive, sometimes unnecessary treatment like IVF and egg freezing. The brand uses a holistic, proactive approach to coaching and assessment, enabled by a convenient digital experience. Founded in 2020 by a couple that had experienced fertility challenges themselves, Frame Fertility is hoping to change the game for the one in seven women in the U.S. who experience infertility.


Founded in 2017 by Allison Kent-Smith in Boulder, Giide is an audio content platform where businesses create and listeners consume a narrated tour of content that matters. Glide provides businesses with the tools to make original audio-driven content embedded with real-time links to video, articles, images and data. Creators can share more, listeners can take action on what they hear and publishers get better tracking capability. Glide works with global brands including TDAmeritrade, SCJohnson, Rockefeller Foundation and more to transform business content into interactive audio experiences.


HUMBL founders Brian Foote and Michele Rivera noticed a major gap between the US and emerging markets regarding mobile payment. HUMBL uses a mobile wallet that connects debit, credit and digital dollars – with a point-of-sale (POS) system called HUMBL Hubs – to instantly connect the way money moves between consumers and merchants in markets such as LatAm, Africa, India and Oceania. HUMBL is working on Fortune 500 partnerships and was featured by the UN 2030 Agenda.


Kids always need new shoes, and shopping for them always takes more time than it should. Eve Ackerley and Carolyn Horner created the Jenzy app to save parents time by helping them buy top-rated shoes in the right size for their child. Founded in 2016 in Philadelphia, the startup has grown dramatically since COVID-19: the app has generated 30k unique sizing sessions and increased sales by 1500 percent. Jenzy is poised to become a game changer for the $11B kid shoe market.


Lessonbee, founded by Reva McPollom, is an edtech company on a mission to promote health and lifelong learning through culturally responsive education. It addresses the need for accurate and inclusive learning content for health education and beyond. Founded in 2018 in Mount Vernon, NY, its comprehensive health education curriculum has been approved by Chicago Public Schools, and over 500 customers have now joined the platform. In May, Lessonbee became an official Schoology Learning Applications partner.


Lifted, based in Brooklyn, NY and founded by Andrew Hill and Dr. Joanne Powell, is equipping school teams and families to help the 1 in 5 students who learn differently achieve success. 98% of US schools report chronic shortages of special education professionals, while the achievement gap for 7.5 million students with learning disabilities grows. Unmanageable caseloads, ineffective tools, excessive paperwork and limited professional support drives educator attrition & debilitates diverse learner’s achievement. 


“People just don’t mix at mixers.” This is the undeniable truth behind Mixtroz, a software company launched by Ashlee Ammons and Kerry Schrader in 2015. The goal of Mixtroz is to increase user engagement and collect useful data wherever there are 50 or more people gathered together — live or virtually. The founders used their industry expertise in HR and events to create a bias-free software that encourages dynamic mixing, increases engagement and inspires attendees to take desirable actions more often. Customers include Alabama Power, Deloitte, the Kauffman Foundation and Georgia Tech.


Moodbit increases the engagement and productivity of employees in all types of organizations by capturing real-time, high-quality behavioral and interactional data, then suggesting detailed action plans. This allows managers to find internal influencers, make data-driven HR decisions to increase retention and productivity, and measure the ROI of their investments. Founded in 2018 by Miho Shoji and Alfredo Jaldin, Moodbit serves more than 300 SMBs and Fortune 500 companies from its HQ in New York City.


Order fulfillment is labor and time intensive and tends to account for a large percentage of operational costs. Founded in 2019 by Charu Thomas, Oculogx serves big-name customers like Walmart and Google and small businesses with only a few employees, with a digital order-fulfillment platform that allows employees to do more with less time. Forbes chose Thomas for its 2020 “30 Under 30” list and predicts Oculogx’s revenue could reach $4 million in 2020.


Peak Mind is an emerging well-being technology that empowers staff to create a healthier work culture one action-step at a time. According to a recent Forbes article, it’s estimated that stress-related burnout costs $125 to $190 billion a year in the U.S. Founded in 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Alicia McKoy, Peak Mind is dedicated to reducing workplace stress in the moment, helping to lower overall healthcare costs while increasing profitability, employee retention and employee engagement.

Sandbox Commerce

Founded in 2017 in Austin by Sterling Smith, Sandbox Commerce enables traditional retailers to launch bespoke, rapidly scalable mobile apps quickly via their no-code platform. The app is particularly adaptable to today’s retail woes, because it enables contactless curbside commerce, appointment scheduling, last-mile delivery and other services to allow consumers to access products from a safe distance. And retailers can launch their apps on both iOS and Google Play AppStore.


Companies waste too much time interviewing poor fits, resulting in a lot of lost time for hiring managers. The video-first marketplace for hiring, Showcase uses pre-recorded video to save companies and candidates time, eliminating repetitive phone interviews. Just launched in 2020 by Amay Sheth and Jimmy Zhang in New York City, customers are already seeing 80 percent time savings, and they’re dedicated to building the next-gen recruiting database centered around asynchronous video — a $20B opportunity.


Most communities of African American, Hispanic American and Native American populations have no dermatologists at all. Add to that the fact that only 3-4% of dermatologists identify as African-American or Latin-American, and that in the U.S. alone, there are more than 104 million people who are affected by skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea, and you see the problem. Skinterest’s tool is a telehealth enhancement tool that aims to improve health outcomes for communities of color with chronic skin conditions. Founded in 2019 by Thandiwe-Kesi Robins and Ashley Abid in New York, the company’s goal is to take down the barriers to care that exist within communities of color and tap into a market for teledermatology expansion that’s projected to be $8.6 billion by 2024.


Symba, founded by Nikita Gupta and Ahva Sadeghi, is the leading remote internship platform. It has designed 5000+ internship experiences, partnered with over 450 universities and been featured as a leader in the remote internship movement. By 2028, 73 percent of all teams will have remote workers. The future of work is here, and it demands the adoption of virtual operations — along with an investment in the next generation of talent and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Symba helps businesses recruit and engage interns remotely, improving the accessibility of internships and expanding the talent pool while reducing overhead. Symba is an all female founded tech startup with a team distributed around the world.


Worksense is a platform that empowers tech companies small and large to drive equity and fairness at scale. Founded in 2019 in Boston by Timi Dayo-Kayode, Kevin Destin and Jerico Lumanlan, the technology seamlessly consolidates “people data” like payroll data, demographic data, performance reviews and more from across HR tools like Workday, ADP, Lattice and PeopleSoft. It then creates a dashboard showing data analysis in a way that helps users track and foster fairness and equity in their employee base. Most companies have heaps of people data at their disposal, but they struggle to use it and derive insights. Worksense takes the tedious technical analysis out of the equation and lets leaders focus on the insights.

Note: Maren Thomas Bannon is a partner at January Ventures, which organized the virtual pitch event called PitchCollective.

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