Aaron Samuels bridges gap between ‘artist’ and ‘entrepreneur’ with new VC fund

When venture capital firm Collide Capital launched last month with the announcement of a $66 million fund, its managing partners may have cited any business success between the two in explaining why they decided entering the VC world: Harvard and Stanford MBA, stints at Bain and Goldman Sachs and founding and running a media company.

But for Aaron Samuels, the right answer to where he started his career isn’t in the pages of an economics textbook or a business school case study. It is poetry — and, in particular, his writings about his experiences as a Black Jew. He has experimented with the art form for the past twenty years, resulting in two books (with a third on the way), and performances in venues such as New York’s Lincoln Center.

“I often wonder what 13-year-old Aaron would think of 33-year-old Aaron, and it’s funny, you see the threads early in your youth, as you will, but no you always make sense. until it happens right now,” Samuels said Inner Foot Jew in a recent Zoom interview from his home in Los Angeles.

“I think from a very young age, the community was always the most important thing to me, and specifically the communities I came from, the Black community, the Jewish community and especially the Jews of color,” continued Samuel forward. “So if you asked me at 13 years old, ‘Aaron, would you work on something to do with empowering the communities you’re interested in?’ I would have said, ‘Absolutely,’ whether it’s by using creativity, by using art or by using business tools or capital tools.”

Community building was at the heart of Samuels’ career. He is known for co-founding Blavity, a media company aimed at Black millennials, and AfroTech, a networking platform and conference for Black entrepreneurs and tech workers. (This year’s conference, held earlier this month in Austin, Texas, drew more than 25,000 attendees.) His co-managing partner at Collide, Brian Hollins, had more VC experience and joined Collide after making several seed investments in startups.

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At meetings like AfroTech, Black founders continued to approach Samuels with the same question. “They often say, ‘Thank you for the panel discussion,’ or ‘Thank you for the resources, thank you for the mentorship, but really we only need one thing. We need to cut you the check, and we need the capital,’” Samuels said. “That was a big part that was missing from the equation.”

Startups run by women and people of color tend to have a much more difficult experience raising capital. In 2021, only 1.3% of all venture and growth equity funding went to Black-founded startups, according to Crunchbase. Women-led startups received only 2.3% of VC funding in 2020, Crunchbase reported. Collide hopes to help change these figures.

Unusually for a new and unestablished fund, Collide’s $66 million fund is backed by several large institutional investors. It is secured by the endowment of the University of California, and has also received significant investments from Amazon, Alphabet and Twitter. Other limited partners in the fund include Bank of America, Citi and Northwestern Mutual.

Collide is not an impact fund, meaning it only invests in startups with specific social goals. But he intends to focus on startups led by women and people of color. Among the types of companies Collide plans to support are enterprise software-as-a-service (SaaS), supply chain infrastructure and consumer technology aimed at the Gen Z set. (“When Gen Z takes over, what is Slack 2030?” asked Samuels.)

Samuels sees a line through his childhood, growing up in what he described as “queer, multiracial, multiethnic abhor group” in Providence, RI, for the work he now does in the business world.

“If you asked me, would I be a venture capitalist? I would tell you that I have no idea what venture capital is, and it was definitely a windy path to get here, through the world of poetry and then consulting and products and becoming a founder,” he said. “But it’s no surprise that I’m still working now on projects to empower underserved and underrepresented communities.”

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As he went into the business world, Samuel always remained close to the Jewish community. Samuels created and lived in the first ever Moishe House for Jews of color, in LA, and is on the board of the progressive Jewish advocacy group Bend the Arc. In 2016, at the group’s first major national conference, Samuels performed a poetry reading on the main stage.

“It really resonated with people. He shared insights through his poetry into his identity and experiences as a Black Jew,” said Jamie Beran, CEO of Bend the Arc. “He’s very influential in the national conversation about how to be a more racially just and inclusive Jewish community.”

In 2020, Samuels co-wrote an open letter to Jewish organizations, urging them to work to combat racism in Jewish communities by investing in community leaders of color and committing to racial justice initiatives. The letter, signed by thousands of people and dozens of synagogues, independent minors and other Jewish groups across the country, started the “Not Free to Desist” campaign, an ongoing project seeking change within Jewish communities.

“I think a lot of people expect results overnight. But it’s long – it takes years. It’s a life of work,” said Rachel Sumekh, who directed the open letter with Samuels and founded the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger. “I think the conversation has started in a way that we’re moving beyond just having committees, where we’re saying, What steps are we taking? What commitments are we making? I see the conversation going on.”

Samuels collaborated with Reboot and Hillel International to produce a reading of his 2021 poem “Forgiveness,” about the Yom Kippur experience, and the elaborate security common to many American Jewish synagogues, as a Black Jew. The short film alternates between short recordings of Black Jews of all ages expressing their Jewish identity, with Star of David necklaces, yarmulkes or prayer shawls, as Samuel recites his poem.

“I walk, covered in white, to the steps of the temple. I walk past four police officers. I see their arms. How do they make the community feel safe. I prepare my body to pray,” says Samuel, his voice strong and solemn, warm and welcoming. “I walk through the metal detector, and I’m buying candy in a new neighborhood. I leave the metal detector and I’m sleeping in my own bed. This is my place of worship. These are my people.”

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This poem, Samuels told JI, is “about how, as a whole Jewish community, there are things that we may need to ask forgiveness for, and the video specifically focuses on racial injustice within the a Jewish community with the Jewish community next to them. to.”

Writing allowed Samuels to vent his anger as a child — both of his parents are clinical psychologists — about racism, sexism and homophobia. Today, he still writes, although anger is no longer the only emotion he deals with. “It allows me, in some ways, to have an external hard drive for my emotions,” he explained, though it’s hard to imagine when Samuels has the time. (Sumekh, who also lives in Los Angeles, revealed that he brings his laptop whenever she goes to the beach with Samuels.)

Plus, he doesn’t seem like a starving artist anymore. But it was never earning a living that inspired Samuel to write.

“Poetry is a medium that opens us up to interpretation and opens us up to being playful, so having a poet in the VC and tech entrepreneurship space is a gift because he’s bringing in the way he thinks as a poet in that space,” said Caroline Rothstein, a poet who has worked closely with, and performed with, Samuels.

“In some ways, I think there’s a lot of overlap between the entrepreneurial journey and the artistic journey,” Samuels noted, “in that both artists and entrepreneurs see their jobs, in many ways, to look at the world, and then ask them. how they can bend it a little bit to make it a little bit different, and hopefully make it better, or at least more interesting.”

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