Ne-Yo wants to make Silicon Valley more diverse, one investment at a time

Ne-Yo made his first investment in the coding academy Holberton School about a year ago. This month, he visited the campus for its grand opening and spoke to TechCrunch about his Silicon Valley ambitions.

Dressed in a Naruto t-shirt and a hat emblazoned with the phrase “lone wolf,” Ne-Yo slouches over in a chair inside a Holberton School classroom. The Grammy-winning recording artist is struggling to remember the name of “that actor,” the one who’s had a successful career in both the entertainment industry and tech investing.

“I learned about all the things he was doing and I thought it was great for him,” Ne-Yo told TechCrunch. “But I didn’t really know what my place in tech would be.”

It turns out “that actor” is Ashton Kutcher, widely known in Hollywood and beyond for his role in several blockbusters and the TV sitcom That ’70s Show, and respected in Silicon Valley for his investments via Sound Ventures and A-Grade in Uber, Airbnb, Spotify, Bird and several others.

Ne-Yo, for his part, is known for a string of R&B hits including So Sick, One in a Million and Because of You. His latest album, Good Man, came out in June.

Ne-Yo, like Kutcher, is interested in pursuing a side gig in investing but he doesn’t want to waste time chasing down the next big thing. His goal, he explained, is to use his wealth to encourage people like him to view software engineering and other technical careers as viable options.

“Little black kids growing up don’t say things like ‘I want to be a coder when I grow up,’ because it’s not real to them, they don’t see people that look like me doing it,” Ne-Yo said. “But tech is changing the world, like literally by the day, by the second, so I feel like it just makes the most sense to have it accessible to everyone.”

Last year, Ne-Yo finally made the leap into venture capital investing: his first deal, an investment in Holberton School, a two-year coding academy founded by Julien Barbier and Sylvain Kalache that trains full-stack engineers. The singer returned to San Francisco earlier this month for the grand opening of Holberton’s remodeled headquarters on Mission Street in the city’s SoMa neighborhood.

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Holberton, a proposed alternative to a computer science degree, is free to students until they graduate and land a job, at which point they are asked to pay 17 percent of their salaries during their first three years in the workforce.

It has a different teaching philosophy than your average coding academy or four-year university. It relies on project-based and peer learning, i.e. students helping and teaching each other; there are no formal teachers or lecturers. The concept appears to be working. Holberton says their former students are now employed at Apple, NASA, LinkedIn, Facebook, Dropbox and Tesla.

Ne-Yo participated in Holberton’s $2.3 million round in February 2017 alongside Reach Capital and Insight Venture Partners, as well as Trinity Ventures, the VC firm that introduced Ne-Yo to the edtech startup. Holberton has since raised an additional $8 million from existing and new investors like daphni, Omidyar Network, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and Slideshare co-founder Jonathan Boutelle.

Holberton has used that capital to expand beyond the Bay Area. A school in New Haven, Conn., where the company hopes to reach students who can’t afford to live in tech’s hubs, is in development.

The startup’s emphasis on diversity is what attracted Ne-Yo to the project and why he signed on as a member of the board of trustees. More than half of Holberton’s students are people of color and 35 percent are women. Since Ne-Yo got involved, the number of African American applicants has doubled from roughly 5 percent to 11.5 percent.

“I didn’t really know what my place in tech would be.”

Before Ne-Yo’s preliminary meetings with Holberton’s founders, he says he wasn’t aware of the racial and gender diversity problem in tech.

“When it was brought to my attention, I was like ‘ok, this is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed,'” he said. “It makes no sense that this thing that affects us all isn’t available to us all. If you don’t have the money or you don’t have the schooling, it’s not available to you, however, it’s affecting their lives the same way it’s affecting the rich guys’ lives.”

Holberton’s founders joked with TechCrunch that Ne-Yo has actually been more supportive and helpful in the last year than many of the venture capitalists who back Holberton. He’s very “hands-on,” they said. Despite the fact that he’s balancing a successful music career and doesn’t exactly have a lot of free time, he’s made sure to attend events at Holberton, like the recent grand opening, and will Skype with students occasionally.

“I wanted it to be grassroots and authentic.”

Ne-Yo was very careful to explain that he didn’t put money in Holberton for the good optics.

“This isn’t something I just wanted to put my name on,” he said. “I wanted to make sure [the founders] knew this was something I was going to be serious about and not just do the celebrity thing. I wanted it to be grassroots and authentic so we dropped whatever we were doing and came down, met these guys, hung out with the students and hung out at the school to see what it’s really about.”

What’s next for Ne-Yo? A career in venture capital, perhaps? He’s definitely interested and will be making more investments soon, but a full pivot into VC is unlikely.

At the end of the day, Silicon Valley doesn’t need more people with fat wallets and a hankering for the billionaire lifestyle. What it needs are people who have the money and resources necessary to bolster the right businesses and who care enough to prioritize diversity and inclusivity over yet another payday.

“Not to toot the horn or brag, but I’m not missing any meals,” Ne-Yo said. “So, if I’m going to do it, let it mean something.”

Ashton Kutcher hates cars, loves scooters

Ashton Kutcher and Effie Epstein discussed their investment strategy at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. With their VC fund Sound Ventures, they invested in Bird. While they are conflicted on this topic, Kutcher had a passionate answer about scooters. Here’s a video of what he had to say: Ashton Kutcher: It’s a better world if scooters like […]

Ashton Kutcher and Effie Epstein discussed their investment strategy at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. With their VC fund Sound Ventures, they invested in Bird. While they are conflicted on this topic, Kutcher had a passionate answer about scooters.

Here’s a video of what he had to say:

I recommend listening to the video to hear how mad Kutcher was. But if you’re at work, here’s the main quote.

“This is like the simplest one of them all in so much as nobody wakes up in the morning, opens their front door and says ‘god look at how many cars there are, they’re parked everywhere.’ They are fucking parked everywhere! There are cars parked everywhere! It’s ridiculous! They’re clogging the roads, they’re making it impossible to get anywhere you want to go,” Kutcher said.

“But boy do we open up the door and go ‘man there are scooters all over the place.’ Hold on, wait a second, this is aversion to change. And suddenly we go: Alright, we have to regulate the hell out of this because people are complaining. But nobody is complaining about the fact that there are cars everywhere.”

Here’s Ashton Kutcher’s advice to Jack Dorsey

It might feel like ancient internet history, but Ashton Kutcher was the first person to reach 1 million followers on Twitter back in 2009. Effie Epstein and Kutcher came to Disrupt to talk about their investment firm Sound Ventures. And Jordan Crook took a minute to ask Kutcher if he had any advice for Twitter. […]

It might feel like ancient internet history, but Ashton Kutcher was the first person to reach 1 million followers on Twitter back in 2009. Effie Epstein and Kutcher came to Disrupt to talk about their investment firm Sound Ventures. And Jordan Crook took a minute to ask Kutcher if he had any advice for Twitter.

While Kutcher is better known for his Hollywood career, he’s been active in the tech community for many years. He has invested in many successful companies, including Airbnb. And as an early power user of Twitter, he obviously has a lot of thoughts on the platform as it is today.

“I emailed [Jack Dorsey] five months ago and I just said I’d love to be able to segment my audience. I don’t think everybody who follows me on Twitter is interested in what company I’m investing in, I don’t think everybody who follows me on Twitter is interested in The Ranch on Netflix — if you haven’t seen it it’s a great show. I don’t think everybody wants to hear what my political views are,” Kutcher told interviewer Jordan Crook.

“Wouldn’t it be a better experience if you could segment your audience towards interest based? You could actually self-filter the feed as you post. So it eliminates the presumption that everybody wants to hear what you have to say about everything because I don’t think that’s the case. So here’s my advice.”

And it’s true that the mob effect often starts with tweets quoted out of context. By distributing an unfiltered feed of tweets, there’s a higher chance that some of your followers will get mad at you for one reason or another. Twitter was supposed to be an interest-based social graph. It got out of control.

You might think that the more popular you become, the more active you should be. But the opposite thing happened with Kutcher.

“I think there was a specific inflection point when there were so many media companies following people’s Twitter that it no longer remained a private conversation. Everything became public so if you made a mistake…” he said. “So at that point I was like, before I tweet something, I was going to say ‘hey, what do you think of this?’”

The top 10 startups from Y Combinator’s Demo Day S’18 Day 2

59 startups took the stage at Y Combinator’s Demo Day 2  and among the highlights were a company that helps developers manage in-app subscriptions; a service that lets you create animojis from real photos; and a surplus medical equipment reselling platform. Oh… and there was also a company that’s developed an entirely new kind of life […]

59 startups took the stage at Y Combinator’s Demo Day 2  and among the highlights were a company that helps developers manage in-app subscriptions; a service that lets you create animojis from real photos; and a surplus medical equipment reselling platform. Oh… and there was also a company that’s developed an entirely new kind of life form using e coli bacteria. So yeah, that’s happening.

Based on some investor buzz and what caught TechCrunch’s eye, these are our picks from the second day of Y Combinator’s presentations.

You can find the full list of companies that presented on Day 1 here, and our top picks from Day 1 here. 

64-x

With a founding team including some of the leading luminaries in the field of biologically inspired engineering (including George Church, Pamela Silver, and Jeffrey Way from Harvard’s Wyss Institute) 64-x is engineering organisms to function in otherwise inaccessible environments. Chief executive Alexis Rovner, herself a post-doctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute, and chief operating officer Ryan Gallagher, a former BCG Consultant, are looking to commercialize research from the Institute around accelerating and expanding the ability to produce functionalized proteins and sequence-defined polymers with diverse chemistries. Basically they’ve engineered a new life form that they want to use for novel kinds of bio-manufacturing.

Why we liked it: These geniuses invented a new life form.

CB Therapeutics

Sher Butt, a former lab directory at Steep Hill, saw that cannabinoids were as close to a miracle cure for pain, epilepsy and other chronic conditions as medicine was going to get. But plant-based cannabinoids were costly and produced inconsistent results. Alongside Jacob Vogan, Butt realized that biosynthesizing cannabinoids would reduce production costs by a factor of ten and boost production 24 times current yields. With a deep experience commercializing drugs for Novartis and as the founder of the cannabis testing company, SB Labs, Butt and his technical co-founder are uniquely positioned to bring this new therapy to market.

Why we liked it: Using manufacturing processes to make industrial quantities of what looks like nature’s best painkiller at scale is not a bad idea.

RevenueCat

RevenueCat founders

RevenueCat helps developers manage their in-app subscriptions. It offers an API that developers can use to support in-app subscriptions on iOS and Android, which means they don’t have to worry about all the nuances, bugs and updates on each platform.

The API also allows developers to bring all the data about their subscription business together in one place. It might be on to something, though it isn’t clear how big that something is quite yet. The nine-month-old company says it’s currently seeing $350,000 in transaction volume every month; it’s making some undisclosed percentage of money off that amount.

Read more about RevenueCat here.

Why we liked it: Write code. Release app. Use RevenueCat. Get paid. That sounds like a good formula for a pretty compelling business.

 

Ajaib

Indonesia is a country in a transition, with a growing class of individuals with assets to invest yet who, financially, don’t meet the bar set by many wealth managers. Enter Ajaib, a newly minted startup with the very bold ambition of becoming the “Ant Financial of wealth management for Indonesia.” Why the comparison? Because China was in the same boat not long ago — a  country whose middle class had little access to wealth management advice. With the founding of Ant Financial nearly four years ago, that changed. In fact, Ant now boasts more than 400 million users.

China is home to nearly 1.4 billion, compared with Indonesia, whose population of 261 million is tiny in comparison. Still, if its plans work out to charge 1.4 percent for every dollar managed, with an estimated $370 billion in savings in the country to chase after, it could be facing a meaningful opportunity in its backyard if it gains some momentum.

Why we liked it: If Ajaib’s wealth management plans (to charge 1.4 percent for every dollar it manages) work out — and with a total market of $370 billion in savings in Indonesia — the company could be facing a meaningful opportunity in its backyard.

 

Grin

The scooter craze is hitting Latin America and Grin is greasing the wheels. The Mexico City-based company was launched by co-founder Sergio Romo after he and his partner realized they weren’t going to be able to get a cut of the big “birds” on the scooter block in the U.S. (as Axios reported). Romo and his co-founder have already lined up a slew of investors for what may be the hottest new deal in Latin America. Backers include Sinai Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures, 500 Startups, Monashees and Base10 Partners.

Why we liked it: Scooters are so 2018. But there’s a lot of money to be made in mobility, and as the challenge from Bird and Lime to Uber and Lyft in hyperlocal transit has revealed, there’s no dominant player that’s taken over the market… yet.

Emojer

Creating animated emojis made from real photos, Emojer just might be the most fun you can have with a camera. The company’s software uses deep learning algorithms to detect body parts and guides users in creating their own avatars with just a simple photo take from a mobile phone. It’s replacing deep Photoshop expertise and animation skills with a super simple interface. The avatars look very similar to Elf Yourself, a popular site that let you paste your friends’ faces on dancing Christmas elves that went viral every year at Christmastime. Founders have PhDs in machine learning and computer vision.

Why we liked it: As the company’s chief executive said, Snap was for sexting, and Facebook was hot or not, so who says the next big consumer platform couldn’t be the trojan horse of easily generated selfiemojis (akin to Elf Yourself)?

Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals

Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals is a public benefit corporation connecting doctors and patients with sources of low-cost, compounded pharmaceuticals. The company is looking to decrease barriers to entry for drugs for rare diseases. Three weeks ago the company introduced a drug to treat Wilson’s Disease. There was no access to the drug that treats the disease before in Brazil India or Canada. It slashes the cost of drugs from $30,000 a month to $120 per month. The company estimates it has a total addressable market of $17 billion. “Generic drug pricing is a crisis, people are dying because they can’t get access to the medicine they need,” says chief executive Alex Oshmyansky. Osh’s might have a solution.

Why we liked it: Selling lower-cost medications for rare diseases in countries that previously hadn’t had access to them is a good business that’s good for the world.

Medinas Health

Tackling a $75 billion problem of healthcare waste Medinas Health is giving hospitals an easy way to resell their used and a and supplies. The company has already raised $1 million for its marketplace to help healthcare organizations buy and sell equipment. With a seed round led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft Ventures fund, the company is also working to lower costs for cash-strapped rural health care centers.

Why we liked it: tktk

And Comfort

Plus-size women have limited clothing options even at the largest retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s. While a majority of American women fall into the plus-size clothing category, 100 million women are constrained to shopping for a very small percentage of options. And Comfort wants to solve the supply problem. To do this, the founders, two former Harvard classmates, are building a direct-to-consumer fashion brand with stylish, minimalist offerings for plus-size women, including tunic shirts and an apron dress. It’s very early days for the brand, but since launching in recent weeks, they’ve seen $25,000 in sales.

Why we liked it: This direct-to-consumer fashion brand is bringing higher quality, better-designed clothing options to a market that’s underserved and growing quickly. What’s not to like?

 

ShopWith

Influencers of the world are uniting on mobile app, ShopWith, which allows shoppers to browse virtual storefronts and aisles alongside their favorite fashion and beauty creators and YouTubers. Users can see exactly what products those influencers have featured and can buy them without ever leaving the app. It’s a free download and hours of commercially consumptive fun.

It’s like the QVC model, but for GenZ shoppers whose buying habits are influenced by social video content on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. The company revealed that one beauty influencer made $10,000 within five hours, using the ShopWith platform. The founders are former product managers with experience building social commerce products at Facebook and Amazon.

Why we liked it: The QVC for GenZ not only has a nice ring to it, it’s a recipe for making cash registers hum. A mobile-first, influencer-based shopping company is something that we’d definitely not call an impulse purchase.