Black Tech Founders Help Advance Fashion, Despite Disadvantages – Sourcing Journal

As technology continues to revolutionize the fashion and apparel spaces, and technology-based startups spawn rapidly, some groups of founders tend to be overlooked by the industry and investors

Black founders have historically faced serious adversity when trying to raise funds, particularly compared with white founders—but being underfunded has not been the only hurdle they face when it comes to building a startup. Many founders of color also report being underestimated. 

According to a 2021 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black entrepreneurs start new businesses at a rate 22 percent lower than their white counterparts; that disparity could be due to the challenges Black founders face once they enter the startup arena. 

Nonetheless, entrepreneurs of color continue to make a profound impact on the industries they touch. 

A number of Black founders continue to move the fashion and apparel industries forward, helping consumers find better fits, leveraging technology for self expression, enlisting artificial intelligence to aid product discovery and more. 

The founders and their work

Elizabeth Blege and Judith Omoregie co-founded Efitter, a fit technology tool that allows consumers to leverage the data companies have collected about them. 

The platform’s main offering comes in the form of a technology-enabled browser plug-in that predicts the garment size that will best fit a consumer based on their previous purchases across e-commerce retailers. Efitter garners that information through a consumer’s previous order confirmation emails. 

Blege, who serves as the chief of product for the UK-based company, said Efitter’s work helps democratize data.

“We’re empowering users to use their own data, and that’s very much by design. We’re living in an age where data is the most valuable resource, but the only [entities] that are able to benefit from that are big corporations, and not the individuals who are shopping. That just seems wrong…so we are very passionate about making sure that people have access to their data to only to help consumers, but also to help businesses so that they are reducing returns.”

Elizabeth Blege, co-founder and chief of product at Efitter. Photo courtesy of Efitter.

Across the pond, another founder has just launched a new AI-powered startup.

Jessica Couch founded Looks AI, a platform that enables store associates and shoppers to interact on a social commerce app. Associates, who Couch said often influence in-store purchases, can post outfit inspiration on the platform with links that go directly to the company’s site for purchase. 

She created the solution to help apparel and fashion deviate from the norms surrounding who can and cannot become an influencer for fashion.

“When I thought about Looks AI, and I thought about the relationship between consumers and brands, the disconnect there is for not only people of color, but people of various body types. I wanted to create something that democratizes influence,” she said. “We want to create a shopping experience for consumers that’s more in line with your natural behavior. You normally see someone who’s built like you, or who has a similar style, and that’s the person you want to engage with. That’s the person that you’ll kind of ask questions about, like, ‘Hey, where’d you get that?’ That interaction right now doesn’t exist in the digital space,” Couch said.

The platform could also benefit associates, who would have data to back up the value they add to a company, as well as brands, who would receive stronger information about the types of styles their consumers care about, she noted.

Jessica Couch, founder of Looks AI. Photo courtesy of Jessica Couch.

While Couch continues to build on the East Coast, another founder is plugging away on the West Coast.

Benjamen Janey founded his company, Spooler, in 2016. The startup’s marquis product, the Tymelss platform, allows designers to promote their cause-related designs. 

“We’re combining fashion and technology, not only to help people take control of what they want to wear, but also the statements that they want to make as a society, using clothing as the platform or vehicle for relevant expression,” he said. 

Sellers on the platform receive newsletters, in which Janey’s team details trend forecasts, as monitored by AI, so they can better understand what consumers might be looking for on Tymelss. 

Some of the products on the platform bear slogans that support the empowerment of women, while others promote social justice-related causes. Janey said the startup produces the items on a made-to-order basis and holds no inventory. 

Throughout the company’s growth process, Janey has partnered with Plug In Ventures, an accelerator focused on propelling Black and Brown founders’ companies. 

Derek Smith, managing director of Plug In Ventures. Photo courtesy of Plug In Ventures.

Derek Smith, managing director of Plug In Ventures, said he founded the accelerator, at the time known as Plug In South Los Angeles, in 2014 after moving back to LA from New York City. He understood that LA could be part of the technology genesis sweeping California after overflowing Silicon Valley. But he also knew that some communities in LA may lack the opportunity to participate in the impending boom. 

He started Plug In to ensure Black and Brown founders had a chance to participate in growing and scaling technology-based opportunities. 

“Our North Star is that we want to see the next wave of Googles come out of overlooked and underserved communities, because we know that the talent is there,” Smith said. “But the capital has not always been, nor have the economic resources, to really propel entrepreneurship in these communities that are oftentimes overlooked.”

The funding problem

The economic disadvantages Smith referenced show up when considering the data around investment in startups founded by people of color. 

According to Crunchbase data, funding for Black founders in the U.S. decreased in 2023 for the third year in a row.

Last year, Black founders saw just 0.48 percent of at-large startup funding coming in their directions. That figure fell just over one-half of a percentage point from 2022, when Black founders received 1.09 percent of overall funding. In 2021, Black-founded companies raised 1.31 percent of all capital directed to startups. 

Blege, Couch, Janey, Omoregie and Smith collectively said the experience of fundraising as a Black founder can be trying, and that venture capitalists and investors often overlook solutions presented by people of color. 

Janey has already raised $275,000 for Spooler, though he has a goal of raising $1 million in his current fundraising round. Despite having some success in his fundraising efforts and minting an ongoing relationship with the Texas-based VC Capital Factory, Janey said he has experienced hurdles that a white founder would not. 

“Particularly in the VC space, the disparity is quite grotesque. I think the most talented founders are probably not getting the funding…and are being overlooked,” Janey told Sourcing Journal. “It’s an injustice to the market because there are great products and ideas that are not being able to compete in the market, which actually limits the level of innovation that we’re experiencing.” 

Benjamen Janey, founder of Spooler. Photo courtesy of Benjamen Janey.

Couch told Sourcing Journal she has decided to wait on fundraising for Looks AI until she has piloted her solution with a retail partner. She said that is partly because the platform becomes revenue-generating as soon as a client signs, but it is also due to the obstacles Black founders face in trying to secure investment. 

“I think that part of being a person of color is sometimes you have to be more resourceful when you don’t have either access to the same tools, or you don’t get the same credibility as others,” Couch said.

Blege and Omoregie said they have ping-ponged back and forth on whether to fundraise. For the time being, they have decided not to do so for a few reasons: the demanding nature of fundraising, an interest in building with internal funds they already have and the lack of faith investors in the UK have in Black women who are entrepreneurs. 

“It’s not because there aren’t Black woman founders; there are a lot of them—very successful ones, building great businesses. It’s just that the investors, the people sitting on the other side of the table, are not interested—or if they are, you have to jump through so many hurdles that they would never ask for in white male counterparts,” Omoregie said. “I think it makes us more determined to prove that we can build a sustainable business without external funding first.”

Judith Omoregie, co-founder and chief of marketing at Efitter. Photo courtesy of Efitter.

Smith said he wants Plug In to be part of the solution for founders of color. For that reason, he and his team have been working to create a dual-chamber model for the organization going forward. While it will continue running its accelerator program, Smith has aspirations that Plug In will soon be able to invest directly in the companies it works with. 

“What we do here, it’s already a huge heavy lift. Working with founders is its own special thing in and of itself,” he said. “The investment piece is where we’re focused, and that is what is going to change, [while] also continuing to make sure that we’re operating our first-in-class accelerator program to support our founders and thinking about, ‘How can we have a bigger impact?’” 

Despite the difficulties these Black founders have faced while building their businesses, each of them remains optimistic about the ways in which their businesses can change the industry and better consumers’ lives. 

Couch said that she hopes young people of color considering becoming founders should be aware of—but not scared off by—the extra barriers they will have to break through to reach success.

“Standing out works in your favor. Creating opportunities for yourself when doors close works in your favor, because it only makes you smarter and sharper. The advice that I would give would be, don’t take it personally. Everyone doesn’t have the same baseline,” Couch said. “Everyone’s not going to appreciate what you offer, but identify opportunities for yourself, even within prejudices, because opportunities are there.”