Meet the man changing the face of startup funding
Future Capital founder Marlon Thompson is bringing a new kind of equity to the venture capital space.
When founders talk about “systems,” they’re often referring to the hardware or software of their company, but when Marlon Thompson talks about systems, he means something else entirely.
“The conventional understanding of how systemic barriers show up in tech and finance goes like this: there’s a small group of individuals that gets inducted into this really exclusive school or firm or network, and then those people are thrust into a pipeline that spits them out into these high paying, high power, high profile jobs or positions or roles or whatever you want to call it. In my opinion, at this stage, especially after 2020, there's no dispute around those barriers,” he explains.
Enter Future Capital.
Built on the understanding that systemic barriers exist for groups traditionally excluded from the world of venture capital, Future Capital seeks to bring community, education, and access to those underrepresented populations. In equipping these groups with the skills and know-how of venture capital, Thompson seeks to create parity in the industry.
“The trajectory that I got on was always so unlikely, so that built this belief system for me [that] anyone can really actually do anything,” he argues. “You don't necessarily need to have gone to a specific school or have a specific background to add real significant value in these industries.”
Thompson, the son of Caribbean immigrants, grew up in a low-income neighbourhood in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, in which (as of 2016) over 70 percent of the population is Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). He moved to Vancouver in 2014 to work at a startup as a director of operations.
Following stints at a few other local startups, Thompson found himself at Ryan Holmes’ League of Innovators, a Canadian charity and accelerator that focuses on supporting young entrepreneurs and changemakers. While this exposed him to the broader local entrepreneur ecosystem including angel investors, venture capitalists and mentors, it also showed the lack of diversity in the industry, and the challenges faced by those who didn’t fall in the mainstream, including BIPOC and women.
Immigrant families typically want their Canadian-born children to follow a more secure and/or classically successful career path as doctors, lawyers, accountants and nurses. Canadian actor Simu Liu told a story on his press tour for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings about how his parents weren’t impressed by his inclusion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe until they saw the Chinese-language movie poster.
For Thompson, while his family may not fully understand what he does, they see him forging his own path and giving back to the communities he came from, which to him specifically means equipping marginalized groups with an understanding of technology and finance and where they intersect.
“The things that make us unique are also the things that will make us successful,” he says about the target demographic of Future Capital. “Future Capital exists to bring wealth creation opportunities and decision-making power to underrepresented and underestimated groups. So what that means for us on a more tactical level is we are really, really focused on developing this new, more diverse cohort of startup investors.”
Future Capital offers four different programs: Foundations (the most popular), Angel Investing, Fund Investing, and Syndicate Investing that “demystify the process, stakes and stages of startup investing” according to the company’s website. These courses vary from two-hour workshops to multi-day cohort learning with industry guests. Spaces are limited and require individuals to submit a free application, self-identifying which underrepresented group(s) they’re members of, before needing to pay the full course fee.
“One of the hallmarks of our programming is tapping industry experts to come in as guests,” says Thompson. “My background is as an instructional designer, so we've got a very unique approach and pedagogy to how we ensure that people learn what they need to learn at the right pace and take something really meaningful and pragmatic and tactical away from every session that we deliver.”
But back to the systems.
In addition to underrepresented groups not having access to the same success pipeline as those with immense privilege, the vernacular used by the tech and VC industries serve as a systemic barrier. This can be exacerbated when coupled with other potential barriers such as low financial literacy skills, something that has disproportionately negative effects in BIPOC communities. These barriers, however, are not insurmountable but require direct intervention, which is what Future Capital is looking to do.
These barriers don’t begin and end with issues of class or race, they also include gender and sexuality. As of 2018, just 15 percent of VC firms had women partners, with funds led by women managing partners only raising 10 percent of capital (Read Future Capital’s white paper on women in VC). Unsurprisingly, venture capital is dominated by primarily white and male executives and funds who then create the rulebooks for the rest of the industry, if not for the world writ large as a means to uphold the status quo.
This is why we hear about BIPOC, women and members of the queer community needing to code switch (the shifting of language and actions between physical environments or social settings) in the workplace—it helps them survive.
“[Codeswitching] is so emblematic of the additional mental work that I think a lot of underrepresented people do,” says Thompson. “That's totally thankless. It doesn't give you any advantage, but it actually secretly is a huge value add to an organization. I've been lucky enough to have some great leaders in my life that were able to recognize that my ability to code switch was a value add, but that hasn't always been the case. And I think just from my experience, as a Black man, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, nine times out of 10 that’s not the case.”
But despite the systemic barriers, Thompson remains hopeful for the industry. “I think people are starting to recognize and appreciate how different the world is going to look and feel and behave in the next couple of decades. I think there's this growing demand for economic equality and this growing demand for a more balanced, inclusive economy and society; I don't think that's going away. In fact, I think it's going to get stronger. So, I believe the future of leadership across any industry in North America, and beyond, is just going to look and sound and behave very differently than what we're used to and I can't wait to see that. I want to be part of it.”