Yinka Faleti’s impressive background takes her into the world of finance to fund underserved business founders
A Nigerian immigrant who became an army captain, earned his law degree and then ran for statewide office has taken on another challenge: raising $25 million in venture capital to underserved populations.
Yinka Faleti is a partner at Ascend Venture Capital, a St. Louis-based micro-venture capital firm that supports startup founders looking to grow their businesses.
Historically, minorities and women leading startups have found it difficult to secure venture capital funding.
“Venture capital is in the space where it is a kingmaker,” not just for investors and founders, “but employees, the communities in which these companies are embedded, and all second and third-party beneficiaries of the success of these companies,” said Faleti leGrio.
Faleti proudly notes that seven of Ascend’s 18 portfolio companies, or 39%, were founded by women, people of color or immigrants.
The fund aims to support existing companies and invest in new ones that offer data-centric services in the technology space.
Black startups, for example, received just 1% of venture capital funding in the first half of 2021, or $1.8 billion versus $147 billion granted, according to CrunchBase. It’s even worse for black female founders, whose companies raised $494 million in the first half of 2021, just 0.34% of the total available in venture capital funds.
Faleti himself is in the rare air. Blacks make up less than half of one percent of venture capitalists, according to a Harvard University study.
Of all the capital deployed by venture capital firms in the United States, 93% is controlled by white men, Faleti said. A Nigerian-American raising $25 million in capital for Ascend, a company founded by a Korean-American, is “unheard of”, he said.
Dan Conner, founder and general partner of Ascend, said Faleti had “an incredible story”.
“I think people like that end up being humble and continue to serve in multiple ways,” Conner said. leGrio. “That value system is exactly what we’re looking to implement and cultivate more at Ascend, so it’s easy for us to get. He’s an incredible recruit.
Beginning in 1975 and before his birth, Faleti’s family began to gradually come to the United States when his father immigrated from Nigeria. Her mother immigrated three years later, while Faleti stayed with her grandmother in Africa. Finally, at the age of seven, Faleti came to the United States where, for the first time, he met his father and two younger sisters, born while he was still in Nigeria.
Faleti graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1998 with an engineering degree and served six years in the military. He rose to the rank of captain and had two deployments to Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Spring prior to 9/11 and Operation Enduring Freedom in response to 9/11.
“It feels good to be part of a group of people who could do something about the attacks on our country,” Faleti said. He loved being part of a great mission, and this experience would inform his career choices.
He returned to the United States and earned his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating, he worked for a private law firm, then as a state attorney in Missouri.
But something bothered him about this job.
“Over 90% of the people I was chasing looked like me,” he said. He decided he didn’t want to go through a legal process that often comes too late to help black people; he wanted to be at the forefront and make changes that could help improve lives.
This led him to United Way of Greater St. Louis. He led fundraising efforts as senior vice president of philanthropic, donor and community services. During four annual campaigns, his division raised $300 million for programs that helped the community.
He became executive director of the nonprofit organization Forward Through Ferguson, formed after the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. to promote racial equality and help address issues of inequality and focuses on the region of Saint Louis.
Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014 and his death sparked civil unrest.
Faleti called his work with Forward through Ferguson the hardest he has done.
“How to undo generations of iniquities in a year or five? You can not. It is a generational work. We do this hard work,” he said.
“As we began to pull the thread of the (inequitable) systems we were trying to dismantle – education, health care, criminal justice – the longer we pulled the thread, the further the thread came back to our state capital, where the policies and procedures were being developed that negatively affected people in the field.
He decided to run for Secretary of State in Missouri, winning the Democratic nomination but losing in the general election.
After the election, he met Conner and “began to see venture capital as leverage, as a tool to help improve economic inequality, so that the next 250 years of this country will be very different from its first 250.” years,” he said.
Faleti wants to open up opportunities for new businesses that aren’t in Ascend’s portfolio, by finding gems that “are under rocks that haven’t been turned over yet,” he said.
“They’re becoming the next Google, and we’re saying, ‘Ascend Venture Capital found this founder under this rock that you didn’t even know was there because you weren’t looking,'” Faleti added. “And our investors are better off, the founders are better off, and the communities in which these companies are based are better off.”
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