Thirty-three-year-old Marceau Michael says he's never lived a traditional life. Born to Haitian immigrants, raised in New York, and a Portland Community College dropout, Michael became an interpreter for the deaf community.
“I believe I’m an outlier,” he says. “I believe that I have the element of surprise. Whatever ideas people had built up in their heads about me, I’m not any of those things. I know that for a fact.”
In March 2016, Michael visited some friends for a week in Brooklyn after coming back to the US early from a disappointing trip to South Africa. While sleeping on their couch, he hatched a concept for an on-demand staffing platform. His friends encouraged him to pursue the idea. Back in Portland, after months of research, Michael attended Techstars Startup Weekend last November, an event that helps new start-ups apply their ideas. From there, his tech start-up grew into a platform for local businesses to request on-demand labor specifically within the food industry. He called it Werkhorse.
But the biggest setback? Funding.
“There is this empowerment of starting your own company, and then there is this powerlessness of 'I need funding and I’m back at the mercy of someone else,'” Michael says.
As Michael discovered, that problem is depressingly common. Black founders made up only 1 percent of funded start-ups, even though they make up 11 percent of the overall US population, according to a venture capital database report by CB Insight. Overall, only 8 percent of funded founders were female.
“To create great tech costs money. It doesn’t just happen,” says Michael. “There’s this elephant in the room that it is too risky to invest in black founders. You get all this traction, but people kind of jerk you around.”
Fast-forward to now. Michael has cofounded Fund a Founder with another local entrepreneur, Kathryn Brown. The idea is simple: sell custom T-shirts to raise money for start-up companies as well as bring awareness to black and female start-ups. The pair hope to build Portland’s black start-up tech scene alongside example organizations such as Jamila Tai’s Tiny Tech Academy, which promotes diversity in tech and provides children access to computer science education.
Two designers—Portlander Zephan Knaus and Will Henry in Atlanta—have so far created a variety of T-shirts, sweaters, long-sleeves, and even crop tops for Michael and Brown’s online shop. A new design will appear every four weeks.
“You spend your entire life hoping people see you as just you without putting black before it,” Michael says. “We’re not just looking to solve problems that affect black people. We have ideas that are bigger than that and we can do big things that are outside of sports and entertainment."
He goes on: "I think Portland is a prime place for diverse entrepreneurs to shine, and I would love to be a part of that revolution where it can become a place people flock to.”
Shirts start at $50. Visit fundafounder.org for details.