By establishing the first registered distillery in the country, Jack Daniel built his success on two fundamental ingredients: identifying a need in the community and crafting a quality process to satisfy that need. Today, Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey honors the makers who follow this time-honored success model of finding the sweet spot of where demand and innovation intersect.
Prologue — A Changing Identity
As a young boy raised in a middle class family in Nigeria, Chike Ukaegbu grew up under one undeniable house rule: Education is everything. Even at a young age, Ukaegbu understood the weight of expectations in the classroom, and he took determined—and sometimes desperate—steps to either finish first in his class or make amends for the times when he didn’t.
“When I was in fifth grade, I finished ninth in my class,” he says with a laugh. “I begged the teacher to go home with her, because my parents were going to kill me.”
As a teenager, Ukaegbu was transfixed by the twinkle of New York City, and he immigrated to the U.S. in 2002 to enroll at the City College of New York (CCNY). But while studying to become a biomedical engineer on CCNY’s Harlem campus, Ukaegbu was shocked by the amount of young men and women disinterested in education, out of work or largely living on the fringes of society.
At the same time, he underwent an unexpected and unwelcome personal transformation. Suddenly, he was not simply the intelligent and aspirational engineer he was in Nigeria, but rather a member of the minority in his new home, stifled by stereotypes and judged by the color of his skin.
“Those experiences made me understand the importance of speaking up for people who may not have the voice,” Ukaegbu says.
The Journey – A Man On A Mission
As he learned more about the disconnected young people in his community and began to identify with their struggles as minorities in America, Ukaegbu realized he had discovered a new calling. He made his first foray into entrepreneurship in 2010 when he co-founded the nonprofit Re:LIFE Inc., focused on empowering youth through entrepreneurship and education.
By 2015, he had opened the doors to Startup52, the first accelerator in New York City focused solely on identifying, mentoring and funding teams with minority and female entrepreneurs, as well as veterans, seniors, immigrants and members of the LGBT community.
The company has since landed nearly 30 big-name partners—including government organizations and Fortune 500 tech companies—and it’s doing its part to raise awareness about diversity in the boardroom.
At least 55 percent of Startup52’s companies have at least one female co-founder (compared to 17 percent nationally, according to Crunchbase), and 80 percent have at least one person of color as a founder.
“Entrepreneurship and the fight for diversity and inclusion [in that space] has become more of a mission,” Ukaegbu says. “I’m a missionary in my own way.”
Challenges – Making The Case For Diversity
Ukaegbu learned early on that he lacked a strong enough network to raise a venture capital fund with a diversity-focused investment thesis, making it tough to convince aspiring entrepreneurs he could give them the proper boost. And while he’s received his share of positive press and praise for his mission, it’s far more difficult to actually convert moral support into capital.
“It’s easy for someone to say, ‘This is great work.’ But then you have to ask them, ‘Can you help out?’” he says. “Scaling that hurdle and getting people on board was hard.”
The larger obstacle for Ukaegbu’s aspiring entrepreneurs, meanwhile, is somewhat beyond his control. Although recent studies have shown companies with more ethnic and racial diversity see 35 percent better financial returns than the national industry medians, women and minorities are still lagging behind as the tech industry booms, and they’re underrepresented in the boardroom.
“Some of the investors I speak to say, ‘Diversity is not tangible enough to fund,’” he says. “Actually, diversity becomes an additional yardstick for evaluation and can amplify success. And I back that up with research studies, but I know I’m going to have to do that for a while before someone believes it.”
The Road Ahead – Equality Through Expansion
Ukaegbu is eager to bring Startup52 to Africa, starting in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. There’s also hope the company might one day expand into North Africa and even in the Middle East.
Back on home turf in New York, Startup52 has already received more than 800 applicants looking to get into their upcoming third cohort, which typically features 15-20 select companies that might one day make it big.
“We’re having global conversations, global interactions,” Ukaegbu says. “We’re very excited about the next level.”
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This article was produced by WIRED Brand Lab in partnership with Gentleman Jack.