Championing diversity in funding, with JPMorgan Chase’s Leyonna Barba and Techstars’ Monica Wheat

February 9, 2023

Leyonna Barba and Monica Wheat are committed to advocating for diverse founders. Leyonna, managing director of Technology and Disruptive Commerce at JPMorgan Chase, and Monica Wheat, managing director of Techstars Detroit, have embraced diversity in funding throughout their careers. In this episode of the Women on the Move Podcast, they sit down with Host Sam Saperstein to talk about their passion for that cause, and how they encourage investors to get more proximate to a diverse group of founders.

Ecosystems and networks

Monica discusses how, after spending time working with start-ups and investing on her own internationally and in San Francisco, she ended up in Detroit and being drawn to Techstars’ mission. She initially tried to “copy and paste everything that was in San Francisco and bring it back to Detroit.” But she soon realized that didn’t work—there simply wasn’t the ecosystem in Detroit to replicate the Silicon Valley/San Francisco model. Founders didn’t have a network of other founders to rely on for encouragement or resources. “And that's where Techstars came in,” she recalls. “They not only came in and said, ‘here's a check and here's some support and some resources,’ but they kept coming back and they kept asking the questions like, ‘what do you need?’ And it gave us the courage to really think about Detroit and some of these other emerging markets shaping themselves versus trying to copy and paste what was in Silicon Valley.”

Leyonna agrees that an established ecosystem is critical for start-up success. “To be successful in venture and within the tech ecosystem, you have to have a strong network, which is why for many founders, diverse founders, female founders, they've traditionally been locked out of those markets, locked out of those rooms,” she says. She’s proud of the work her team does at JPMorgan Chase in terms of being intentional around ensuring that diverse and female founders and veteran-owned business founders all have a voice at the table.

“We have a lot of emerging diverse managers,” Leyonna says. “We've seen an increase in the number of those diverse focused funds over the last couple of years, making sure that they're in a room with potential opportunities for investment, bringing those networks together. I know that I sit in a very special place in intersection at JPMorgan Chase where the power of our network can be amplified if we use it to bring those parties together. And it's part of the reason that I love the work that we're doing with Techstars.”             

Making change

Leyonna and Monica agree that increasing the very small percentage of VC money that goes to diverse women—Sam currently notes that it stands at about 3 percent of all funding—will require funders to be deliberate in their attempts at inclusion. Monica says she doubts that any current funders are trying to purposefully divert money away from women- or black-owned businesses. “But you also have to be very intentional about the fact that you are including them. You have to be very intentional about the fact that you're making an environment that's not just for gamers and 18 to 22-year-olds, that it is for folks who are different ages and coming from different backgrounds,” she says. “The space of investing in women and investing in underrepresented founders is the biggest opportunity in investment to date because these are untapped markets that folks just really haven't had access to and the folks that are building in these spaces haven't had access to these markets.”

Leyonna agrees and emphasizes that it can’t just be diverse fund managers who fund diverse owners—it needs to be all investors. “Not all investments and all the people you're investing in should look exactly like you or only solve problems for certain types of people,” she says. That’s one reason, she notes, that it’s critical to have women and other diverse people on boards and investment committees. She describes it as following the money trail. “And I think the beauty of what Techstars is doing with this $80 million that is powered by JPMorgan Chase is they are using the fund structure to show and to amplify that investing in diversity is not charity,” she says. “It is real dollars, it is good returns. And hopefully by continuing to see that performance, it will create a fear of missing out from others.”


Disclaimer: The speakers’ opinions belong to them and may differ from opinions of JPMorgan Chase and its affiliates. Views presented on this podcast are those of the speakers; they are as of February 2, 2023 and they may not materialize.