Living life on her own terms, Tracy Gray, founder of The 22 Fund and We Are Enough, has gone from the Space Shuttle program at NASA to managing indie bands to taking on the very male, very white world of venture capital.
Gray is intent on changing the world, one woman and minority-owned business at a time.
A self-proclaimed blerd (black nerd) whose license plate reads “ERACISM,” Gray’s career journey is as diversified as her now widely sought-after financial advice.
“I think my entire life I’ve been searching for what the Buddha called ‘right livelihood,’ or what Eckhart Tolle calls ‘the alignment of your inner purpose with your outer purpose.’”
“You have your passion over here that you care about, then you have how you make money on the other side. And I think the goal in life is — and we should tell young people — to put those two together.”
Fighting the Power
As the girl who “used to do math problems for fun during the summer breaks,” Gray landed her first job in the Space Shuttle program at NASA. The only African American engineer in her group, her far left-leaning politics soon got in the way.
“Back then in the late ’80s, early ’90s, the Space Shuttle was mainly doing stuff for the Defense Department. And I was very progressive, and so this one young lieutenant who I thought was a friend of mine was actually keeping a dossier on me and decided that I could not be trusted. So the FBI, the DD, investigated me for being a subversive.”
Gray decided to leave, “and then I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll stay in technology but I’ll work for the city’ which was soul killing, and then I decided just to quit technology altogether.”
Which brings us to the next, unexpected chapter of this practicing Buddhist, activist, wine lover, world traveler, hip hop and African dancer’s life: working in the music business.
Music to Her Ears
Gray had a deep love of live music, and a friend who was a top music manager. “Beastie Boys, he did Nirvana, he had Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth; big, big bands. And I got to go backstage all the time with him. I thought, this is what you do as a band manager: be backstage, just hang out. So I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
“I quit my job…I worked for an indie rock band and a music manager… but then I realized you only make money if your clients make money….I have what I call professional ADD. I have to be constantly entertained, kept busy, and managing several bands at the same time, that satisfied me, but…these indie bands did not seem to want to make money,” Gray matter-of-factly admits.
So, when “the guy [she] was working for” became a managing director of a venture capital fund, Tracy made the leap into venture capital.
But, first, let’s back up a bit.
We asked Gray how she stays centered and finds balance in her very busy, joyful midlife.
She’s been to 41 countries and counting. So when she’s not jetting off to give State Department-sponsored talks on entrepreneurship and funding women, in far flung destinations like Croatia, Cuba and Dubai (coming up next on her travel itinerary), she’s doing yoga or Pilates, attending a meditation retreat, and, more adventurously, snowboarding or scuba diving.
Like any enlightened Californian leftie, “I meditate daily or, if not, most days. But that’s not enough. I also practice, the harder part that keeps me balanced, mindfulness. Controlling those things in your mind that spin us out of control and make us stressed and anxious and feel off balance.”
Gray lets out her signature warm laugh. “That is kind of the theme of my entire life. Everything I do. If someone is doing something that I think is incorrect, or not fair, I’m going to call it out. For good or bad. A lot of times it’s for bad. So I don’t hold a lot of stuff in. That makes me feel balanced.”
She also likes to sit on the floor, which is at once a very down to earth habit and a way to level the playing field in, say, a room full of politicians or VCs. “My most comfortable place is on the floor, or in some position. I’m very flexible and a chair is very confining. I don’t really sit in chairs that much. I’m usually standing up doing work.”
“It is hard for me to sit still,” which comes as no surprise given the amount of energy and enthusiasm that just radiates from Gray.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Her exposure to VCs when she was in the music industry prompted lots of immediate questions for Gray’s inquisitive mind. She attests, “We only have one life to live and, not to be cliché but, why play it safe? Where does that get you, really?”
“Don’t let anyone else tell you you can’t do it, including that other person being yourself, in your mind. I have friends who are afraid to look stupid. Just ask….We didn’t come out of the womb knowing everything. The people who are successful, not just talking about money, is because they ask, they learn. You have to be a constant student. Age doesn’t matter.” Wise words indeed, and Gray’s own personal mantra.
So when it came to venture capital, she asked her music manager friend who’d gotten into funding, “’What is their business model? How do they make money? What’s their product?’ I would pretty much criticize him about his selections of companies.”
His inviting and, in hindsight, generous response: “’Instead of criticizing from afar, we need an analyst. Why don’t you come in and we’ll pay you?’”
Her response, classic Tracy Gray humble confidence: “ ‘I don’t know what venture capital is, but okay, I’ll do that.’”
“And that’s where I found my passion.” She likes creating win/wins born of collaboration, a behavior she finds from her experience to be clearly female.
She was soon reading 500 business plans a month, from all different kinds of companies and technologies, and attending 5-6 meetings every day with entrepreneurs, people pitching the fund for money. “I would help them with their marketing strategies, business models. I love working with entrepreneurs and people trying to create something new and different, something that could possibly change the world.”
Gray’s acclaimed 2015 Tedx Talk, “Why It’s Time for Women to Be Sexist with Venture Capital,” served as the catalyst for We Are Enough. Since its founding, their mission has been “to increase the flow of capital to women entrepreneurs by educating women on how and why to invest in women-owned, for-profit businesses, or with a lens on gender.”
Women Helping Women
“I never had a mentor who looked like me,” Gray confesses. “Most of my professional life, and before my professional life, I was always pretty much the only African American in anything I did. And so when I did my TED Talk, I thought I was going to talk about my time as the only African American engineer, program for the Space Shuttle I was on.”
“Then I just started to do research, because I’m an engineer and I have to do my research. And I started to see all these numbers about women.” Which was the beginning of another eureka moment for Gray.
“First, the numbers that I saw were the lack of capital going to women from the finance industry. And then I started to read the numbers on how women-owned businesses are more successful, so that didn’t make any sense to me. If something doesn’t make sense it drives me insane because I’m a logical engineer so facts matter to me. And also coupled with that, injustice, something being unfair or inequalities, get me equally as riled up.”
“We don’t have to beg, shame, cajole, plead with the men in power who control the money and the investments. All we have to do is get women to understand the power of their wallets and get them to invest.” United Nations studies have shown that 90% of women’s capital goes to supporting their family and the community, compared to only 35% of men’s earnings. So, “if women have wealth it goes towards solving the top 5 [Sustainable Development] goals that the UN has.”
“That’s what made me start We Are Enough. I thought, ‘Oh, this is simple’….We just have to get women to invest money in women, and then we literally change the world. We solve so many problems. And that’s not just hyperbole. We literally change the world.”
Woke Before It Was a Thing
As we dug down into the inequities of VC funding, Gray recalls, “I entered venture capital in 1999, and at that time right before the dot bomb, we were literally giving away $2 million to two dudes and their idea.” In case anyone remembers otherwise, “There was all this money flying around, as an analyst, associate I would get the business plans first, and I would go through them before any of the partners saw them. Then I’d have the first meeting. I don’t think I saw a single African American. We invested in one woman, but I don’t really remember seeing any [others]. At this point I didn’t see anyone Asian, Southeast Asian, no one of color. I mainly saw white men. And the mission was supposed to be job creation.”
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