Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, who are advancing the UN SDGs.
Spiffy here! I’m back with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Tonna Obaze, chief of staff and investor at Harlem Capital.
Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Tonna! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through your organization?
Tonna: Harlem Capital is a diversity-focused venture capital firm. This means we get to give people money to start companies and make their dreams come true. We're on a mission to change the face of entrepreneurship by investing in 1,000 diverse founders over the next 20 years. Unfortunately, diverse founders aren't given an equal share of opportunity—they only receive 3% of VC funding, meaning not everyone has access to money and resources to start companies. That's why we love to provide capital and support to diverse individuals—giving people of color and women of all races a chance to build new companies that change the world.
Spiffy: That’s awesome! What motivated you to tackle this challenge?
Tonna: My mission in life has always been to help other people discover their purpose and pursue their potential. As a Nigerian-American, the concept of community was a central part of my upbringing. My goal in life was to do a job that not only helps me feed my family, but also helps someone else feed theirs. I love using my skills and abilities to provide more opportunities for underserved communities, especially communities that look like me. The reason I love diversity-focused investing is because it sits at the intersection of two key themes: sustainability and strategy. I get to solve new problems—creating answers that have never been found before—in an effort to make the world a better, more equitable place.
Spiffy: How else are you and your team working towards a more equitable world?
Tonna: At Harlem Capital, our mission is “change the face of entrepreneurship,” and we do that in three ways: investing in founders, building the ecosystem, and shifting the industry narrative. Investing in founders means writing $1-2 million dollar checks to over 49 portfolio companies, and supporting founders in building their organizations. Building the ecosystem means running the Harlem Capital internship program, which has trained 88 interns over 15 classes on how to navigate venture capital, with 33 of those interns going on to get jobs in VC. Shifting the industry narrative means putting out HCP research and media content that shines a light on diversity, and educational resources for the diverse community to learn alongside us.
Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organizational milestone or initiative. What impact does that make on your community or audience?
Tonna: I recently launched the Harlem Capital Syllabus, a VC Resource Guide that goes 0-100 on all things venture. This guide will help aspiring investors, founders, and community members learn more about VC. When it comes to equity and inclusion, providing resources everyone can access is the only way to create scalable impact. Changing the face of entrepreneurship requires much more than just deploying capital to diverse founders—it takes an even greater commitment to making sure the entire diverse community benefits from access to information and resources that help generate wealth! The goal is to make it easier for the next person to achieve and grow.
Spiffy: Tell me about an inspiring startup that your organization has helped to advance its impact.
Tonna: Aunt Flow works with companies, schools, and institutions to ensure everyone has access to quality menstrual products. Aunt Flow exists because 86% of women reportedly started their period in public without the supplies they needed. Aunt Flow designed the first free-vend menstrual product dispenser providing a sustainable solution for tampons and pads, while actively changing legislation in five states. Providing Aunt Flow period products recuperates lost work hours, increases school attendance, and is just the right thing to do. Yet, Aunt Flow goes a step further: for every ten tampons and pads sold, Aunt Flow donates one to an organization that supplies products to menstruators in need. To date, it has donated 500,000 menstrual products.
Spiffy: Impressive! Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Tonna: Here is some advice: transitions in life are normal. There will always be the call for newness, change, and evolution. Stay true to yourself as you embrace life’s transitions by focusing on who you want to be rather than what you want to do. Do the uncomfortable work of self reflection, and surround yourself with people who want to see you become the best version of yourself. On a different note, my passion for diverse communities motivated my efforts to launch the Gamma Chapter Reading Room—a community development and mentorship center for West Philadelphia youth—and the Black Ivy League Business Conference, the first Ivy League diversity conference of its kind.
Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Tonna—it’s been an honor!
Tonna Obaze is chief of staff and investor at Harlem Capital, a diversity-focused VC fund. She focuses on advancing the firm’s growth and business development strategy as well as deal-sourcing, due diligence, and portfolio company support. Tonna has demonstrated a commitment to sustainability and strategy throughout her career with prior roles at Goldman Sachs, Girls Who Invest, and Business Insider. (First published on the Ladderworks website on December 12, 2022.)
© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by George Romar. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.