This post is part of our Education Innovators Series, which highlights today’s top leaders, innovators, and educators who are making a noble impact in the education sector.
Consider the facts that 87% of venture-backed entrepreneurs are white, while less than 1% are black, and less than 5% of ventures that receive equity capital have women on their teams. Entrepreneurship — and the many sectors within it, including social innovation — has traditionally been predominantly led by white males. Aaron Walker, founder and CEO of nonprofit social venture fellowship and seed fund Camelback Ventures, has a new vision for the future, though — one with diversity and inclusion in the ranks of leadership.
Walker is a man on a mission to change the face of entrepreneurship and social innovation in one generation, in order to ensure that every child receives a high quality education in communities across the United States.
Camelback Ventures is his answer. Launched in 2013, Camelback Ventures seeks to diversify and close the opportunity gap within the social innovation and entrepreneurial space by providing coaching, capital, and connections to local entrepreneurs of color and women who are creating social impact in their respective communities.
Walker and I sat down to discuss his work in education and social innovation, how he got to where he is, and where Camelback Ventures is heading. Here’s what he had to say.
This Story Begins With A First-Generation College Graduate
Born in Irvington, New Jersey, his parents moved to South Orange, New Jersey at the age of five to provide him and his brother with better life opportunities. Irvington, like most American cities, was devastated after the 1967/68 riots, struggled during the drug epidemic in the 1980s and still lives under the weight of lack of investment in urban centers where people of color often live. In retrospect, although he had fond memories of growing up in Irvington, he attributes his parent’s move to South Orange instrumental in his education trajectory. “We lived on the street that divided South Orange from Newark, New Jersey,” Walker says. “I have always seen this as a metaphor. We all walk a thin line. One block in the other direction, and I am assured that the opportunities afforded to me would be drastically different.” South Orange and Maplewood shared a school system, which instilled a college-bound mentality, he explains, while Newark, then as well as now still faces challenges that impacts the education it provides to its children and their families. Opportunities should not exist based upon what side of the street you live on, it is truly the responsibility of all of us to ensure that we pave the paths of opportunity for young people.
With the encouragement and guidance of his family and teachers, he became the first person in his family to attend and graduate college; he attended the University of Virginia and subsequently became an English teacher in Philadelphia through the program, Teach for America (TFA). His TFA experience exemplified the following, “My classroom teaching experience taught me the importance of cultivating an authentic leadership presence, collaboration with my colleagues to drive student achievement, and the realization of the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”
Going Fast And Going Far
That African proverb and Walker’s work with TFA, it turns out, drive much of Walker’s present-day decision-making processes. While collaboration was a huge part of his teaching experience, it also inspired him to “go fast alone” at times — he, for example, took the personal journey of attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Through that experience, he gained a deep working knowledge of how legal systems and structures affect our current education ecosystem. After law school, it was time to “go far,” he says — by joining forces in numbers to innovate. He worked at a large law firm for a short stint before returning to the education field as a Portfolio Director for the Fund of Public Schools. In this role, he raised more than $30 million in private investments for education reform efforts for the New York City Department of Education. From there, he founded two entrepreneurial ventures focused on talent management and student success within the education sector before heading his latest venture, Camelback Ventures, with his wife, Ify Offor Walker, as his first investor.
Camelback Is Born
“When I initially pitched the idea to my wife, we were thinking about having another child,” Walker says, noting the financial burden of both potential endeavors. “She was very supportive of my idea, which required us to use a majority of our savings to start. My inspiration for Camelback Ventures stems from the notion that we can elevate the genius of all people. For far too long, women and people of color have not been heard in this space. Yet their voices are needed at the table to ultimately change our current educational landscape for all children, not just a select few.” Subsequently, many have lent their support to make Walker’s vision a reality, including New Schools Venture Fund, Walton Family Foundation, Kapor Center for Social Impact, among many others.
The heart and soul of Camelback Ventures is its Fellows Program, which “offers seed-funding and support to new leaders with promising ideas, and empowers them to enact change within their communities.” It is a seven-month program that currently prioritizes education related ventures. They are particularly interested in education ventures that touch on the following areas: STEM, Innovative School Models, Higher Education, and EdTech. Uniquely, the fellowship doesn’t have a residency requirement like most venture philanthropy fellowship programs. In addition, Fellows receive a $5,000 matching grant and the opportunity for up to $40,000 in additional investment, strategic coaching and leadership development opportunities in partnership with education nonprofit City Year, and networking opportunities with investors, tech talent and other partners. In five to 10 years, Walker hopes to develop a network of 100-150 Fellows in addition to the 11 Fellows currently enrolled in the program. He hopes to change the narrative regarding women and entrepreneurs of color — he hopes all aspiring entrepreneurs one day know that their ideas and dreams, too, are valued and supported in our society.
When asked what habits and mindsets have attributed to his successes, he thoughtfully responds “Get clear on vision. Start small and enlist the help of smart people, people who believe in you and your idea. Take each mistake and failure as an opportunity to begin again. Rome was not built in a day. Keep trying. Keep trying. You also have to adapt to unexpected changes strategically while keeping your end goal in mind. Maintain a high level of quality and consistency in how you approach your work. And always approach your work from a learner’s mindset. And, spending time with your family or pursuing an avocation, in my case, reenergizes me after a long day of work, to keep going.”
Moving forward, Walker hopes to expand Camelback Ventures into other major cities in the United States as well as growing its coaching team, which provides entrepreneurs with the guidance in numerous expertise areas, including technology and financial modeling.
Building a new Rome brick by brick, day by day.
Photos courtesy of Aaron Walker