Richard Clay: From a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) to DRF

Richard Clay in Baltimore, Maryland in September 2021. Courtesy of Raiven Vanzego.

He had stellar grades, a swimming captain title, a presidential nomination, and even legacy from the U.S. Naval Academy. Come April, when he opened the only letter to the only school he applied to, Richard Clay was devastated. The Naval Academy rejected him, and Richard, a graduating senior, found himself in a mess.

He had applied to no other school, and most colleges and universities ended their admissions. Frantically, Richard found one more school in Maryland that accepted applicants. That school turned out to be Bowie State University, a historically Black college and university that was still accepting applicants.

But Richard found his niche in computer technology, and soon, he engaged in venture capital through Fall 2019 HBCU week. He got into HBCUvc and was able to learn the basics. Then he decided to apply to Dorm Room Fund, which lacked any presence at an HBCU.

In the interview below, which has been edited lightly, Richard shares his path as an undergrad at Bowie State to DRF.

What does venture capital mean to you?

Quite a few of my peers in college at Bowie State University think that Dorm Room Fund gives money to literal dorm rooms. Most people who get the position as an investment partner have some sort of wherewithal with experience, background, or connection to somebody that knows about building an enterprise. That alone is not representative of most college students. Though entrepreneurship has democratized content creation and it’s easier to build enterprises, it’s still an awareness wave. For anybody applying to Dorm Room Fund that’s even just trying to take a shot in the dark and doesn’t know venture capital exists, they need to understand what they’re walking into because it’s an entire abyss. There’s nepotism, but it’s networks within networks of people tied to finance and wealth. Ventures exist because of pre-existing wealth from limited partners, and limited partners investing in these funds are tied to endowments, which are tied to the students of these targets.

Richard Clay in Baltimore, Maryland in September 2021. Courtesy of Raiven Vanzego. 

What if I have no VC experience? How should I proceed?

For anybody that’s extremely new to this space, you really got to develop the skill of the cliche SWOT analysis. I don’t have a business background because I’m in computer technology, but I have an inherent liking to understanding business. Look at any business and be creative about opportunities, concerns, and risks. Think from an owner’s mentality of all things technical, all things that could go wrong, and all things happening to set the entity in business. This doesn’t even have to be venture backed businesses; it could be any brick and mortar or mom and pop shop.

It helps your application if you thoroughly analyze one topic with a big market, and you can intelligently speak about that space or bring up concerns. I started by reading Medium articles within HBCUvc. Search for keywords on Medium, and read from other people building in the space. The domain I cared about was defense technology, and I already had an advantage because I learned about venture capital through HBCU VC, then interned at Intel Capital, a corporate VC. Remember that everyone has a pre-existing advantage, whether or not that edge involves venture capital.

Richard Clay in Baltimore, Maryland in September 2021. Courtesy of Raiven Vanzego.

What does it take to join DRF?

Joining DRF is like trying out for a sport that you don’t fully know how to play, but have seen and heard about through privy access. However, you can’t expect to play on the team if you’ve never practiced on your own. It’s not anybody’s fault if you don’t know the sport, but once you do know about it, there’s an obligation on your part to use the resources in front of you to practice. For example, I listened to venture capital podcasts like Origins and Naval Ravikant all day long. If you don’t like podcasts, try YouTube or reach out to people. You have to be a hustler. I’d recommend to any minority, especially if you’re in the Black community, to position yourself as an asset that cannot be refused. You need to shoot multiple birds with one stone. It’s not enough to be Black. It’s not enough to be a minority, and think that diversity is going to carry you across the bridge or that people need to meet some numbers. It’s not enough because there’s a core objective of every fund, and that’s to bring returns for their limited partners to help the founders.

You need to position yourself as a person that has a reach and a pull into spaces that DRF does not currently have. That’s what I did. I was one of the few that had a background at a corporate VC. I was one of the few that had a background at HBCU VC. I was one of the few that had a background within the government specifically Department of Defense. Think from a strategic standpoint: How do you stand out? Make the recruiters think “oh shoot, we really do need this person because they’re offering something we don’t already have.” There are so many investment banking backgrounds. There are so many finance backgrounds. “But this person knows about computational biology and is well versed in that space. Oh, we need that.”


Written by DRF head of content, Anne Wen. Reach her at annewen@dormroomfund.com.

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