The Square One Startup School is flipping the script from just bringing more diversity into the tech industry to making the tech business a viable option for generating wealth in the Black community. Behind the movement to shift culture and conversation is Justin McLeod.

McLeod is no stranger to creating opportunities and raising capital for founders of color who are often overlooked and underestimated. While working at Atlanta Tech Village, McLeod created his own position as the D&I Program Manager reportedly helping startups led by women and people of color raise over $860,000 in seed investments and generate over $2.5 million in revenue.

Now, through his work at Surthrive and Square One Startup School, his marathon continues to train and support first-time founders on their path to product-market fit.

In an interview below, McLeod talks about challenges for first-time founders and his plans to bridge the gap between training and readiness for investment. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

AfroTech: Tell us about the moment or series of events that inspired you to launch the Square One program.

Justin McLeod: As the former Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager, I noticed three things during my experience managing, Atlanta Tech Village’s It Takes A Village Pre-Accelerator Program:

    • The founders who didn’t apply because they were unable to commit to attending daytime sessions in-person.
    • A large number of quality founders and talented teams that applied but were denied due to being “Too Early” or not having enough traction.
    • Founders in the program chasing investments rather than customers, giving up equity too early.

Now, what makes Square One Startup School so unique is three things:

  • You can learn at your own pace, on your own time by participating virtually.
  • Instead of going through the entire program you can curate your own curriculum by hand-selecting the classes you need the most.
  •  [You can] build valuable relationships with fellow founders and key influencers in our online or offline [must be in Atlanta for offline] startup community.

AT: When it comes to launching a successful business in tech, what do you think are the most overlooked and undervalued skills?

JM: The most overlooked and undervalued skill for launching a successful business in tech is knowing when to say “no.” As founders you get told “no” a lot of times but there comes a point in time when the founder needs to say “no” to having media coverage before their product is ready, saying “no” to receiving an unnecessary investment, or saying “no” to users who are requesting 100 new features.

Saying “no” makes you have extreme tunnel vision and focus on your goals and not letting anything distract you or knock you off your path to success.

AT: Let’s talk about the 10-week accelerated incubator. In light of issues in tech, like the lack of access to funding for startup founders of color, what specific courses or features of your program seek to prepare or help them deal with issues like this?

JM: When first launching your startup, your biggest “investors” should be your customers. If anyone, including VC’s, Accelerator Directors, and Pitch Competition Organizers, ever tells you that your startup is “too early,” it means that they want to see more traction (i.e. proof of concept or paying customers)!

Traction is the rate at which your startup is acquiring new customers. But see, the more traction you have, the more leverage you have. Allowing you to negotiate better terms with VCs when it’s time for your company to scale.

Square One has created a proven customer-first curriculum to help pre-product and pre-revenue startup founders build a solid business model to generate the traction needed to scale in the most equity-efficient way possible.

Applications to join the inaugural cohort close on Sunday, Feb. 16 at 11:59 pm EST! Click here to apply.