With a degree in engineering from Princeton University, Dan Kihanya began his career at Ford Motor Co. in product engineering and design. There, he focused on designing fuel systems for large vehicles.
He also served on the leadership team for the 1993 Hybrid Electric Challenge, a college competition to build and race sustainable electric vehicles. While Kihanya enjoyed his time at Ford, he eventually decided that the world of corporate bureaucracy just wasn’t for him.
It was for that reason that, in the mid-1990s, Kihanya went to business school at the University of California Berkeley to start his path to becoming an entrepreneur.
Kihanya co-founded his first startup with a group of UCB classmates, fresh out of school in 1996. The company, a loyalty program startup called MyPoints.com, was the largest internet loyalty program at the time, with more than 10 million opt-in members.
MyPoints provided targeted ads and shopping experiences to members on behalf of advertising clients and merchants. The company was one of the top 20 performing initial public offerings in 1999 and was acquired by United Airlines’ Loyalty Services Division in 2001.
After the sale of MyPoints, Kihanya decided to explore the world of venture capital, where he relished the search for new and exciting investment opportunities. Kihanya continued to be involved in many startup projects throughout the rest of his career, but this time as an advisor, mentor, and angel investor.
In addition to his advising and mentorship work, Kihanya also has started his own podcast and blog, Founders Unfound, which features exceptional entrepreneurs of color and their stories.
The goal of the website is not only to give entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds a platform to reach potential investors and partners, but also to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs with the stories of folks who’ve worked their way up from humble beginnings.
We sat down with Kihanya to discuss his latest projects, primarily Founders Unfound.
What inspired you to start Founders Unfound?
I’ve always felt like entrepreneurs were business warriors, you know? They’re on the front lines, and they have to sacrifice a lot. It’s not sexy; it’s lonely sometimes. And so, I’ve always wanted to find a way to give back, especially within the last few years, now that I’m getting toward the tail end (of my career). It’s kind of like football: At some point you age out. So, I started thinking about “What can I do?” Then I thought that part of the challenge for people who have backgrounds similar to me is that there’s this narrative that there aren’t enough people of color in the pipeline, and so how can we invest in them? And I thought, “Well that’s not my experience, that’s not what I see.” So how can we showcase the fact that there are many founders from underrepresented backgrounds (who) are doing big-impact things worthy of investment consideration?
What do you try to draw out in your podcast interviews?
I’m not some expert interviewer, but I do bring my own conversational style and my own insights based upon my background and experience. The storytelling aspect is huge, too. We want the storytelling to happen so people can reveal, what I feel, are their superpowers, their perseverance, their strength, and grit. We’ve interviewed people who have been homeless, people who’ve encountered major setbacks, and people who try to take on the nonprofit world. We want to create a learning environment to showcase how to, as one entrepreneur put it, “Take 15 cents and make it into a dollar.”
Why do you think it’s important to spotlight founders from underrepresented backgrounds?
Somebody once told me, “You can be it, if you can see it.” We want to show that there are people doing amazing things, and they come from modest places. There’s the Silicon Valley stereotype of the Harvard dropout that comes from a well-to-do family and can raise thousands of dollars pretty easily from uncles and friends, and that those are the people who start companies. We want to show that that’s not always the case.
What are some of the unique challenges that face underrepresented entrepreneurs that people often overlook?
One of them is working on products that don’t necessarily resonate with investors on a personal level. In my experience, investors generally look for reasons to say no. The reality of venture investing is that it’s a pattern-matching game, and part of that pattern matching is just who the entrepreneur is and where they come from, and you can’t pattern match with what you’re unfamiliar with, including different backgrounds and experiences. For example, Tristan Walker, one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs right now, founded Walker and Co., a company that designs shaving products and accessories for African-American men’s skin, and he said it was very hard to get money at first because if you’re not sitting in rooms with people who understand what that problem is, they’re not going to see the value in your idea.
Are there any particular advantages to coming into entrepreneurship from a different background?
I really love the word “resilience” because I think that really is a prerequisite to launching a startup. It’s a long journey; there are many ups and downs. I like to say that a startup is a marathon run at a sprint pace. You can’t thrive unless you have resilience, and I think when, in life, you’re often put in the position of starting the race 50 yards back, you develop the ability to quickly make up that ground.
What would you describe as your own entrepreneurial “superpower?”
For me, I look at every day as a new challenge. It’s like being in one of those hedge mazes and it’s like, “OK — we can’t go through. Can we go under, can we go around, can we break it down, can we go over?” I like that problem-solving and facing the unknown.
There always are a million reasons not to do something, and, like you said, starting a business isn’t always “sexy.” Still, what do you think are some of the most compelling reasons to take that leap, despite all the risk?
A lot of people, even myself at first, think a startup means getting to unshackle yourself from corporate bureaucracy, and you get to be your own boss — but that’s a fallacy. Those things can’t be the drivers because it’s a long and tough road. I think in general, the most compelling reasons come when you can look at an opportunity and say, “This is a problem the world needs solved, and I’m really the only one who can do this.” And not saying that from a place of ego, but rather that you have a unique perspective on ways to approach this problem that other people just don’t. And if you have that kind of clarity and passion, you’ve just got to go for it.
Despite all the rewards, launching a startup can be particularly isolating, difficult, and downright emotionally taxing. What are some of your suggestions for preventing burnout?
We talked about this on my podcast, actually. I asked a group of guests what they would have told themselves if they could go back in time to before they started their company, and one of them just said, “Remember your mental health.” The journey is so long, and it’s so hard, and it can just be dreadfully lonely because you have all these people: the board, the investors, the employees, and you really can’t be completely open with any of them. So you have to have some release from all the pressure points on you as a founder or a founding team. Encourage balance. Take breaks and weekends off. Have a hobby that doesn’t necessarily demand a huge time commitment, but that can be there for you when you need it — whether it’s sailing, or going to dog shows, or being an open-mic rapper. Just something that allows you to just show up and engage. And take advantage of people like me, who can give you that feedback without judgment because they don’t have a stake in your company. I think that’s another problem for underrepresented founders — they don’t have that network, so going out and finding those relief points, both personally and professionally, is crucial.