Tristan Walker grew up on the hardscrabble streets of the Queens, N.Y., neighborhoods of Jamaica and Flushing, but he’s found a home in Palo Alto, Calif. He loves his native Gotham, but he’s now a Palo Alto man for one very compelling reason.
“No one here underestimates you,” he said during a late-afternoon phone conversation last week. “You could be a kid in ripped jeans and a T-shirt and be worth a billion dollars, and people get that.”
Walker didn’t say that he’d felt the brunt and dismay of being underestimated in the past, but given that he was a kid from the streets who attended boarding school, worked on Wall Street and earned an MBA from Stanford, it’s safe to assume that some of his colleagues and bosses didn’t see him becoming one of the most dynamic African-American entrepreneurs by the time he was in his early 30s.
He’s the mastermind and chief executive of Walker & Co., a company that has introduced Bevel, an innovative line of shaving and grooming products for men. His company recently raised $24 million in funding, and investors included Nas, Magic Johnson, John Legend and NBA Finals MVP Andre Igoudala. The Bevel product line began online, and Walker recently negotiated a deal to sell his products in Target.
Most startups in Silicon Valley that meet with this kind of success are usually tech related, but Walker realized his opportunity every morning while shaving. Conventional razors were not geared toward the facial hair of black men, who are prone to ingrown hairs, so he began seeking a solution. While doing the math, he realized that we’re less than a quarter-century away from a time when demographers estimate that minorities will become the majority of the American population. “This isn’t a niche opportunity,” he said.
He also realized that there were problems ahead for makers of personal-grooming products. Their dependence on brick-and-mortar stores and middlemen to deliver products cut into their margins, and the trend toward private labeling on the part of retailers was about to be cut further. “It’s a business model in trouble,” he noted.
Bevel’s approach of using online sales cuts out the middlemen and allows users to create a stronger relationship with the product and the brand. He presents Bevel to investors as a company that makes selling health-and-beauty products a simple endeavor. He plans to start a line for women later this year. The company’s products are now sold in 14 countries, with a 95 percent customer-loyalty rate.
Walker’s youth and early experiences in the workplace fueled his ambitions. He says he adjusted to the culture shock of boarding school quickly.
“It changes how you think about things,” he said. “You’re around Rockefellers and Fords and others that are from generations of wealth, and they are making big plans for wealth creation; it makes you think big, too.”
He graduated from Stony Brook University and went to work on Wall Street, which didn’t agree with him.
“I was using other people’s money to make them more money and getting a small share of what I had created,” he explained.
He went to Stanford to get as far away from that culture as possible. While at Stanford, he began working for Foursquare, a mobile app that’s part social networking and part search and discovery. He left to work for the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz before founding Walker & Co. in 2013 (Walker is also a 2014 The Root 100 honoree). In the process, he co-founded Code2040 to enable young people of color to find their way in the tech field. The goal of the organization is to ensure that blacks and Latinos are proportionally represented in the tech industry by the year 2040, when minorities will be the majority in the United States.
He laughed when asked about a five-year plan for his company: “A good five-year plan is simply the result of well-executed six- and 12-month plans; I’m thinking about a 100-year plan.”