Tristan Walker's path through Silicon Valley's color barrier

@CNNMoneyTech November 3, 2011: 11:51 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- "Hey Dennis and Naveen How's it going? Hope all is well! My name is Tristan Walker and I'm a first year student (going into my second year) at Stanford Business School (originally from New York). I'm a huge fan of what you both have built and excited about what you guys have planned for FourSquare. It is an awesome, awesome service."

That was the first e-mail aspiring entrepreneur Tristan Walker sent to Foursquare's founders. He had one goal in mind: become part of the fledgling company.

Eight messages later, co-founder Dennis Crowley finally responded to Walker's request. Next time Walker was in town, they'd meet, Crowley agreed.

Although he didn't have any plans to visit New York, Walker told Crowley that he happened to be coming to New York the next day. He booked a flight that night, and a month later joined the Foursquare team.

Two years on, Walker jokes about that first e-mail -- he capitalized the "S" in Foursquare, a rookie move, and signed off with the now cringe-inducing line, "Stay Awesome!"

But it worked. Walker catapulted his way both into Foursquare, where he heads business development, and the Silicon Valley scene. He's got 285,000 Twitter followers and a name that's often circulated in tech conversations -- especially when the talk turns to the industry's scattering of prominent African-Americans.

Walker is used to going to meetings where his is the only black face in the room.

"There aren't very many folks who look like me in positions of leadership all around the Valley, and I think that's something that needs to be discussed and hopefully changed," he says.

Walker's journey to Silicon Valley began far very away, in all senses. Raised by a single mother in Queens, N.Y., Walker watched his mom work long hours to scrap out a living while raising him and his two siblings. Welfare sometimes helped patch the financial gaps.

That gave him one clear career goal: "I made a commitment very early in life to get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible," Walker says matter-of-factly. "I wanted to ensure that not only my family but folks who are connected with me just do well."

Walker's determination got him a scholarship to Stony Brook University, where he graduated as valedictorian, and a job on Wall Street -- which he hated.

"I was the victim of bad culture; I realized I wanted to be the creator of great ones," he says. "I wanted to get as far away from Wall Street as literally and figuratively as possible."

Walker's acceptance to Stanford's business school was his ticket out. But breaking into the inner circles of the startup scene was an art he had to learn.

He hustled for every opportunity he landed. During the Christmas break in 2008, Walker signed up for his fourth Twitter account and decided that he wanted to work at the company. Working every connection he could think of, he met with more than 20 people along the way to securing the internship he coveted.

Twitter led to Foursquare, where he's helping to shape one of the tech scene's buzziest ventures. One of Walker's prized accomplishments there is a partnership with American Express, (AXP, Fortune 500) a "startup meets Fortune 500" alliance that put Foursquare in front of millions of potential new customers and merchants.

But Walker still looks around and sees the paths not taken.

"I think about this a lot -- where would I be had I taken computer science as an undergraduate at Stony Brook University. I'd probably have a much different career trajectory," says the economics major. "Number one, we just all need to hustle. But I think we also have a commitment to help educate folks about what exists out here."

Education is only half of the equation. Access is also essential -- and more elusive. Anyone can turn up to meetups, conferences and other events, but that's the distant fringe of Silicon Valley's real dealmaking scene.

"It's one thing to go to a hackathon," Walker says. "It's another thing to be invited to a suite to at a Giants game and meet your idols and tech legends."

An industry famed for hatching innovative solutions to vexing problems hasn't made much of a dent in this one.

Freada Klein, a trustee of the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, which funds initiatives that increase opportunities in communities of color, says much of what's out there hasn't been effective.

"There are billions of dollars spent every year on diversity training," she says. "If any CEO spent billions of dollars on an initiative that had as meager results in corporate America, that CEO would be fired."

Klein sees early education as critical, but also emphasizes the importance of role models.

"Gender and race of professors has a lot to do with it," she says. "If we don't see professors and entrepreneurs of color and we don't see successful tech entrepreneurs of color, even those people with the talent -- and even who have geek interest -- don't think it's for them."

Walker makes sure he stays visible: "I'll go evangelize until I'm blue in the face," he says of his efforts to draw talented minorities into the tech scene.

And like any good MBA, he's got a business model to back up his actions. Talking about the benefits of diversity, Walker brings up the year 2040.

"That's the year the year underrepresented minorities -- blacks and Hispanics --- will no longer be the minority. They'll be the majority," he says. "And if that's the case, we need to start thinking about putting folks -- blacks and Hispanics, among others -- in positions of leadership and/or leading companies [toward] that goal and that year."

Always hustling, always thinking through the biz-dev angles, Walker sees the financial incentive for companies like Foursquare and its Silicon Valley peers to be leaders in America's demographic transformation.

"You're going to have to start building products that appeal to a broader kind of consumer base," he says. "If we don't do that, we'll be missing the boat in a very big way."


The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, the fourth installment in CNN's Black in America series, will premiere November 13 at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the trailer on CNN.com, and check out CNNMoney's full coverage of the project. To top of page

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