Even as a child, Rohini Pandhi was no stranger to entrepreneurship.
“I saw my dad start his own company in the suburbs of Ohio,” says Pandhi. “To find his venture, he would need to talk to the bank to get a loan. Even today, a lot of entrepreneurs outside the Bay Area still don’t know that the tech ecosystem provides ways to trade equity for money, instead of relying on debt.”
Her determination to close that knowledge gap is one of the reasons Pandhi teamed up with James Norman to help found Transparent Collective. The two University of Michigan alums reconnected after moving to the Bay Area.
“We started chatting about how different it is to build a company in the Midwest and on the East or West Coast,” says Pandhi. “There’s this tribal knowledge that exists in the Valley of how to pitch, what to say, what not to say, who to talk to, who not to talk to — all these little social cues. Maybe because we both have that founder mentality, we decided to build a solution and see if it worked.”
Seven years later, Transparent Collective (TC) has helped the founders of more than 70 startups who have gone on to raise over $77 million in seed money. We sat down with Pandhi to learn more about TC’s mission, what the program has meant to her, and her advice for founders today.
Tell us about yourself. What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I’m a big tennis fan. I’ve been to two of the four majors and the other two — the French and the Australian open — are on my bucket list.
It’s one of those sports that you can play as a kid and a senior citizen. I like the fact that you’re the only one on the court, and how you have to deal with the emotional and physical pieces of the game. It’s just such a beautiful sport; I absolutely love it.
What do you do, and why do you do it?
In my day job, I’m a product lead at Block (formerly Square). I’ve been in product management for over a decade. I have a background in computer science and an MBA, and product is this amazing mix of both of those things. I also get to work with a talented group of individuals: designers, engineers, marketers, data scientists, and more.
My second love is entrepreneurship. Maybe it is because of that product mindset, but I love the idea of building something from nothing — going from zero to one. It’s so challenging and it takes so much courage, grit, and vision to try to build a world that doesn’t exist yet.
How did you and James come up with the idea to create Transparent Collective?
After founding and failing a company myself, I moved to San Francisco and worked at a bunch of startups before I moved to Block. It was about that time when I reconnected with James.
We kept seeing the same kind of person get funded: a white dude from a California school who was able to raise millions of dollars with only an idea. It was so incredibly frustrating to not see ourselves get represented and supported.
It became a personal mission: What can we do to change the game for people like us?
How does Transparent Collective achieve that mission?
There’s a three-prong approach to what we do. The first is to build awareness that you can trade equity in the future profits of a company for money now instead of getting a loan from the bank.
The second is education, which is what our Transparent Collective programming really focuses on. Pre-COVID, we would fly 8 to 10 founders out and give them hyper-personalized feedback about their companies. We don’t use a generalized playbook; we get deep into their industries, their products, and their companies to give them really hard and precise feedback.
That kind of education is rare. When we were wrapping up our last batch, folks told us that one week with Transparent Collective was more valuable to them than the seven months they had spent at an accelerator or incubator that they had given up 7% of their company for. We don’t take anything from these founders. We don’t take money, we don’t take equity. All we ask is that they pass on the knowledge they get from us to the next generation of Black, Latinx, and female founders.
The third aspect of our program is access. We open up our Rolodex to all our founders. We’ve spent more than a decade building a network out here so we know who they should be talking to based on their industry, stage, and focus areas.
What impact has Transparent Collective had on you?
It’s mind blowing to meet all of these amazing founders at such an early stage in their startup journey. We know that they are incredibly smart and can accomplish their goals; they just need some help rounding the edges or getting honest feedback or simply hearing encouraging words of support.
One of our founders, Crystal, came through the program a few years ago with a business that was already strong. We helped her communicate her vision and the impact she was having. Six months later, she told us that Transparent Collective was the reason she was able to raise $15 million for her company. I believe that at that time, she was one of just a handful of Black women to ever raise north of $10 million.
That’s what keeps us going. These companies are diamonds in the rough that are being overlooked. Seeing them take off has made me even more passionate about changing the way wealth is created in Silicon Valley.
What advice would you give to anyone considering applying to Transparent Collective?
We get hundreds of applications and have to whittle it down to 8 or 10, so apply and keep applying. We have a founder in the last cohort who applied four times; sometimes, it’s just about having the right timing.
What helps people stand out is if you can show that your business isn’t just an idea, but that you’ve done work on it — that there’s a product or customers there.
If you’re not ready for Transparent Collective yet, we have other resources. We also hold monthly ‘Ask Me Anything’ and investor events on Zoom. And we have founder spotlights on the blog so that you can see what resonates about other founders’ stories and build your own.
How has the landscape changed for underrepresented founders in recent years?
At Transparent Collective, we’ve recently put together a comprehensive industry report (sponsored by our friends at P&G) that shows 2% of venture capital funding goes to women; 2% goes to US based Latinx founders; and 1.4% to Black founders.
When you see how insane that funnel is, you realize that there has to be a way to make a difference here. People talk about it being a pipeline problem, but what I see is a lot of incredible, smart entrepreneurs that just aren’t getting the level of support that others do.
Plus, at the moment, everyone’s a little scared; we have a potential recession on our hands.
But as a founder, if you have the passion, drive, and hustle to work on your dream for the next decade or more, that’s what you should be doing! The external market factors and challenges faced by our founders create new pressures, but like the saying goes — pressure makes diamonds. Because if you can grow in a bear market, then you’ll be a superpower in a bull one.
How has Transparent Collective changed since its founding?
Our recommendations are more precise. We’ve done this a lot so we’re able to give feedback much more quickly and say, “Here’s where you’re going to fail and here’s what you need to improve.”
The other thing that’s changed is that my co-founder, James Norman, has now started Back Operator Ventures (Black Ops), the first seed stage fund for and by Black founders. A lot of the founders that come through our nonprofit now have close ties to a venture capital investor with James. That’s also been really beneficial in building up our own ecosystem.