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Nevada startup culture shows promise, but POC entrepreneurs face challenges

From left to right: Jean Claude Luakabuanga, State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann and Yeves Perez.
Zachary Green
From left to right: Jean Claude Luakabuanga, State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann and Yeves Perez.

February is Black History Month. So when Nevada looks back one day on the history of Black entrepreneurs in the tech industry, what will they find?

Well, for starters, the governor’s office says 16,000 tech companies operate in Nevada and the numbers are growing. But the national rate of Black-owned businesses in the tech sector is only about 4%. White ownership is 80%.

But the payoff for being a business owner is immense.

UNLV research has found the median net worth of a Black business owner is 12 times higher that of someone who isn’t an owner. And tech industry salaries are known to be much higher.

We start with Yeves Perez, the founder and CEO of Workbnb, a travel booking platform for enterprise use. He joined State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann along with Jean Claude Luakabuanga, the founder of BRBCK, which helps small businesses get discovered in their neighborhood.

Perez said his company focuses on an underserved niche: blue-collar workers. As a B2B platform, they’ve “reengineered what booking looks like for the workforce,” where the enterprise books for their workers.

He got started with Workbnb while helping his mom book Airbnb rentals in Reno. He looked at her booking data and saw that 65% of her bookings were workforce travel-related. When COVID-19 shut down travel plans around the globe, she opened her bookings to workforce rentals, and her units stayed around 95% occupied through the pandemic.

Perez’s experience as a Black tech founder was typical, he said.

“The challenge for a lot of us is do I give up equity to bring in a technical co-founder at a very early stage? Or do I outsource it to a dev shop to develop my product and help me at least kind of get off the ground? And I opted for the second option, just because I had heard of experiences of founders where they brought in a technical co-founder, they never really had a relationship prior to developing the product. And then that technical person decides [they] want to leave for another opportunity or whatever, and they take their equity with them.”

So he started networking and building relationships with people who he thought could be angel investors. The first investment in Workbnb was a check for $15,000. 

“You set goals, so that every time you collect a check, you want to execute a certain part of your plan,” he said. “But getting a demo app is really that first step.”

His biggest advice for anyone with an idea is to be yourself. Second, “be obsessed with your customer and their problems. … Ask people for stories.”

Perez said in Reno, he was a “classically overlooked” founder. 

I really wanted the entire Reno tech community to support us. And that wasn't the case. I got a lot of looks like, ‘Oh, that's interesting.’ Nobody wanted to make an introduction. Nobody wanted to ask, ‘Can I help you? Can I share something for you? Can I do something for you?’”

Despite that, he said there are people who will open doors for you.

The goal of Luakabuanga’s app is to help people discover businesses in their neighborhood.

“I realize when you go places, even in the United States or overseas, often we miss out on discovering what's around our immediate location. And what we usually do is jump to any search engine. … So I thought about, ‘Okay, how about just being able to offer a consumer, in general a way, that when they are somewhere in a specific location within one mile radius of their location, by opening up the app, they can discover all the services and businesses?’”

Luakabuanga is from Montreal, and his family is originally from Congo. He was in Washington, D.C. when he got the idea for BRBCK, but set it in motion in Las Vegas during the pandemic.

“Often when you tell the same story about a group of people, people already have the opinion, even though they don't have a chance to find out about who you really are,” he said of being treated differently because of how he looks and sounds. “I do have my MBA, I speak three languages. But if I don't sound like you, you cannot measure somebody's intelligence [by] the way they sound. Sit down and talk to them and try to figure out who they actually are.”

He said even when presenting his product to customers, they’ll be unfamiliar with a product like theirs coming “from this group of people.”

“It should be coming from MIT, not Spring Valley,” he said. “So that in itself is an obstacle to overcome.”

And on diversity in his company, he says: "We have to be able to look over people the color of the skin, the culture, the background, ethnicity, and learn from who they actually are, because talent doesn't have any accent, talent doesn't have any color, or intelligence cannot be defined based on ... color of their skin. So in our companies the same way we really want to hire from different background, we conduct our interview to make sure we get to know who you are, especially why you want to be part of this company."

Guests: Jean Claude Luakabuanga, founder and CEO, BRBCK; Yeves Perez, founder and CEO, Workbnb

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.
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