This Barack Obama adviser is quietly investing $250 million in startup founders of color
Former President Barack Obama’s financial adviser has been quietly investing in startups led by founders of color through a new investment firm, Recode has learned.
A new venture capital firm called Pendulum Holdings has in recent months been approaching and funding companies led by founders of color, according to people familiar with the matter. The firm is led by Robbie Robinson, who helped set up the financial affairs of the Obama family after they left the White House. He remains an adviser to the family.
The fund, whose efforts haven’t previously been reported, is the latest attempt to better support Black founders, who receive only about 1 percent of venture capital funding, according to estimates. Corporate America has vowed to do better in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and one way to do that is to launch firms with an explicit focus on backing these entrepreneurs. Racial diversity in the world of startups matters because these companies create businesses, products, and wealth that can either perpetuate or help close inequality in the first place.
Pendulum also represents another tie, even if loose, between the Silicon Valley startup scene and the Obamas, who have long had a soft spot for tech. Since leaving the White House, the Obama family has struck content deals with companies like Netflix and Spotify and continued to cultivate relationships with venture capitalists.
“The conversations I have with Silicon Valley and with venture capital pull together my interests in science and organization in a way I find really satisfying,” Obama said back in 2016 on the cusp of leaving the White House, stirring speculation that he might be interested in a more hands-on role in the startup world.
To be clear, Obama is not currently an investor in the funds launched by Robinson, although the pair do remain in touch on financial matters. The funds require a minimum $1 million investment to gain access to the deals found by Pendulum, according to a federal disclosure filed by the firm.
Pendulum declined to comment.
Pendulum, which launched in 2019, has kept quite a low profile. It has granted no interviews, operates no website, and has publicly announced no deals since launch, despite being in the process of raising up to $250 million for a pair of investment vehicles, according to securities filings.
But a draft of a not-yet-published website accessed by Recode pulls back the curtain.
“Pendulum is an inclusive & strategic growth investing and advisory platform designed for a new generation of business builders and leaders,” reads the unpublished site, which was found through a public Google search before being deleted after Recode reached out. “Our ambition is to create a system that reimagines how great companies are built and redefines who gets to build them.”
One way in which the firm is trying to redefine who gets to build them is by supporting people of color. The firm targets its investments on founders of color, backing companies like Crown and Conquer, a creative ad agency, and Nickson, a furniture rental startup.
The firm is staffed primarily by people of color. Robinson, who serves on the council for the National Museum of African American History, leads the shop with D’Rita Robinson, his wife and the firm’s co-founder and head of operations. Having more Black Americans making the decisions about what to fund can help make sure that the products and services that startups bring to the world serve a diverse audience.
Robinson has had other prominent clients, but doing the financial spadework for a former president is a particularly unique relationship. Robinson worked for Byron Trott, a powerful Chicago banker who was Robinson’s longtime mentor.
“First of all, to Robbie and D’Rita, thank you so much for helping to pull this together,” Obama said in 2015 at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee hosted at their house. “We’re so grateful to the whole Robinson family.”
Two years later, Robinson took a yearlong leave from Trott’s firm to help Obama navigate the world of paid speeches and book deals, sometimes working from Obama’s Washington office. A press release that year from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office identified Robinson in part as an “Advisor to President Barack Obama.”
“As the Obamas were concluding their presidency, they reached out to me about potentially working with them,” Robinson told the alumni magazine of Morehouse College in his only public interview about the arrangement. “This was an opportunity I never could have dreamed of yet was very prepared for.”