Donor Desk: Vinitha Watson

Donor Desk: Vinitha Watson

What issues are you passionate about?

We [my husband and I] are passionate about supporting entrepreneurs of color. Through this lens, our philanthropy has focused on entrepreneurs who are serving their communities through art, culture, policy, technology, and entrepreneurship.

How did you first get involved in philanthropy?

As a first generation Indian American, I was raised with a community focus and a communal spirit. My large Indian family showed me that when one person prospers, it’s meant to be leveraged so that many can prosper. My husband and I came into wealth in our late twenties. It was overwhelming and we felt a tremendous responsibility to guide this wealth in positive ways. We started our giving in 2005 and educated ourselves on global issues such as lack of access to basic needs like water. In our early days we supported a fantastic organization called Kickstart, which provides water pumps to small scale African farmers to enable them to grow high-value crops to lift themselves out of poverty. We also tried to understand the local Bay Area landscape and funded organizations such as People’s Food Cooperative and The Global Fund for Women. We started to realize that our consistent thread of giving was centered around supporting entrepreneurs of color.

As my husband and I are both entrepreneurs, we understand the challenges of trying to build a business and the critical role of access to capital, resources, and knowledge. As an Indian woman, I understand this lack of access and opportunity all too well. We were an early funder of I-MAK (Initiatives for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge), which is focused on fighting abusive patents so patients can get critical HIV, Cancer and Hep-C medications at affordable prices. They now work in 49 countries.

We also focused on NexLeaf Analytics, where we funded and provided strategic guidance around using simple sensor technology and data analytics to solve global health issues such as vaccine efficacy and black carbon emissions. To date, their technology enables vaccines for over 12 million babies born each year and adoption of clean cookstoves by connecting rural women into global carbon markets.

Around 2007, we moved back to my birthplace of Oakland. Along with being entrepreneurs, my husband and I are both, first and foremost, artists. As we got more deeply involved with our local arts community, we saw that artists were struggling to sustain themselves. We also found that our community was not being fully supported by traditional philanthropy. We decided to widen our philanthropic reach to entrepreneurs of color who are artists.

How has your giving evolved since then?

We are much more intentional about who we give to, and we understand at what stage our capital is needed the most. We often fund an organization when other philanthropists may not see them as viable or having enough impact. We are that infusion of cash that gets a venture from its early beginnings to serious achievements.

What knowledge and skills do you bring to your giving?

We are early stage philanthropists. We often fund budding ventures led by POC founders who are passionate and have some record of success but who are still working towards their big slam dunk. We believe that capital needs to be used to create a runway or a laboratory to figure out how to make the most impact. There is an energy shift that happens for POC entrepreneurs who get financial backing. The psychological effects are enormous when they see that someone believes in them.

What do you look for in the organizations you support?

Do they have a focused mission? Do they have a track record of wins? Do they have the grit to accomplish their mission even if we do not fund them? Do they understand who they are serving? When evaluating early organizations, we look at factors like team dynamics, market solutions, and how creatively they are solving problems for their audience. It’s important that the teams have a clear understanding of who they are serving.

Who do you consider to be role models for your giving?

My dad. He experienced racism throughout his life and as soon as he was able to give back, he did. He provided housing to low-income families. He did it for the single mothers out there who reminded him of his mother and those who needed stability to have a chance to get out of poverty.

How has SFF supported your philanthropy?

SFF has been our partner since 2012 when we asked them how we could use our money to support Oakland’s arts community. They assisted us in figuring out the mechanisms to ensure our vision of training creative entrepreneurs and giving them access to studios could come to life. This organization is called Zoo Labs. SFF also partnered with us in our initial thinking of giving cash to Bay Area artists at the start of COVID-19. This initiative is called Artists Now and is still running.

Tell us about an organization you are passionate about.

Zoo Labs is a not for profit artist accelerator that bridges art, entrepreneurship, and capital. Our mission is to invest in artists through entrepreneurial training, access to studios, office space, networks, and capital so artists can shape culture while building equity in their communities. Zoo Labs empowers artists as community, cultural and business leaders. We’ve served over 300 artists—60% are from the Bay Area.

How and why did you first get involved with them? What inspires you about this group?

I am, full disclosure, the founder of Zoo Labs. I created this organization because I saw that artists were not being seen or treated as entrepreneurs. Being in Silicon Valley we saw so much infrastructure being built around startups, but the same infrastructure was not being built around artists who were serving their communities in meaningful ways. I saw first-hand how culture creators are left to help shape culture but not given any infrastructure to help them continue to be of service. Most of these culture creators are people of color or from the LGBTQIA+ community and are most often left out of funding, education, and access. We wanted to change the paradigm, as we’ve always seen artists in their critical role as first investors in their communities.

How has your relationship with this organization been meaningful to you? How have you grown as a philanthropist because of it?

Just because you are a philanthropist does not make you an entrepreneur. If you made your money in tech, most likely, it still doesn’t mean you are an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is difficult on its own. If you represent a marginalized group, it’s even harder. This organization has grown me as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and artist. Artists are some of the most resilient people I know, and making it with an artistic career is hard enough and music is even harder. I’ve seen and experienced how little resources get to entrepreneurs of color and other marginalized communities. Working on the ground rather than evaluating a project from my desk has made me understand the nuances of how much these communities get done with internal community support. Imagine what they could do with increased external support. Our society and culture would benefit greatly.

If you could solve one problem, what would it be?

There needs to be more risky early stage philanthropy. Getting caught up on impact reports and evaluations that are used to prove impact fail to capture the nuances. We as philanthropists need to remember that this nation is built on small businesses not those that go quickly to scale. I’d also love to see more money going to POC entrepreneurs with good ideas that are focused on their communities. To me, that’s not risky.