Ibe Imo shares the stories of Crystal Evuleocha and Pierre Laguerre at the HBS Black New Venture Competition.
Through the Black New Venture Competition, A Black Woman Founder Gained National Exposure
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—Crystal Evuleocha is the CEO and co-founder of Kiira Health. Kiira Health is a virtual clinic connecting women to health experts. Candice Fraser is Evuleocha’s co-founder. Following a health emergency she encountered, Evuleocha leaned into her powers to build a venture that is revolutionizing collegiate women’s health and helping solve care disparities for Black women.
Evuleocha was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She was 16 years old when she graduated from a boarding secondary school in Eastern Nigeria. One year later, she boarded a flight from Abuja—Nigeria’s capital, to Houston, Texas. At Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, people arrived and departed. She hugged her family goodbye and went through airport security. Evuleocha was leaving home for college at the University of Houston in Texas.
The four-hour layover she planned at Heathrow Airport became overnight and a full day stop. Evuleocha would have to sleep on hard and cold chairs. Her boarding secondary school days in Nigeria prepared her for moments like this. “Being away from my parents at a young age helped me become independent,” she said.
Even though Evuleocha did not have a visa—permitting her entry into the U.K., she was determined to find her way to a decent hotel in Greater London. Relentless, Evuleocha spoke to five different immigration officers, “I petitioned for myself,” she said. “I stated all the reasons they needed to grant me entry.” She successfully convinced them and was given a visa on the spot. The next day, she returned to Heathrow Airport and made the connecting flight to Houston.
At the University of Houston, Evuleocha was navigating her new life as a migrant and young adult. During her menstrual cycles, she experienced unusual and severe abdominal pains. Like many other young women, she googled, diagnosed, and prescribed medication to herself. A few years later, the pains persisted, and on one fateful day, she passed out. Evuleocha was rushed to the hospital. She had to undergo emergency surgery. All these years, Evuleocha relied on Google, and her diagnosis was incorrect. This sudden and traumatic hospitalization inadvertently inspired her. The hospitalization sparked her idea to create a virtual clinic that connects women to health experts.
As an international student, it was tough to find on-campus jobs. Evuleocha found ways to make extra money, doing hair and nails, and even making clothes for other students. During her senior year, she started her first venture, Benóla Crystale—an e-commerce company that made and sold men’s accessories. “It was meant to be a side hustle,” she said.
The following year, Evuleocha graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and business and moved to Austin, Texas. She realized that Benóla Crystale could generate more revenue. “The moment I stopped treating it as a side hustle, it started to thrive and grow,” she said.
Even though Evuleocha saved a year’s worth of rent, she still felt she needed a job. As a first-generation migrant, she needed a safety net—a financial backup plan. A safety net in the event her entrepreneurship aspirations did not come to fruition. “I did not have a car for three years,” she said. “I cut out unnecessary expenses, including shopping and eating out.”
Her entrepreneurial aspirations were becoming shrouded in her career trajectory. Perhaps, the more responsible choice was to seek employment and find simpler ways to make an impact. In her dilemma, she thought to herself, “apply to law school and make a partner at a firm or pursue entrepreneurship.” Evuleocha had to understand her true motivations. She wanted to make an impact, and there were multiple and simpler ways she could. “I had to choose the most fulfilling path,” she said.
Evuleocha accepted a role as an investor relations analyst at Arixa Capital—a real estate financial services company. She moved to Los Angeles. When she started the role, she had a clear end in mind, “I knew that I wasn’t there to climb the ladder,” she said. “Even though I loved that job, I was passing through.” At Arixa Capital, Evuleocha learned to build relationships with investors. She continued building up her savings and conducting market research for her future venture. The right time to leave Arixa Capital came when she met her goals.
Late in the spring of 2018, Evuleocha launched Kiira. Kiira was formerly known as Kliit—a digital health platform dedicated to enabling multicultural women to talk to trusted experts about their sexual and reproductive health. “A key lesson I learned was to seek to understand possible reasons why my venture would not work.”
“Raising capital as a Black and migrant woman came with a unique set of biases and challenges,” Evuleocha said. “Though personal savings started the journey, the funds that kicked off Kiira came from pitch competitions.” At the 2019 AfroTech conference in Oakland, Evuleocha and her former co-founder pitched and won $10,000. “A lot of our funding came from the Black community,” she said.
In 2019, Kimberly Foster (MBA ’20) and Tyler Simpson (MBA ’20), Black female students in the MBA program at Harvard Business School (HBS), began an independent project that grew into HBS’s Black New Venture Competition (BNVC). The BNVC invited eligible Black founders across the US to pitch early-stage technology ventures for a chance to win $175,000 in prize money. Evuleocha pitched and won the $25,000 Google for Startups Innovators Award. “Through BNVC, we received exposure on a national platform. We utilized the funds to build out our initial product,” she said. Black women founders are often cold-shouldered by investors, “but there is also something powerful in being underestimated,” Evuleocha said. “Because I am often the only one, I am challenged to be the very best.” Since Kiira’s launch in 2018, Evuleocha has won numerous awards, including 2020 Forbes 30 under 30.
Leading Kiira, Evuleocha and Fraser, her co-founder, have raised capital from investors that include a publicly-traded social media company and Serena Ventures—a venture-capital founded by tennis star Serena Williams. Most recently, she was listed in Pitchbook’s 53 Black founders and investors to watch in 2021. Evuleocha and her team have closed the pre-seed round for Kiira. “I am happy to solve a problem based on a personal experience. There is a deeper connection,” she said. Looking forward three to five years from now, Evuleocha hopes Kiira will become a publicly-traded entity. “Our core goal is to make an impact for young women and reduce disparities in health care.”
The Black New Venture Competition is a Demonstration of Leadership to Help Solve the Challenges Black Founders Face
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — Pierre Laguerre is the Founder and CEO at Fleeting. Fleeting is a company that connects CDL drivers to shipping and trucking companies.
Laguerre’s journey to building a $2 million start-up began from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In 2020, he won a $50,000 grand prize at Harvard Business School’s inaugural Black New Venture Competition.
Laguerre was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was 15 years old when he left Haiti’s sunshine, crystal blue beaches, sunsets, and political violence. In September 1997, Laguerre’s dream of migrating to the US came true. Arriving with his mom and three siblings at JFK Airport in Queens, New York, “it was just like the movies.” Coming to America was the opening of a door of opportunity. “It felt like a new beginning,” he said. Laguerre and his family settled in Brooklyn in New York City.
The 1990s in Brooklyn was a decade of gang activity and gun violence. Laguerre’s American dream was now a nightmare. “Brooklyn was very rough on the edges. It was nothing like I imagined,” he said. Language barriers exasperated Laguerre’s culture shock. He was fluent in Haitian Creole and could not speak English. Laguerre was in the ninth grade and received his fair share of bullying. The turning point came when other schoolboys snatched his school boots. “I realized I had to adapt or get crushed,” he said.
Four years later, Laguerre is a Brooklynite. Like a dark cloud, Brooklyn’s gang activity and gun violence were still looming. Like other teenage boys in the city, Laguerre realized he could become a statistic. He was desperate to get out. Right before Laguerre graduated high school, his uncle took him on a Caribbean cruise. They visited the Cayman Islands, The Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Laguerre realized that the world did not revolve around Brooklyn and Haiti. The world was beautiful and had a lot more to offer. The trip was an eye-opener. He graduated high school and gained admission to CUNY New York City College of Technology to study electrical engineering. “The fear of becoming a product of my environment was my driving force,” he said.
After one year at CUNY, Laguerre’s hope to become an electrical engineer and leave Brooklyn began to slip away. He was coming to terms with his family’s finances. Tuition bills were mounting, and he had to support his mother and siblings, “I could no longer afford college,” he said. “I started thinking of ways to make some money.” Still determined to stay off the streets of Brooklyn, Laguerre dropped out. “I thought, I’ll just drive a truck and never come back,” Laguerre said, pondering his new dilemma.
Laguerre became a truck driver at HP Logistics. He delivered food to local restaurants, hospitals, and his former college. “I remember being so ashamed. I did not want my former classmates to see me.” A defining moment came when Laguerre bumped into his former professor, “He told me to own it and be the best trucker I could be.” Laguerre embraced trucking. This moment shaped his life, career trajectory, and entrepreneurial journey.
A year later, Laguerre had saved enough money to purchase his truck. He also became an owner-operator. He fell in love, got married, moved to a New Jersey suburb, and started a family. Life was good.
As an owner-operator, Laguerre found trucking, shipping logistics, and freight brokerage fascinating. He was eager to make the best of time and money. Laguerre took a massive online course in supply chain logistics. “The course helped me understand supply chain logistics and trucking on a macro level,” he said. With this new knowledge, he realized there was an opportunity to create mutually beneficial work arrangements between CDL truckers and shipping and trucking companies. Laguerre realized that he could be more than an owner-operator.
Laguerre’s success streaks were short-lived. He was working hard and driving long hours. Recently married with a child, the long hours on the road began taking a toll on his family. The next few years came hard and fast. First a divorce, and then an injury in a car accident. Laguerre could not work for eight months. He lost everything. “My truck and car got repossessed,” he said. He returned to Brooklyn. “I was pretty much back to square one.”
The first days back at Brooklyn mocked Laguerre’s prior entrepreneurial accomplishments and aspirations. He had made it out of Brooklyn only to find himself broke, seeking shelter at his cousin’s house. “I could not afford meals and rent,” he said, recalling days when he and his daughter survived on peanut butter and bread. One day, Laguerre found a book lying around the house. The book was titled What the CEO Wants You to Know. As he flipped through, each page, each word, and each chapter gave him a new perspective.
From the book, Laguerre garnered concepts of value, profit margin, and scale. He thought of ways to solve uncomplicated problems and monetize them. Since he had no capital, he figured he could clean windows. With willpower, cleaning supplies, and the help of a friend, Laguerre set out to the streets of Brooklyn. He began knocking on doors, beauty salons, barbershops, bars, and restaurants. If Laguerre could get 100 store owners to pay $10 for each glass, he could make $1,000. He found 72 store owners. In three months, he made $62,000.
Though Laguerre’s window-cleaning gig was thriving, his eyes were set on the unsolved problem of connecting CDL drivers to shipping and trucking companies. He still wanted to solve a real problem and build a profitable venture doing so. He had saved some money cleaning windows. Laguerre started a staffing agency. In 18 months, the staffing agency accrued over one million in revenue. He then reinvested the earnings and started another trucking company. Laguerre was running two successful companies.
There are tons of books, cases, and lessons on business and entrepreneurship. Experience is the school of hard knocks. Laguerre had successfully applied the concepts from the book What the CEO Wants You to Know. His staffing agency and trucking business scaled to 6,000 drivers and ten trucks. It was a large and profitable operation, “But I had challenges delegating. I made several mistakes and learned hard lessons,” he said. The events and lessons that followed were more brutal and much more personal.
Laguerre had a son who was born with Down Syndrome and had to undergo a series of surgeries. One day in Brooklyn, while running an errand for the hospital, Laguerre was attacked by robbers. His skull was cracked, with 67 staples in his head, he laid in a coma. Again, everything fell apart: the staffing agency and trucking business. Slowly recovering, Laguerre found inspiration in his son’s battle for survival, “Watching him fight for his life gave me courage. I, too, was determined not to give up.” Laguerre made a personal commitment to rebuild his venture. This time, technology would be enabled, and most importantly, he learned to trust his team and delegate.
Two weeks later, Laguerre was discharged, and Fleeting was born. “Fleeting is a technology-enabled platform that gives drivers access to trucks and freight and allows them to operate on their own,” Laguerre said. Though Laguerre had 17 solid years in transportation, logistics, and entrepreneurship, he did not have a technical background. Laguerre also knew very little about raising venture capital. One day, a friend introduced him to an accelerator based in Florida. “I made an investment of $10,000 myself. I started learning how to build a technology company, how to build pitch decks, and how to speak to investors,” he said. From then on, Laguerre was off to the races.
Pitch competition after pitch competition, Laguerre was learning by doing. Each time he got a challenging question from an investor, he went back and did his homework. “Pitching in New York City, I was one of the biggest losers. I still knew I had a great idea.” Amidst several “nos,” and “it-won’t-work,” Laguerre refocused his energy on market research to understand Fleeting’s product persona. “I kept my head down and continued speaking to drivers,” he was testing how viable his idea was and seeking ways to improve it.
Raising venture capital in itself is a challenging and lonely path. Laguerre had to travel this path as a Black founder without social capital or an Ivy League education. At times, when Laguerre pitched, he felt unsaid signals. It was sometimes difficult for investors to relate to him or his journey. “There is an opportunity for more venture capitalists to invest in Black founders. A lot of money is left on the table,” Laguerre said.
A few months later, Fleeting was accepted by Quake Capital Partners in New York City—a venture accelerator focused on making seed investments in early-stage ventures. Laguerre now understood more about raising capital. “I focused on learning how to tell the story.” With an initial investment of $250,000, Laguerre put together a team and launched Fleeting’s minimum viable product. The following year, Laguerre applied to Harvard Business School’s (HBS) inaugural Black New Venture Competition (BNVC). “To pitch at HBS was a dream come true. The BNVC was a demonstration of leadership to help solve the challenges Black founders face.” Fleeting won HBS’s BNVC grand prize of $50,000 in undiluted capital.
Laguerre and his team continued building out Fleeting and raising capital. Over the past two years, truck drivers have logged over 15,000 hours on Fleeting’s platform. Fleeting has also moved over 1,500 loads for their customers and generated over $1.5 million in revenue. Laguerre is the first Black American to max out a crowdfunding campaign and has led Fleeting to raise over $1.8 million in funding. Reflecting on his journey, he said, “I feel I have a moral obligation to build a company that can revolutionize trucking by giving drivers flexibility and helping other trucking companies as well.”
Ibe Imo is a feature writer, HBS Online participant, and Harvard graduate student focused on journalism and digital storytelling. His storytelling chronicles inspiration from every-day human experiences. Ibe enjoys outdoor activities, including kayaking and trail cycling along the Charles River. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.