We are pleased to announce that Luminate has renewed our investment in New Media Ventures because we believe that now is a time to double down on supporting those with a bold vision for positive change. In the wake of growing divisions and attempts to limit people’s ability to participate in the democratic process, we believe that it is imperative for funders with risk capital to support diverse entrepreneurs who are coming up with new ways to tell powerful stories, make democracy more accessible, and help their communities to thrive.
Why we funded
We believe a vibrant democracy is one where everyone sees themselves represented and everyone has a voice. The United States witnessed historic levels of participation in its 2018 midterm elections, despite systematic barriers many groups face while voting. We have also seen an outpouring of new civic empowerment tools, platforms, and approaches led by and for founders who are underrepresented in Silicon Valley. Now is the time to double down on these encouraging signals and to continue to invest in an ecosystem that can foster and sustain innovation.
If we want the advances of technology to strengthen democracy we need to get serious about ensuring we are investing in new voices and founders that are close to the challenges they seek to solve. Through the New Media Ventures (NMV) Innovation Fund and New Media Ventures’ ongoing thought leadership and field-building work, this means actively scouting for and resourcing diverse founders, making earlier bets to support their visions, and not leaving value on the table.
To date, the NMV team has funded 70 startups, including: media companies like Blavity, a family of five brands that builds beautiful products and experiences for black millennials, reaches 7 million people per month, and recently closed a Series A led by Google Ventures; non-profit voter participation organizations like Vote.org, which registered 1.4 million voters in the 2018 election through a combination of technology and influence campaigns; and for-profit technology companies like Hustle, which sent over 200 million peer-to-peer text messages in 2018 (and went on to raise a $30M Series B). Another recent NMV Innovation Fund investee, BallotReady, is on a mission to make data about candidates for every office in the country accessible and easy for voters to bring with them on Election Day.
How New Media Ventures’ Innovation Fund works
The NMV team is always on the lookout for companies where the right support at the right time can be catalytic. Through focused open call periods with clear criteria, they solicit, narrow, and review hundreds of applications. The NMV Innovation Fund then invests in the most promising of these startups, with a focus on teams that help to answer one of four guiding questions:
Shifting Power. Restoring power to citizens and communities requires bold vision and large-scale change. How can tech and media help?
Building Movements. How can innovation accelerate movements for racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice?
Changing Narratives. We know stories can inspire action and that culture has the power to accelerate social change. How can new voices change the way we see the world?
Sparking Civic Engagement. To create the vibrant democracy we know is possible, we need everyone involved. How can technology help recruit and empower?
Each of the three last New Media Ventures open calls have yielded more than 500 applicants (with a spike of 736 applicants in 2018). An increased percentage of applications were in-scope in 2019, which makes the narrowing process that much more challenging for the team of expert advisors who vet, score, and recommend proposals to the team for further diligence and potential funding. The team then closes out an extensive research and interview period to select a final cohort of investees. As part of ongoing learning and evaluation, NMV also tracks racial/ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity of teams submitting applications and has goals around each.
We began investing in the New Media Ventures through their Innovation Fund in 2017 because we saw the team stepping up in a moment of highly disruptive civic engagement innovation in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election. By leveraging their expertise and organizing early dollars to sustain a surge of civic activity, NMV was helping more people participate in civic life.
NMV builds the ecosystem for innovation through their open application, vetting, and diligence process, which includes vetting hundreds of applicants through an open call that goes beyond the traditional networks. This means looking beyond well-resourced founders and toward founders that may better represent directly impacted communities. For instance, they are supporting tools like United We Dream’s Notifica, which was incubated by immigrant youth to protect families that might come under threat as a result of new policies. Finally, the team is investing in experiments in how efficient service delivery to under resourced communities might lead to increased civic participation; to this end, they are funding pilots by direct service organizations like Earn and mRelief.
In addition to dollars, NMV provides mentorship and introductions to teams that need the rocket fuel of early champions to lift off. They promote diversity, equity, and inclusion from program design to selection, and they continue sharing insights about how others might build on their success in fostering a diverse ecosystem.
Thought partners on innovation
The sheer volume of open call applications, with the NMV team consistently receiving more than 500 applicants, continues to demonstrate the need for this type of seed funding for new approaches on issues critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. From 2017- 2018, NMV screened 1,200 pitches, made 30 investments, and mobilized $7 million in seed funding – giving them a bird’s eye view of the field that informs their own investment strategy and benefits their partners. Instead of analyzing and seeding these rapidly changing fields on our own in the U.S., Luminate is able to learn alongside the NMV team and peer funders through summits, briefings, and investor updates that go beyond the expected and explore a wide range of issues, including where civic participation is heading in 2020 and beyond.
New Media Ventures’ work fits into two of Luminate’s core impact areas, promoting early stage companies and organizations in both. In our Civic Empowerment impact area, NMV supports groups like Hustle, Vote.org, and BallotReady, which are increasing civic participation through user-centered technology platforms. In Independent Media, companies like Blavity, Hearken, and Swayable are changing how stories are told through new forms of audience listening and feedback loops for content creators and newsrooms.
Casting a wider net
New Media Ventures' tagline reads, “NMV invests in entrepreneurs and activists wrestling with the biggest challenges facing our democracy,” and we are proud to be in the ring with the team for another year.
US democracy will require increased attention and invention to overcome the challenges of this era, so we encourage all who are looking to cast a wider net in this arena to join us in supporting New Media Ventures’ efforts in the lead up to 2020 and beyond.
Photo credit: New Media Ventures | Courtney Hedger