Tristan Walker on the Roman Empire and Selling a Start-Up to Procter & Gamble

Tristan Walker founded Walker & Company, a maker of health and beauty products for people of color, in 2013. On Wednesday, the company was acquired by Procter & Gamble for an undisclosed sum.

The deal represents a successful exit for Mr. Walker and his investors. It also signals an effort by Procter & Gamble, the maker of Gillette, to reach new markets with its shaving products.

But while many start-up founders make a hasty exit after getting acquired, Mr. Walker is planning to stay on and grow Bevel, his men’s shaving brand, and Form, his women’s hair care brand.

“We’re a team of 15 with very grandiose ambitions,” he said of Walker & Company, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., but will move to Atlanta as part of the deal. “We want this company and its purpose to still be around 150 years from now.”

Mr. Walker grew up poor in Queens. His mother focused on his education, and he was accepted into an elite boarding school. From there he went to Stony Brook University, on Long Island, and then the Graduate School of Business at Stanford.

After working at Foursquare, he became an entrepreneur in residence with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and from there he started Walker & Company. Mr. Walker also co-founded Code2040, an organization working to improve diversity in the technology industry.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted earlier this year in San Francisco.

What’s that book you’ve got there?

It’s “Parallel Lives” by Plutarch. I’ve really been getting into Greek and Roman mythology. I’m reading something right now about the history of Rome during the 53 years when they really came into power, and this idea of the Roman state growing, the Greek state growing, and the differences therein fascinate me beyond belief. I’ve just been devouring it for the past few weeks now.

Would you say you’re more of a Greek or a Roman?

Roman. In 53 years, these guys came from nothingness and became a global power. It’s just fascinating how you can do that so quickly, with such discipline. For them to reach their apex and decline so quickly, I think there’s something really interesting to learn in that. When I think about my own business, and think about how history really does repeat itself, the Rome story is one that really rings true. This idea of arrogance matched with discipline is a kind of interesting dichotomy to explore a little bit more deeply.

Did you read the classics in school?

No, no. I was an economics major. I was a great student — 4.0 G.P.A., valedictorian, all that stuff. I learned to study and play to the test, play to the grade, get to the next step. Now I’m in a position where I can actually devour the content I always wanted to. I remember reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography and being so delighted by it. It gave me this real delight to pursue a path of more knowledge.

Where’d you grow up?

I grew up in the projects in Queens. Fortunately, I had a mother who worked three jobs, did everything she could to ensure that I was set up for success and had the education that I needed. I got a full-ride scholarship to the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. And from there, I got to see how the other half lived. It completely changed my life. I got to see what success could look like. I got to see what wealth was. And it completely changed my worldview.

How so?

I would walk down the halls and see last names like Ford, go to some classes and realize they’re Rockefellers. These are names that were in my imagination. It taught me the importance of name and what that can mean, not only for you but your progeny. When I started at Hotchkiss, I didn’t know what a verb was. So I spent all of my time in the library studying. I spent all of my time thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

What motivated you during this time?

Wealth creation. I mean, I know what the opposite looks like. And I don’t wish that on anybody. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed, and when I saw how the other half lived, it motivated me. When I was younger I realized there are three ways to get rich. The first was to be an actor or an athlete, which didn’t work out for me too well. The second way was to work on Wall Street. And the third way is entrepreneurship, which is what I’m pursuing now.

What was your first job after college?

I worked for Lehman Brothers each summer during college. Then I graduated, went to work on Wall Street, and realized I hated it. I was a trader. Your goal as a trader is to make money with other people’s money to, at the end of the year, make money for yourself. And there was really nothing validating there for me.

I felt that the world was bigger, and that there were other things that needed solving. I have a lot of friends who continued to pursue that path. Thank goodness I left after two years, because they start paying you enough money to keep you there. And then your opportunity cost gets so high that you don’t want to leave, and you get miserable. I saw this happen over and over and over again. I didn’t want to be the victim of that.

What did you make of Silicon Valley when you arrived?

I was 24 when I came to Stanford. The other 24-year-olds here were not only making millions of dollars but fundamentally changing the world. Why did I not have any idea this place existed? There was this world, this innovation economy, that by design I was unable to participate in because I didn’t know about it.

That’s a pretty rosy view of things, about changing the world. Has it changed at all?

This diversity problem in Silicon Valley continues to not improve. It is a fundamental problem. The majority of the world is people of color. The majority of this country in 20, 30 years will be. It’s the most culturally influential demographic group on the planet. Why are we not participating in this? When you think about the percentage of black, Latino folks getting funding, it has not gotten better.

You had been working at technology companies. How did you wind up starting a consumer goods company?

I don’t think there’s much difference. Instead of selling bits, I’m selling physical products. The need here was really the fact that I could not shave. Why are there no products that really understood the fact that I have curly hair? The shaving products that exist cut the hair beneath my skin, and that hair grows into my skin, leading to some irritation issues. That’s just a really simple insight.

I’ve also been frustrated for years about having to walk down what’s called an “ethnic beauty aisle,” which is always next to the beauty aisle. There’s not a great assortment of products. The products are usually dirty. There’s a photo on it of some 65-year-old bald black dude in a towel drinking a Cognac, petting a tiger, and it’s absolutely ridiculous.

People of color spend more money on this stuff than anyone else. So I said, “I’m going to respect those things before anybody else does, and really create a long-term view around celebrating this beautiful community and culture.”

There are other shaving start-ups out there, like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. What’s different about Bevel?

I can’t use their products. I mean, the fundamental problem is that things like multi-blade razors help exacerbate the condition for folks with curly hair. A hundred years ago, both men and women used to shave with a single-blade razor. This idea of multi-blade did not exist. Multi-blade razors cut the hair beneath your skin, whereas single-blade cuts level with the skin, so there’s nothing to grow into.

There’s no patent on single-blades anymore. Let’s think about what that means as a business person, if you lose your patent. What do you do? You try to generate more innovations that get you more intellectual property. So now we have two- all the way up to six-blade razors, which really don’t do anything much different. And companies are neglecting a growing audience of folks that can’t use those things.

I recently met with the C.E.O. of a large consumer packaged goods company, and I asked him, “When was the last time you saw a black man shaving in an ad?” Now, this guy has sold tens of millions, maybe billions, of blades. And he said, “Hm. Never.” And I remember feeling not only sad, but really upset.

This is your first time leading a company. How are you growing into your shoes as a leader?

I’ve worked with a sports psychologist. He said, “Tristan, all you need to do is be better by like 1.2 percent each week, and by the end of the year you’re two times better than you were previously.” I’ve always been this step-function kind of guy. I want to affect change quickly and now. But it’s important to gradually ease into your own personal growth. Slow down and be patient. And then, if you’re two times better than you were the previous year, and everybody else is too, the power of compounding starts to kick in.

What are your priorities as you keep building the company?

I’m dedicating my life to the demographic shift happening in this country. Not only for Silicon Valley. Not only for business. But for this country’s competitiveness. It’s changing. And folks need to respect that and they need to celebrate it. And if there’s any frustration I continue to have, it’s when folks are lacking in their celebration of it. The more quickly everyone comes to grips with the importance of focusing on this, the better off we’ll all be. The more fair we’ll all be. The more equitable we’ll all be. And the more competitive we’ll all be.

David Gelles is the Corner Office columnist and a business reporter. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. @dgelles

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