When Astou Diallo ’23 (BUS) was around nine years old, she was sitting in her mother’s salon in New Haven, watching about 10 customers waiting for their appointments, wondering about – of all things – the salon’s potential scalability.
“I’m thinking in the back of my head, “Ok, if my mom were to open another shop, but in a different area in Connecticut, this many customers would be here, and she’ll have another 10 there,’” she remembers. “So, yes, I think I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
Diallo’s early interest in building companies is a hallmark to her upbringing. Both of her parents are first-generation entrepreneurs – her father owns a furniture shop in New Haven – and they instilled within her a passion for engaging in work that is of purpose.
“Even though work has been hard, my parents truly love what they do, and I think so much of it is because it had a community aspect,” she says. “I think if you’re not loving what you do, and you don’t wake up and go to work knowing that you’re going to help make someone’s life easier, I don’t know – you should be the change that you want to see in the world, and you should make those decisions every day, even if they’re small.”
Diallo is now a rising junior at UConn majoring in Information Management Systems at the School of Business, and this summer, she’s finding that purposeful work with an internship with Loeb.nyc, a New York City-based venture collective that works with startups to help improve their chances of success.
Through Loeb, Diallo has connected with the up-and-coming firm, Lockstep Ventures.
“Loeb sent a PDF of different portfolio companies that they had,” Diallo says, “and I saw Lockstep – a venture capital firm looking to invest in Black founders. So, I was like, ‘Ok, this is really cool,’ because one thing about me is that I love to work with people that want to help other people.”
Lockstep’s mission is to address issues that perpetuate racial inequality in the U.S. through venture capital. The company works to inspire and empower systemic changes, and looks to support companies that address disparities in health literacy, financial literacy, education reform, and justice/recidivism.
When she’s not attending intern roundtables or presentations about different aspects of working in venture capital and project development, Diallo is working directly with Lockstep – helping to manage social media channels and working on projects related to brand awareness, user acquisition, and scalability for the startups that Lockstep has partnered with.
“One of Lockstep’s first investments is called Fleeting,” says Diallo. “It’s called ‘the Uber for trucking,’ and what they’re looking to do is help to bridge the gap with trucking workers and people that own trucking companies.”
The company is also focused on supporting the employment of previously incarcerated workers, a mission Diallo believes in.
“For a lot of people that were incarcerated, it’s so hard for them to get back into the real world and find jobs,” she says. “Once you have a felony on your record, it’s really difficult. A lot of Lockstep’s initiative is to help people who were previously incarcerated, and they are even looking to invest in companies founded by previously incarcerated people. So, it’s super inclusive, and something I really love about Lockstep is they put their money where their mouth is.”
Someone else who puts their money where their mouth is, Diallo says, is NBA basketball star Kyrie Irving, whose firm – KAI 11 Consulting – has partnered with Lockstep to assist underrepresented and minority entrepreneurs with access to programs, mentoring, and resources to support their efforts.
“I’m a big basketball fan, and when I heard about Kyrie, I was like, ‘oh, my god, this is big,’” says Diallo, who is working on Lockstep’s partnership with the firm, conducting due diligence and helping to source deals. “Kyrie is actually one of those basketball players who’s really into on social justice, and I just love that about him.”
Between her work at Lockstep and her participation in Hillside Ventures – UConn’s newly-launched student venture fund – Diallo says her eyes have been opened to the opportunity that venture capital can offer to invest in a wide variety of companies and industries.
“It takes a village of innovations to bridge gaps,” she says.
An enthusiastic member of the Werth Innovators Leadership Development, or WILD, program through UConn’s Peter J. Werth Institute Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Diallo actually decided to attend UConn because of the entrepreneurial opportunities that The Werth Institute offers students.
“It was really the innovation aspect that pulled me in, because I think that innovation is what’s going to change the world,” she says. “And I love that The Werth Institute isn’t just business majors – we want people from different majors to be able to come join, because we’re the generation that’s going to be able to face problems and deal with climate change and sustainability, education technology, equity – we have so much ahead of us. And I love that Werth pushes us to not only be followers and natural contributors to society, but leaders as well.”
Werth Institute Director David Noble says that Diallo is already a leader and, through her work with Lockstep, has a real opportunity to enable the social change that is so important to her.
“Our journey with Astou is not over,” says Noble, “it has only begun. Her short-term success needs to translate into long-term growth, but without a program like Werth Innovators, and then the student venture fund, we would not be able to attract and retain the top tier talent in the state of Connecticut.”