AWS Startups Blog

How Tiffany Johnson is working to democratize access and define success for underrepresented founders

To celebrate Black History Month, AWS Startups is excited to spotlight Tiffany Johnson, global business development manager on the AWS Startups underrepresented founders business development team, who has spent her eight years at Amazon challenging customer perceptions and building bigger and better.

When Tiffany Johnson started on Amazon’s sales team in 2019, she identified a large gap in the needs of the customers that she was working with. It was after a year and a half of customer research that she approached her VP with two of her colleagues, Rachad Lewis and Jeremy Erdman, to deliver the findings: “we took the time to understand how Amazon was supporting Black-owned businesses, what some of the gaps these businesses are facing, and determining whether we had the solution to help them with those specific needs.” The team’s research would become the Black Business Accelerator, a $150 million commitment by Amazon that empowers sustainable entrepreneurship for Black-owned businesses.

Tiffany Johnson

Tiffany is the first to admit that the road to developing such a herculean commitment was anything but easy, but credits her team at Amazon for their success: “I am of the belief that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. And I could not bring this project to life without the support of a hundred-and-something people who believed in what we were building.”

Today, as a business development manager on the underrepresented founders team at AWS Startups supporting Latino, Black, Native American, and women founders, Tiffany is still focused on understanding the challenges that underrepresented startups face. As a part of AWS Startups, Tiffany’s team engages with underrepresented founders and investors through partnerships, events, programs and a variety of high-touch engagements, looking to create tools and resources to democratize access to some of those hiccups that they pinpoint.

Bridging the funding gap

One such hiccup is access to funding, an inequity that is striking in the world of startups. In 2022, women-only led companies received only 1.9% of venture capital funding, while Black and Latino-founded companies received only 1%. One founder working with Tiffany’s group joined a pitch competition only to realize he was the only entrant that was lacking in a special type of first round funding: the friends and family round.

“When we think about the systemic challenges that underrepresented founders often face, sometimes it’s the little things that people don’t think about,” Tiffany says.

After identifying this obstacle, the underrepresented founder team quickly connected him to investors in their network. The team also partners with different organizations that host these pitch competitions, bringing in AWS credits to help underrepresented founders offset costs while they’re building on AWS.

Building social equity through mentorship

Another hurdle seen firsthand by Tiffany is guidance from experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders. To bridge that gap, her team has created mentorship dinners that partner with different C-Suite executives and leaders in the ecosystem to connect with founders.

“I think you’re only as strong as your network, and it starts with mentorship,” Tiffany says. “It’s always good to have that person who has experienced the path that you are treading, to be there as a guide. They come with that relevant experience that you can resonate with and that can help get you to the next step.”

It’s a tenet that Tiffany credits with her own journey as a Black female business owner: “I’m the first person in my family to ever work in corporate America. Navigating corporate America can be extremely challenging, but to have someone who has that wisdom to guide you who can be a sounding board for the good and the bad has been helpful in reaching that next step in my career, or even just closing out some of the projects that I’ve been able to launch internally at Amazon.”

AWS Reach is one such project from Tiffany’s group that puts mentorship for underrepresented founders to practice. AWS Reach is a global community that provides underrepresented founders access to $5,000 in AWS credits, marketing support, and events throughout the year that meet their specific needs.

Tiffany Johnson 2

Leveraging AI/ML for underrepresented founders

When it comes to the future for underrepresented founders, Tiffany is optimistic despite a shifting venture capital landscape that could disproportionately affect the startups that she works to help. One trend she’s most excited about: artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML).

“This is a fast-moving field, and we don’t want underrepresented founders to get left behind,” Tiffany says. “There are so many opportunities for underrepresented founders to make their mark in this space.”

For Tiffany’s team, that means working with founders to see how they can help them eliminate biases from AI/ML models, and helping them innovate in some of the markets that are available that other players aren’t thinking about. In leveraging some of the technologies that AWS already has to offer, like Amazon Bedrock, a fully managed service that offers access to high-performing foundation models from leading AI startups and AWS, the underrepresented founders team is scanning the landscape to identify where founders can get a leg up in new technologies.

Be fearless

When asked what advice she has for Black founders and entrepreneurs building on AWS, Tiffany emphasizes one thing above all: don’t be afraid to seek out the opportunities. “There are so many opportunities internally here at AWS for underrepresented founders. So, don’t be afraid to seek them out and fully familiarize yourself with them.” That means leveraging all the resources AWS’s programs have to offer: “Founders come in and they cherry pick—take this, take that. Leverage all of the resources and stay engaged, stay consistent, and you’ll reap the benefits of what AWS is offering to support underrepresented founders.”

Bonnie McClure

Bonnie McClure

Bonnie is an editor specializing in creating accessible, engaging content for all audiences and platforms. She is dedicated to delivering comprehensive editorial guidance to provide a seamless user experience. When she's not advocating for the Oxford comma, you can find her spending time with her two large dogs, practicing her sewing skills, or testing out new recipes in the kitchen.