Helping People in Atlanta

W3 Studio > Founder > Helping People in Atlanta
By: Brian Zwerner, Founder and President W3 Studio

Published: February 11, 2023

Over the past few weeks, I shared some of my personal history to help you readers better understand why I launched W3 Studio, a non-profit venture studio in Atlanta to help diverse founders build their dream companies.  You can read about how my grandparents survived WWII with the help of people different from them and how they made the move to New York to create a better life for their kids.  You can also read about how my parents modeled teaching and mentorship as a way to help others.  Now I want to share some of my own story to further explain why W3 Studio is so important to me.

I was born in Brooklyn, but we moved to Miami when I was 9 years old.  I went to high school at a huge, diverse public school in South Miami.  Miami Killian was about equally split White, Black, and Cuban.  I had a diverse set of friends.  I did well in high school, and I went to the Wharton School for undergrad business.  It was a big step up from the small NYC colleges my parents attended, and they were proud to have an Ivy Leaguer in the family.  My father was successful in his retailing job, and I was privileged that he had the money to pay for my college.

I graduated in 1995, and then I spent the next 12 years in investment banking roles in the U.S. and overseas.  I had an exciting career and traveled the world.  The work was challenging and stressful.  I managed large fixed income trading positions.  I never added it up at the time, but I am confident I have traded over $1 Trillion in securities during my career.  I didn’t have much time for charitable work then, but I supported efforts for access to higher education that were important to me and my parents.

When the financial crisis hit, the fixed income markets were a mess.  I left my last big bank trading job, and I needed a break.  I was 35 years old, and I was burned out from the stress and travel.  My wife grew up in Atlanta, and she wanted to get back to her hometown and family.  We moved here in 2008.

I continued working in I-banking for several years, but I was now at a boutique firm with no trading risk to manage and a much easier travel schedule.  This gave me more time to spend with my then elementary age children.  My wife and her family are all tall and so are my kids.  My son started playing high-level AAU basketball in 2nd grade in 2009.  He teamed with two future NBA lottery picks (Anthony Edwards and Jabari Smith) and played on teams way more diverse than his Buckhead school. 

My son and I spent many nights and weekends in parts of Atlanta we would likely never have seen if not for hoops.  We practiced in Bankhead and at schools and rec centers in tough neighborhoods.  At tournaments, we were often the only two white people in the gym.  It was an amazing learning experience for both my son and me.  We got to know many great kids and their families from backgrounds very different than our own.

Many of my son’s teammates struggled with the fees and time required to play travel hoops.  Our family was able to help, and it felt great to do so.  We took kids with us to tournaments, drove them to practices, and helped keep team fees lower.  On breaks between games, kids would pile into our car to grab meals that we covered.  When we went out of town, we would have teammates stay in our hotel room or take care of their transportation.  It was a fun time and helped shape the young man my son has become. 

On the career side, I left I-banking in 2014.  I caught the startup bug late in life at the age of 41.  I built my first startup Aquina Health in the FinTech lending space with a friend.  We had some success with that business, and I exited in 2017.  I then started a new tech and media company in the high school sports space. It was a lot of fun, but we never figured out a viable business model.  We shut that in late 2018.

With that sports startup, I met several NFL players that were helping me with our work in high school football. One of them, Andre Fluellen, had the idea to bring together athletes with business executives in a networking and venture investing entity we named Beyond The Game Network.  Over the last 4+ years, we’ve invested in 23 sports tech startups and created opportunities for our 31 former pro athletes to work with these companies or start businesses of their own.

It’s been a lot of fun building a venture group.  I’ve met amazing startup founders with big ambitions to change the world.  I’ve also had a chance to interact with tons of great people in the Atlanta tech scene and throughout the country.  What I’ve observed is that Atlanta’s tech community looks very different than the rest of the country.  Where most places are male dominated and primarily White and Asian, Atlanta is significantly more diverse.  We have great nonprofits supporting diverse founders like Goodie Nation and the Russell Center.  I’ve been to many events where I was in the minority, and it’s awesome.  What other city can produce this level of founder diversity? I say none.

Our portfolio at Beyond The Game grew with much more diverse founders from around the country.  Half of the startups we have invested in are led by minority or women founders.  I think this partly comes from the types of industries we invest in, but it also partly comes from the diversity of our athlete network, who are nearly all Black or women or both.  We have been intentional about taking calls with diverse founders, even when they might not fit our investment strategy.  We’ve made hundreds of introductions for diverse founders to VC investors we know.

We also have worked in numerous ways to support diverse builders, here in Atlanta and beyond. Back in 2019, I started a pre-accelerator mentorship program, and I still spend time today helping diverse founders and opening our network to support them.  My partner Andre hosted an Instagram live series where he interviewed 19 diverse entrepreneurs.  I wrote 33 articles in a series called Rise Up to amplify the stories of diverse-led startups. We also did a bunch of things to highlight diverse startups at our in-person events back in 2019. This extensive work with diverse founders led to the kernel of the idea that grew into W3 Studio.