Venture

How A 26-Year-Old From Detroit Went From Midwest Investor To West Coast Gaming Entrepreneur

When Delane Parnell was a young boy being raised by his single mother in inner-city Detroit, he was fascinated by all the entrepreneurs surrounding him—from the barbershop owners to ice cream truck operators.

Recognizing his inherent curiosity about running a business, his Aunt Olivia gave him copies of Inc. magazine and a subscription to Forbes.

“I studied them, followed them, loved them,” he said. “I read all the stories.”

When growing up, Parnell’s aunt would also take him and his brother to other parts of the city across Detroit’s Eight Mile Road.

“She wanted to expose us to different ethnicities and restaurants, and neighborhoods,” he told Crunchbase News. “She told us, ‘Look at these houses, they look nothing like those in our neighborhoods.’ That was extremely impactful in my life. Prior to that, when you’re a kid or even a teen, our neighborhood seems so big. You live in this bubble and forget there are other people in this world. But what she did was show me opportunity. It was really meaningful.”

At 13, Parnell’s mother helped him get a summer job at a cell phone store spinning a sign. Parnell remembered it as being the most “embarrassing job I’ve ever had.” But that embarrassing job, a descriptor he said comes from “a humble and grateful place,” would serve as a stepping stone to business fundamentals. The owner of the cell phone store brought Parnell on full time, and taught him sales, the importance of business ownership, lessons about finance, and the key attributes to being a successful operator in that particular industry.

“All those things ended up being skills I still use today,” Parnell told Crunchbase News. “I became really good at what I did there, and ultimately bought into some stores with a group of friends.”

By the time he was 17, Parnell used the money he saved to buy three cell phone stores and joined the founding team of Executive Car Rental, which now has 16 locations across the metro Detroit area.

At that point, Parnell began to get “really fascinated by technology,” in particular the Groupon story. It’s from here Parnell began exploring his startup ambitions.

Starting Up In Detroit

“As a kid, we didn’t have access to the Internet; I never spent time on it,” he said. “But as I got older, I was inspired by how Groupon was using the internet to help brick and mortar businesses acquire customers. I loved the concept, and read every article, and watched every interview. That led me to falling in love with software-enabled businesses, and I decided I wanted to get into that space.”

At the same time, Parnell noticed that Detroit didn’t have much of a startup scene. So, at the age of 20, he began inviting entrepreneurs to the area to speak at events he organized as part of what he described as “fireside chats.”

“We brought in people like Mitch Kapor, Charles Adler from Kickstarter,” he said, noting that he welcomed the opportunity to meet with the people he invited.

“It gave me access to pick their brains and hear their stories,” he said. “In the beginning, that’s what it really was all about.”

Parnell was so passionate about the initiative he personally offered to pay for speakers to come to Detroit.

“Some of them let me, and some didn’t,” he said. “Either way, I was appreciative of their time and believe the events helped the Detroit startup scene. I feel like they were the catalyst for the growth of a lot of cool stuff happening.”

Over time, the initially free monthly events grew from 30 to over 1,500 attendees. Ultimately, he decided it had become “too much.” However, he was still committed to boosting the area’s profile.

“The biggest benefit was that I became viewed as someone knowledgeable and resourceful that could bridge the gap between the coasts,” he told Crunchbase News. “Midwestern startups don’t get that much credit. I enjoyed helping entrepreneurs and began looking for ways to monetize that. People told me I would make a good VC since I had such a great network to find good companies. Some people believed I could; some didn’t. Some thought you had to be an MBA to work in VC. But times have changed.”

Parnell talked to funds on both coasts and “had some offers.” In the end, he decided to stay in Detroit and went to work for IncWell Venture Capital, a private venture firm focused on startup and seed-stage companies, in 2014. And just like he worked to bridge Detroit to the coasts, Parnell showed an aptitude for bridging founders to investors.

Dr. Reda Jaber, director of business development at Livonia, Mich.-based Gemphire Therapeutics, worked with Parnell at IncWell from 2014 to 2016.

He recalled the day Parnell came in for an interview, meeting with the firm’s founder and a managing partner.

“In the middle of it, the founder walked out and said to me and another partner, ‘You guys have got to come see this guy. He’s going through a powerpoint telling us what types of deals we should go after, how to brand the firm, and all the opportunities we’re missing.’”

“It was an amazing sight to see,” Dr. Jaber told Crunchbase News. “He blew all the other candidates out of the water with that presentation and interview.”

Dr. Jaber also believed Parnell could expose investment opportunities outside of the often-white male bubble VCs exist in. Just three percent of venture capitalists are black, according to a recent analysis by Richard Kerby, a partner at Equal Ventures.

That’s why sourcing companies was one of his biggest roles at IncWell, Jaber surmised.

“It came so naturally to him, and he’d been building that network over time,” Jaber said. “So he already knew who to reach out to. We ended up getting into quite a few deals and talking to quite a few companies that, without him, I don’t think we would have been connected to.”

From Parnell’s perspective, the firm’s partners had “incredible legacies in automotive” but needed someone with more startup experience to increase their deal flow. Parnell ended up joining the fund at the age of 21.

“Here were 20-plus extremely wealth guys and a kid from the inner city,” Parnell recalled. “My goal was to get as rich as possible and as quick as possible in a legal way. I wanted to pick their brains. Plus, I could do things that nobody else on their team could do.”

From Investor To Esports Operator

After Parnell’s stint at IncWell, he went on to work at Rocket Fiber, a Detroit-based internet company. It was at this stage of Parnell’s career that he was exposed to esports, and as an avid gamer, he was naturally intrigued by the new industry.

“Teams would reach out, needing a strong internet,” he said. “I was nominated by the CEO, Marc Hudson, to evaluate those opportunities.”

Rocket Fiber went on to raise $31 million. Feeling the startup bug himself, Parnell founded Rush Esports in 2015, which was acquired by Team SoloMid, an esports giant, less than a year later.

Building on the momentum of a successful exit, Parnell then went on to form Los Angeles-based PlayVS, a startup that builds infrastructure for high school esports, in 2018. On Nov. 20, the company announced it had closed on a $30.5 million Series B. The round came just five months after the company’s $15.5M Series A funding, bringing its total raised to $46 million.

Parnell said his motivation for starting PlayVS was simple: “Besides being extremely passionate about the space, I recognized that the demographics most important to the space had been outcasted in some way.”

“High school kids and teens – who have historically been the best players – were no longer able to compete due to age limits,” Parnell explained. “So I began to look for ways for kids to get involved and be able to compete while still in high school. I wanted to introduce video games in high schools so they would be no different than, say, football and basketball in terms of recognition and validation.”

Parnell’s pioneering work in the esports space has resulted in accolades. He was recently named to Entrepreneurs’ “50 Most Daring Entrepreneurs in 2018” list alongside Tesla’s Elon Musk and others. He was also on Forbes’ ”30 Under 30” 2019 list earlier this month.

All the while, Parnell has handled the attention with humility, while still acknowledging the barriers that African-Americans often encounter in tech. Only around one percent of America’s venture capital-backed startups are led by black Americans, according to a 2015 White House press release. A recent Brookings Institution study also found that black representation in tech employment is moving in the wrong direction, sliding to 7.9 percent in 2016 compared with 8.1 percent of the field in 2002.

As a black man in a predominantly white industry, Parnell said racism is more common “than any of us would like it to be.” One of the impacts that has had on tech is a lack of diverse faces at industry functions. Parnell recalled going to an esports event and seeing no black speakers.

“There just weren’t a lot of people who look like me,” he told Crunchbase News. “My goal over time is to be able to change that narrative, and even more so, to be able to allow kids of all races and backgrounds to feel validated and recognized.”

Over the years, Parnell hasn’t forgotten his home. He frequently visits the Detroit area, and still aims to draw attention to the region’s startup community.

“He stays true to his roots, and is very authentic,” Dr. Jaber said. “His going away party when he decided to move to California was at his mom’s house with people playing basketball on the street with the neighborhood kids. And his putting on that speaker series brought in huge crowds and did a lot for the community. He’s been back to speak to his success. So he’s not forgetting about this area, and I think the community can learn a lot from him.”