How Clarence Wooten became the first Black founder to lead two internet startups to acquisitions

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 9, 2024 9:15 AM EDT
Clarence Wooten
Clarence Wooten is the first and arguably the only Black tech founder to lead two startups to acquisition. Photo Credit: Citybiz

For Clarence Wooten, growing up in Baltimore presented very few pathways to what he currently does. From the malaises of underfunded public school education, Wooten now occupies the role of Entrepreneur in Residence at Alphabet’s X. These days, he has been tasked with interacting with startups and identifying the promising among the plenty, for onward investment by Google’s parent company.

Wooten’s life itself is a tapestry of potential making its way out of systemic and structural problems. He holds the distinction of being the only African-American CEO to have found and lead two startups to successful acquisitions by publicly traded companies while CEO with the sale of ImageCafe to Network Solutions [Nasdaq: NSOL] and Progressly to Box [NYSE: BOX].

He has called himself “this guy who takes wacky ideas and turns them into things.”

But that is just the glory of later years. He was once held at gunpoint for his sneakers while in elementary school. Many of his friends from the neighborhood were taken to juvenile detention centers. The threat of a limited future prompted his parents to move to the suburbs when he was 13. After this, a whole world of possibilities came to him once his family was able to afford the decent conveniences of middle-class America. This is perhaps a testament to how good futures can be trapped under the rubble of systemic inadequacies in most of America’s poorest communities.

Within three years of moving away, Wooten had already firmly set his priorities towards education and achieving financial success. He went on to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Management at The Johns Hopkins University. At college, he lobbied to replace his senior thesis research paper with a business plan. Wooten even won an Autodesk Caddie Image Award for his 3D architectural walk-through animation.

He has said about his entrepreneurial development:

In high school, I was the kid handing out my business card to promote my startup before they were even called startups. In college at Johns Hopkins, I lobbied to replace my senior thesis research paper with a business plan. I was a student of entrepreneurship and the workings of Silicon Valley long before I had arrived there. I was a serial entrepreneur before those terms were used to describe me in The Washington Post and Entrepreneur Magazine.

He launched his inaugural company, Envision Designs while a freshman in college. Wooten had founded his second company, Metamorphosis Studios by his senior year. It was acquired by Metasolv in 1998. Wooten then co-founded ImageCafe in 1999. It was the world’s first online platform for pre-designed websites for small businesses. The company contributed towards the development of the SaaS (Software as a Service) business model and was a forerunner of platforms such as Wix and Squarespace. Within seven months of its launch, Wooten led ImageCafe to a $23 million acquisition by Network Solutions.

He then launched, formerly known as CollectiveX in 2006. The Oakland-based company is a Revitalize Venture Studio. It experienced tremendous growth under Wooten’s leadership, expanding to host more than 50,000 groups. The platform achieved profitability and attracted over 50,000 corporate customers. His business success prompted Wooten to relocate to Silicon Valley in 2010.

In 2013, Wooten co-founded Progressly, a cloud-based operational performance management platform. The platform emphasises centralised processes and eliminates unnecessary manual interactions. It has been utilised in energy, manufacturing, healthcare, and chemical industries. Wooten became the only African-American to found and lead two startups to successful acquisitions by publicly traded companies with the acquisition of by Box in 2018.

Wooten said via Medium:

The acquisition of Progressly should have been a joyous moment. It cemented my status as a twice successful entrepreneur, but I found it hard to celebrate. The fact that I was the only Black internet entrepreneur to have two successful exits to publicly traded tech companies was a wake-up call. I shouldn’t be an anomaly. For change to happen, we’d need to change the complexion of tech.

In an attempt to solve the problem of a lack of Black people with feats like his, Wooten cofounded Revitalize and PitchBLCK to bridge the funding gap in tech by building software startups with black founders and diverse teams. He is the founder and CEO of STEAMRole, an app that helps professionals “discover their future” and to achieve it. Wooten has also founded Purpose for Profit, a tokenized endowment fund for environmental, social and governance impact.

Currently, Wooten is the Entrepreneur in Residence at X, Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory (formerly known as Google X). He is helping underserved communities achieve equity while generating outsized returns. Wooten is utilizing the reach and resources of Google to create radical new technologies that solve global challenges.

It is the first time for Wooten to have a job that he hasn’t created since he was a teenager.