Ari Kalfayan: startups, AI, and the power of mentoring
By John Kregler, StartOut
“Being gay is an open door. People want to help you and they want to give to those who’re hungry and have a vision.”
That’s what Ari Kalfayan (he/him) wishes he could’ve told himself when he was first starting as a young entrepreneur. Ari is one of our mentors at StartOut, a passionate one who understands that mentoring is more than an act — it’s a relationship. He’s a ten-time entrepreneur who’s been with StartOut from the beginning, helping get the first awards gala started back in 2012.
And Ari loves supporting LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs — absolutely loves it.
With a background in artificial intelligence, Ari was brought on as a Sr. Business Development Manager for Amazon Web Services (AWS) to support their Machine Learning and AI startups. Through his work at AWS and his investment vehicle, Next Wave AI, Ari is helping reshape how the business community supports underserved founders.
“At AWS, we have people distinguished through their work as entrepreneurs who want to give back to underrepresented groups. When I first joined, I saw an opportunity to do more with LGBTQ+ founders and partnering with StartOut was key to that goal. Now as an investor, I get to help open doors for fellow underrepresented investors and founders alike.”
Ari didn’t always have the answers and nor does he claim to today. Back when he started his AI education company — Dolores Labs — he needed help with his go-to-market and marketing strategies. Through StartOut, he was matched with Max Thomas who helped him with the details of a complex business model. The company grew to $1 million in a year and Ari was able to use those components to jumpstart his next startup — Weights & Biases. It has grown steadily over the past four years and is now valued at $1 billion.
According to Ari, the mentorship he received from StartOut was instrumental in his companies’ early stage growth:
“StartOut provides the avenue to reach new information through mentorship. I owe so much of my growth to the mentors and colleagues I met through the organization and it’s part of the reason I continue that relationship today.”
Today, Ari mentors StartOut founders in various areas of business development. Most recently he was matched with Joshua Driver (he/him) whose company, Selfless.ly, is a CSR platform that helps business leaders scale their organization’s purpose-driven culture. Unlike traditional giving platforms, Selfless.ly only charges a set license fee to customers to use all of their services.
When Joshua needed help with his go-to-market strategy, Ari knew he could step in and help.
“One of the things that’s interesting about being LGBTQ+ is that a lot of people deal with different types of trauma growing up. We don’t all come from privileged backgrounds and we don’t all have the knowledge and resources we need to succeed. These are often found in someone else’s head and mentorship is the key to unlocking those opportunities.”
A few years ago, Ari was featured in a New York Times article where he said that “discrimination still occurs.” People in all levels of business from entry-level workers to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies still struggle with being seen for their authentic selves.
“The norm has not been set,” as Ari said, for these people to feel open, comfortable, and not tokenized in their industries. In the same breath however, he boldly asserts that “in the startup and tech world, we get to reset culture” — a mission Ari proudly dedicates himself to.
“Equality and equity in the entrepreneurial space (and others) is not an LGBTQ+ thing. It’s a human thing. We form relationships with people and owe it to ourselves to lead with authenticity. We deserve to be seen for our merit and we must stand up for all underrepresented groups so that they can too. This is the only way forward.”
Interested in getting help from a StartOut mentor? Join our community at www.startout.org/community and apply to be paired today!