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My American Dream

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SILICON VALLEY ENTREPRENEUR

Tristan Walker

GROWING UP in New York City’s Latimer housing projects, Tristan Walker, 30, got his drive “from the school of hard knocks,” he says. Now the former Foursquare executive and current CEO of his own grooming-products start-up, Walker & Co., helps minority students achieve their goals through his nonprofit CODE2040. “No one,” he says, “should be underestimated.”

A Tough Start

When Walker was 3, his father died suddenly, leaving his mother to support her three children as an administrative assistant at two companies. “Being on welfare, it could only get better,” he says. “You have to maintain a sense of optimism.”

Hard Work Pays Off

Walker spent his afternoons at the Boys Club of New York, where he learned about a scholarship program for disadvantaged kids that offered him a full ride to the prestigious Hotchkiss School. “When I got to prep school, I didn’t even know what a verb was,” he says. “While folks would play all day, I did homework.” He went on to graduate as valedictorian from Stony Brook University in New York.

From Setback to Success

After being laid off from his Wall Street job as a trader, Walker left for California, where he enrolled in the M.B.A. program at Stanford. “I got the kick in the butt that I needed,” he says. “In hindsight it was a blessing.” In 2009 he landed a market research job at Twitter—”There were only about 20 of us at the time,” he says—and then a business development job at Foursquare before starting Walker & Co., a health and beauty line for people of color, in 2013. “My mom taught me that you don’t get what you don’t ask for,” he says. “Go out and grab it and hold on tight.”

Opening Doors

Walker—who has a 7-month-old son with wife Amoy, a teacher—started CODE2040, a program that mentors minority students, matching them with internships at high-tech firms. “I didn’t know Silicon Valley existed until I was 24,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to make that same mistake.” It’s his way of giving back. “I had a great support system: friends, family, mentors,” he says. “They got me to where I am now.”