Tristan Walker was a second-year MBA student at Stanford GSB when he identified where he wanted to make his next move. He was fascinated by a startup named Foursquare that was using location data as a platform for a range of services. Walker sent an email to the company’s founders asking for an interview. He got no reply. So he sent another, and another — eight in all, before co-founder Dennis Crowley finally bit, and invited Walker to meet with him. During the interview, Crowley challenged Walker to come back in a week with 30 potential partnerships; Walker returned with 300. Soon after, he was named director of business development.
It was an early example of the tenacity that has characterized Walker’s life and career. He grew up in public housing in Queens, New York, raised by his mother after his father was murdered when Walker was three years old. The discipline she enforced helped Walker thrive as a student, winning him a scholarship to a Connecticut prep school, Hotchkiss. He earned a bachelor’s degree from SUNY-Stony Brook, worked as an oil trader on Wall Street, and served a stint as entrepreneur-in-residence at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
In 2013, he founded Walker & Company, whose first product was inspired by a problem Walker had tried to solve for more than 15 years: How to shave without leaving unsightly bumps on his face. The answer turned out to be a single blade, double-edged razor — a product so old its patent had expired decades ago. “I used it, and it worked for me,” Walker recalls, “and I figured it would work for other Black men, too.”
After a rough beginning — the first batch of shavers froze on the delivery truck — Walker & Company gained traction by winning customers’ trust. “It started with razor bumps, but Black consumers also have different skin,” Walker says. “What about hyperpigmentation? What about irritation, dryness — all things Black men encounter more than people of other ethnicities?” That insight launched a health and beauty company devoted to serving people of color. And it became a template for how its founder and CEO thinks about product development.
“All of our innovations started with our own frustrations,” says Walker. “If we solved our own frustrations, there were millions of people behind us who were dealing with the same issue.”
Walker & Company was purchased by Procter & Gamble in 2018 and its products are now sold in 25 countries. That success has been gratifying, Walker notes, but there is much more to do. “There are still many, many Black folks in this country who have never heard of us. And the international opportunities are profound.”
You were devoted from an early age to values that still inform your life. Can you talk a bit about those values and where they came from?
I had to learn about courage and loyalty and judgment without realizing it. I lived in a world growing up of real necessity and want. I mean, if you live in the projects and you’re focused on studying, trying to get good grades, it takes discipline to not go outside and be involved in what’s happening there. And then what happens to your social life? When I made decisions that were in line with those values, I was very successful. When I didn’t, I made huge mistakes. Those experiences gave me a humility and prompted an advocacy for people that I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t come through that.
Everybody’s a product of their environment to some degree, but you seem to have been driven to succeed from the beginning. Is that a fair assessment?
This is more nurture than nature, honestly. I don’t think I’m that much smarter than anyone else. And frankly, I’ve been very lucky. I got the opportunity to go to boarding school when others did not. I got the opportunity to work on Wall Street when others did not. I got the opportunity to go to Stanford business school when others did not. So my compounded privilege has benefited me as well.
You began your professional career on Wall Street. What did you learn there?
The best lesson I ever got was never sell a free option because that’s the most valuable asset you could ever have. An option could only go up if it’s free and I’ve been given a lot of free options over time. The other thing I learned on Wall Street was always have a point of view, and that’s something that I carry with me to this day. I tell my team, “Don’t bring anything to me unless you have a point of view.” To have a point of view in a cloudy environment is the most thrilling thing to me because that’s where a lot of the value could be generated.
Then it was out to California and Stanford GSB.
Stanford was the only place I applied. I love Stanford business school, but I also love Stanford because I think it has the highest density of genius of any place on the planet. It has a top business school, a top law school, a top engineering school, and they’re all across the street from each other. I spent a lot of my time auditing classes elsewhere around the university. To be around that provided energy and opportunities for collaboration.
Speaking of collaboration, how did someone who self-identifies as an introvert become such a good networker?
It’s a job, and I have to perform at that job. When I speak to a merchant, I’m interested in doing my job well, and when the conversation ends, I say, “Who else do you know?” It’s no different than being a CEO. I’m still an introverted person, but when I have to show up, I can put on that mask.
Those networking abilities helped get you the job at Foursquare. What did you enjoy about the startup environment there?
Foursquare was creating an industry that had no experts. To be able to help shape that put me in a position that I will always appreciate, because nobody could come in and claim they knew the industry better than me. In the meantime, I was able to have real disruptive power, and that felt thrilling.
When you launched Walker & Company, shaving products for Black men was considered a niche market. What made you think the ceiling was higher than others had imagined?
A lot of people would, and did, mistrust that you could sell the product that we are selling at scale. There tends to be a pervasive point of view about prioritizing value capture rather than value creation. When you are willing to lean into what you don’t know, you ask some questions. Why is the market so small? Well, maybe it’s small because the things you sell don’t work. There are other examples. Why would I put a bike in my house when I have a gym right down the street? Why would I rent a room in my house to a stranger? Each of those entrepreneurs asked a different kind of question and, ultimately, when you do that, it can yield some interesting results.
You are the first Black CEO in the 180-year history of Procter & Gamble. What does that mean to you?
What’s more important is what it means for other people to know that they can do the same. In the boardroom at P&G there are portraits of every CEO in the company’s history. There are 12 or 13 paintings, all of white men. Then you think about all the acquisitions P&G has made — let’s say it’s 100. I’m the only Black man, out of 100 people, who sold a company to one of the most important companies in the history of the world. I have a burden of responsibility for an audience I care so deeply about because I recognize the power of my representation. And it’s important that if I maintain the values that I have, I’m doing my best. I can’t fulfill expectations that people have of me that I can’t have for myself. And the only expectation I have for myself is making decisions I can be proud of.
Photos by Leslie Andrews