Shawn Wilkinson

June 4, 2024
5 min read

Early Life and Schooling

Shawn Wilkinson shook up the cloud industry by figuring out how to decentralize data storage. However, the founder and CEO of Storj didn’t start his business journey in information technology. Instead, he started a pillow business when he was only eight years old.

Shawn grew up in Marietta, GA as an only child. His Dad was an HR executive, and his mother was a nurse. He attended a private Christian school in Atlanta from first through twelfth grade.

Storj

Shawn’s decentralized cloud storage idea was too big of an idea to fund on his own. So instead, he founded his own company and called it Storj, then held a token sale in 2014 that raised $500,000. Storj drew another $3 million between 2015-17 through traditional venture capital methods.

Shawn Wilkinson Storj

These early efforts allowed Storj to build the second version of its cloud storage product.

According to Shawn, being African-American and a teenager made raising money difficult.

In addition, Shawn said that potential investors frequently asked, “Bitcoin and blockchain — that’s used for drugs and guns, right?”

Being an African-American tech founder brought its own set of issues. Often, investors assumed that Shawn’s white co-founder was the CEO. “They would shake his hand first and then myself,” and he would have to clarify, “No, I’m actually the CEO and he’s the business guy,”

However, the newness of blockchain made investors open to innovation. Shawn said, “People are so hungry for fresh talent and ideas. It [the blockchain industry] doesn’t have time to discriminate. This opens up new ways for diverse innovation and gives us more space to build cool stuff.”

Shawn’s second token sale in 2017 raised a stunning $30 million in less than a week (6.5 days). This deluge of funds gave Storj status within the industry and drew widespread attention from the media. It also helped the budding Storj community buy into the future of the product.

Shawn Wilkinson didn’t get into the cloud storage business to earn fame. Wilkinson isn’t always comfortable with the notoriety that comes with being the successful founder of an innovative tech firm. However, founder Wilkinson does believe the industry needs more minorities.

He said, “We need more people of diverse backgrounds who are excited about building new things. If you see a gap, don’t wait for someone else to be that example – embrace the opportunity to be the innovator in that space. There is a unique perspective you have that someone else won’t.”

Despite the downsides of business fame, Shawn loves being an entrepreneur.

“There is always some new challenge to overcome and something interesting you hadn’t thought of. It’s been an exciting journey, but building a business is a lot harder than I thought it would be. I had to learn that things always move slower than you would hope and wish. That’s just the reality. You can’t make Google overnight.”

Beginnings

Shawn thought pillows looked easy to make and he could sell them. So his Mom took him to Walmart to buy supplies and taught him to sew. Wilkinson made about $200 with his first venture, which he considered “Lambo money” for a kid.

Surprisingly, Shawn didn’t immediately spend his earnings from the pillow business. Instead, he saved it.

Shawn became interested in computers the way most kids do; he wanted to play video games. Tonka Truck was the game that sparked his interest, and he continually bugged his Dad (an HR executive) to use his computer to play his favorite game. So instead, Shawn’s Dad bought him his own computer.

Talk about a good investment!

Shawn taught himself how to fix things and, later, how to build his computers. He eventually learned how to develop websites on his own.

Shawn said it wasn’t until the ripe old age of 12 that he really got started in the tech industry. Wow, what a slacker!

He joined a group of classmates who wrote games, programmed calculators, and coded in Visual Basic. He also became interested in 3D development and visual design. These interests eventually led him to start his own Youtube channel as a teenager to help people build websites.

Shawn’s Youtube channel under super3boy drew 3 to 4 million views. He earned a couple of hundred bucks per month in ad revenue from his channel, which he considered “pretty good for a kid my age.”

Even an advanced school like Westminster didn’t offer tech classes to challenge someone like Shawn. They only provided an introductory level course in computer science. Shawn had passed that level long before he could sign up for that class. So instead, he made friends with many of the teachers in the IT department, who taught him how to install servers and build cat 5 cables.

Shawn later said, “They were so nice and helpful. I learned a lot. And since they were always upgrading the campus, I would get all the old discards. Those guys had a real big impact on me. They were always available to talk and help. I was a nerd for sure, but I owned it. I was very comfortable with my identity. My true passion was and still is tech.”

Shawn’s interest in IT continued into college at Morehouse State in Atlanta, where he earned a full scholarship. Shawn learned about bitcoin at Morehouse. He considered this new form of currency the “coolest thing ever” and thought it could be “so impactful.”

Shawn said, “I read the whitepaper and loved the concept. There were so many things that could be built and so much to explore. It was all new and interesting.”

Wilkinson also liked bitcoin due to some stunning early returns while investing in it. “I had a couple of dollars worth of bitcoin that turned into $10,000, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

As a mere Freshman, Shawn went to a Texas Bitcoin Hackathon in 2014. There, Shawn got the idea to disrupt the cloud storage industry using blockchain technology. The idea was to decentralize cloud data by storing it on many different servers using the security methods that make blockchain transactions safe.

Shawn later recalled, “I was naive. I thought building it would be easy, but I quickly learned that it was much harder than I thought. “But I raised some funding and worked hard to build a community around it. I was lucky that I already had the experience of building an online community around an idea. It helped me to do that again with Storj.”

Moving Forward With Storj

The promise of Storj is to help people and large firms securely store data that is easy to retrieve. Backing up information is critical for many businesses that cannot afford downtime or lose data.

Shawn’s goal is for most of the world to secure their data with Storj. While this is a big dream, current storage providers simply aren’t getting the job done. Information is frequently hacked and sold across the internet, and identity theft is common. Data loss costs firms and individuals trillions of dollars a year. Shawn wants to make these losses a thing of the past.

Shawn said, “Traditional clouds won’t cut it. There are simply too many privacy concerns today. The future is decentralizing and distributing. Just because someone stores our data doesn’t mean they should be able to access it.”

While Wilkinson refuses to predict the future of bitcoin, he does believe that cryptocurrencies are here to stay. He considers crypto a more efficient form of currency and will make an even more significant impact on commerce in the future.

As a graduate of an historical black college [Morehouse State], Wilkinson believes his success can help point the way toward rebuilding wealth in the African American community. After mentioning the Tulsa Race Massacre, Wilkinson said that Storj and bitcoin provided opportunities to build “generational wealth” that cannot be “bombed away and stolen away.”

Shawn Wilkinson’s ability to overcome the obstacles that hinder African-American tech entrepreneurs and his drive to help the black community rebuild generational wealth makes his story inspiring.

Shawn Wilkinson is part of our Black Founders50 Series. Download the complete 2023 BBVA Founders50 list here.

BBVA envisions a vibrant Canadian technology ecosystem with significant participation from members of the Black community. We are on a mission to help establish 1000 successful, Black-led tech and tech-enabled businesses in Canada by 2030.

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