James Williams, 40, knows hustle. The Miami native has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina for over 10 years, working as a trainer for chain brands like P.F. Chang's and other national restaurants. On the side, Williams runs point on a catering business he built with a partner and has been trying his hand in the world of technology through the app he developed connecting people to the nearest food truck.

Most recently, Williams added another title to his list of many ventures: startup investor.

Williams is one of over 2,000 people to invest in the intelligent vending machine company PopCom led by chief executive officer Dawn Dickson who has been growing the company since 2012 from her native Columbus, Ohio. The company builds an automated retail platform through its software for vending machines and kiosks which provide consumer insights and engagements for machine operators.

Instead of the tried-and-true practice of sticking a dollar bill into a machine and purchasing a bag of chips and walking away, a practice that leaves machine operators without data to help upscale customers and make for a future enriching experience, PopCom technology can identify customers, scan id's for purchases that require age verification, and much more.

It just made sense [to me]. If I walk into the store and there are self-serve kiosks, 95 percent of the time, I will use the kiosk. I didn't even realize it was a natural occurrence for me until I heard of PopCom, says Williams of the growing intelligent vending machine market that is valued at over $6.5 billion.

In December 2018, Dickson launched her security token offering on the crowd equity funding platform StartEngine. By the end of March, she had raised over $1 million dollars for PopCom from investors across 42 states and 12 countries, the max amount companies can raise per the calendar year as per the rules governed by the Security Exchange Commission for Title III of the 2012 Jobs Act.

Dickson also happens to be the first Black woman to raise over $1 million via online crowd equity funding.

Max Crawford, marketing manager at StartEngine, explained that over 265 companies have successfully raised over $90 million dollars on the platform, $17 million of which are tech companies.

The leading states with the highest number of investors came from Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, and Delaware.

The average investment received during the PopCom crowd equity campaign was $500.  Williams says he bought over $5,000 worth of stock. His grandparents, who are in their 80s, also purchased stock in PopCom and dedicated their shares to Williams' two children.

It wasn't just about taking their money. It's constantly educating them, explains Dickson. "For 80 percent of [our investors], I wanted to hold their hand [through the process] and teach them.

Dawn dickson, CEO, PopCom

Williams made the decision to invest in PopCom after becoming a regular listener of her BARS podcast , an endeavor Dickson launched in to educate Black startup founders and those interested in the technology industry.

He also reached out to Dickson on Instagram with his questions about the company and says that Dickson was extremely responsive in helping him to navigate PopCom's business model and future plans.  Shortly thereafter, Williams urged his family members to pool their dollars to make an investment in the founder's company.

Williams' story is aligned with Dickson's goals to ensure that people from traditionally marginalized communities have first-time access to investment opportunities and a chance to build wealth for themselves and their families. Dickson began a multi-city tour, hosting investor meetups and shaking hands with many of the individuals who took the leap to invest in PopCom.

The SEC rules prevent raising more than $1,070,000 via crowdfunding per calendar year. Many individuals who wanted to invest in PopCom were placed on a waiting list when the fund maxed out. When Dickson raises another round next year, she'll have 500 new investors at the ready.

Currently, Dickson and her team have been on a multi-city tour hosting investor meetups in Columbus, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, with plans to hit Miami and Houston in the early fall.

Williams attended the PopCom Atlanta meet up in late June where he said the room swelled with Black investors, many of them first-time startup investors like himself. That evening, he says, a few individuals even got together with plans to start their own investment group.  Everything that I talk about and believe in, I choose to educate people and I will continue to do that. It's time-consuming but if they make on investment in PopCom, maybe they'll invest in something else.

Williams and his family, he says, are already planning to do just that.