Season 3, Episode 12: Transcript
Veanne Smith: Hello and welcome to Atlanta Business Impact radio. We’re your host Vianne Smith and Sarah Lodato. We’re excited to have our listeners join us for another episode of season 3 where our theme is focusing on innovation. Today we’re talking to veteran technology, entrepreneur, Rodney Sampson, about what it takes to get a start-up off the ground and the additional challenges minority entrepreneurs are faced with when building a company.
Rodney is passionate about reducing poverty and the wealth gap in the United States by advancing the cause of innovation, coding and entrepreneurship and investment as a way of life with an emphasis on underrepresented communities.
Sarah: Rodney is a respected authority in the inclusive innovation space. He’s an angel investor, an author and is currently serving as a chief of diversity and inclusion at Tech’s Core Labs. Tech’s Core Labs is a network of tech startup founders, educational institutions, industry experts and large enterprises working together to support and build companies from the ground up.
Rodney also serves on multiple boards such as a crowd funding professional association and the multicultural media telecom and internet council. Hello Rodney, welcome to Atlanta Business Impact radio, how have you been?
Interviewee: I’m well Sarah, how are you?
Sarah: That’s awesome, good. Just come in fresh off vacation, so excited to have you here in the studio.
Interviewee: Good for you.
Sarah: So let’s kick it off. So, it’s safe to say that you know a thing or two about starting businesses. I’ve heard a lot of folks refer to you as a serial entrepreneur, serial with an S not a C [laughs] so, tell us about your background in creating startups. I’d love to kind of hear how that started.
Interviewee: Sure. Well, I’m from Atlanta, Georgia; so proud ATL-IAN. I started my first technology company in 2000. This was pre all of the startup craze, right, that’s going on in the city right now. And so it was a technology startup, it’s actually a new media startup, and I learned a lot with that company.
We actually… that was the company I had my first exit with and so I had a lot to learn, and from there, I went to my next failure which was a learning management system. This was the early days of eLearning and so essentially, I’ve had four tech companies, two big failures and then two that actually were acquiring. And so…
Smith: Those are pretty good odds, actually.
Smith: Yes, great, good.
Sarah: Yeah that’s good.
Smith: Yeah and I mean, I was never solo founder. I was… had co-founders and early teams so I think that had a lot to do with the opportunity to learn, doing the process, and learn it with others was what’s important. For, you know, context for this conversation, in 2000 we were probably the first startup with an African-American co-founder that raised a seed account. And that seed round didn’t come from Atlanta, it came from Florida.
Smith: From Florida?
Interviewee: Which still speaks to a lot of the challenges that founders in general in Atlanta you know, still face/
Smith: Still facing today?
Sarah: So what about the more recent years? So, you had a few startups, talk to talk to us about what you’ve been doing in the last few years?
Interviewee: Sure, so, I would say the first 10 years of my career, 2000 and 2010, were company building, and then from, I would say 2010 to now, I’ve sort of been on this journey for definitive purpose. So I actually I got very involved in my church organization for a while, helping them out with their business affairs and public affairs. I published four books; Kingonomics is the one that’s most recent. That basically takes the economic ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. and puts forth four thesis that we can create a better society; one that you know does not have as much poverty in it if we embrace inclusive innovation, entrepreneurship and investment, and so, Kingonomics, turned in to a movement of its own, and we were hosting conferences and events around the country; largest one was in Washington DC during the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington.
During that time, I’d also taken a role with Mark Burnett Productions and I was a head of inclusion for One Three Media which was the parent company that produced Shark Tank, Voice, survivor in some of the theatrical films that Mark and Roma have been working on, and so I was able to attract Daymond John, and Mark Cuban, and Mark to this conference which help of course take it over the top. We did the first minority casting call for Shark Tank which brought new talent, you know, ultimately to the show but it was…
Smith: I didn’t know you were involved in this. That’s so cool. I had no idea.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Smith: Yeah, I had no idea.
Interviewee: Yeah. I mean like, I think in one season, we increase the amount of women and minority entrepreneurs to actually pitch on the show and get funded, and it was just because we were more intentional about where we recruit startups from but also just doing training with the production team on how to deal with, you know, buyers, and just all the stuff we still dealing with. We’ll probably deal with for a number of years but you know it’s just the nature of the beast. But doing that process, I started doing what we call customer discovery or customer empathy because the attendees of these events were mostly minorities, mostly African American, and so I would ask them, “Well, what do you believe you require to be successful in business?”
And they say, “Well, we need a safe space to work,” and so in my mind I said, “Well, in my travels whether it was in Europe or New York or California, there were these things called co-working spaces.” So, I’ve seen them. Like in New York, where it’s like five levels and it’s all you know co-working. Atlanta had not quite gotten there yet.
Smith: Well, we weren’t there yet.
Interviewee: We weren’t, at all. I said, “Okay, cool, we’ll open a co-working space,” and so we did. We opened our first campus at 200 Peachtree, downtown and we quickly outgrew that but then we learned that these entrepreneurs wanted more because they had so many questions and so we were like, “Well, I can’t keep office hours with all of these entrepreneurs,” but I have friends, I know people that I’ve met along the way that could come and you know spend two hours with entrepreneurs and so we created office hours.
And so, we had this mentoring residence program and then that evolved into a pre accelerator, and then that involvement to us starting to take risk on investing in companies. We really… we were doing all of this under the radar screen and then I ran into Steve Case and at South by Southwest one year and this is when he was… he was playing I think his second or maybe third cohort for Rise of The Rest and I already begged Steve, “You know Steve, you’ve got to come to it. You’ve got to come to Atlanta,” and I think when he agreed to do it Steve placed Opportunity Hub on his stop and that’s how we kind of, like, “Oh, wow. There’s this place called Opportunity Hub.”
Right, it’s not just the place in Buckhead or the place in Midtown but there was something downtown and in West Midtown and on Northside Drive. We eventually grew to you know two campuses, three in total but we closed one and had two new ones to open, and had a pretty sizable footprint. Sarah came through, old hub, yeah.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s where I met you, yeah.
Interviewee: I met you at 200 Peachtree, so, yeah.
Smith: And so that was Opportunity Hub?
Yes, okay. And so today, it’s TechSquare Labs, so did you guys acquire something to get to… talk to me about how that happened.
Interviewee: You know, the Atlanta ecosystem is pretty small when it comes to startups and particularly tech and so, you end up investing in the same companies or advising in the same companies, and what I figured out was that, you know, you can go alone and not go far, right, and so I really, really needed partners, and so just in a… I guess really serendipitous conversation with Paul Judge, and Allen Nance, it was like, “Oh hey, we’ve been thinking about doing this,” and I was like, “Well, I’m already doing that. Maybe we can do more together than apart,” and so, that’s how that you know relationship came together.
And if you look at the strips, you know, Alan’s hairs down kind of on investing through the investment thesis, Paul is really company building, right, he’s the one that’s taking these startups into the stratosphere because his experience is there. Allen’s as well. I think a lot of people don’t talk about Allen’s entrepreneurial background with what counts and you know the different boards he’s on.
I was talking to him last week and just, it’s like “Do you know you’re on boards where they are producing a half a billion in revenue a year?” So, you know, so, but… so you have the investing experience, the company building experience, and then I brought the ecosystem building experience, and so we really sort of diversified TechSquare because it really wasn’t that you know diverse and it’s come a long way with Jim [inaudible][10:07] at the helm that’s you know just really disrupted the culture there.
We’re on the corner, kind of a little blip there and from there, it was like, let’s… you know, we can do more together than apart. I was limit in what I could do in Atlanta with the resources we had, but by partnering up with Paul and Alan, sky was the limit.
Smith: You can accomplish more, so now, this all happened around 2015, I think.
Interviewee: It sure did.
Smith: And you’re in a different location now?
Interviewee: Yes. So I essentially you know close down the two locations we were leasing. You know, who wants to lease when you can own, right?
Smith: Right, it’s the American way.
Interviewee: [laughs] and so, we did our first event and I remember was the founder of MD, his name escapes me right now.
Smith: Jeff Arnold?
Interviewee: Jeff Arnold,
Interviewee: Yeah. We didn’t even have the certificate of occupancy for the build. We’re like, we’re going to have this event because Jeff doesn’t go out..
Smith: Because Jeff’s coming?
Interviewee: Right. Jeff was like, “I could do it on this day.”
And that’s the day we had to do it. Yeah, so we packed out the place and you know, TechSquare Labs was born.
Smith: Oh, really? That’s cool too, did not know that either.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Smith: Yeah, it’s kind like having a party at your house. You have to have one everyone once in a while because otherwise your house becomes a dump, right?
Interviewee: Right. [laughs]
Smith: It’s the only time you clean. You know, so you got a date, you’re going to get it done, right. Nothing like a little bit of pressure.
Interviewee: That’s right.
Smith: Very exciting, good.
Sarah: So, starting a business or breaking into a new field isn’t necessarily easy for anybody. Obviously there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it especially you know, hearing kind of your tales of successes and failures, but something that we wanted to talk about is that obviously, it’s especially hard for women and minorities, and I know that’s something that you work extensively on, that’s something that you brought to TechSquare Labs, why do you think that is and what do you think is holding them back from reaching their innovative potential?
Interviewee: Yep. I always like to start with data sets, right. You know, data does not lie and I believe it was… wow, I can’t even remember the… I can remember the date, I came into the organization, right now; the America for Global Enterprise, something, Google it, Yelp it up, but essentially their data said that because of past and present racism and discrimination in America, America is… American minority entrepreneurs, America is foregoing 1.2 million businesses and 9 million jobs just because someone somewhere is not investing in that minority entrepreneur or not giving them that opportunity to get… become their first customer or the reality of pattern matching which I think in technology, we thought it was just unconscious bias, and now with the recent you know Google manifesto that came out, like this is very intentional bias backed-up by like this weird wacky data and science that just doesn’t exist.
It’s like, well, how do you say women and minorities don’t have the DNA to be software developers? Well, hey, men didn’t even want to touch computers because it was secretarial work. The first women were software developers. They were programs, right, Fortran and they happen to be minorities. Because that was like, when they called women actually, “Computers,” they refer to them as actually computers.
And when you look at Katherine Johnson and just the whole Hidden Figures, you know, story, and so that literally has just been a part of our culture and I think that as a culture, if we realized that that’s just been an intentional or non-intentional reality, and so we have the pattern matter that happens there, if a woman or minority, in particular woman in minority of color walks in pitching their business, the reality in that person’s mind is they don’t have the precedence of knowing someone else.
Like, okay yeah, everyone’s don’t know Oprah, right. Everyone’s going to know LeBron James, so we have an archetype of what a successful entrepreneur of color looks like, and so a part of a work that… I’m building a product now which is a textbook in a course on African American and innovation entrepreneurship and investment, and the first module is just basically laying out… let me show you entrepreneurs from literally, there was Free Frank who was a slave who through entrepreneurship purchased his freedom. But that means he had a white ally, right, someone who allowed him to purchase his freedom. They saw something in him, maybe it was his entrepreneurial spirit, and then he went on to purchase the freedom of his family through entrepreneurship.
All the way, you know, if you look at the policies, the people and the places, and so I think if people could see these men and women of color, then they… it wouldn’t be like, “Oh wow, I never would have thought.” Right, I just didn’t know, and so I think there’s a huge opportunity and I think Opportunity Hub has done some of that, and I mean, TechSquare Labs is doing that. When you look at the track record of Paul Judge and just… you know, he’s attracted so much capital to the city through his startups. He’s shown that you can build a big business with hundreds of employees in Atlanta and not move to Silicon Valley, and you can do it with Silicon Valley money, right?
Smith: Even better.
Interviewee: Yeah, so you know I think that’s one part of the challenge. I think when you look at and I think we have to be careful also not to you know… what can you know minorities do, you know, to better prepare themselves? You know, I think there’s… with anyone who wants to start a business, there’s always going to be a technical deficit and a technical gap. I also think there’s an opportunity for innovation inside, you know, of a federal government when it comes to, like, score and some of these, you know, these SBA and SBDCs, all these different organizations that serve a population.
Usually, people of color going to those places and if they’re not getting served with you know, they’re talking business plans, we’re talking business model campus, right. They’re talking service based companies, we’re talking high growth companies. I think there’s not the drive to do, it’s basically meeting them at the place you know where they are. What’s encouraging you know although we’re forgoing 1.2 million in like, well, that’s something to hack, that’s something we need to work on solving because if we can you know create 1.2 million businesses that create 9 million jobs, look at, you know, the taxable income across the stack from the federal state municipality.
The encouraging data is the McKinsey data where when you’ve got women on a decision-making team; so let’s say it’s a product team, right, you build products here and so, you know, the diversity on that team, McKenzie says that, the… one it would be a better product because diversity of people brings diversity of ideas. Diversity of ideas and thought doesn’t just happen. I think a lot of people focus on diversity of thought and ideas like, “Well, how do you actually get that?” You know and kind of break up the homogeny there but the data shows that when you have women on decision-making teams, the economic output is 15 percent greater.
When you have ethnic diversity on that team, whether it’s African American, Latino immigrant, et cetera, new American, 35 percent more economic output and so this…
Smith: Why is that number higher, do you know?
Interviewee: I just think that…
Smith: I’m trying to… are we getting the short stick here as women? There’s only 15, I want that… do you know, I mean, if you don’t that’s fine, but that’s a significant difference.
Interviewee: What I what I suspect is it’s like, you’re getting the diversity of ideas and thought through different people from different grounds.
Smith: Yeah, more different backgrounds.
Sarah: More exposure, more capability, their outside of the box is a different outside of the box and yeah, each other.
Interviewee: And then, the… you know, when you look at kind of like today startup broke cultures, like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go do this.” It’s almost like I’m pledging a fraternity, if I make the fraternities, it’s cool but if I don’t make the fraternity, I’ll just go back and do something else, where people that disproportionately have a lower wealth, access to capital and opportunity, you know, some would argue that they take that shot, you know, like, “I’ve got to make this work because as a woman, I’ve got a family.
You know, I’ve got children at home,” particularly if you’re single, you know, and if I’m a person of color, you know, I often tell entrepreneurs failure is not fraud but when you are the only one many times, you feel like, and I feel like that sometimes, and probably not rightfully so, the weight of the culture is on you to succeed. So, yeah.
Smith: This is my chance. I have to make this… have to make this happen.
Interviewee: Yeah because you may not… you know, most entrepreneurs are not going to, and I felt like this in 2000. You know, even though, I had… I had two white Jewish co-founders and we raised our money, you know, I often joke, you know not from the Pentecostal church and that network but you know, from the temple. They had different relationships that were willing to you know take a risk and invest or what have you, and so, I felt like I had to make this happen because first of all, you know, I was getting my MBA. I’ve done three and a half years of medical school and decided to walk away to start a tech company.
So first of all, everybody thinks I’m crazy, just back crazy.
Smith: Your parents, maybe?
Smith: They were shaking some sense in your head?
Smith: What are you doing?
Interviewee: And you know my… back in 2013, my grandfather passed, and one thing he said, you know shortly before he passed was think, “I really don’t know what you do, but you’re not asking me for money and everybody looks like they’re healthy and you know, have a roof over their heads and you bring nice gifts for Christmas, so whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, right?”
So, I just think that if we look at just where America and its demographic is going, it’s… you know, we have to be careful not to look at it from an isolation as like, someone’s taking something from me, but like… I was in New York two weeks ago at a summit that Robert Smith, you should look him up, he’s another archetype. He’s a billionaire, private equity, African American, and he had a data scientist there that was talking about the future of work and the future of America, and I was just like, it was just overwhelming to see the data whereby he was suggesting that if America is going to keep up, there’s so many… we don’t have enough people and talent right now for the future of our work source that we literally over the next decade have to bring in 51 million people just to keep up.
Also the birth rate, where our birth rate is per woman today in America, basically, we’re almost on the point of generational decline. We’re not keeping up with Africa, Asia and some of the BRIC nations. Just in terms of survival, if you look at it from that perspective, but the third thing which was most touching was he said, “Take care of the people that will have to take care of you in the future,” and if you look at the Browning of America about 2020, 2030 and 2040 when it turns, evolved into a majority people of color, those in power or those resources, even myself, I, you know… what… you know privileges at all different levels but I have to say, I have to take care of the people that will one day take care of myself.
And I’m no violent, I didn’t mean to go down that rabbit hole, but I think it was important to set context from a data perspective of you know, one more important thing, when you take a person who has an average net worth of 11,000, the average African-American family has a net worth of 11,000, assets minus liabilities.
Now there are some wealthy people, don’t get me wrong. There’s a good middle-class that’s there but the average net worth is 11,000, Hispanic is… Latino is 13,000, Asian America is a 100,000 and white Americans 140,000, so you see the gap there.
So when that entrepreneur creates multi-generational wealth through a tech startup, you can see the impact on the community because I know, like, middle-class black people who make six figures, like, they might as well be a nonprofit the way they have to give back to the rest of their family, right, because so many people are depending on you, like… you know, Timmy needs to go to college for a semester, he needs $5000. They’re calling me, right.
So, I just context this…
Smith: Be careful with those Christmas presents [laughs]
Interviewee: Right, right. So I think if you look at like, you… through technology, I mean, you see it every day, you take an idea, someone’s programming it. It does something for one person, it can do something for thousands of people. Never in history has there been an opportunity to create multi-generational wealth with no reliance on pre-existing multi-generational wealth, right.
And it’s just getting quicker because now the computers are coding themselves. You know, that’s AI and ML machine learning, that’s where we’re headed. And so that’s why it’s incredibly important that we make sure women and minorities, particularly of color, have these opportunities because if not, there’s going to be a chasm that’s created, you know, either code or be coded, right, and I think there’s going to be an underbelly of people who do not have skills in America and it doesn’t make sense if you’re, you know, generation X, Y, Z and beyond and not have the skills of the future, which is why we’ve got to do the coding stuff, but I don’t mean, I’m going… I’m probably going ahead.
Smith: No, no, that’s great. So good Segway where I was going to go next, so, preparing for the future. You know, so I’m a parent as well and so think about this and worry about this all the time, but I would love to get your perspective on you know, do you think that we are preparing our young people for this new world and do you think that the high school curriculums are setting these young people up for success? Do you have any perspective on what you’re seeing?
Interviewee: I really don’t, you know, and I’ve had some… you know, my wife and I’ve been fortunate enough to homeschool all of our… all of our children. So we’ve indoctrinated before we send them somewhere else. Everyone just can’t do that or won’t do that for whatever reason, so we rely on public education or private education, you know, but I also think that our educational system like when you have success that comes out of it, success and success can sometimes breed complacency, and it doesn’t… it doesn’t evolve for the future.
And so, when I was in New York, I also encountered a couple weeks ago a very, very astute educator who approached has coach a charter school, he’s got Charles school, he’s doing some amazing work with his particular schools and I’m a product of Atlanta Public Schools, elementary [inaudible][26:12], Frederick Douglass High School, so I can make it an argument…
Sarah: Some good shootouts there [laughs]
Interviewee: We have our challenges… yeah, so I can make an argument that a… you know a child of given an opportunity can learn anywhere. You know, a child doesn’t go to a school asking, you know, what’s the structure and where does the funding come from, you know?
They just don’t ask.
Smith: Not yet.
Interviewee: They just want to go… Not yet. [laughs]
Sarah: That kid is going far, I knew that. The one that does is the one you want to get a hold of, right?
Interviewee: Exactly. But you know, very astute well accomplished educator and he says, “Tell me, really, is this coding thing something or like, all this talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning, like, should I really be shifting my curriculum?” And my wife and I took 30 minutes, and we thought it was important because he’s on national TV, he has a podcast and he’s got schools that are open.
I said, “You can influence the National Educators Association, I believe that’s the name of it, the NEA, but the fact that this, like, this learned of influencer had to be convinced and I don’t know if he was… he was like, “Let’s have a follow up call.” Like, I don’t think he really saw where you, know, what I learned has to transfer into employable skills or entrepreneurial skills, and if I don’t do that with students coming out of high school, I’m competing globally you know with young people who are proficient software developers in middle school, right.
So I think as parents and as a community, we should be more… now what that does is it disrupts the concept of tenure. It requires lifelong learning even from the teachers and sometimes they’re like, “Look, I paid my dues. I put my time in,” and it’s like, “Well, if you’re going to teach today, you have to teach differently and you have to teach different things because we know that two-thirds of the jobs of tomorrow which is like happening so rapidly, don’t even exist yet.”
Smith: Right, well, you know, so, kind of… kind of along this same line. You know, we talk about the curriculums. I don’t know either; it’s like what does he answer right, but, we at SolTech, we’re trying to do our part. So, we, this year, instead of going and getting an intern from college, we brought one in from high school thinking let’s get a little younger. You know, and it was really eye-opening to have this young, bright individual that we had here but our hope was, when she came to us, she’s going to be so insanely successful one day. But she came, she just wanted to find out, “What are the different roles in a company that is coding, right?” So SolTech is a software development company, is there a role there different than just writing software and what are those and what does it look like?
So we spent at kind of a month having her run around seeing all the different things going on here, so our hope was that she left with a much better feel for, you know, there’s so many different things you can do with technology; it’s what I tell my kids all the time. You know, getting into technology, everything you do in the future is going to have some component of technology and your job, but you don’t have to be doing just that. There’s so many other things you can do with it.
So again, to you, and you know, giving your perspective, what do you think you know these interns, what do you think the most important aspect is for people doing an internship, what do you think that, you know, they take the most from these experiences? Do you have a perspective on that?
Interviewee: Get as much exposure across the organization as possible. I think a part of the challenge we have, what I work for as today is you have people who are good, very good at one thing but they don’t have any agile context of what’s going on in the rest of an organization; like asking, “Well, how does this business make money? What is the business, like, how are we here, you know? Like, who’s paying the lease and how does that get paid and who goes out and gets the customers beyond the founders?
Sarah: This is what our intern was doing? So how do you make the money and then they’re like, “Well, where, how do you get the customers that give you the money, right?”
Interviewee: Right. How do you collect it from the customers with patients, dignity and grace?
Smith: How do you manage the customers? All those were the questions we saw, so yeah.
Interviewee: And so beyond just building product, you know, there’s so many quote-unquote non… and I think, some would say they’re non-technical but I think they’re actually technical and what, like, to have empathy is technical, right.
People, it’s like this, you build and there’s technical and non-technical, but I think we need to put or go to market, you know, the person that can you know… you can build great product but if it sits on the shelf, right, it’s just, no one’s going to sell.
It’s just as technical to be able to build a lifecycle for a sales cycle and what tools do you use and what do you write, what do you say and you know, when do you call, how much networking is required, where do you network, how do you network, who should you talk to in an organization, why aren’t you getting traction, are you talking to a decision maker, are you ignoring the decision maker’s people?
Like it’s so much symphysis.
Smith: It is pretty technical when you think about it.
Interviewee: It’s very technical. I think, we have to, you know, today I’ve really focused on really go to market strategy. I’m not coding, you know. There are other people who can do that and so I think there’s a science of selling, which there’s been a huge emphasis on learning to code, I think there needs to be an emphasis on learning to sell, right?
Smith: You’ve probably seen that in your work, right?
Smith: Engineers build this most beautiful product but they never tell anybody they have it because they don’t… that’s not comfortable for them. They feel like that’s not their skill; they’re the technical person, yeah. So…
Interviewee: You know, so even you know, our venture fund is focused on technical founders that are you know using engineering to solve the hardest problems but we have to make sure that someone on that technical team has whatever it takes or it can be developed in them to like, “You have to go sell this. Yes, you have to go talk to CEOs and you have to go talk to Target or you know, Target customers,” but back to answering the question, I think, as much exposure through an organization and across the whole stack of the organization is incredibly important, and then allowing them to actually work on something that they can be accountable for doing that, you know doing that time is incredible.
Like, don’t bring them into tech and then like, you know, put them you know, in the copy room, right, or just with the admin, not that you can’t learn a lot from an admin, you can, but I think sometimes even with you know a lot of the municipal based programs, they get internships and they get kids you know off the streets or whatever for the summer, but the question is, what skills are you actually doing?
We did this maybe three years ago where we took 30 students; I think you came and spoke to them. The Fulton County needed to place 30 students and I convinced them to give them all to us and we would pair them up with certain startups but before that, we wanted them to be able to offer some value like was it social media management, was it CRM, so we had someone walk them through Infusionsoft, helped them set up an appropriate LinkedIn profile, you know, that type… show them how to do research, like how to actually build, you know, do some leads in and build a database looking at LinkedIn or what have you, and they got more out of that experience than they did just do an admin work or what have you.
Smith: Funny, our internship our intern worked on that? Did some research on LinkedIn building list, doing persona, figuring out what is the persona of the, you know… what is this person’s persona, how do we use that to the benefit of our marketing and digital strategy, so yeah.
So there are… you do have to… you have to think outside the box a little bit when you bring young people in and realize they’re capable of more than you sometimes want to believe, and so you have to really push yourself to go, “What am I going to have this person work on that’s going to be meaningful both for the individual from the exposure perspective and also for the company, right, because it does pull resources, time, money to do that but certainly, we saw a lot of benefit to the company, and I say, every company should be doing it. You know, we owe it to our future to… if we’re tying it back. You know, we have to take care of those that are going to be taking care of us, so we owe it; all of us as business leaders and entrepreneurs, we need to be doing this, yeah.
Sarah: I love the idea of diversifying because I think when you’re growing up, when you’re going… you know, I always, I wanted to be a lawyer for half of my life and then I wanted to be a doctor, and like those are the things that I was going to do, but yeah, who else works in the hospital? I have a friend that’s a, like, healthcare administrator and I was like, you know, I’m an adult and I had to ask him all about his job, like, “What do?”
Oh right, there are people handling the business of hospitals and, it’s like, to talk about empowering an individual to make a career for themselves, if I had gone down there like I am doctor, this is what I do, I would not be in the place I am now and it was sort of forced exposure to a lot of different things that like, as an individual, you should do that in order to sell your own skills, right.
Sell that variety versus letting somebody else handle whether or not you fit into some sort of box for a specific role and I think as our teams are growing and becoming more innovative, we have to have that kind of diversity on our teams. We have to have people that can do this and kind of do a little bit of this, or at least have perspective on that part of the business, or this part of the business, so… Anyway, stops off soapbox [laughs]
Interviewee: You know, pie curses [crosstalk][36:18] right [laughs]
Sarah: It’s true.
Smith: It’s like I always go off conscious, and you know, [crosstalk][36:24] let me get my perspective in there too. It’s what I love about it.
Sarah: So I’m sure Rodney that you’re involved with some extremely creative people who are coming up with innovative solutions to problems all the time being surrounded by startups and the work that you do, I’d love to know some problems that you personally hope to see addressed with the use of technology that you haven’t seen addressed yet?
Smith: That’s a good question Sarah.
Interviewee: I know, I’m usually the one asking the startups that. Actually, I would like to see someone actually sort of productize the path to the workforce. Like, I was thinking about like the intern, like, let’s say through that one month, someone could have followed her around, what, a camera, and she could have journal it and you could have packaged it up and it could have been a series of videos, like, you might be able to bring in one internship a year, but you might be able to touch thousands with that experience. So even though they can they can’t be here.
So, I found myself trying to like, “How do I productize opportunity, right.
Smith: Yeah, that’s for was for sharing, for the first… kind of sharing to the world. You mentioned earlier about the fact that sort of having those icons for people to sort of see and follow and you know the Oprah’s and whoever it might be, that’s how we learn, that’s how we get inspired through those stories so that… yeah, I love that.
Interviewee: So we’re working with Off the Blank Foundation building… the technical term is it’s a… it’s a STEAM resource app basically but we determined not to call it steam because you have a lot of parents and a lot of people who still don’t know what the acronym STEAM is or STEM, you know, there’s a… you know, the learned have a debate between, is it steam or stem, right?
Interviewee: That’s what learned people do. Is to figure out who’s learned it?
Smith: Who’s more learned?
Interviewee: Learn it.
Smith: Who’s more learned it?
Interviewee: Right. So, but we’re calling it smart. MVP is almost done but imagine going you know downloading the product and every time it opens, it cycles through an archetype. So we want to have literally thousands of men and women of color that are in STEAM but you know, okay, is that a software developer? Is that a product manager? Is that a scientist? Is that a data scientist, right? Is that a PhD, is it academic, is it a mathematician? Is it a physician? It’s so many different you know variations of STEAM work, so that’s the first thing and the second thing is, think of like, you know, kind of Uber meets Yelp for STEAM whereby based upon geolocation, I see STEAM resources that come up.
Then I brought up a new problem, there will be a lot of communities that are STEAM or Smart Deserts, and so then can we integrate it to the product online resources? You know, so if there’s not a coding workshop or a drone workshop, or repo or a coding scholarship of boot camp, because there’s so many like 25 different types of opportunities we’ve created, but if there’s nothing like, you know there’s a lot around TechSquare, but there’s not a lot on old national highway, you know, in college part.
So, then, how do they get access, you know, the innovation economy, so then you have to have products inside of the product. So that’s, you know, that’s kind of the product we’re building at the K through 12. Ultimately, is there… you know, and we do have to pay attention like, how do we hack hate? You know, in the workforce.
You know, how people feel about each other on their personal time, that’s their personal time, but when you come into the marketplace, you come into the workforce, let’s shift like, let’s just build products, let’s just do good stuff, right, and then we’ll go back to how we feel when we leave, right, but you’re being paid to basically, you know, be human. And if that’s what it takes, you know, let’s get people jobs and it’ll be human and treat other humans the same, let’s give everybody a good job so they’ll treat each other the same.
But, you know, looking at the processes of, you know, what does HR look like, you know, how do we hack bias there, you know, when people come in, so I’ve made a couple investments and companies like Plumb out of Canada, you know, woman lead shop and she basically has removed like, you know, she has an assessment like if you were hiring a developer, you create the culture stack for your organization, and so that person does an assessment or series of interviews, but you remove their name, you remove the college they went to, and you’re basically looking at their skills, and what it’s doing is matching people up not based upon if they’re typical like, “Oh I need an engineer from Georgia Tech. I need someone from MIT, right.”
It’s like, they can do the work, they happen to have a degree, maybe or maybe not, but they fit into the culture and so now it helps you select people. So now we’re hacking bias at the HR level. You know, how do we hack it when people come into, you know, the community; outside of like kind of hacking that bias in the workplace, also just looking at how do we hack poverty?
You know, whether it’s, you know, how do we make sure people have a certain quality of water? Like, what if the people in Flint Michigan and other places around the globe could have been empowered through technology to be able to take, you know, not wait for a report to come out that had been brushed under the rug for decades or whatever, but literally, through a sensor and say, “Well, let me just test a water quality walking down the streets just like [sighs]” You know, and they could have taken you know their health
Smith: Into their own hands
Interviewee: And wellbeing… So you know, and those are not hard products to build, right?
Sarah: Yeah, and they’re really not.
Interviewee: So I think, just looking at all the different ills that we deal with and like putting a team on it, and it’s like solve it, and then, you know, take it to market; who’s the customers? I would envision like, let’s really, like, do we really need another cool Uber? Yeah, you know, I think if the team at Uber was diverse from the beginning, they would have known like, well, you know, black guys in you know New York, in Manhattan, trying to get to Harlem can’t get a cab, so now I can get a cab, but if your drivers are going to cancel it when I walk up to the door, you know or same thing with Airbnb; if they would have had diverse teams building those products, they would have saved like their brand reputation and like, they would have said, “Well, we already have policies and freezes in place.” Not like, “0h God, people still deal with this stuff?”
You know, so I think just simple stuff that we could be working on and I honestly believe that it’s not going to be the West Coast to solve it. I think Atlanta can solve this. I think given Atlanta’s history , what we’ve been able to overcome from civil rights, human rights and now you know, silver rights, it’s my friend John Hope Bryant would say, economic rights, the opportunity is right.
Like, we have the foundation and I think we don’t want to lose our way. We have a lot of opportunities to solve somebody’s heart problems but you know, I kind of cringe when I hear like Atlanta is still like 9th in income equality but, you know, if you move them among small circles, everything is, you know, everything is awesome, right.
It’s like the Lego movie but [laughs] it’s really not and so I think, you know, let’s hack income equality in the city of Atlanta. If we do that, it’ll… yeah, it will trickle over down.
Smith: Okay, I have one last question for you; given all the entrepreneurial, you know, wins and losses and learnings along the way, what would you say to entrepreneur wannabes are people that are contemplating stepping out there, 3 tidbits of advice or three things that you would share to help them have the best chance of being successful? Any lessons learned that you could help those other ones out there that… watch out for what land mines or any advice?
Interviewee: Number one, I think people pursue entrepreneurial ventures because they’re passionate, and I don’t think passion always leads to a product or a business that people will actually pay for, and so, get over that you know real fast and actually learn your market where you are. Like, for instance, Atlanta’s an enterprise town. We’ve had a few B2C you know startups that have popped up and I’ve had some traction but ultimately, Atlanta’s an enterprise town, so if you want to build a business in Atlanta, solve it enterprise problem that enterprises are willing to pay for, that’s number one.
You know for Atlanta land a startup battle, we’ll have four or five hundred people apply and as we go through the rubric, it’s like, are you really solving a problem that Atlanta’s ecosystem can help you solve, where they will invest in your business, buy your business or is there even a… you know, once you get past the MVP stage and you get more capital, is there a dev-shop like SolTech that understands how to work with enterprises and might actually can help you sell the product.
That doesn’t happen for B2C products in Atlanta. So, one, you know, build something people want to buy.
Smith: Right, build something that’s going to be applicable in the market.
Smith: Number two, is learn how to navigate the ecosystem. It is your responsibility to understand, you know, what’s the cap table, what’s the operating agreement, what do terms look like, how do you compensate advisors, why do advisors get small you know pieces of equity for lending their advice and credibility to your startup? How do you approach investors, when should you approach investors? What if you don’t have family and friends capital because you don’t know people with money or people that don’t understand about startup investing?
You know, where the space is you should be building in, what are your options for spaces, you know, who’s building product in town, where are those engineers coming from, where you are not looking, where you might find you know good talent?
You have to effectively learn how to navigate the ecosystem and the ecosystem has a code; it has a language and it’s your responsibility. Product agnostic, company brand agnostic, you have to know how to navigate the ecosystem that you’re in, and then, the third thing is, it was something from nothing.
There’s a lot of… you know I see a lot of people duplicity.
Smith: Don’t copy in other words.
Interviewee: Yeah, right.
Smith: Be original.
Interviewee: Be original. You know we already have Google, we already have Uber, we already have Dropbox, we already have you know Ping Drop we already have that, and there are a lot of people who apply to us for money or it’s like… well, I just want to do that a little better. And I’m like, well, think about it. If you build it and go to market and the people who already have the market share can just do it a little better, right, and they, to them, you’re like…
Smith: You already got customers.
Interviewee: Right, stop trying to build a feature. I think a lot of people want to build features, like, it’s a feature to the product, and so the other thing, you know, in closing around building something from nothing is it literally takes everything in you to literally create something from nothing.
It’s probably the closest thing to being divine or divine like that humans will experience; it’s literally I have an idea and I bring it to reality, and a lot of people like they show up and year nine right?
Interviewee: They show up in year 10, they weren’t there in years one, two, three when you couldn’t meet payroll and you paid your team and not paid yourself, right. Everybody shows up when you get the award for Entrepreneur of the year but no one wants to talk about the battle scars and the failures along the way.
Smith: The depression, yeah, all the bad habits that you picked up because you couldn’t cope. The dependencies.
Interviewee: So, um…
Smith: No, it’s not that bad, but yeah. I’ve been there, yeah.
Interviewee: Like, you know, freedom cost. All right, you want… would you believe, people think, “Oh you just get up and go to work when you want to because you’re the boss,” it’s like, but I’m still up at five and six working, right, waiting for you to get there at 10. I’ve you know… I work three hours before you checked in and so people just get a true sense of actually what it takes to build something for nothing; if not, it’s okay to keep your day job because we need great people working in these businesses, and I think that’s what people have to realize.
Smith: That’s all great, great advice, yeah. The thing that always kept me going is I just said, you know, failure is just not an option. You know, so everything I did when I had no sleep and didn’t know how I was going to get through the day, I just kept telling myself, “Well, I can’t fail. Failure is just not an option,” you know, so… but yeah, that’s good, really great advice, that’s good.
Sarah: All right, so before we let you go, we want to play a quick game of two truths and a fib, are you up for playing?
Sarah: [laughter] We’re talking innovation and so we’re, you know, we’re playing this little game of sharing new ideas and funny things going on around the world, so I’m going to tell you about three bizarre startups that are solving a problem we didn’t realize we had, but only two are real, so we’d like for you to tell us which one is fake, all right? All right, here we go, startup number one.
There’s nothing worse than buying your dream home only to find out it’s actually haunted. Diedinhouse.com was created to prevent this type of thing from happening. For $11.99, you can perform a search for deaths that have occurred in your home.
All right, all right, number two. For some people, the worst part of the morning isn’t the sound of the alarm clock, it’s the taste of your coffee after you’ve just brushed your teeth. A small business in North Carolina has created a line of coffee flavored dental hygiene products like mouthwash and toothpaste to make everyone’s mornings a little better and a lot tastier, and maybe brown teeth, I don’t know.
That one actually sounds amazing, I totally have that problem. All right and number three, have you ever wanted to tell your friend that they smell funky without being mean? For the small price of $1.99, My Friend Smells will anonymously send your pal a Cologne wipe in the mail in hopes of remedying the stench once and for all.
The knowing laughs. All right, so first off we’ve got diedinhouse.com. Then we’ve got the coffee hygiene, dental hygiene products, and for number three we’ve got My Friend Smells, your anonymous savior. Which one do you think is fake?
Interviewee: I’ve actually seen all of those pictures.
Sarah: Ah, no way.
Interviewee: No, I don’t, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Wow.
Smith: It sounds like the world you live in.
Interviewee: I would say the last one is fake.
Sarah: All right, well, it’s actually number two. It’s the dental hygiene products which is the one I could use and relate to; it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Isn’t that funny? I think My Friend Smells was probably the least believable for sure but it exists and so if anybody needs that…
Interviewee: And I was thinking about the shipping and the wipes.
Smith: Yes, dollar ninety-nine, right. It’s like how do they do it for a dollar ninety-nine?
Sarah: Stick the stamp right on the little package.
Carry your pageant.
Smith: Well, thanks for playing, that was fun.
Smith: Yeah. All right, so we’re wanting to give you the chance here Ronnie to tell people, you know, how to reach out to you, anything that’s coming up that you want to share, you knock, to get people to an event or any kind of self-promotion here, what would you like to share for anybody that is trying to reach out to you or you’re trying to reach out to them? Get your word out.
Interviewee: Well, I’m at Rodney Sampson across the social graph except on Instagram, I’m @Kingonomics.
Interviewee: @Kingonomics, K-I-N-G-O-NOMICS.
Smith: That’s nice.
Interviewee: @TechSquare. Definitely follow us across the stack there. I think we might even be on Snapchat too. So, I’m still getting use to this…
Smith: You have children and you’re on Snapchat? How did you pull that one off? I can’t get that one.
Interviewee: I did. Snapchat was actually a sponsor of our South by Southwest events and they sent me some spectacles to try out, so I had to… I had to get set up.
Smith: Good. I got to come up with a… I got to come up with a business reason as to why I get to get on Snapchat.
Interviewee: Two things very quickly. So every quarter, Atlanta startup battle, hundreds apply, we get that down to ten startups that we bring in for the weekend, we help mentor them, it’s hands-on… it’s probably like a hyper celebrator. We get that down to five and five pitch actual venture capitalist, and we pick one where we invest $100,000 in their business.
So Atlanta startup battle; I’ll keep it general because like if this goes on and on, and on, you just go look up Atlanta start a battle to see when the next one is?
Smith: And you said that’s every quarter.
Interviewee: Every quarter, every quarter.
Sarah: That is an awesome even. I’ve… I’ve participated, not participated, I’ve been and it’s cool how it’s set up and it’s amazing how much you guys accomplished in terms of preparing them for those pitches in such a short amount of time.
Interviewee: And entrepreneurs they worked very hard, just looking at the transformation of their businesses, and their pitches; sometimes between the Saturday and Thursday, they pivot their product and their model, and I’ve seen… I’ve seen a startup win because they pivoted from the weekend and that means they were culturable, they were open.
Smith: They were listening, yeah.
Interviewee: Absolutely, the second thing I would say is just vision casting. It’d be great if every tech or tech enabled business in Atlanta would partner with us with one internship and one apprenticeship because as young men and women come out of these coding boot camps whether there are ours, particularly, or others particularly if they come from backgrounds where they don’t have networks and people who can refer them in, then if we were able to just basically know that SolTech and Pivotal and Home Depot would say, “Here, here’s one apprenticeship, you know.
Here’s one internship, it’s yours.” You go find the person and we’ll interview five or ten of them, we’ll pick them, but I think that we have to… I think it will be the private sector to actually do what it has done in Atlanta.
We would not have a start-up technology ecosystem if it was not for the private sector. Of course, we want our municipalities to help us but we… it was men and women who took action to start these businesses and start these venture funds, start these incubators, accelerators, deaf shops and so we need to keep that, but that’s what I would say is a as a general ask of companies saying, “You know what, I’ll commit an apprenticeship and I’ll commit an internship,” and if we get four or five hundred small medium and large companies that do that, I think we can make a big difference.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Smith: And you’re doing some of that already, right?
Interviewee: We are, we are.
Smith: Yeah, so we just… so you just need to get… it needs to be expanding. Take the reach, yeah, very good, I like it. All right, well thanks. It’s been really awesome. So this has been, I’ve been totally glued on this one, so thanks for joining us today.
Female Voice: The Atlanta business impact radio is a project developed by SolTech a software consultancy located in Atlanta Georgia. Our host Vianne Smith, co-founded the firm 18 years ago with her husband Tim Smith and together they strive to bring education to the community about technology leaders to improve the path to innovation for all.
For more information about the podcast and learn about the work we do at Sol Tech visit Soltech.net or find episodes of the podcast on iTunes also if you’re interested in joining us as a guest for an upcoming show, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening, stay tuned for more insight into the tech community on our next episode.