Opportunities for growth. You will need to collaborate with partners in other cultures and counties. Do you understand what motivates them? Why would they want to buy your product? Does your product meet the local standards? This could be within your own country or other countries. What does your target audience look like? Do you have a perspective that would allow you to create differentiating products for your market or do you keep creating copies of the same thing? To grow you need change and have different perspectives. Diversity helps solve this problem and can be a clear channel to growth.
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rohan Hall
Rohan Hall is the Founder, CTO, and CEO of Vottun, Inc., a blockchain technology company. He is also a published author, public speaker, serial entrepreneur and expert in emerging technologies including blockchain and AI. With 33 years of experience in business and technology, Hall has worked with various enterprises and has founded multiple startups. Some Fortune 500 companies he has worked for include HP, Honda, Corning, Avery Dennison, Oracle, Nevada Power, Robert Half, and American Red Cross.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am originally from Montego Bay, Jamaica. My family migrated to Miami when I was 13. When I graduated from high school I knew nothing about college. A friend from Haiti who graduated high school with me went with me to visit Miami Dade Community College. Neither of us had family that went to college.
Before graduating from high school, a black stock broker came to our class to speak to us. I don’t know his name but he wore a very nice suit and left quite an impression. He talked a lot about college and the future, and he said a phrase that I will never forget — “If all you want to earn is $50,000 per year then don’t even make the effort.” At the time I didn’t know anyone that made $50,000 and thought you were extremely rich if you did. I’m sure my parents made less than half that combined, working full-time and multiple jobs.
I realize now that the broker set a minimum standard for me. At the time $50,000 felt like $50 million dollars, but I reached that point early in my career and never looked back. After that I started setting higher standards for myself and continue to meet and exceed them.
The first step was when my friend and I went to the admissions desk at Miami Dade Community College, where they had papers that listed majors. We looked at them and I picked Business Data Process. I thought I would like to be a business guy and I liked playing PacMan and thought it would be cool to learn something about computers. It was 1984.
I took my first computer class in the first semester. It was basic programming. I loved it. I then took cobol, fortran and others. I couldn’t imagine how easy it was for me to program. I started helping other students in the computer lab and after a couple months I was teaching basic programming at an elementary school to K-6 students in Miami, as well as teaching adults in the evening. I then got hired as a systems operator at a beta test center for HP mainframe servers in Miami that gave me access to the full library of all the HP manuals. My shift was 7pm to 7am at night so that I could go to college during the day. I read literally every tech manual in the library and experimented to gain my first expertise, which was software development and hardware engineering on HP3000 systems.
I realized that Miami was the South and I didn’t see how I could achieve my high standards in business and technology there, and I realized how limited my career would be if I stayed in Miami. I landed in LA a few years later and found a different world where I was evaluated based on my skills more than my race. I took every opportunity and never looked back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was working as an employee for a consulting firm. We were doing PeopleSoft implementation projects. I was doing well financially as was anyone doing ERP consulting those days. A previous client who is an African-American CIO of a multinational organization invited me to a meeting. In it he stated that they were looking for a consultant with my background but that I would need to come in independent. They had some issues with the firm that I was working with. The project was only for 6 months, but was lucrative. I wasn’t sure what to do, because what would happen after the 6 months contract was over? Would I be unemployed?
I asked an African-American colleague who was much more senior than me. His response was, “This is your time. Trust yourself, they won’t want you to go after 6 months.” It was a risk but I took it. I left my “comfy” job and accepted the 6 months consulting project. I was with the client for 3 years and eventually left to work with other Fortune 500 clients. This started my career as an entrepreneur. Sometimes you just need to go for it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not really funny, but an interesting lesson. I was working on a project in Tokyo, Japan. I was the technical lead for the first global implementation of PeopleSoft ERP for a multibillion Fortune 500 company. We had been implementing different PeopleSoft modules in the USA, France, Amsterdam and other regions of the world where the company has business units.
When I arrived in Tokyo we met with a local software development firm that was to help with the project. We reviewed the project and the project details. We agreed the work to be done and the timeframe. In each case the lead developer responded with “Hai” with a slight bow of the head, which I understood meant “Yes”. We continued and spoke about integration and again received that acknowledgement.
After the first couple weeks of the project we did not have a response from the Japanese development team. They were basically a no-show. We had an American project manager and he reached out and received some affirmation that they would arrive. I continued with the development work but got to a point where we had to work with the Kanji Japanese language in our coding. Still, no-show from this team after weeks of work. Eventually, it was clear that they were not going to participate and I had to do all the work including the Kanji, double-byte coding, which was new and interesting for me.
The CIO for the company visited Japan. He was a mentor and African-American and responsible for the company’s worldwide technologies. We spoke over dinner and I told him about how bizarre this was and that I still did not know what happened with the local developers. He provided some insights. One of the American managers did not handle the communications correctly before I arrived in Japan. The local development team was insulted. They lost face and could not work on the project for this reason. But also they could not say directly that they would not work on the project.
“Hai” did not mean that they agreed to doing the work, it just meant that they were acknowledging what you said. It would have been culturally rude for them to directly say “no”. I was confused even more and asked how can you know the difference. “You must learn about the culture that you engage in,” my mentor told me. I never forgot that advice. I have worked in multiple countries since then and always made the effort to learn and respect the different cultures that I work with. This is also a lesson for American businesses and the local diverse cultures in the USA. We’re really not all the same. Take the time to build a team to learn more about your potential customers and your markets.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
One of my greatest advantages is that I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of people from different backgrounds. Professionals from the USA, Asia, and Europe where I have also lived and learned about the cultures. These experiences have proved to be extremely valuable for me. Enterprises that are not diverse will not have the breath of experience necessary to thrive in a global economy, or even local ones. Not everyone will look like you, will think like you, will address problems like you. Being able to count on a diverse team when making important decisions is critical for businesses today.
Sometimes things seem very obvious and where the decision is easy. But what if you are making these decisions based on biases that you have never had to challenge because everyone that you work with looks like and thinks like you. Having different perspectives and approaches based on different cultures and experiences is an asset to any organization. Diversity brings these differences to organizations.
Opportunities for growth
You will need to collaborate with partners in other cultures and counties. Do you understand what motivates them? Why would they want to buy your product? Does your product meet the local standards? This could be within your own country or other countries. What does your target audience look like? Do you have a perspective that would allow you to create differentiating products for your market or do you keep creating copies of the same thing? To grow you need change and have different perspectives. Diversity helps solve this problem and can be a clear channel to growth.
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
Many products are simple copies of other products that have already had some market success. It’s difficult to find truly new and innovative products. One reason for this is because products are being created by the same profile of designers and product managers with almost identical backgrounds. By having greater diversity in organizations it will increase our ability to look at problems with unique perspectives and experiment in use of new approaches. If everyone grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same universities, and has the same experience, they are more likely to come up with the same solution. Increased diversity creates a richer amount of solutions, products, and opportunities.
A clear example of this can be seen when comparing innovation in societies (current and past) where women are not allowed to work vs where women are allowed to work. The former have little to no growth because 50% of their society’s brain power is not able to contribute to innovation. The latter exhibit greater creativity, stability and overall quality of life.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
Role Model — I can say that personally, it was hard to find role models that looked like me throughout my career, and it’s hugely underestimated how important this is. I was impacted 3 specific times in my career by African-American executives that had “made it”. Just seeing them was enough for me to feel more confident that it was possible. It was never about working hard. I am not a stranger to hard work. It was knowing that there was actually a chance to get there against all odds.
Mentoring — I think this is sometimes linked to role models but they are two separate things. Even though it was very powerful to see African-American executives as role models, my mentors were both white and black. They were entrepreneurs and corporate executives. I learned very different lessons that contributed to my career and life. In fact, I would strongly recommend crossing the racial lines to actively find mentors, or to mentor others that do not look like you.
Hire Someone — A good friend said to me years ago that there is nothing more powerful than giving someone the chance to earn a good living for themselves and their families. They will walk with pride and will work hard to earn the right to be there and to find opportunities. Hire someone and give them a chance rather than just hiring others that remind you of yourself.
Fund a project — It’s always difficult to find investors when you are an entrepreneur. Not looking like the guys across the table in an investor meeting, not going to the same university, not having the same experience can be a negative. Try raising funds in Silicon Valley when you’re not from the valley or did not go to one of the “top schools” or worked for one of the top tech companies on their list. This is the same, by the way, for any investor ecosystem.
Funding is done normally with people companies know or they are comfortable with via some common association. Investors should make the effort to be aware of their implicit biases when making investment decisions. Sometimes the path of diversity is the way to finding the next Blue Ocean or to find new founders capable of getting from “zero to one” very quickly.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I have seen very good and very bad leaders. I think of good leaders as individuals that have a vision that they can effectively sell to their team to inspire the team to push beyond their limits. They set high standards for themselves and inspire others to do the same. They understand failure as a learning opportunity towards success. Everyone wants to work for someone that inspires them and motivates them to be their better selves. This is an important characteristic of a good leader. Bad leaders hide behind policies, are never responsible for failures, and focus on individual’s weaknesses instead of learning about their strengths. Good leaders motivate and inspire. Bad leaders distract and demotivate from achieving a greater purpose.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Gaining wealth and keeping it are not the same thing. One bad investment decision can wipe out an entire life of good financial decisions. I learned an expensive lesson from investments in dot.com; then again in the financial crisis. I learned that timing is everything. But so did many other people.
2. Business partners are like life partners. They are responsible for a big part of your happiness. Be very selective. As an entrepreneur your business is a critical part of your life and where you will spend most of your time. You will need to make sure that you’re compatible with the people that you will be spending so much time with and who you will be making critical decisions with. Ensure that you have the same vision and be clear regarding how you will work towards achieving it together.
3. Make an effort at least once a week to ask your boss how he/she is doing and how the weekend was. We all like to think that bosses make decisions because of our results but a big part of their decision is how much they like you. I have had it both ways where a good relationship with the boss cut me some slack, and a bad relationship with another boss made working at the company a living hell even though my performance was through the roof.
4. Be the one to bring in the investors in a venture. As an entrepreneur, investors bring in funding which is the lifeblood of the company until the company can be self-sustaining. Having a strong relationship with investors is a very positive thing.
5. Don’t wait. We all need to put our time in. But there will come a time when you will need to be the master not the student, and someone else will be in line telling you to wait. I have had this in my life on different occasions. Don’t listen. Go for it! But be ready for a fight. It will be worth it when you get on the other side.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is probably not a problem that most people face but it’s something that I am passionate about. When I visit San Francisco I see people hungry and living on the streets. It’s very painful and also very frustrating to see this. It’s unimaginable that we’re still not able to solve this problem, living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
A non-committal way that anyone can help if you live in a city with a homeless problem is just to request a take-out box when you order your meal at a restaurant. Share your meal with a homeless person. Take half your meal from the restaurant in your take out box and buy a $1 bottle of water and give it to a homeless person as you walk past them. Ask them if they are hungry and would like some food, and watch them smile. I do this and have never had someone refuse the offer. It’s really only a $1 investment for the water since you’re already paying for your meal, you’re helping another human being, and it is personally fulfilling.
It may be the only meal that they have had in days. I don’t expect this to change the world, but every little thing counts. Many of these people on the street are ill with dementia, may have lost their jobs, and are having a very difficult time in their life. My mom has dementia and I often wonder if this could be her if she did not have us to love and care for her. This can happen to any family, even yours. Simply knowing that someone cares can make a difference in their day. Small steps can lead to great impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mom had this poster on the wall in our house: “Happiness is found along the way, not at the end of the road.” I saw this every day for years growing up. It wasn’t until I got older and saw how hard people work and never found happiness that I understood. It’s also what motivated me to be an entrepreneur as I walked into the unknown.
When my kids were born I packed up the kids with my wife and we moved to a little beach town in Spain, outside Barcelona, called Sitges. We lived in Sitges for 9 years, and Cyprus, a little island in the Mediterranean for 1 year, where we lived off the startups that I created with my wife. Those were great and very happy days where we were able to spend a significant amount of time with the kids, travelled a lot, enjoy life, while building our businesses and exploring entrepreneurship.
We had an exit from one of our businesses towards the end of this adventure and we’re back in the USA and the kids are now having the American experience. But the reality is that if we were to wait until we retired, we probably would never have enjoyed the time with our kids like we did. The things you can do in your 30s or 40s are not the same as in your 50s or 60s. So, the life lesson is to live it and enjoy it while you can. Happiness is found along the way, not at the end of the road. My mom was right … but she normally is.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Barack Obama would be my #1 pick. I really don’t have a #2 pick. I met him briefly at the very beginning of his campaign before he was very popular. I shook his hand with a few dozen other people. However, I am a fan and quite impressed with what he has accomplished with his life. He literally created his own success and his own destiny against all odds. I honestly wouldn’t know what to ask him if I shared a meal with him. I would be honored to be in his presence and hope that he could share some stories with me. I would be happy with that.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!