Find your people. Community really is currency. When funds were tight it has been the people who are believers in our company and are willing to open their network to us that have saved the day, many days.
As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laurin Leonard.
Laurin Leonard is the President & CEO of Global Boatworks Holdings (OTC: SGBBT), an over-the-counter publicly traded company, and its operating subsidiary R3 Score Technologies, Inc. The company’s technology provides risk models that better contextualize the 1-in-3 American people living with a criminal history as well as consumers with thin credit files. The company has participated in top accelerator programs (Techstars Impact, Conscious Venture Lab, 1863 Ventures) and Leonard is both an Echoing Green Fellow and a former Visiting Research Fellows at Harvard Kennedy School, Carr Center for Human Rights.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I often say that this path picked me. It was my family’s direct experience with mass incarceration that led me to become a social entrepreneur tackling criminal justice reform. I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University when a professor suggested I enter the school’s business plan competition and that he believed I had the capacity to become a social entrepreneur. His challenge to me was to pick a topic I felt like I understood (my undergrad degree is in Sociology so I’ve always been fascinated by various populations) and build a business around it. At the time, my mom was in Alderson Federal Prison Camp where she was harshly sentenced to 87 months for a first-time, nonviolent, white-collar offense. During one of our daily check-in calls, I asked if she would be willing to ask some of the women in prison with her about what resources or support they thought they would need upon coming home. She agreed and their input let us imagine a business that was a live-work space. The business concept placed third in the competition and laid the groundwork for what would be our first startup, Mission: Launch, which still exists today as a MD 501(c)3. Mission: Launch’s commitment to innovation in criminal justice reform brought us to R3 Score.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
As a young entrepreneur of color, there are a lot of interesting stories I could share but if I had to pick just one, I would say the experience of attending the #3 tech accelerator as a young mom is the most interesting. In July 2019, R3 Score was invited to be one of 10 companies selected out of 1,000+ global impact companies to participate in the program, and it required me and my family to relocate to Austin, TX. At the time my son, who also happens to be named Austin, was 1 ½ years old. The accelerator culture really runs on being able to work 10–15 hours a day, hanging out, and making relationships. As you can imagine that was difficult to maintain while also trying to make dinner and bedtime as a millennial mom. It was the first time I think I really fully grasped how much tech startup culture doesn’t take into account founders who are at various life stages, because in order to hustle you have to make sacrifices and find your own balance.
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?
I’m sure I have a story but honestly can’t think of one right now — ha!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’m not one of those entrepreneurs that says I’ve never considered giving up. I’ve had very rough periods where I haven’t always been certain that this was still the best use of my time and talents. I started my entrepreneurial journey early — I was in my mid-20s when I seriously pursued this path. Doing a social venture takes a stamina that many don’t acknowledge because not only are you trying to build a business that is successful, but you want to see a social impact that scales with the success of the company. Finding the right team, raising the capital you need before revenue is sustainable, getting investors to see the opportunities you see — all of these things are difficult. What has sustained me over the years has been the fact that both of the companies that I formed, I did so with my mother who has been my co-founder twice over. Having a family member that you can build with has served to give me support on the tough days and a cheerleader when the wins do finally show up.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This is 100% accurate and because of this, I would say I can’t even point to one single person who needs to be called out because the truth is each person that has helped me along the way has allowed me to get to a new level, where another helper appeared. In my very early days, the helpers were my professors, my college friends and my impact colleagues. These are the people that introduced me to fellowships, offered funding and media features that allowed me to get visibility, and gave me guidance on how to start my journey. Along the way, these helpers became partners who had businesses of their own. We wanted to find a way to work together and those collaborations led to things like free venue space so that we could host our nationally-recognized events (we even had an MSNBC camera crew show up to one event!), which in turn opened other doors. Presently, the company is going through a transition from private to public and the helpers are now professional service providers who are making key introductions to a whole new ecosystem. For me, community has always been a source of alternative currency so even as we were raising capital, I could advance our work through the strength of my network.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m someone who has several Pinterest boards with quotes so there isn’t one that I love more than another but here is one that I’ve recently loved. “Won’t you celebrate with me what I have shaped into a kind of life? I had no model…” by Lucille Clifton. When I look at the nearly decade-long journey my career has spanned as an intentional entrepreneur, I am amazed at where I find myself. I am, I believe, the only Black millennial woman running a public company. When I started my first social venture in 2012, I had a commitment to building a company that shortened the time it takes for people to get on their feet (socially and economically) after coming in contact with the U.S. criminal justice system. Since then, how I achieved this goal has changed a lot and right now it amazes me that I’ve landed where I have because there really wasn’t a model for this path.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
R3 Score is a more socially responsible alternative to the traditional criminal background check and credit score models. We sell our products to businesses that are assessing candidates for work and banking products that have criminal records or even no record at all but don’t have strong credit. The reason this matters is because 1 in 3 people have an arrest or conviction record in America due to mass incarceration. And in nine years, research show us that it will become 1 in 2. Companies can’t grow if they don’t figure out a better way to understand this demographic.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes us different is that we added more data to a standard background check, which gives businesses better insights. I tell people I’m in the business of selling context because context makes all the difference. We have customers who, even after the pandemic, are growing and they can’t seem to find the talent. They call us and say, I have to find untapped talent, can you help? My answer is always, yes. Other risk models that exist only give businesses historical data but they can’t tell you who a person is today and how they are trending.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
This year we are excited about launch pilots with major corporations that have made public statements around diversity, equity, and inclusion due to the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. There has been over 65M dollars pledged and we are excited to partner with these businesses to help them operationalize their pledges because unless they use R3 Score, it will be difficult to meet those goals using the same tools they currently have.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think there is a lot more media exposure for women going into tech but the stats on the VC dollars that go to women, especially Black women, remain disappointing. Being a seasoned entrepreneur, I can say that media exposure is good but what drives business is capital because it signals market adoption and enables you to scale and hire.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Earlier I shared my experience as a new mom in Techstars. There were men there who had families and young kids but they had support (wives and other caregivers) who were taking care of their kids while they put in the hours for their tech company. In this case, I am the mom to a child that is still very young and so the dialogue around how we support mothers in tech is one I’m not totally sure how to approach. I was grateful that the program leader was also a young woman and she embraced this role and my demands. That said, if it were a different person it could have been harder to manage expectations. I think as more women who have kids rise in tech we can create space for real conversations about how to fundraise as a young mom, how to balance the demands day-to-day and how to build inclusive company cultures that make it easier for people with diverse needs.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
We’ve found that you have to have an event — either a real event or some big news — to jumpstart momentum. Momentum is the hardest thing to get once you lose it and once it is gone you have to find a way to drum it up. My mom has always stated this and as the years go by, I realize how wise this piece of advice is. When things dry up, we always ask what is the one thing that could give us momentum with investors, partners and/or the media? That is where we focus. People love being a part of something “hot, new, innovative” and so you have to always find a point of leverage.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
This is something we are focused on now so I don’t have advice but resources. I was recently given two books to read and I’m digging into them: The High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil and Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vaynerchuk.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Before COVID, we leveraged events to engage with potential customers. Speaking at conferences and/or hosting our own has given us exposure and led to a pre-qualified sales funnel. We would speak at trade associations and walk away with 50–100 viable sales leads.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
In Techstars we were taught to stay curious and lean. The curiosity means you need to find customers who are willing to use your product in the simplest form and give feedback and then iterate on what you learn. The idea of low fidelity tech (meaning don’t get focused on source code too early because it will likely change a lot by the time you reach real enterprise adoption) and white glove service for your early customers means you really understand how people use your product. In the end, we are a vendor that people want to love but forget about. Our customers want our product to be easy to use in their day-to-day operations but as a social impact company they also want to know that they are doing good.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
The way we are thinking about customer retention is linked to our social impact metrics. Our customers hire us to meet DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) goals and being able to help them see the impact they are having by switching to us is a benefit to continue to choose us. This is something we are building now so I would love to report back once we get it going fully.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
#1 — Get just enough clarity on the problem you are solving first and then think about how tech can make it better. Often times we think about tech companies and think code but really the company is rooted in what value you bring to the market.
#2 — Sometimes you have to build alone, but if you are fortunate enough to have a partner, get one. The early days are hard and being able to find a founder or founders makes this ride more enjoyable.
#3 — Seek advice from people who are builders themselves. One awesome thing about Techstars was also a painful thing at the time. During Mentor Madness you meet nearly 100 people in very short intervals of time because they believe mentors make all the difference and it is true. During the program we got introduced to diverse entrepreneurs and startup employees. This mattered because they have the mindset of builders at various stages so their advice was useful (even if sometimes contradictory). Even two years later we are going back to things people shared with us from their experience.
#4 — Find your own balance to weather the rollercoasters. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding personal balance but this journey has really high highs and super low lows. Being able to maintain your mental health is important as burnout and depression is common among founders.
#5 — Find your people. Community really is currency. When funds were tight it has been the people who are believers in our company and are willing to open their network to us that have saved the day, many days.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. 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. 🙂
I’m personally learning about energy clearing right now and since I know that sounds “woo-woo” let me explain. I’ve read a lot about brain science, emotions and a variety of connected topics; a common thread I’ve found is that there are things that happen to us all that can totally derail us. Sometimes we don’t realize that we continue to carry that with us in our body long after the event is over and the energy of that negative experience gets trapped inside of our body. So think about how after a terrible meeting, you realize you are still clenching your jaw or your shoulders are still up by your ears. That is because the energy of the meeting is still with you. Right now, after 2020, a lot of us have been through a lot of tough times and if there was a way to help us all learn to process and release negative energy a lot better and faster, I would love to see that spread. We are still living in history-making times and we aren’t done yet! So helping millions of people learn to clear out the hard times so that we all can more fully re-engage with ourselves, our loved ones and life overall would be something I would love to spread.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
That is a really great question. I’ve been on the hunt to see if there are communities where leaders of color who run public companies exist and I’m also studying Black women in the finance world. Presently, someone I would love to have lunch with (even over Zoom) is Suzanne Shank. https://siebertwilliams.com/resumes/suzanne_shank-bio/
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!