Do I like the team? The team needs to be compelling enough for me to invest. They need to have a great track record, experiences that complement each other, as well as their goal. It’s important to know what their end goals are. Is it just to make money or to help people?
As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing AJ Cartas. After dropping out of his third year of college, he moved to Silicon Valley and started social media consulting for companies. He eventually held director-level positions at ByteDance, the parent company of Tik Tok, and Calm, the #1 sleep & meditation app. He’s currently the Founder & CEO of a social media agency, Syzygy Social, specializing in global influencer marketing for Western brands to amplify in China. AJ is also the author of Startups and Downs, where he recounts his misfortunes working in Silicon Valley and gives tips on how to survive in a competitive space as well as discussing topics that weren’t taught in school like emotional intelligence.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
Thank you for having me! I got into this specific career path by curiosity. When I was able to have a successful social media business, I always thought of how what else can I do to make an impact for the underrepresented communities and I got into investing. I read about investing, the stock market, private equity, and alternative funding. After a while, I found crowdfunding platforms to participate in and get involved with minority entrepreneurs.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I was talking to a founder about her company one time and I realized I was talking about a different company! She and another founder had the same first and middle name, so I was embarrassed. However, she totally understood and told me how one time she mixed up a VC and we had a laugh. My takeaway from that is to research the person and/or the company you will be speaking with before your meeting and be prepared.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I would say the tipping point of my career when I started getting more and more emails of wanting to work together. Before that, I had to apply, reach out to people, and go through multiple rounds of interviews (which is fine), but now I’m glad how the process of collaborating with a new brand is easier since they know my work and my track record from online.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would say my mentor, Sumant Pendharkar, is someone who I can attribute some of my successes to. He is someone who has been with me from the very beginning of my professional career in Silicon Valley. I sought his counsel in regards to anything and he would guide me with, of course, the best intentions. He is the type of person who is willing to help someone out without expecting anything in return and I appreciate his authenticity.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?
Rejection is redirection.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?
We need to put more resources into education, especially those that have been neglected for so long. These communities are mainly areas where people of color live. These are urban areas where officials can adjust the budget of instead spending millions and millions in the police budget, they can allocate that into education! Increase the salary of our public school teachers, give public schools more supplies, and give more resources to ensure the successes of those that have been underrepresented for so long.
You are a VC who is focused on funding that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?
To be clear, I’m not a VC. I am an angel investor who loves learning about innovative tech from minority-led businesses. I have a couple that I’d love to talk about! One is Fleeting, who connects truck drivers to flexible trucking jobs. The CEO & Co-Founder is Pierre Laguerre, who is the first Black man to raise the maximum in a crowdfunding platform in just one week! The other brand that I’m a fan of is Blue, a smart business card powered by a mobile app that helps people connect. The CEO, Jose Montero, is an entrepreneur to watch out for and a fellow Filipino-American businessman.
What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing? Can you share the story with us?
When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, every time I went inside the offices of a tech companies, majority of the people there were white men. It was uncomfortable that I don’t see a lot of people that look like me or more diversity so I started to think of why. That’s when I found out that majority of VC money went to white men, according to this study by DiversityVS and RateMyInvestor. It’s crazy to think that over 77.1% of VC money goes to white men, 17.7% goes toward Asians, 9% goes to women, 2.8% to Middle Easterners, 1.8% to Latino founders, and only 1% to Black founders.
Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC funding? Or an funding that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?
Every funding I made has a special place in my heart, but one of the earliest funding that I made is Jumpstart Recovery. First of all, the CEO, Kate Stillwell, is an incredibly intelligent individual who is able to turn technical terms and make anyone understand what she is saying. Second of all, parametric is the future of insurance. What Jumpstart does is if you’re affected by an earthquake, you immediately get 10,000 dollars when you confirm. This takes away the hassle of going through the claims process and help those impacted instantly. I love how Jumpstart is a B-Corp. It literally exists to help people.
Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?
My very first angel funding was this startup in the EdTech space. It was also the company that offered me an internship, which was my primary reason why I moved to Silicon Valley in 2015. It was a rushed funding and my key takeaway is to take time to do due diligence because that founder pretty much wasted that money and scammed me. I talk about it in my book, Startups and Downs and I like to use that negative experience as a learning lesson.
Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?
I don’t have any, at the moment.
Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC funding” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
These are the questions I ask myself before making an funding:
- Do I like the team? The team needs to be compelling enough for me to invest. They need to have a great track record, experiences that complement each other, as well as their goal. It’s important to know what their end goals are. Is it just to make money or to help people?
- Do I like the company? I need to like what they are doing and if it actually helps society in some way. It doesn’t need to be perfect, I just need to know if it has a great potential that solves a need.
- Do they stand out amongst their industry? I’d like to know about their competitors and if they actually did their research into how to differentiate themselves from the rest.
- How will money from this round be allocated? Knowing where the money will be spent is crucial because this tells you the decision-making skills of the company as well as what are their priorities.
- How is their marketing strategy? Marketing is what I know so this is where I’m comfortable giving tips. This is also a way for us to establish a good relationship so that when they need marketing advice, they can come to me. I think it’s important for companies and investors to have synergy.
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 launched a non-profit recently called Our Damn Time! The non-profit is not only an organization, but it’s also a movement to help empower and educate people to make society a more equal place to live. Our goal is to support and elect leaders who will make social justice a priority in their platform.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Get involved because we will only have one planet. Let’s take care of it. If not us, then who?
We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow me on Instagram: @aj,cartas
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!