“Align with our diversity” With Chef Vicky Colas & Lenny Saizan

Because our model primarily includes partnerships with other VCs and investments in their funds and portfolio companies, we are largely betting on the VC. We look to partner with top-quartile VC firms whose values align with our diversity and inclusion solution that delivers diverse investors, talent, and deal flow. In terms of portfolio companies within […]

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Because our model primarily includes partnerships with other VCs and investments in their funds and portfolio companies, we are largely betting on the VC. We look to partner with top-quartile VC firms whose values align with our diversity and inclusion solution that delivers diverse investors, talent, and deal flow. In terms of portfolio companies within our VC partnerships, we look for CEOs and organizations who also value diversity, have solid leadership teams with proven track records, have established revenue with a clear vision and plan for continued growth, and intimately understands their target market and customers.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lenny Saizan, Managing Director and co-founder of Urban Capital Network, a boutique investment firm that makes premium high-growth venture-backed investments affordable and accessible for a broader pool of qualified investors. Lenny’s experience includes investing in, selling, and buying businesses. He holds an Electrical Engineering degree from Louisiana State University and an MBA from Tulane University.

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 little about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m actually still carving out my path, but where I am today is mostly attributed to personal and professional circumstances that influenced my interests and changed my focus.

I started my career as an automation and controls systems engineer after graduating from LSU with a degree in Electrical Engineering. I was involved in all phases of projects, including writing code, hardware and systems integration, and testing. After seven years of intense work loads and demanding travel schedules, I transitioned to become an e-commerce engineer during the tech boom and eventually launched my own consulting and technology business in my hometown of New Orleans. But Hurricane Katrina hit, which put all my clients and prospects out of business, so I evacuated to Houston and worked in a financial capacity within the Oil & Gas industry. I eventually moved into designing, implementing and testing financial controls which later led financial and operational internal audits. That transition was over a period of 10 years. About halfway through, I got an MBA from Tulane University with a focus on Finance. It was during that time that I developed an interest in Mergers & Acquisitions. I thought about pursuing a corporate M&A role, but instead opted for the entrepreneurial path and purchased a business brokerage franchise working with professionals who wanted to buy and/or sell a business.

I meet a lot of financial buyers who are looking for great investments but don’t necessarily want to run a business, and sellers who are looking to invest some of the proceeds from the sale of their business. It wasn’t long after starting my business brokerage firm that I also got involved in angel investing. I partnered with a life-long friend who was investing and advising several start-up companies, and had access to consistent deal flow. I thought those deals could be an alternative investment opportunity for some of the clients I was already serving. It also seemed that my education and work experience was a good fit for evaluating early-stage companies. Most of the companies we have access to are tech companies which aligns well with my technical background. My corporate operations and financial audit experience provided valuable insight to the foundational structures, interdependencies and best practices of successful and efficient organizations. Through my business brokerage practice, I honed my financial analysis skills. I review and recast financial statements and perform valuations of various companies across many industries. Although my path has been nontraditional, it has provided me invaluable experience and a unique perspective that I bring into the venture capital world.

Please share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting out. What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I can’t recall any humorous mistakes or even any critical mistakes that would make a good story. That’s not to say that I didn’t make any. I have probably been lucky enough to fix most of my mistakes before anyone noticed. In general, I’ve learned that my mistakes are due to lack of preparation or not paying attention to details. I’ve always been a person who pays attention to technical details, but I’ve learned to also pay attention to details in soft skills such as email communication. I know I’ve made many mistakes in what I’ve communicated in emails. Now, I spend significant and maybe too much time drafting important emails. I constantly review what and how I’m communicating, and I still make mistakes. It’s something that really bothers me.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything differently? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience success right out of the gate. However, I’ve also experienced many setbacks and disappointment. I’ve learned that both success and failure is temporary, and also relative. For me, success is relative to my priorities and measured against the impact I have on others. My career is not the highest priority in my life but it helps to support my highest priority, which is my family. I did not always see it that way. I always had high ambitions and lofty goals. I still do. However, I realized that I couldn’t be the super dad I desired to be and aggressively pursue my career goals at the same time. I had to find a balance that allowed a much slower but steady pace toward my career development, while allowing me to be present for my kids. As a single dad, it was important to me that I showed up for all school functions, be there for special moments, and coach all the sports they participated in. It allowed me to spend more quality time with them and reinforce that they were my number one priority. Now, all three of them are young adults and each one has been extremely successful. They all earned college scholarships and continue to thrive in everything they do. So when I reflect on my success thus far, it’s not about my career. It’s about the impact I’ve had on my kids and the successes that they’ve had. And now that they’re older, my priorities and focus are shifting towards my career and financial goals. Success in this next phase of my life will be determined by my legacy, the impact my work has on others, and how they pay it forward.

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 tell us about that?

I’ve never had a true mentor in my life, but I’ve had plenty of guidance and support. I am blessed to come from a very supporting family and have a circle of smart and successful friends and colleagues. This collective network provides mentorship when I need it. From my parents to my business partners, I know where to go when I need advice, guidance, or just words of encouragement. My parents helped me establish the drive and determination to pursue success and my friends and colleagues provide fuel for the vehicle. Every day, I learn something from my business partners. I can only hope that I am reciprocating.

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?

My career path has taken many twists and turns to get me where I am today, and I’m still carving the path. There is no singular path to the career you want. Regardless of the path you take, the key is to keep building upon prior experiences and success while preparing for the next. Identify any education or skills gaps that need to be addressed and do your best attain it. If you are truly prepared and determined, there is no reason to be afraid of failure. It won’t be easy, and it will require a lot of work. You must be honest with yourself. Are you afraid of failure or are you afraid of the work required to avoid failure?

The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. Can you briefly 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?

There is a lot to unpack here but I think there are three key issues: Education, Access, and Capital. An exclusive environment has been established over many years that is contained by formal and informal barriers. Informal barriers include the schools most VCs and fund managers attended, the region you live in, your gender, and your race. The formal barriers include SEC policies that limit who can make investments in certain private placement asset classes based on income and net worth. Therefore, the individuals that have the best chance to participate in the VC ecosystem are white males who attended one of 10–15 highly selective schools, lives on the east or west coast, and is an accredited investor (earns $200K annually or has a net worth of $1M.) So, the question is how do we penetrate the environment? I think there must be a deliberate and targeted outreach to under-represented communities and groups that includes a comprehensive educational program and opportunities to get involved and interact in the ecosystem, starting with investor outreach. Also, the barriers to entry must be reduced. The SEC’s accredited investor requirements, along with the minimum investment requirement of VC firms excludes most people, particularly minorities. An un-accredited investor who has managed to save $10K for investments is prohibited from investing, while an accredited investor must commit $250,000 to meet the minimum investment requirement of most VCs. The lack of access for minority investors directly contributes to the lack of investments made in minority entrepreneurs. The venture capital ecosystem is a closed loop that excludes certain groups from leveraging capital to generate more capital that can then be redistributed as investments in their own communities and interest.

You are a VC who is focused on investments 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?

Our focus right now is on the minority investor, although we do make impact investment as well. We understand that minority investors have limited investable capital, therefore it is important that we de-risk investment opportunities as much as possible and provide access to premium deals. We do this by partnering with VC firms who value our diversity and inclusion platform and reserve a portion of their fund and follow-on investments to allow our investors to participate. We also invest a portion of our profits in minority entrepreneurs. In this model, the VC does not have to take any additional risk or deviate from their investment strategy. We’re bringing them a diverse LP base, meeting their investment minimum, and we’re committing a portion of profits to invest in minority entrepreneurs. It’s a model that improves diversity and inclusion in the VC ecosystem without sacrificing returns. In fact, I believe it will improve returns.

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?

I first got involved in angel investing a few years ago in a family and friends round, which is the riskiest stage to make your investment. On average, it is recommended that you make 10–12 investments at this stage to increase your probability of a healthy return on your investment, as most companies won’t produce any returns. Most minority investors don’t have enough capital to make that many investments, so they generally have to put all of their eggs in one basket, making it extremely risky.

As companies mature, generate revenue, and begin to see signs of early growth, venture capital firms get involved. VCs provide funding and guidance to support the growth and steer the company towards profitability. Backed by the VC, an investment in the company is less risky at this stage. For the smaller and more risk averse investors, this is a much better time to invest in the company. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that it is almost impossible to participate in an investment at this stage, especially if you were not involved in earlier rounds. My partners and I decided that we had to provide a way to democratize access to venture backed high-growth investments. We formed Urban Capital Network to directly address that issue.

Tell us about your most successful Angel or VC investment — Or an investment that you are most proud of. What was the lesson?

Urban Capital Network was formed only a year ago so the story is still developing on our investment success. As I mentioned earlier, I measure success on the impact I’ve had on others. I’m happy to say that we have provided exclusive access to premium venture-backed deals for over 100 investors who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten access. We have educated hundreds more on early-stage and angel investing and expect that many of them will participate in our future funds. And we have made two impact investments in minority founders from our management company proceeds. That is what I am most proud of right now but I am also excited about the strength of our portfolio and the early success that we’ve seen with several of our portfolio companies.

Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours, and a lesson learned, if any?

As I mentioned, Urban Capital Network is only a year old. Fortunately, there are no funding failures to discuss. In this business, it takes time for failures as well as success to manifest. The failures usually come first, however. The goal is to have more funding successes than failures that nets a generous return.

Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?

In this early stage, the only regret I have is not having enough capital to invest. I think there are some great entrepreneurs with really innovative ideas who are in need of funding. I wish I had access to more capital to support them.

What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Because our model primarily includes partnerships with other VCs and investments in their funds and portfolio companies, we are largely betting on the VC. We look to partner with top-quartile VC firms whose values align with our diversity and inclusion solution that delivers diverse investors, talent, and deal flow. In terms of portfolio companies within our VC partnerships, we look for CEOs and organizations who also value diversity, have solid leadership teams with proven track records, have established revenue with a clear vision and plan for continued growth, and intimately understands their target market and customers.

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.

Wow! This may be the most challenging and introspective question I’ve encountered. There are so many things that I think about in terms of a greater good. Globally, I think of basic human needs like running water, food and electricity. I think that we should all do what we can to help eradicate those disparities across the world. A simple donation can help. Domestically, the impact of Covid-19 has forced me to give a considerable amount of thought to the digital divide. Although it is a symptom of much broader economic disparities, if it is not addressed it will continue to perpetuate and exacerbate those economic disparities. With most schools transitioning to virtual education or a hybrid of in-person and virtual, there is a widening chasm between privileged and disadvantaged students due to the lack of computer and internet access. I think there needs to be a major transformation in public school education that focuses on providing comprehensive technology resources for every student, both in school and at home. Computer and internet access have become a standard household utility that should be accessible to every student. The pandemic has heightened my awareness of the importance of computer and internet access for educational purposes. It is something that should have been addressed far before the pandemic.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, what would you tell them?

Honestly, I don’t think I have to tell them anything. I think the environment and society are speaking to us all. With devastating natural disasters, a pandemic, social unrest and injustices, and an overwhelming divisive world, there is not much more that needs to be said on the importance of making a positive impact. It is obvious that things need to change, and it needs to start now. The good news is that I think young people are paying attention and realize the power of their voices and influence. They also understand the power of social media and how to use it effectively for positive causes and to effect change. I want them to know that we are paying attention and listening, and we can all learn something from them. We need their leadership!

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.

I’d like to have that opportunity with Barack and Michelle Obama simply to discuss life, values and family. I enjoy hearing both of them speak and I think they have a genuine interest in serving the greater good. I’d like to hear their perspective and advice on various aspects of life and social impact.

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