“Don’t take yourself too seriously.” With Adam Gray

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Example: After going to a number of networking events with my boss (Pre-COVID), I started to realize that the people that attend these networking events are always 1 of 2 types of people — people that take themselves too seriously and people that know how to have fun. Based on […]

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Don’t take yourself too seriously. Example: After going to a number of networking events with my boss (Pre-COVID), I started to realize that the people that attend these networking events are always 1 of 2 types of people — people that take themselves too seriously and people that know how to have fun. Based on my observations, the folks that take themselves too seriously seem less successful and somehow less happy than the latter! Yes, take business seriously, but when it’s time to relax, be social, have fun, and be yourself! People want to experience the full breadth of the character that you offer, not just the programmed business cyborg that can run through spreadsheets like wildfire.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Gray.

As a member of the Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NCAA Division 1 golf team, Adam received the 2018 Big Ten Distinguished Scholar Award. After graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelors in Communication, Adam is now pursuing his Masters degree in Communication and Media Studies, also at Rutgers. Additionally, Adam is an Investor Relations / Business Development Intern at Virtual Force, a tech partner and resource augmentation firm, and is the PR/Social Media/Marketing Mentor for The Mentor Project, a nonprofit organization. He is a proud constituent of Generation Z who searches for opportunities, is a proactive problem solver, a fierce multi-tasker, thrives under pressure, and who is passionate about communications and the marketing ecosystem. Adam looks to deliver value to organizations who pride themselves as innovative marketers of this digital age and is eager to kickstart his postgrad career within the integrated marketing umbrella.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Potomac, MD, and since the age of three, I grew up playing golf with immediate dreams of becoming a PGA Tour competitor. At eight years old, after having about five years under my belt of playing weekends with my dad and his group of guys and learning how act maturely, keep myself composed, and interact with adults, I decided to start playing competitive junior golf. Fast forward to high school, I was a member of the Winston Churchill high school varsity golf team for all four years and was the team Captain for my Junior and Senior years, and won the MD High School State Championship, both individually as the medalist and with my team for setting the MD State High School Championship scoring record by 25 strokes. Throughout my Junior and Senior year I was competing heavily in junior golf tournaments, which in return got me noticed by Division 1 collegiate programs, and eventually earned me a scholarship and a spot on the Rutgers University men’s golf team. At the end of my junior year I was faced with the most pivotal decision of my life so far, to continue with my first love, golf, for another year, or to get an early start on my career and pursue my passion for integrated marketing — I chose my career and it was the best decision of my life. Since then, I’ve interned at PR Collaborative, an independent film PR agency, Cindy Riccio Communications, a fashion/beauty/lifestyle PR agency, joined The Mentor Project nonprofit as a PR/Social Media/Marketing Mentor, and, as mentioned before, along with my Master’s degree, since January 2019 — and continuing throughout the rest of graduate school — I’ve been an Investor Relations / Business Development intern at Virtual Force, a tech partner and resource augmentation firm. Overall, I am so incredibly lucky to have grown up with a loving family that always nudged me in the right direction, but didn’t hover over me and let me make my own life decisions. I believe this balance of autonomy and guidance is key to any healthy upbringing.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Since the inception of COVID, the venture that my boss (Waleed Nasir) and I have been project leads on is our Small Business Administration Payment Protection Program Automation Bot for SBA Applications and Loan Forgiveness after the first round of stimulus payouts. When the SBA PPP loan forgiveness application and final guidelines were released on 5/15/20, lenders faced the most unprecedented surge in questions about SBA compliance in its history, especially around PPP loans. My boss and I, as well as our team at Virtual Force believe that the only way to expeditiously ensure compliance by such large number of businesses concerned with loan forgiveness is through electronic means. In order to respond to this need, we had our software experts work with us on creating a SBA PPP Automation bot that can provide a customized solution for banks or the banks’ needs can be addressed through a plug-and-play technique, providing banks with a comprehensive, creditor grade SaaS solution to automate SBA applications and loan forgiveness phases. Unlike typical SaaS platforms, our solution comes with Compliance and Documentation specialists ensuring accurate handling of the cases and a 24/7 help-desk to provide proactive assistance for the banks clients.

Additionally, our Call Center is comprised of professionally trained staff that onboards clients onto the loan forgiveness app and processes applications at record speed and quality. With this platform, we are looking to make a digital transformation for banks. We want to benefit small businesses, the banks which work with them and small business customers by taking the analog application process to an automated bot to provide a streamlined, user-friendly experience. Teaming up with our friends at IBM, we leveraged part of their tech-stack into our solution and ran a large email campaign to Virtual Force’s and IBM’s contacts within the banking/SBA space, and together we hosted webinars for these contacts to pitch our solution and provide a demo in hopes of helping banks and companies find a solution to this monumental challenge. Since then, to continue carrying out this effort, Virtual Force teamed up with AlphaRank and their software engineers to continue refining the platform to allow new users such as Community Development Financial Institutions to automate their processes and thus expedite releasing federal funds to those who need it most. As COVID continues and small businesses struggle to stay afloat, my boss and I are beginning a new campaign with AlphaRank to market our affordable solution for automating and streamlining processes for the quick release of funds.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

At the beginning of the pandemic, my boss, Waleed Nasir, and I were brainstorming everyday about how a one-stop-tech-shop like Virtual Force can generate positive social impact for such tragic times. The impact became personal when Waleed’s wife, a frontline healthcare worker, and my mother contracted the virus. Both suffered but eventually recovered. This experience gave Waleed and I a sense of responsibility to find some way of helping. Around this time we began to see a huge influx of SBA loan applications overwhelming banks, creating bottlenecks and causing delays in release of funding and ultimately causing businesses to shut down and lay off employees. In response to this, Waleed and I realized this is where we could do our part and help. We decided we would automate the SBA loan application and forgiveness process. We saw a path where we could help banks release funds quicker, which in return would help citizens applying for stimulus funds and loan forgiveness — this project would allow us to do good for society. In response to this epiphany, we quickly reached out and partnered up with our friends at IBM and rounded up an entire team of experienced engineers at Virtual Force to build our envisioned platform for a streamlined processing of applications for government sponsored funds. Only a few weeks after our initial ideation, we were able to present the market with Virtual Force and IBM’s SBA PPP banking automation apparatus.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Witnessing all the havoc that COVID-19 was wreaking on our nation made a huge impression on me. Simply put, I was scared. I was taken aback by how fragile our healthcare system seemed and I couldn’t believe so many businesses were failing and people were losing their jobs left and right. And then Waleed’s wife and my mother got COVID. They suffered but they recovered. These were tough times. Waleed and I knew we needed to do something with our skills and with the expertise we had at our disposal. When banks were becoming incredibly overwhelmed with SBA applications, Waleed and I had our “Aha Moment”. We knew we could help because we could streamline the lethargic analog processes that banks typically use and instead provide them with a means to automate SBA PPP applications and loan forgiveness.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I myself didn’t start the campaign and product launch, so I must thank my boss, Waleed Nasir, Head of Products at Virtual Force, for taking me under his wing throughout this journey and providing me with constant opportunity to learn, grow, and show the world what I’m made of. I always am asking Waleed for any new projects, and that has been the method I’ve used every time to get involved with projects and gain clients. At this intern level of credibility and authority, I think it’s great to leverage yourself through a mentor/boss/colleague with a more senior network than the one you possess as an intern at the beginning of your career. Get to know people that know people, and paths of opportunity may come just that bit easier, as it has for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Right before COVID hit, my boss and I were hosting one of our clients and a group bidding/RFP on one of her upcoming projects, where we would be providing the technical expertise. Before arriving at work that day, I accidentally cut in front of someone when getting off the subway since I had my headphones in and was locked into a YouTube video. I then proceeded to unknowingly cut off the same guy again while going up the stairs to get to ground level. This time, he decides to tap me on my shoulder and informs me of my obliviousness. I was deeply apologetic, showing him the cool car video I was watching on my phone, trying to explain my stupidity. We actually got along and bonded over car enthusiasm for those few seconds and ended the conversation on good terms and went our separate ways. Turns out, that same guy I cut off was one of the people pitching for the RFP at my office. When we saw each other yet again in the conference room we started laughing and talking, and although he didn’t win the RFP, he did need tech services and became a new client for my boss and I! Always be nice to strangers, you never know who they are, how they can help you, how you can help them, and when you’ll be crossing paths again!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

At my first internship at PR Collaborative on the very first day, I thought it would be a good idea to grab a bagel and coffee on the way to the office — even though I was running short on time and had never stepped foot in the office. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong. Seeing that I had wrongly judged my timing, I quickly stuffed the everything bagel in my face — the first sip of hot coffee resulted in me spilling it all over my crisp white button down and blazer. I was already sweating in the first place from the summer heat, and my clumsiness made my perspiring even worse. I was a solid 10 minutes late since I didn’t exactly know what building the agency was in and arrived at the meeting overdressed and coated in hazelnut coffee — cringe. That afternoon, at the end of the workday, and after what seemed to be the most embarrassing day of my life, I made a trip to the restroom and was greeted with yet another embarrassment, a handful of poppy and sesame seeds stuck in my teeth. Being my excessively smiling self in hopes of building some level of rapport and redemption after a catastrophic first day on the job, I realized I looked like even more of an idiot. This taught me a lot about preparation and professional self-awareness. Since that fairly traumatizing experience (lol), I always do a commute test trip for any interview or first day to ensure that I provide myself with enough time to not make a complete fool of myself. Now, better understanding the nature of first impressions, I try to stay away from such coffee-breath / messy food-related encounters when initially building important professional relationships. All I can say is thank goodness this happened to me on the first day of my first internship, rather than for my first full-time job!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today, nor would I be as knowledgeable, if it weren’t for my professor and friend, Mark Beal, who I consider to be my first mentor. Mark is an integrated marketing veteran and genius who teaches at Rutgers University. I had heard he was an amazing teacher and was the man to talk to about the whole intern experience. Even though he didn’t know me and I hadn’t been in any of his classes, Professor Beal, being the type of guy he is, immediately got back to me, met me a week later, and he ended up being the point person who guided me to my first two internships. From there on out and to this day we are in constant communication and collaboration — currently we are working on a plan for landing my first full-time employment position post-graduate in May 2021. Seeing how successful and impactful he’s been at major corporations such as Taco Bell, Capital One, Mastercard, and others over the years, it is my hope to follow a similar path to the one he took — I hope to be as influential and masterful in the integrated marketing space as he is. By building the relationship over the past few years over text, in person when he taught me, over email, and now mainly through Zoom, we have gotten to know each other and how we work quite well. We are able to assist each other by sharing resources, feedback, and connections. By keeping him in the loop on everything going on in my life professionally, he can follow my progress and provide me with real-time feedback, all of which has been so instrumental to my growth personally and professionally. Mark is always pushing me to push myself with continuous feedback to motivate, mentor, and guide me in the right direction to reach my goal of succeeding in integrative marketing. It is my aspiration to be as successful, well-rounded, and fulfilled as Mark Beal is.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

While recruiting panelists for our initial SBA PPP automation webinar with IBM, I came across the BOC Capital CDFI and reached out to the Executive Director, Nancy Carin. Nancy and I hit it off from the start going back and forth about the platform, the webinar, and how my boss and I could help BOC Capital Corp. Nancy then put me in touch with her boss, Kevin Chu, and I filled him in on the campaign and cause and he was all in for being a panelist. After our webinar, the relationship continued between me, my boss and Nancy, and BOC eventually adopted the platform, transforming their entire SBA PPP lending service processes to a completely new realm of efficiency — expediting the release of federal funds to their clients in need during such dire times. The testimonial speaks for itself:

“BOC Capital Corp was approved as a SBA PPP Lender May 2020 — this is directly in line with BOC’s mission to improve the economic prospects of traditionally under-served entrepreneurs and their communities. We are really pleased to be able to work with member Virtual Force to streamline the PPP Loan Forgiveness processing now. Our PPP Lending Services were provided via one on one virtual sessions assisting businesses in accessing federal funds. The financial documentation process was tedious, and required that our staff email back and forth with clients as they collected their documentation. Our team became inundated with the clerical tasks that needed to be coordinated with the clients workflow and schedules. This would have been more efficiently done by the clients themselves when it was convenient to them. By implementing the Alpharank platform we are automating the clerical functions, eliminating unwieldy email threads, and improving our efficiency and amping up our service. We are freed up to provide the one on one counseling that our clients need most, with fewer errors and more comprehensive back end reporting. Our compliance team has complete visibility over the process, providing a greater level of transparency.” — Nancy Carin, Executive Director @ BOC Capital CDFI

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Although the Financial Technology community certainly realizes that banks and the processes of banking is prehistoric in comparison to the affordances/capabilities of modern technology, that isn’t enough to make these dinosaur-esque behemoth banks budge. There needs to be a mending between the entire FinTech community and banking industry in collaboration with one another to settle on a solution to deal with analog processes that have been in place for decades by replacing them with new and innovatory technologies and innovations. I am calling on all sectors of finance, financial technology, equity, and banking to come together and address the elephant in the room that so desperately needs attention to prevent such major hiccups from happening to the industry in the future.
  2. To politicians that are dealing with the COVID-19 SBA loans and forgiveness, please acknowledge the fact that even though there are policies in place to help affected small businesses, not only are the processes of banking outdated, so are the policies governing them. What’s really needed is a complete rebuilding from the bottom up of new standardized governmental funding procedures that banks nationwide need to adopt in order to get up to speed with modern processes that should be leveraged, rather than ignored or set aside to be dealt with at another time. Hopefully the new administration can acknowledge this techno-laggard nature of our government and let the subject matter experts optimize the entire process with efficiency and forward-thinking purposes.
  3. Aspiring students of finance/banking and technology as well as professionals currently in the industry, please keep on pushing and promoting for the modernization of government technology and processes. Finance/banking students in particular, embrace riskiness while young, and do the country a favor and fight to modernize the government’s financial procedures so a chaotic mess like the SBA PPP applications and forgiveness programs that left the small businesses of our nation and their owners in shambles may never ever happen again!

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 — Accept losses as a great opportunity to show your resilience when faced with failure — deliver your true value as the solution!

Example: When I was just starting my internship, the Co-Founder-founder of Virtual Force was in town and I wanted to set up a meeting with a prospect to show the Co-Founder my value in business development. The prospect ended up not showing up, but I was persistent with follow up and eventually got a meeting and that lead turned into a client.

2 — When people in business settings show something about their personal selves that appears to be a skill or knowledge unfamiliar to you, show an interest — people enjoy being a teacher and sharing their knowledge!

Example: My boss and the Co-Founder would often speak together in Urdu. Among the many unfamiliar words I was hearing I often heard what I thought was the word “cello”. I asked them about the word “cello” — it’s not a musical instrument, it means “let’s go”. I asked them about other words and pronunciations. My interest caught their attention and helped build my rapport and relationship with them. Every now and then I throw a few Urdu terms into our conversation!

3 — Don’t be afraid to take risks!

Example: Before working with my boss and Virtual Force, I didn’t see myself getting into tech because my degree focus is communications, however, I was really curious about the tech industry and all the buzz around it. So, by working through multiple degrees of connections in my network, I got an opportunity to have an interview at Virtual Force, took a leap of faith, and carved out my role in tech with a comm strategy/business development perspective. I didn’t even know that such integrated comm-tech positions were feasible/available, and probably wouldn’t have ever known if I hadn’t taken that risk — take risks folks!

4 — Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Example: After going to a number of networking events with my boss (Pre-COVID), I started to realize that the people that attend these networking events are always 1 of 2 types of people — people that take themselves too seriously and people that know how to have fun. Based on my observations, the folks that take themselves too seriously seem less successful and somehow less happy than the latter! Yes, take business seriously, but when it’s time to relax, be social, have fun, and be yourself! People want to experience the full breadth of the character that you offer, not just the programmed business cyborg that can run through spreadsheets like wildfire.

5 — Talk less, listen more.

Example: One time when my boss brought me along for a scoping meeting with a prospect, I failed to ask about the nature of the lead and what type of company that we were dealing with and assumed they were a networking company based on their name, Signal Growth. Based off my very novice assumption, I went on about how we could be of assistance for them and could roll out a platform for their networking processes until I was interrupted and told that they were a cannabis company. I was talking about something off topic, completely unrelated to their company’s purpose, and looked like an idiot. At this moment I knew I should have taken the back seat and listened to what they had to say first. I don’t entirely agree with the saying “silence is golden” instead, I’d say the golden rule is talk less, listen more.

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?

Setting aside my dreams and passions, the main reason I go through with risks and why young people alike should also take risks is because of our age. We have youth! We have our entire lives ahead of us! Now really is the best time to be audacious and take risks. Taking intelligent, thoughtful, exciting risks can only provide upside for people my age in the sense that if it succeeds then you benefit from the success and the perks that come with it, and if it fails, then you can learn from such failure and be better prepared for the next risky venture you take. Failure is so prevalent in life, learning to cope with failure sooner than later can only be beneficial. Additionally, this teaches resilience in the sense of turning losses into successes, providing you with the tools and experiences to help when faced with failure in the future, when there’s more on the line. Now, in our youth with less responsibilities, duties, and expectations we are in the best position to take risks and pursue our ideas, dreams and creations with the hopes that they will impact society in some way. In our youth, we can do this and know that failure can be followed by understanding and knowledge and successes.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Tiger Woods. Not only has he been my lifelong inspiration for everything golf, but I view him as the most impressive athlete of all time. Tiger reached the highest of the highs and then hit his deepest rock bottom with scandal, countless injuries and surgeries. He has however regained his reputation/image through sheer determination, grit, and his iconic resilience. Tiger was a guy that could do no wrong and then had his serious imperfections exposed to the world. Still, he seems to have managed to recover mentally, physically, and socially — a feat that I believe no other human could pull off but Tiger. Please tag him or tag his agent, lol!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/adamgray1998/ or on Instagram @agraygray123 — please follow!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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