Dr. Paul Campbell of Brown Venture Group: “An App is not a tech business”

Turn historical disadvantage into competitive business advantage. As a result of the many obstacles we have and continue to face as Black and Brown professionals in America, we have had no choice but to develop the characteristics that make many entrepreneurs successful, such as resiliency, resourcefulness, and a commitment to succeed in spite of the odds. […]

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Turn historical disadvantage into competitive business advantage.

As a result of the many obstacles we have and continue to face as Black and Brown professionals in America, we have had no choice but to develop the characteristics that make many entrepreneurs successful, such as resiliency, resourcefulness, and a commitment to succeed in spite of the odds.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Paul Campbell of Brown Venture Group.

Dr. Paul Campbell is the co-founders and CEO of Brown Venture Group, LLC. Launched in 2018, Brown Venture Group, LLC is a venture studio venture capital firm exclusively for Black, Latino, and Native American technology startups. Prior to launching Brown Venture Group, Dr. Campbell was a telecommunication sales executive as well as a serial entrepreneur, launching startups in IoT and media production. He holds a Doctorate in Social Entrepreneurship and an MBA in Global Business Management.

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?

My start in Venture Capital, specifically VC, focused on technological startups within communities of Color, came about because of a combination of factors. As an AT&T employee in 2007, I had a front-row seat to the launch of the App store and VC firms such as Y Combinator, which helped fund and develop companies such as DropBox. I told myself back then; if I ever saw an opportunity like the ones that launched these companies, I would jump at the chance to participate. Another factor that led me to get into Venture Capital, which explicitly was focused on communities of Color, was my own professional experience as a contributor of Color. Despite consistently exceeding expectations, achieving the educational requirements, and objective characteristics of the ideal candidate for various roles, I was overlooked for opportunities that ultimately my White peers with less experience and fewer accomplishments would receive. My personal experience, combined with my research into the historical barriers to contribution and behavioral economics, substantiated my theory for technology’s ability to bypass cognitive racial bias. Put differently, by launching Black and Brown technology startups; we can more effectively increase both economic and human flourishing within communities of Color.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I think that the most interesting and impactful thing that has happened since Dr. Chris Brooks and I co-founded Brown Venture Group, unfortunately, was the murder of George Floyd here in Minneapolis. Experiencing the aftermath up close to what then developed into a national and international tipping point regarding the treatment of communities of Color was challenging to witness. Nevertheless, it reinforced why we started the company in the first place. We did, however, begin to get questions on why we didn’t relocate Brown Venter Group to somewhere more supportive of communities of Color, such as Atlanta.

Despite the Twin Cities in recent years, being ranked as the 4th worst place for people of Color to live in the country according to 24/7 WallSt. Brown Venture Group is committed to being a change agent in our own backyard. Our collective stories have always been deeply tied to the Twin Cities area. Dr. Brooks is a Minneapolis native, and I’m a St. Paul native. We knew first-hand what it means to be Black in the Twin Cities. The way George Floyd was murdered shattered the glass of indifference for many leaders in our community and caused them to ask questions of us that they were not asking before. Both Dr. Brooks and I have now had many opportunities to explain to our community and business leaders the importance of doing things “with” communities of Color instead of repeating the same mistake of doing things “for” communities of Color.

We felt very optimistic that despite the national tragedy that occurred here in our Twin Cities, leaders from our Fortune 500 companies down to our Mom-and-Pop shops were ready to change the narrative about our region. Moreover, with the largest per capita clusters of Fortune 500 companies in America and arguably one of the best under-activated startup regional business advantages in our country, the greater Twin Cities metro area has a tremendous opportunity to become known for launching and scaling successful Black and Brown startup companies.

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 can’t think of a funny mistake I made; however, when we first put the idea of Brown Venture Group down on paper, we use to joke that we couldn’t wait until we were no longer just two guys with some nice business cards.

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?

Raising money for a startup is hard work; raising a fund is harder still. Raising capital for communities of Color by its nature is one of the hardest things you can choose to do. The barriers to contribution which have prevented economic and human flourishing within communities of Color are, in fact, the same barriers that make raising money for Black and Brown contributors difficult. The combination of artificial poverty and friendship gaps created by historical exclusionary economic policy such as redlining has, for example, led many investors to miss out on what a recent CitiGroup report considers a lost market of 13 trillion dollars in unrealized business revenue in communities of Color over the past 20 years.

My drive to continue through hard times comes from a deep intrinsic motivation and understanding that every challenge or obstacle I face, is in fact, the seed of my next big breakthrough. I have found in life that although I may have mountain top experiences, it is in the valley where character and the skillset for entrepreneurship are developed. It is not the optimist nor the pessimist that ensures your business success; rather, it is the leader that knows how to make the most out of every transient opportunity that will ultimately increase their probability of success.

None of us can 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?

There is a false narrative out there that you must be some rugged individualist with superhuman capabilities to be successful. The reality is, it is impossible to be self-made. There are almost too many people to list that I would thank for contributing to my success. The first is my wife. She has been there when I had nothing. She has been my cheerleader when no one else was in my corner and has been there with a pin to pop my ego when I have gotten too full of myself. Second, my mentors. These essential voices in my life have freely given their wisdom and have encouraged me to do the same. Lastly, my BVG partners Dr. Chris Brooks, Jerome Hamilton, and Chris Dykstra. With great certainty, I can say that I would not be the business professional I am today without their contributions to my life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less,” C.S. Lewis.

As an entrepreneur, I have endeavored to think more of others first before I think of myself. I have thought about my customer and sometimes my customer’s customer. I have also thought about my employees and how I could help develop them into the best version of themselves. One of my mentors said to me once. “Paul, the minute you stop thinking about how to serve your customer and your employees, is the beginning of your going-out-of-business sale.”

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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 your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

In my view, I wouldn’t classify what we are witnessing as a boiling point in America. It is more of a perfect storm of events that have exposed just how far we have come since Dr. King uttered the words “I have a dream.” I think that the reckoning around race and diversity is happening now in America because of two reasons. First, Covid has exposed the effects of centuries of selective democracy and capitalism. Second, the way George Floyd was murdered has exposed the illusion of diversity and inclusion in corporate America.

Moreover, as Covid shutdowns occurred, many Americans experienced what it is like to have their constitutional rights selectively applied to them or stripped away for the first time in their lives. This experience had caused leaders to ask questions that, before Covid, they didn’t have any context or frame of reference to ask. This is because they didn’t understand just what it is like to be Black in America until now.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

I don’t think that leaders need to be educated about the benefits of a diverse executive team. For years organizations such as McKinsey & Company have done volumes of work in this space (see their 2015 report “Diversity Matters”). The pain point I hear from many leaders is that they can’t find qualified, diverse talent to fill these executive roles. The issue is not a pipeline issue; instead, it reflects a larger problem: a friendship gap.

How did this friendship gap develop? Historical exclusionary policies such as redlining, designed to prevent race-mixing, have today evolved into obstacles to create organic friendships between Black and White contributors. This issue is particularly problematic as most organizations today are still filled with referrals from friends (or friends of friends) of current employees. The natural outcome of this is that your organization’s talent pipeline, from a diversity perspective, will always be limited to the diversity of your existing employee’s professional and personal networks. This is why so many well-intentioned leaders come to the false conclusion that there is no diverse talent with the characteristics for these critical executive roles.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

As a result of historical amnesia, many have been shocked to discover that big tech companies, with their innovative and forward-thinking persona, have similar diversity gaps like older, less flashy organizations. The truth is that the status quo we see today in tech, that is, White male-dominated executives and White male-dominated venture-backed startups, is merely a continuation of a centuries-old national status quo that is, quite frankly, industry agnostic.

To change this, I think it will require leaders to think about their thinking and engage in cultural residency and challenge their assumptions about Black and Brown contributors. For example, if I told you right now that I work with at-risk youth, why is it that the first image that comes to mind is not a 16-year-old White male? My point is that the very language used to describe communities of Color becomes deterministic and ensures that the status quo will continue. I think it is helpful here to point out the difference between the opportunity one is given and the individual contributor’s capacity. Opportunity is the event; capacity is what the contributor can do with the event. The only real objective difference between White and Black contributors today is not found in the Color of their skin; instead, it is in the frequency of events or opportunities given to demonstrate their capacity.

We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

● Lack of capital for communities of Color.

● Building the scaffolding or platform which increases the probability of success for Black and Brown tech-based startup founders.

● Providing space for founders of Color to be founders of Color.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

Our BVG partners are all operators, meaning we have all launched, scaled, and exited companies. We have both front office experience, such as sales and marketing, and back-office expertise, such as operations.Moreover, we also have global networks of relationships across government, non-profit, and business organizations, which enable us to not only source deals but also help our portfolio companies increase the probability of successfully scaling their startups.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

BVG was recently selected to lead the seed round investment for Ecolution, a cleantech company founded by Latinx founders based in Florida. What is exciting about this project is that the Ecolution team, which consists of an all-star cast of founders and advisors, could have worked with any VC they wanted to, but because of our focus, mission, and values, they wanted to work with BVG. Their MARS technology, in the words of their CEO, Johanne Medina Then, “is the holy grail of clean renewable energy” and has the capacity to deliver just in time energy to places in the world that need it the most. The potential impact of this technology on human flourishing is almost too significant to measure, and with a total addressable market of 1.2 trillion dollars, this technology is also an excellent investment. Working on a project that will do good in the world and has a high probability of profitable investment — now that’s what I call an exciting project!

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”?

I think that there is no silver bullet answer to this one. The sudden standstill of growth may be caused by internal factors such as founders losing touch with their customer’s wants or external factors such as a new entrance in the marketplace. Often it is a combination of both. In my experience, the best way to boost sales is to co-create your solutions with your customers and resist the urge to develop an irrational institutional exuberance, that is, thinking that your customer needs you more than you need them. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it, companies must “stay in eternal beta mode.” By doing so, the company is likely to identify its growth limiters and precisely where in the customer experience; it needs to drive innovation to get sales back on track.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

The secret to building high performing sales teams is quite counterintuitive to many organizations. Traditionally you see this combination of incentives and constraints. It usually goes something like this. A carrot of high commissions and trips to exotic tropical vacations are dangled in front of sales professionals. This, while simultaneously letting them know that they are always just 90 days away from losing their job. Supposedly, this is how you motivate high performing sales teams. This may work for many larger organizations with big budgets that can easily absorb the cost of high turnover; however, if you are leading a tech startup, the more effective way to build a top-performing sales team is to focus on building resilient teams with strong intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators such as “ putting a ding in the universe” will more often than not drive your people to produce more sustainable results for your organization than that of carrots and sticks.

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?

We move at the speed of relationships. Whether it is an investor in our fund or a tech startup founder, the best way to attract customers is to provide a quality experience that will make investors and founders want to recommend us to their friends and family.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

In venture capital, it is a little more straight forward. Produce great returns for our investors by helping startups achieve greater valuations and successful exits.

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?

For tech startups, getting the first customer is one of the hardest things you will ever do. The next most challenging thing you will do is find your next nine customers. The key is to create a product or service that solves a problem or satisfies a want in such a way that your first customer enthusiastically goes out and helps you get your next 9. Even as you grow, you will always benefit from creating a great product that your existing customers will want to talk about.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what a device can you provide founders of Color in order to help them launch and scale successful tech companies?

1. Turn historical disadvantage into competitive business advantage.

As a result of the many obstacles we have and continue to face as Black and Brown professionals in America, we have had no choice but to develop the characteristics that make many entrepreneurs successful, such as resiliency, resourcefulness, and a commitment to succeed in spite of the odds.

2. What may work for White tech founders may not work for you.

There are many excellent books on how to launch a tech startup or how to get venture capital funding for your business. However, the underlying assumption by these authors is that we are playing with the same set of cards as these mostly White authors have been given. For example, due to artificially created poverty, many of us don’t have the generational wealth to tap into for the friends and family rounds that our White counterparts do. This makes it hard to advance through the various investment stages because we often have not met milestones that are often expected by Series Seed and Series A investors.

3. 100% of nothing is still nothing.

As a tech founder, if you want to grow beyond the CEO of a sole proprietor business, you will need to give up equity at some point. Of course, it is without question important that you do so with a deep consideration of your exit strategy. If you want to grow and scale your tech company, you will increase your probability of success by partnering with the right founding team and group of investors.

4. An App is not a tech business.

We see founders all the time with great tech ideas but no great go-to-market strategy. Having a great App without a theory of business might make you an accidental non-for-profit executive, but it will not help you create a successful tech company.

5. Faking it until you make it will only guarantee that you won’t.

Presenting the illusion that you are further along in your business’s maturation, you may impress a few friends, but it is also a great way to go out of business. Running a lean tech business is the best way to stay nimble and better deal with the hills and valleys that often come with operating a successful tech company.

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. 🙂

If “we the people” want to finally unleash the full innovative capacity of America, then we must remove the barriers to contribution that historically have prevented communities of Color from reaching our full potential. We must recognize that poverty in the American ghetto was artificially created by the visible hand of racism and not the market’s invisible hand. Finally, leaders must shift their thinking and efforts from doing things “for” communities of Color to doing things “with” communities of Color. When you do things “for us,” we become a project; however, when you do things “with us,” we become a partner and co-creator in our nation’s success. The bottom line is that when we start unleashing the full innovative capacity of Black and Brown contributors, it will not only increase economic and human flourishing for communities of Color but all Americans.

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 🙂

I would love to have a private breakfast with Robert Smith of Vista Equity Partners. As someone who has demonstrated business excellence and community impact, I have a great deal of respect for him. He has used his platform to highlight the business and social case for investing in communities of Color, and I think I could glean a thing or two from his experiences.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

Thank you

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