Josh Burrell of Activated Capital: “Why you should surround yourself with people who share your same values so you won’t have to argue about priorities down the road.”

Surround yourself with people who share your same values and you won’t have to argue about priorities down the road. This is key when you’re leading a group of people, but it doesn’t mean surround yourself with people who just agree with you. This means hiring the type of people who have the character and […]

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Surround yourself with people who share your same values and you won’t have to argue about priorities down the road. This is key when you’re leading a group of people, but it doesn’t mean surround yourself with people who just agree with you. This means hiring the type of people who have the character and moral fabric you want, so you won’t waste time rationalizing your priorities to someone who will never be on the same page.

As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Burrell. Josh is a Managing Partner at Activated Capital. Prior to Activated Capital, Mr. Burrell most recently held the position of Director of Investments for Midas Capital, a private-equity real estate firm with a primary focus in hospitality assets located in the midwest and southeast regions of the United States. Prior to his involvement with Midas, Mr. Burrell worked at Lazard Asset Management, a global investment banking firm in New York City with $216 billion in assets under management, where he worked in the Capital Advisory Group and directed investment assets preserving relationships with families, family offices, and endowments and foundations clients. Between 2011 and 2016, Mr. Burrell worked as a Senior Analyst at Colonial Consulting where he evaluated and underwrote investment transactions and focused his time designated to socially responsible investment (SRI) opportunities, formulating investment decisions and tactical asset allocation strategies for endowment and foundations. Beginning his career at Moody’s Investor Services, Mr. Burrell honed his analytical ability to pinpoint undervalued assets and went on to work in London, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore offices. With roots as an influencer to local communities, Mr. Burrell has become a long-standing, integral board member for many charitable organizations including the New York Cares Foundation which promotes financial literacy, and he serves as a board member and ski instructor with the Gateway Disabled Ski Program. Mr. Burrell has been featured expert speaker on real estate trends and is a member of the New York Private Equity Real Estate Network (NYPEN), New York Society of Security Analysts and as a member of the CFA Institute and John C. Whitehead Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

There are many stories both professionally and personally that brought me to where I am today. Personally, I just always felt that my finance career had to have a moral compass at the center. In the financial world of a place like New York, it’s easy to lose focus on what is really important and I always believed that purpose-driven investing would be my future. I’m not saying philanthropy as a business, I’m talking about using the tools and capital to create positive change in the American economy; I want to create the type of change people feel in communities that don’t usually see any outside investment at all.

Professionally, what really inspired me to focus on Activated Capital was what I felt was an antiquated formula for real estate investing. I remember countless conversations where investors are so eager to buy big sexy assets were all purchased for the highest prices, and yet I was well versed in statistical data that showed almost a completely inverse relationship with cache and profit. Put simply: people have been investing in bigger and more glamorous properties despite the fact that there’s a negative correlation between the physical attractiveness of an asset and its investment performance. That just didn’t make sense and so I started constructing a model for how I could use my investments in real estate to create communities based not on the biggest mansions and resorts but on the type of housing that the millennial generation is desperately in need of.

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

The most interesting things to happen to me since I started this company are within the people I’ve had the honor of meeting and their own individual stories.

As we’ve built and broadened our footprint across the country, I’ve met fascinating people from all walks of life. Also, at the risk of sounding like a politician, what never ceases to amaze me is that the most seemingly different people really have more in common than they think they do. From the more rural communities to the more urban, from Texas to Toledo, OH, people care about the same things and they value the same things. It’s really incredible.

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?

Let me be candid here and tell you a story that isn’t really about some profound lesson I learned but is one that reflects the most practical lesson I’ve learned as the head of an organization:

Our offices are the 85th floor of our building, and, for the first few weeks, I was so frantic and busy in the morning when I arrived that I would either get onto the wrong elevator or get into the right elevator and get off on the wrong floor. I am not a scatterbrained person but I just kept being so focused on the big things that I couldn’t even remember exactly where the office was. It forced me to remember that there’s really no such thing as a “small thing” in an organization. Everything is important and everything is essential. It didn’t matter if I was on the phone and focused on a huge acquisition if I wasn’t focused on the simple task of getting off on the right floor.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

This question is such a great one to ask and one we consider daily. I hope it’s obvious at least by now to your readers that we invest in Opportunity Zones (or specifically low-income communities), and there is certainly a lot of anticipation, excitement and quite frankly in certain cases a significant level of hope within the investment community about just how significant the social impact the proposed $100–300 billion of new investment capital will have when its allocated into various emerging communities over the next year or so.

Not to sound skeptical or not excited here… We are thrilled about the social impact of our work and it’s what motivates our team to wake early and stay late — it’s the “whatever it takes” mentality. We want to not only have a significant social impact, but we feel it’s this social impact that will drive this legislation to grow, expand and continue to increase awareness which will attract more investment dollars to those who need it the most.

At a high level… our 10-year goal towards having a significant social impact is to mitigate the risk of community displacement (or having the same low-income census communities) simply one mile or further outside of where they are today.

We feel whatever the number ends up being $100 billion, $500 billion or higher it’s vital to track the social impact investment dollars are having on the current communities. In the effort to sustain, track and monitor the social impact of our investments, we’ve trademarked an OZ ScoreTM which will report the level of impact we’re having the communities. A few of the factors in the scorecard will be related to personal growth & well being, financial literacy (education) and mental stability where we will report at least annually to our investors.

Specifically when we think of our commitment to financial education for example, (education in our minds is very important for anyone), but especially important and many times overlooked within low income communities. Our financial tools, time-commitment and partnerships to this issue is one of the areas we feel can have such a tremendous impact and ultimately lead to having a multiplier effect as well.

By having a scorecard, this will not only help to keep our focus and hold what we say we do accountable, but we hope it will also hold the industry as whole accountable whereby continuing the goal of a positive transformative change in emerging communities.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

We feel so many people are willing to change, but in some cases we’ll provide initial community or the outside support to create that initial spark. I’ve had countless interactions with some great communities and individuals, but one that stands out is a trip I made to tri-cities in eastern Tennessee.

This amazing community where a few local leaders took the responsibility to lead the charge and create change was looking for this very spark.

There we are working with local leaders on instilling education and networking platforms in order to help facilitate communication. Providing a central interface of information or established place where locals can turn to for up-to-date information on what’s going on within their communities, along with what’s going on in other communities similar to theirs throughout the US.

It was such an incredible trip where I honestly reluctant when it was time to fly home. The number of warm welcomes and level of excitement when a “New Yorker” flew in to visit with their communities was simply this undeniable energy we feel the community hasn’t had for some time.

We all have the power to make a big difference, Activated Capital strives to be a catalyst for that transformative change.

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

I’m not at all believer in pie in the sky phrases, but we are in a once in a lifetime opportunity as we’ve started to see the political, society and local communities become more aligned than ever before.

The Activated Capital team and partners have invested in emerging communities for long before they were named Opportunity Zones, but right now in the investment and impact circles there is some combination of healthy skepticism and enthusiasm where we could very possibly find ourselves in the early stages of the single most transformative social & economic movement in our lifetimes.

To back up with facts to my “pie in the sky” statement… We have never before seen nearly $6.1 trillion (in unrealized capital gains dollars) sitting on the sidelines backed with extremely attractive and powerful tax incentivizes if these dollars were to be allocated within one of our country’s (8,700 census tracts) most impoverished low-income communities.

Now… It’s very important to bring these three (community/society/politicians) under one umbrella of Social economic impact and align them together to impact living conditions in areas we are trying to focus.

Societal alignment is such critical component to the root of the problem. As I mentioned, one of the inspirations to creating/trademarking OZ Scorecards was we felt by holding ourselves to the highest standard of transparency and accountability would only help preserve existing bipartisan support.

Our hope is down the road state governors will be allowed to expand upon the current qualified opportunity zones whereby adding additional census tracts. We could see this happening within the next few years.

Some state level political officials, last week in Alabama for example, have started taking notice and stepped up their game by introducing bills allowing for additional investor incentives, above and beyond, the existing opportunity zone benefits investors receive. We would like to see this trend continue as these additional incentives will only further drive additional capital into these communities.

This will need to continue to be a private capital market solution (having the autonomy to invest without political influence or limitations), being the most direct path to a sustainable and transformative positive economic and social change.

With all of this being said, transformative change will always start and finish by the sheer willpower and resilience of the individual community. Activated Capital may be a spark, but it’s the people that will always need to carry the light that continues long after any political incentivization.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I’ve always liked the idea that a company’s purpose drives priority. Leaders need to be transparent with the purpose or mission of the company from the beginning, it’s only then where priorities of what to do next will be clear.

With that said, I have found out over the course of my career, leaders are only as good as the people they surround themselves with. For leaders to be successful or a company to be successful, it’s crucial for leaders to surround themselves with others who are smarter and different than themselves.

This ultimately brings me back to my first point on transparency on the purpose of the company. The people who leaders align themselves also need to have a shared common goal where everyone feels connected to overall mission. There will always be minor tactical differences and viewpoints. The team will not always agree on everything, but if the overall mission or goal is clear then alignment and greatness can be achieved. It’s about creating teams who respect, grow and learn together and be empowered to find best strategies to achieve the goal.

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. Be patient. (People told me this advice but I never heard them).
  2. Don’t tell people what you need from them. Show them. The business world wastes hundreds of hours and discourages thousands of workers by forcing everyone to guess what people need from each other.
  3. Talk to people. This is sort of like the one above but it’s basically saying to get up and go talk to the people you work with. It’s tempting to email and text everything, but it will save you more time in the long run if you talk to your colleagues about what’s going on.
  4. Surround yourself with people who share your same values and you won’t have to argue about priorities down the road. This is key when you’re leading a group of people, but it doesn’t mean surround yourself with people who just agree with you. This means hiring the type of people who have the character and moral fabric you want, so you won’t waste time rationalizing your priorities to someone who will never be on the same page.
  5. Honesty above all. This is particularly important when you’re younger. I’m not being silly and saying “don’t lie and cheat” — OF COURSE you shouldn’t do that. I’m talking about honesty in those moments when your boss wants you to say something and you know it’s not how you feel. You’ll regret those moments down the road but, if you’re honest, you’ll never regret being true to yourself.

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. 🙂

We focus a lot on activating cities and activation amongst the communities in which we invest, and this all started out well before Activated Capital was ever incepted.

I feel it’s really our current team at Activated Capital who will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people and in that light it was Activated Capital’s Managing Partner Parveen Panwar who years ago (and jokingly I might add) found himself saying “I’m activated” as just a natural way to revive people’s sense of energy and excitement while on an entrepreneur retreat. Parveen is a tremendously inspiring person.

This movement (again which started as a pun) sparked the core principles of activation and those who choose to follow these P.A.P.E.R principles could in a matter of seconds help change the way they perceive the world…

  1. Positivity
  2. Authenticity
  3. Passion
  4. Empathy
  5. Resilience

P.A.P.E.R principles combined with opportunity zone investment dollars will trigger a ripple effect by activating people with financial, physical, mental and emotional knowledge in order to create a meaningful life. And just think the phrase “I am Activated” all started as a joke…

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

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Henry David Thoreau

This quote is a testament to will power, drive and the human spirit. If we can simply become conscious of our own untapped human potential, it’s the only time when our passion to persevere for something beyond our grasp or “the impossible” is celebrated.

Relevant to today, our effort to connect with the essence of this quote, we like to use the expression, “Imagine a Better Alternative”. This speaks to our purpose on generating a double-bottom line return where we strive to respectfully question the current state of mindfulness and how it relates to our daily life (a better alternative) i.e. a healthier life for our loved ones and generations thereafter generated through our private equity investment vehicle (or alternative asset). We clearly have some work to do before getting close to Thoreau on this one.

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

Warren Buffett. I know the price tag for this lunch privilege now has a market rate of $4.6 million as yesterday (June 1st, 2019 charity auction for a lunch with Warren).

Warren is one of the most, if not the most, effective investors in this world and someone who I have modeled my career since reading “The Intelligent Investor” written by his mentor, Benjamin Graham. As acting member of the New York Society of Security Analysts where Benjamin Graham was also one of the founding members, so Warren is actually past due to join for lunch!

Reading one of Warren essays where if he chooses to be remembered for one thing, he said, it wouldn’t be for his mastery of investing or business. He wants to be remembered for being a good teacher. Help the New York Society of Security Analysts continuing his mentor founded in 1937!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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