As a company who may be doing things well, it’s our responsibility to share that approach and those ideas with other companies like us and spread the positive results. It’s why we speak on panels about driving diversity.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Brett Hurt.
Brett is the CEO and co-founder of data.world, a Public Benefit Corporation focused on building the most meaningful, abundant, and collaborative data resource in the world. Prior to data.world, Brett founded and led Bazaarvoice as CEO, through its IPO (NASDAQ: BV), follow-on offering, and two acquisitions. Brett also founded and led Coremetrics, which was rated the #1 Web analytics solution by Forrester Research, and like Bazaarvoice, expanded it into a global company and leader.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Austin as a computer nerd. My mom bought me my first computer for my 7th birthday and learned how to program with me. She really believed in me from the beginning and defended my absolute passion for it. I programmed around 40 hours a week throughout my childhood. As a result, I got picked on a lot and called “nerd” at school. But my mom knew I had found my passion, and I knew I had too. This made me much more empathetic, to know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a human being by their appearance or the pigment in their skin. Many of the best connections I had as a child were over my Bulletin Board System (BBS), where I could chat with people via text and there was no judgment about our appearance at all.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It is about Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who created an entirely new field of psychology after surviving four concentration camps and losing those closest to him in his family. It is a story about how your passion makes you naturally persistent — that if you find your true calling in life, it can pull you through the most difficult of times.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite quote is from Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1910 speech at the Arbonne in Paris, France. I included it in Chapter 1 of my book, “The Entrepreneur’s Essentials”. The much celebrated author and speaker, Brené Brown, has made this quote very famous:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919)
It is ultimately the story of the person who is animated by their passion to dare greatly. My Henry Crown Fellowship Class is named after this speech. It is the story of entrepreneurs, and citizens who care to stand up and do something bold to serve society and a cause greater than themselves.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to motivate others towards a shared goal. Bringing people together from many different backgrounds to achieve the “impossible” together. I’ve founded or co-founded six businesses and they’ve all required great teams to achieve success. My wife, Debra, and I are also investors in 89 businesses and 27 venture capital funds through our family office, Hurt Family Investments. And from that we’ve seen that, without a doubt, leadership makes all the difference in the world in startup success.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I study Vedanta, which is a life philosophy that is over 5,000 years old. Some of the best books I’ve ever read are by Swamiji Parthasarathy. “Governing Business and Relationships” has the best chapter on leadership I’ve ever read, and I’ve read hundreds of business books. I exercise six days per week and do a 16-minute plank per day. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. I’m a vegetarian, primarily a vegan, and my health has gotten progressively better every year since I made that change eight years ago — plus it’s much better for the planet and, of course, for our fellow animals on planet Earth. I’m in many peer groups, from the Henry Crown Fellowship to YPO, to have the diverse support I need to make big decisions or get motivated for a big talk. I’ve also worked with the same CEO coach, Kirk Dando, for over 12 years and he really motivates me. And, perhaps most importantly, my wife, Debra, is a true partner and has helped me make some of the biggest decisions “behind the scenes”. She has incredible business judgment.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move 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?
We’ve had racist beginnings in this country that still permeate today. From the way we treated Native Americans to the original grave sin of slavery, America’s past has still not been fully reconciled and resolved. But yet we are a nation of immigrants that literally pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and defeated the greatest empire in the world to get our freedom. And we’ve become the most successful country in the history of the world. The reality, however, is that there are huge inequities as a result of our original sin. The median black American family household has only 1/10th the wealth of the median white American family household. South Africa has similar statistics post-Apartheid, and you can see it when you visit with almost all of the land owned by white South Africans. And now we are in this age of ubiquitous video capital and social media sharing. They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it is clear that our nation is seeing that our history of racism is still a major issue today. A combination of the pandemic and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other black American citizen’s murders led to a galvanization like we haven’t seen in a long time, with social media greatly amplifying it.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I’m fortunate to have a true partnership with our executive team at data.world that really gets it in this area. When Lisa Novak, our head of HR, and I attended “Beyond Diversity: Courageous Conversations” together last year, we knew that we needed to get the entire executive team to attend it as well. This was shortly after we had helped launch the Startup Diversity Pledge in Austin as one of the original signatories and promoters. After George Floyd’s murder, we were one of the first companies to adopt Juneteenth as an annual holiday going forward (the first in Austin that I knew of at the time). Being a B Corporation, we naturally hold ourselves to a higher standard of capitalism — conscious capitalism. We are measured on how diverse we are as a B Corporation as well.
For Juneteenth, even though it was a day off to reflect on the holiday, I asked my good friend, Peniel Joseph, to help us kick off the day with our team. All team members could optionally attend, including our investors and advisors, to talk about the significance of the holiday. Peniel had just come out with his book, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” It was an incredible conversation, and I and others shared a lot of other reading that people may want to dig into that day, including Frederick Douglass’ absolutely amazing speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
We also have our #parliament-pod on Slack. Our mascot at data.world is an owl named Sparkle. A parliament is a group of owls. When they come together as a group, owls are deemed to be wise. Our parliament is about celebrating the diversity of data.world and an action network to do more. Over 70% of our company has optionally chosen to be in the #parliament-pod and it is one of our most active channels on Slack. We also have very active book clubs in this area.
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?
A diverse leadership team will be more like the best of America. What we love most about America is the diversity of our foods, our literature, our entertainment, our small businesses, and ultimately our people. The same is true inside of a company. The more diverse perspectives your team brings to the table, the better decisions you will make and the more you will look at any challenge or opportunity from a wide range of angles, leading to much better outcomes.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
First, I’m not sure any of us are qualified to suggest the right five steps to change society, but we can sure start with our own company, and likely much of that thought process can translate to society.
- Recognize and accept that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and that we (both our company and our society) must be actively involved in the solution.
- Learn. Get yourself educated. And in our case, get all of data.world educated — leaders and individual contributors. After George Floyd’s murder, it galvanized us to send all of our people to “Courageous Conversations: Beyond Diversity”. It’s why we have book clubs with books on racial injustice or being better allies. It’s why we invite expert diversity speakers in.
- Develop a philosophy and goals early on. Make it part of our fabric, and an ongoing part of who we are from the onset. Include it in our values (“community” is one of our five) and our company goals (we always have a diversity OKR). It’s easier to build on than to correct down the road.
- Create an internal voice (in our case, our #parliament-pod) to ensure there’s a place for even the challenging conversations, as well as an opportunity for new ideas and ways to constantly improve.
- Share. As a company who may be doing things well, it’s our responsibility to share that approach and those ideas with other companies like us and spread the positive results. It’s why we speak on panels about driving diversity. It’s why we’re part of groups in Austin to help guide other tech start-ups through their diversity journey.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, I am optimistic. Hope is the most important motivator we have as human beings. One day I truly believe we will all be judged by the content of our character instead of the color of our skin, as MLK so famously said. It will take a lot of hard work to get there and some days will seem like it isn’t possible. But more leaders are stepping up and being a part of the change, and we are doing our best to do our part in the tech and data world. I agree with Austin’s Mayor Adler when he said if everyone in Austin took “Courageous Conversations: Beyond Diversity,” we would be a better version of Austin — a far more equitable, diverse, and inclusive city. Movements like that are happening and will continue. Think about same-sex marriage as a recent example — it seemed like it was so far away and then suddenly it became legalized and a reality for so many.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Warren Buffett is one of the most humble, authentic, and intelligent leaders in the United States. I love going to his annual shareholders meetings (“the Woodstock of Capitalism”), which my good friend Phil Terry so kindly invited me to. I have met him before and would love to spend more time with him, especially in a private breakfast or lunch. I think it is really cool that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett talk for an hour or so every week — to be a part of that conversation, now that would be something. I’ve especially been tuning into Bill Gates’ sage notes on COVID-19 and our progress towards eradicating it.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on Twitter at @databrett, data.world at @databrett, LinkedIn, and my own blog, Lucky7.io (named as a tribute to my mom).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!