Month: November 2016

Nov 20 2016

The Techstars Origin Story

Greg Avery recently wrote a detailed story in the Denver Business Journal of the origin story of Techstars a decade ago. It’s unfortunately paywalled but comes with a video.

For all of you who have participated in or supported Techstars to date, thank you!

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Nov 18 2016

Understanding Privilege – My Experience in Prison

A month ago Mark Suster (Upfront) and I hosted 75 colleagues for a full day at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County – also known as Lancaster. We did this as part of Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth. It was a top 10 peak life experience for me – easily one of the most profound things I’ve experienced to date.

Mark wrote an incredibly detailed post about the experience. Rather than repeat it, I’m going to point you to his post How I Promise You One of the Most Meaningful Days of Your Life. In order to understand this post, you have to start there. So – go read it now – I’ll be here when you get back.

Defy Walk The Line

If you want more views of the day, read Ali Berman’s (Techstars) The Day I spent in Prison, Kerri Shea Beers’ (Techstars) White Privilege, Prison, and a Shot at Redemption, Ben Casnocha’s Visiting Prison Again — With Defy Ventures, Caroline Fairchild’s (Linked) I spent 12 hours in prison with 75 venture capitalists and founders. Here’s what happened, Rick Klau’s (GV) Last month, I went to prison. Next month, I’ll return, Jason Wang’s Going back to prison as the founder of my own startup, Kobie Fuller’s (Upfront) How a day in prison could give you a lesson on judgement, and Kara Nortman’s (Upfront) Spending a day in prison lead me on a path of radical self-improvement. Everyone wrote about the same day (we were all together) if you want to triangulate on the experience.

I’m going to focus on the part of the day where I finally began to understand the notion of privilege. It’s worth starting with one of the definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.”

The exercise lasted about an hour and was just before lunch. We’d had a lot of interaction with the EITs (we are volunteers, they are entrepreneurs in training or EITs) and were feeling as comfortable as one can feel in a level four maximum security prison. Catherine Hoke, the founder and CEO of Defy who ran the event, told us it was time to shift gears. As she described what we were going to do, she told us that it was imperative that we respond honestly. This wasn’t going to be a legalistic exercise, but it was going to be uncomfortable. We then got the rules.

The exercise was called Walk the Line. There were two strips of tape running diagonally across the gymnasium we were in. They were a yard apart. The EITs lined up on one side. The volunteers lined up on the other. We then all took five steps back from the line. As Cat called out questions, if our answer was yes we walked to the line. If our answer was no, we retreated to our position five steps behind the line. We were instructed to look around and connect visually with empathy across the line. We were not to look at the ground or at Cat. We were allowed to shake hands across the line and hug on our side of the line. Cat ended by reminding us that the dominant emotion we should be carrying is empathy.

She then started asking us questions. I’m going to list them all below along with comments in italics on how I felt in response to some of them. I encourage you to read them out loud – it’s the only way you will go slowly enough to really understand what was going on. Each question consumed about a minute as people walked to and back from the line, shook hands, looked at each other, hugged, and cried.

The Warm-up

  1. I like hip-hop.
  2. I work out 3 or more days per week.
  3. I’m older than 20 years old. 25. 30. 40. 50. 60. 70.
  4. I dropped out of high school.
  5. I’ve earned a four-year college degree. Suddenly, I had a feeling about what was to come. Every EIT was away from the line. Almost every volunteer was on the line. This was an almost complete reversal from the previous question.
  6. I’m a natural-born hustler. There were lots of smiles as both sides were generally on the line.
  7. I’ve been self-employed or started my own business, legal or illegal. The smiles continued, with some chuckles interspersed, as a lot of people on both sides were on the line.
  8. I’m committed to starting my own business. 100% of the EITs were now on the line.

About today

  1. This is my first trip to prison. Very few EITs were on the line at this point, meaning many had been in prison before.
  2. I felt at least a little nervous about coming to this event today. 100% of the volunteers were on the line. 100% of the EITs were on the line.
  3. I regularly feel judged by others … for skin color or economic status. The volunteers take a step back, the EITs stay on the line.
  4. I regularly judge others.
  5. I regularly judge myself.
  6. I came here to give of myself.
  7. I came here to take or to receive for myself.
  8. I can already feel myself comparing myself to others, or judging myself or others, right now. 100% of the people on both sides are on the line. Cat reminds us that we are answering honestly and thanks us for doing this.

Even if I don’t know all of you at this line …

  1. I will to do my best to set aside my judgments and comparisons so I can connect with you.
  2. If you become vulnerable in this exercise, I will show you respect and will do my part in creating a safe and reassuring environment for you.
  3. If I see or sense pain or vulnerability, I will offer a hug to reassure you. Both sides of the line are full. I feel anxious all over – I’m sweating and staring ahead across the line, making eye contact in a way that I think is empathetic with the person directly across from me. He looks uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable.

My childhood

  1. I grew up in poverty. Boom.
  2. My parents paid for braces to straighten out my teeth. All the EITs are off the line.
  3. I heard gunshots in my neighborhood. (wave for “a lot”) All the EITs are on the line. Several volunteers who I know are on the line.
  4. I was suspended or expelled from school. Almost all the EITs are on the line. Several volunteers are on the line.
  5. Violence took place in my home. Again, all the EITs are on the line.
  6. Think of the age when you lost your innocence: I lost my innocence after age 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6. As the count down begins the EITs are on the line while the volunteers quickly back off the line. By age 6 there are still a startling number of EITs on the line. I have tears in my eyes as a wave of emotion comes over me. I don’t feel like I lost my innocence until sometime in my early 20s. I can’t imagine self-identifying with losing it younger than age 6.

My Family

  1. For most of my childhood, I was raised with both of my biological parents in the same house.
  2. At least one of my parents wasn’t exactly a positive role model for me – or wasn’t even around.
  3. I was born out of wedlock. I was born to a teenage mother.
  4. At least one of my parents abused drugs or alcohol.
  5. I suffered through the loss of an immediate family member before the age of 18.
  6. My mother or father has been to jail or prison. At this point, the patterns are clear. The EIT directly across me stays on the line through all these questions but the first one. I’ve been off the line since the first one. Now he has tears in his eyes. I keep his gaze while thinking how fortunate I am to have had my childhood and not his.

My beliefs and values before the age of 18

  1. I learned that I couldn’t trust anyone. It continues. Now I have tears again. He smiles at me. He breaks my gaze and looks at the person next to me. I use this moment to look up and down the line on my side. Very few volunteers are on the line. One who I know is on the line and is crying openly. But we continue.
  2. I learned that it’s better to keep my mouth shut and my feelings to myself.
  3. The way I was living, I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it to age 21. There are hugs on our side of the line as we process what is going on. At this point the word privilege isn’t being used (nor does it get used openly throughout the day), but the idea of privilege and how it impacts one’s belief system and values is what is front of mind for me.

Past Criminal life – Cat reminds us that Defy doesn’t work with criminals, but with people who have committed crimes in their past.

  1. I’ve been arrested.
  2. I’ve done criminal things for which I could’ve been arrested, but didn’t. (drunk driving, weed) A series of experiences run through my mind as I think of how different things could be for me if I hadn’t grown up white and middle-class in the suburbs of North Dallas.
  3. I’ve committed a violent offense (even if I wasn’t convicted). Cat stays on this for a while. As all the EITs are on the line, a few volunteers join them. Cat isn’t satisfied and calls out “a bar fight is a violent offense” and a dozen volunteers sheepishly walk to the line. Then a few more do. And we sit with this one for a while.
  4. I’ve been convicted of murder.
  5. I was sentenced before 18 years of age. I’m ready for this experience to end. Between 25% and 50% of the EITs are on the line. All of them are black. Another switch just flipped in my brain.
  6. I’ve spent more than two years of my life in behind bars. 4. 6. 8. 10. 12 (go all the way up). Guys that look like they are in their 30s are hanging on the line through 20 years. We keep going. 30 years. 40 years.
  7. I’m a lifer. Yup – there are a bunch of EITs on the line.
  8. I’ve actually been shot or stabbed.

 Loss

  1. I’ve lost someone I loved to gang violence.
  2. I’ve lost someone I’ve loved to AIDS. I was one of the few volunteers on the line for this one. I didn’t expect this question at all and it sent me back to my late 20s when my fraternity big brother died of AIDS. I remembered the dream I had on an airplane just before he died but about a week after he called me to say goodbye. I kept looking ahead at the EITs on the line.
  3. I’ve lost one or both of my parents.
  4. I’ve lost a child.
  5. I haven’t properly grieved some of my losses.
  6. I have suffered, or currently suffer, from depression. A lot of volunteers are on the line along with me. I feel a sense of relief that the stigma associated with depression might be lifting, but then I remember the context I’m in.
  7. I could use a hug right now. Everyone walks to both sides of the line. Hugs ensue.

 My children

  1. I’m a father (or mother).
  2. My lifestyle caused me to miss out on valuable years in my child’s life.

If you could see inside my brain …

  1. If you knew every one of my dirty secrets, and knew the real me, you wouldn’t love me.
  2. I feel ashamed of my past.
  3. I feel inadequate, at least in some ways.
  4. Sometimes my feelings of inadequacy lead me to overcompensate in some areas, or act out.
  5. There are some things I haven’t forgiven myself for, and may never forgive myself. A number of volunteers walk to the line, including me. I thinking of a specific thing that has happened to me as an adult. It’s something I don’t talk publicly about because I haven’t yet resolved it myself. Or, more honestly, I haven’t forgiven myself for letting it happen to me. I feel ashamed against the backdrop of everything else.
  6. There are some people I haven’t forgiven for hurting me.
  7. Not forgiving others or myself is hurting me to this day.
  8. I am kind to myself; I do a great job of nurturing myself and taking care of my own needs.

My growth

  1. I’m on a journey of personal transformation. Almost all of the EITs are on the line. People are starting to smile again.
  2. Others look at me as a role model. I’m aware of the importance of my influence.
  3. I might not be able to explain it, but even though I’ve been revealing difficult things and have made myself vulnerable in this exercise, right here, right now, I feel safe, accepted and loved.
  4. I already love Defy!! Everyone on both sides is on the line.

I know that words above doesn’t do the experience justice, but at the end of the hour I was emotionally exhausted. There were at least 25 of the EITs who I had made eye contact with that I wanted to go talk to. There were an equal number of volunteers who I wanted to talk to. Instead, I tried to relax a little. I grabbed on to one word – privilege – that I knew represented a fundamental difference between most of the people on either side of the line.

While it’s easy to talk about privilege it’s hard to really understand it. It’s even harder to experience it if you are the one with privilege. I thought I understood it, but I didn’t. As I let the next five minutes quietly unfold in my mind, I decided that I was no longer going to assume I really understood privilege. Instead, I was going to engage with society in a way to help those without privilege have a better opportunity. Through that, I’d understand it better, have empathy for others who didn’t have privilege, and channel my actions as a human into making the world better from that frame of reference.

I’ve committed to go to prison with Defy four times in 2017. If you want to join me as a volunteer on one of the trips, just reach out. I can promise you a life changing day.

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Nov 17 2016

Using M&A Deal Escrows to Support Non-Profits

SRS Acquiom and Pledge 1% have teamed up to created EscrowUP by SRS Acquiom. As investors in SRS Acquiom and members of Pledge 1%, we are excited about the creative idea the two organizations have come up with to increase charitable giving as a result of merger transactions.

When one company buys another, a portion of the proceeds (usually between 10% and 20% of the deal) goes into an escrow account for a period of time (usually a year or two). This escrow is used to cover any undisclosed or agreed to liabilities that come up for this period of time after the transaction. One of the shareholders, called a shareholder rep, is responsible for managing all the activity on the sellers side. It’s a thankless task and a number of years ago my partner Jason Mendelson helped create SRS Acquiom to address this. Instead of a VC, board member, or founder being the shareholder rep (and doing what can turn into a lot of work for free), you can now outsource this to SRS Acquiom.

The money kept in escrow is typically held by a bank. Not surprisingly, the bank makes a spread on the money for doing nothing other than holding the money. Often, the accounts are interest free because it makes tax and accounting easier, and the interest on the escrow accounts isn’t material in the context of the individual deal. But, the numbers across multiple deals adds up. Therein lies and interesting opportunity.

Imagine the following situation: Assume GiantCorp agrees to buy AwesomeStartup for $1 billion. As part of the deal, GiantCorp insists that $100 million of the $1 billion (10%) be put in escrow for 18 months after closing to ensure everything AwesomeStartup represented about its business is true.

GiantCorp and AwesomeStartup could agree that the escrow will either go into an interest bearing or non-interest bearing account. Whatever they select, they get the same terms with EscrowUP as they would without it so there is zero impact to them. But if they agree to have it participate in EscrowUP, then money goes to charity.

That money comes from SRS Acquiom, not out of the deal parties’ pockets. SRS Acquiom gives a portion of their revenue (up to 24 basis points) from the deal to the awesome group of designated charities that support entrepreneurs.

The result is that up to $360,000 would to go to the designated nonprofits from this single example deal of GiantCorp buying AwesomeStartup. If lots of deals join in, it drives many millions to Pledge 1% and the other nonprofits.

For a different summary, Erin Griffith wrote a good article in Fortune titled How the Merger Boom Can Drive Donations to Charity.

For more info, email me and I’ll connect you or just go to EscrowUP. And, if you aren’t a member of Pledge 1%, check it out and consider joining.

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Nov 16 2016

11/17: Sports, Startups, and San Diego: An Evening with Brad Feld

If you are in the San Diego area Thursday at the end of the day I’m doing a public event with Techstars and San Diego Sports Innovators from 6pm – 7:30pm called Sports, Startups, and San Diego: An Evening with Brad Feld. It’s free but you need to register here.

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Nov 15 2016

Interview on the Turnpikers Podcast

One of the podcasts in my regular rotation is Turnpikers. Luke Beatty and Danny Newman – both long time friends – are doing an awesome job interviewing interesting people in the Boulder – Denver startup community.

If you don’t know the area, Turnpikers stands for U.S. Route 36 (known locally as “36” or sometimes “Highway 36”). But the locals call it the Boulder Turnpike. So, those of us who travel up and down 36 between Boulder and Denver are known – at least to Luke and Danny – as Turnpikers.

Luke and Danny interviewed me a few weeks ago in a studio at Postmodern Company in Denver. We hung out for an hour in a windowless room talking about whatever came to mind. I never listen to interviews I do before they are published – I like to listen to them after they are out in the world. This interview was one of my recent favorites.

The interview is Episode 18 of Turnpikers. You can listen to it here on the web. Or go to iTunes and download the entire Turnpikers podcast. iTunes gives me a little E for explicit – go figure. If you live in Boulder or Denver, be recursive and listen to it while driving on 36.

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Nov 14 2016

Weekly Techstars Diversity / Inclusion Office Hours in New York City

The day after the election, Alex Iskold (Techstars NY Managing Director) wrote a great post titled Dear Founders, I Commit to Double My Support For You and Your Startups. It’s vintage, wonderful Alex along with a series of specific things he’s going to do.

  • Work even more closely with the founders to help them with their financings.
  • Help founders drive up revenue, achieving profitability and independence.
  • Send even more introductions, connect even more people.
  • Answer every single email and every single tweet from a founder.
  • Meet more founders in NYC and around the world and give feedback.
  • Always iterate on my calendar and make more time for the founders.
  • Speak at public events in NYC and around the world about entrepreneurship.
  • Blog more about topics founders care about and want to read about.
  • Publish my (long in the works) book for founders.

Today, Alex wrote a post titled Introducing Techstars Weekly Diversity and Inclusion Office Hours for Founders in NYC. Every Tuesday from 5pm – 7pm a group of Techstars employees in NY will meet with any female, minority, LGBTQ, or immigrant founder about anything. Sign up here.

In addition to Alex, other Techstars folks who will do these office hours include KJ Singh and Jillian Canning who help Alex run the Techstars NY City Program, Jenny Fielding who runs the Techstars IoT and Fintech Programs, Eamonn Carey who runs Techstars Connection, and Jenny Lawton, who recently joined Techstars as a Chief Operating Officer.

Bravo gang – I love seeing things like this just happen.

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Nov 10 2016

Help Make Pioneer In Skirts A Reality

One of my core values is diversity of everything.

I’ve been involved deeply in several organizations, such as National Center for Women and Information Technology, that have been focused on increasing gender diversity in computer science and entrepreneurship. More recently, I’ve expanded my lens a lot to include many other dimensions of diversity. The mission of the Techstars Foundation, which is improving diversity in tech entrepreneurship, is an example of that.

One thing that I learned from my work with NCWIT is the power of examples. So, Amy and I have been supporting independent filmmakers for a few years. The first film we helped fund was CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. Then, following the leadership of Joanne Wilson, we helped fund Dream, Girl which you can watch for free on their website until November 14th.

Recently, a group of us have been helping a young filmmaker, Ashley Maria, who is on her own personal journey to find out why careers are much more complicated and difficult when a woman tries to have one.

Pioneers in Skirts focuses on cultural and personal setbacks women still face in our society when they pursue a career. The film focuses on hot social topics that women encounter – like the mommy penalty and unconscious biases we find in our culture, the need for mentorship, sponsors, and men to advocate for their female co-workers, and how to nip the problem in the bud during adolescence.

Pioneers in Skirts is currently in post-production aiming for an early 2017 premiere in festivals and then VOD, Streaming and Television. Ashley and team need a little more funding to get things done so if you are inclined to support an ambitious young female filmmaker working on what Amy and I think is an important film, go to her support page and make a donation to the effort.

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Nov 9 2016

Taking a Deep Breath

My partner Seth sent out an email to our CEO list this morning titled Taking a deep breath after we received several emails from CEOs with questions along the lines of “how should we think about the result of the election / what should we do?” After I saw a few responses to Seth’s note, I asked if he was ok with me republishing it here. I realize that very few of you who read my blog are on our CEO list so I hope it’s helpful to you to see what Seth sent around.

Seth’s note follows:

“While I’m dismayed at what happened last night, now isn’t a time to be reactionary. And the US needs a strong and vocal counterbalance to the hate and bigotry we just empowered.

For many of you, as well as for us, it was a deeply disappointing night. And it’s easy to wake up today with a sense of fear and foreboding about the future of our country. That’s understandable. And while we share that fear we also continue to share an optimism about the greatness of our country and our future. America is a resilient country and we passionately hope that resilience will temper the hate and vitriol that’s been on display over the past months in this election.

We’ve heard from many of you about what last night might mean for your businesses, whether a recession is imminent, whether costs should be cut immediately, etc. And we know that the markets appear to be reacting strongly to the news of a Trump presidency. But we believe that now isn’t the time for reactionary action. If you were excited about your business last week you should be excited about it today.

Our advice for the moment is to let things settle out. Stand up for the beliefs that are important to you. Be vocal within your community about things like tolerance, fairness and inclusiveness. Your employees will be looking to you for how to react. Show them that our economy and your business will go on. That we’ll evaluate the future dispassionately and that your business today isn’t fundamentally different than your business yesterday.”

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Nov 9 2016

Getting Back To Work

Yesterday morning I woke up and said out loud “I accept whatever the outcome of this election is.”

I decided that whatever the outcome, I had spent all the emotional and functional energy I wanted to on the election. I was public about my point of view. I advocated for my perspective. And I voted.

In our democracy, I accept the outcome. I’m a long term optimist and hold that value front and center.

It’s now time for me to get back to work. And that starts with a run on the Embarcadero …

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Nov 5 2016

My Last Post About This Election – Don’t Waste Your Vote

Please vote. Just so you know my bias before reading further, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.

This post is not aimed at you if you have already decided to vote for Clinton or for Trump. It is aimed at you if you haven’t voted, are considering not voting, or are voting for someone other than Clinton or Trump.

At this point, especially in states like Colorado where it appears the election will be close, action other than a vote for Clinton is essentially supporting Trump. Regardless of your perspective about the candidates, the election process, our current system, or anything that needs to be changed going forward, either Clinton or Trump is going to be elected president by Wednesday.

I’ve been deeply upset about many things during this election. However, at this point, I feel extremely strongly that Trump is not a suitable candidate for president. I’m appalled that things have gotten to this point and that he’s been able to get away with things he’s said and done, but I’ve struggled with how to articulate my feelings in a direct and factual way.

Fortunately, Mark Suster did it for me last week in a post titled And Then They Came for Me … I’ve read Mark’s post once a day as I pondered what I wanted to write. As Amy and I finished Episode 5 of Goliath last night, my thoughts around this finally came into focus.

You should go read Mark’s post, but the rest of this post builds off of things he wrote.

“You don’t get to pretend for 5 years that the first African American president in US history wasn’t born in the United States and then get a free pass on running for the presidency.” (Suster)

On top of this clear racism, Trump had the audacity to both claim that Clinton started this and then he finished it. This was absurd beyond comprehension. It’s a classic example of extreme misdirection, something that is woven through many of Trump’s mistakes and misdeeds. It’s the opposite of a leader who takes responsibility for his actions.

“You don’t get to launch your campaign saying illegal Mexicans are “rapists and murderers and some, I assume, are good people.” That is racist and fear mongering and stoking the flames of those who want to vilify “the other” which has been done throughout our country to the Irish, the Polish, the Jews, Italians and yes — the Germans — and every other immigrant population throughout history. Racism is disqualifying. Immigration and assimilation are two of the unique features that have made America so great over its centuries.” (Suster)

I’m Jewish. My grandparents came here from Russia and Germany in the early 1900’s. Deep in my bones, I worry the Cossacks are coming to take me away and kill me. This is a recurring theme in my discussions with my therapist and my wife who is not afraid of this, but at least empathic to my concerns.

“You don’t get to call for a religious test to enter our country, potentially denying access to more than 1 billion Muslim people in the world including very large populations in Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.” (Suster)

In addition to being deeply offensive to me, it violates the basic tenets on which our country was founded. As a child growing up in Texas, I learned this in eighth grade American history.

“You don’t get to say out loud that you would kiss women against their will or grab them against their will. That isn’t “locker-room talk” it is sexual assault and you don’t get to normalize that talk and then be president of our country. ” (Suster)

I’ve been extraordinarily upset by this aspect of the election, an emotion I share with literally millions of women (and many men.) Sexual assault is a real thing, not locker-room talk.

“You don’t get to pretend that you “just don’t know anything about” David Duke especially when there is this pesky fact of public record that you do know about David Duke.”

Let’s go back to that Jewish and immigrant thing.

“But on issues of racism, race-baiting, religious intolerance, misogyny, sexual assault, white supremacy and demagoguery — there can be no gray area, …. These are disqualifying issues …  If we accept leaders who embrace demagoguery, intolerance and groups of citizens who would turn on each other and vilify “the other” then eventually they will turn on us, … I am the straight son of an immigrant father from South America whose parents on both sides are Jewish and who proudly thinks of myself as an American first and foremost and everything else second.” (Suster)

I am a son of immigrant grandparents from Germany and Russia. I probably would not exist if my grandparents hadn’t managed to get to America – there is a significant chance they would have been exterminated in World War I (Russia) or World War II (Germany). I love this country and while we have many issues, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

I encourage you to be deliberate about everything you do. You get to choose who you are and what your values are. On November 9th, either Clinton or Trump will have been elected president.

Please don’t waste your vote by not voting.

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