Urban Tech Connect // Forward 2021 kicked off with energetic conversations and valuable insights for attendees from across the tech ecosystem.
Day 1 of the virtual three-day conference included engaging on-demand sessions, office hours powered by Mailchimp, a networking lunch powered by ChowNow, and informative workshops. The first day also featured these fantastic live sessions:
Turning a World-Changing Startup Idea into Reality Cheryl Contee, chief innovation officer of The Impact Seat, and Isaac Hayes III, founder and CEO of Fanbase, joined Digitalundivided CEO Lauren Maillian for an inspiring conversation about getting started in entrepreneurship.
“Black founders, we’re so used to being an army of one and pushing hard as an individual,” Contee said. “Yet, any investor is going to tell you that you cannot do it alone.” Hayes III spoke about how equity crowdfunding is disrupting venture capital, touching on his experience using the approach to raise a $3.2 million seed round for his startup.
Backing Opportunities that Bring Us Forward This lively panel included David Hall, managing partner for Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, Portfolia Rising America Fund investor Juliana Garaizar, and Courtside Venture partner Kai Bond, RareBreed Ventures managing partner McKeever Conwell, and Plug In South LA founder Derek Smith.
“Keep in mind when you are pitching to investors, you’re not just competing against all the companies in your sector but also all the companies a VC will see over a period of time,” Conwell advised founders.
Their conversation also highlighted recent VC movements to back more diverse founders. Kai Bond said that, at least once a month, he’s seeing POC-led startups raise north of $100 million. The panelists agreed there’s more potential than ever for Black and Brown founders to reach “unicorn” status with companies valued over $1 billion.
Coming up on Day 2, we’ve got more can’t-miss sessions curated specially for startup founders, investors, tech pros, job-seekers, and recent grads.
The best advice you received when starting out? Be kind to everyone — you never know who knows whom and who can help you when you need it. Also: The people you see coming up are the people you see going down.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I feel so fortunate to be able to use my tech skills in a way that makes a difference in the world.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I listened to my intuition. Neuroscience tells us that it’s the smartest part of us. Your brain synthesizes millions of inputs, cranks it in a black box and the output is that hunch, instinct, or gut feeling. Follow your instincts and trust yourself!
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? Encrypt.me — it keeps my internet use safe and encrypted.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I spend an hour a day reading news online from a number of different sources, both U.S. and international. Some general news, some tech news and some news that is related to entrepreneurship or causes. I mix it up to get a variety of perspectives and ideas to keep me on the cutting edge.
The best advice you received when starting out? Don’t forget to take your blinders off. You can be so focused on what’s in front of you that you don’t realize how it impacts or is impacted by the things around you.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I’ve always had an eye for process improvement opportunities and it’s a big part of why I fell in love with quality assurance. Over the years in my role as a quality leader I found I always needed to work on process as a means to improve quality. However, I noticed that this was not a common connection for most organizations.
As my career has continued, I have come to the realization that under developed processes are a missed opportunity to build a culture of quality within an organization. As a quality champion, I want to help others rethink and broaden their views around quality and help them define, develop and drive a culture of quality.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? Move over Diamonds: Google is EVERYONE’S new best friend. If I’m stumped, the first thing I’ll do is Google to see if anyone else was once stumped or blocked in the same area. Did they find a solution? What did they learn along the way? Are there opportunities that surfaced as a result of the hurdle that I want to make sure I also take advantage of?
We live our lives alongside others. I try to take advantage of that to leverage others growth experiences so that I can focus on learning the new thing to share with someone else.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? I recently bought a new iPad and I’ve been using it to take notes, but I especially love the fact that I can get PDFs of white papers or books and make notes directly on the screen. And the icing on the cake is that those notes are now searchable!
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I like to attend conferences to hear other thought leaders ideas and insights. For things that are new or updated I will research and read articles from other thoughts leaders that have written on the topic and let it take me on a journey of discovery of books and other available media.
The best advice you received when starting out? Hmm. I think it was some variety of no one will let you be a product manager at Microsoft.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I like to create. To forge new paths to solve novel problems. For a business of for customers. I think being a product person is the closest you can get to playing God as a creative.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? Wallow a bit, complain and lot, and then plan to get to the next step over whatever hurdle I was facing at the time.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? I use Todoist a lot to build lists of what I want to focus on. My trustiest app is still just writing on anything — Word, Docs, Confluence.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I still use RSS to gather news that is interesting to me across the web! But I supplement by following smart people and reading headlines from a few reputable news vendors.
Martin Muoto, Founder and Managing Partner, SoLa Impact
The best advice you received when starting out? In general, it has been the reminder that doing anything truly great will come with some struggles. Anyone can do things that are average without much sacrifice and suffering, but if you want to do things that have never been done before, it requires an incredible amount of hard work, focus and discipline. Therefore, it’s important to enjoy hard work, focus and discipline.
My parents also taught me early that “To him much is given, much is expected.” Despite being raised in very modest circumstances and coming to the United States with only $400 to my name, I always felt incredibly blessed and have wanted to share that blessing with others.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I feel very fortunate that when I fell into what I’m doing now, so many things simply made sense. It was an alignment of what I refer to as my four Ps: Passion, Pragmatism, Purpose, and Profit. When you find something you can make money at, you’re good at, it fits your greater purpose, and you are deeply passionate about, then it’s simply meant to be.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? Progress is rarely linear — you can’t measure it with a ruler and it’s not steady. Sometimes, you’re moving very slowly or backward. Other times, you’re moving rapidly and everything seems to be going your way.
Whenever I hit a hurdle, it’s simply a reminder to stop and reassess. Am I moving too quickly? Am I building the right infrastructure? Am I practicing the right habits personally and professionally? So often, hitting a hurdle can be great because it forces you to think more critically.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? For exercise, I recently started learning to row using a Concept2 Indoor Rower. It’s like using a treadmill except it’s low-impact and you engage a lot more of your muscles. The “ergometer” is a device that measures your workout, and ErgData tracks performance and provides statistics. I love to see the data and you can really get lost watching your numbers.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I talk to a lot of people and stay close to the grassroots. The best thing you can do is talk to people that you respect, or form a group of social entrepreneurs and social impact leaders you can trust. Examples for me would be the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) and NationSwell. I spend as much time as possible in the field, Covid-permitting, connecting with colleagues.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? Online resources and engaging subject matter experts.
Alex Mitchell, SVP, Unlocking Innovation (Incubation), LACI
The best advice you received when starting out? Never, ever stop asking questions.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I love how people move around cities and I love data. I realized that scientists much smarter than I am were telling us things from their data about how the way we are moving around cities wasn’t necessarily good for the planet. So I’ve found a lot of joy over the last decade finding ways that we move around cities more sustainable.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I am immensely grateful for any number of mentors I have found along the way, whether formal or informal. There is no one answer to any questions, so getting input from different mentors at the same inflection point has been helpful for me in drawing up a game plan in response to any setback or new opportunity.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? Insight Timer! It’s my favorite meditation app. I find it super helpful to keep myself focused and centered.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? Lots of Slack channels, lots of newsletters, and following a really diverse, heterogenous crew of people on social media.
The best advice you received when starting out? Be a VC before you actually become a VC.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? Prior to pursuing venture capital, I had successful careers in enterprise startup and management consulting. I realized that I loved being around super smart people, interacting at the executive level on strategy and operations, discovering and engaging with cutting edge technologies, and helping to solve real challenges via technology.
I also learned that it was important to have true skin in the game — I wanted my actions and decisions to truly count towards success. Additionally, I like variety and have a need to participate and interact meaningfully with several ventures at the same time.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I analyzed the challenges and potential paths forward, talked with mentors and advisors, then made a decision and started to take meaningful steps towards the goal. In many cases, that decision meant betting on myself and betting on my team.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? I’ve been spending a decent amount of time in the Seventh Ave app (in beta right now). It’s a drop-in audio platform that curates conscious conversations for the diaspora. The conversations are thought-provoking and relevant to the various aspects of a Black person’s life.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I have frequent conversations with people from all walks of life. The intention is to learn what they are currently thinking about, interacting with or trying to hurdle. I’m constantly looking for overlapping themes and behaviors as a way of understanding how culture is and will move — innovation usually follows shifts in culture.
Mamuna Oladipo, SVP, of Product, Design, and Engineering, Kickstarter
The best advice you received when starting out? If you are going to do it, be thorough or don’t do it at all.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? Curiosity. I reached a ceiling in a different industry I was working in and was looking for a next step. An opportunity came up to leverage my existing knowledge and learn about the product.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I focus on defining the hurdle. Understand the different options in front of me. I create a plan to test each of those options until I find one that seems to get me over that hurdle.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? Twitter at the moment, I find it to be a great way to casually understand what is happening in tech/business generally. Candidly, I want to get better myself at actually sharing things and so it’s nice to see how others are using it.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I aggregated several RSS feeds into Feedly that I browse daily. I also teach a product course and in that course I’m constantly being asked questions to which I want to find supporting articles for students to learn. In turn, I often learn at the same time, which is nice.
The best advice you received when starting out? “Say yes to opportunity.” This has been a guiding principle for my career and ultimately what led me to product. I didn’t know much about it, but I had a willingness to try something new. That one piece of advice helped me land my dream career.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? The nice answer? Impact. Product gives me the ability to shape the future of technology, the people who work to create it and the people who are helped because of it. Reality? I was a 100% skill match on LinkedIn so I just applied. Hahaha. (Ironically, some technology that helped this job-seeker.)
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I took a break. When I hit walls at work, I create space for me to think and tap back into my personal “why.” So often, when I’m in tough spots, it’s because I’ve lost focus on why I started so things seem harder. When I take the time to refocus, mountains that need climbing start to look like hills.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? There are few things in the world I love more than iMessage and Peloton. They’re both easy to use, keep me on track and, when I want to ignore them, they don’t mind. Hahaha!
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? LinkedIn. I read EVERYTHING and it keeps me in the loop. Also, through my product coaching initiative I’m talking to product leaders regularly so I learn about the challenges companies are facing. It keeps me sharp.
The best advice you received when starting out? I think the biggest piece of advice that I’ve received to date is that I have permission to thrive, be my most authentic self and unapologetically design the life that I want and deserve.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I was deeply disillusioned by the fact that we rely too heavily on the nonprofit sector to solve all of our most pressing problems, yet time and time again we see how precarious, under-resourced and unsustainable a sector that relies on the charity of wealthy individuals really is. I wanted to see if there was a way to help build businesses better — to hold them accountable for solving the complex problems of our day through their fundamental business practices or products and services.
I saw a huge gap in tech where companies and founders were building these incredible products and mission driven companies yet they didn’t have the expertise to operationalize their impact strategies. That’s where I come in!
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? The biggest hurdle in my career came after I realized that I no longer wanted to work in the nonprofit sector any more. It was such a tough moment of reckoning because for so long I just assumed the only way I could make an impact was in the nonprofit world.
I decided to go to business school to pivot into the private sector (very expensive solution, I know) but I saw an immediate ROI when I got my first full time role in tech (at Headspace) during the summer between my first and second year of business school. During that time, I leaned HEAVILY on a ton of mentors and friends who would constantly remind me that I was fully capable of taking that leap of faith!
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? I’m OBSESSED with Calendly. I didn’t realize how much time we spend going back and forth trying to find times to meet and it has truly been a game-changer at keeping me organized.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I do a TON of reading. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning and usually the last thing I do before bed. I also actually set aside blocks of time on my calendar twice a week solely to do deep dives on industry news, reports, research, and trends.
The best advice you received when starting out? The first was from my mother who said, “Life is all about people, not money” so my social capital triumph is my investment dollars, and the second was from my uncle: “Success is about execution,” so I primarily take execution risk and, so far, I have the ability to execute.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? I actually stumbled into investment because I wanted to be a shoulder for the next entrepreneur. It started as my hobby and I realized I loved it, and then one day Esther Dyson told me, “What you’re doing is angel investing,” so I doubled down and it is the joy of my life.
Somehow I have also metamorphosed in the sense that I enjoy working with entrepreneurs bringing my capital, capacity, and community to bear and that is the secret sauce of Chanzo Capital.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I employ persistence.
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? I love all the digital tools and apps that my investees develop because it is an expression of themselves and am always honored to be a part of it.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? I read a lot and am very active in the relevant forums.
The best advice you received when starting out? Empathy can be your competitive advantage.
What initially drew you to the work you’re doing now? Startup founders know that they are likely to fail and decide to start companies anyways. Telling that against all odds story never gets old.
When you hit a professional hurdle, how did you move forward? I realized that you can’t “To Do” list or Google Docs your way out of a challenge. I learned that you should always feel empowered to say what you want and that the age old advice of “make yourself indispensable” can sometimes be an outdated mindset that makes you say yes. Don’t say yes always!
Which digital tool or app do you love right now and why? I love Eat the Internet, a digital community cookbook.
How do you stay current on the latest moves in your field? Long-form podcasts, and this little known app called Twitter.
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