Author and an innovator in the tech space, and active in the Atlanta startup community, Rodney is a ‘Veteran, Tech Entrepreneur.’ He’s started four tech companies, experienced exit on two on them, and has been formally building his business for over 15 years. He co-founded Opportunity Hub and has joint ventured with TechSquare Labs to bring innovation, culture, and capital to communities of color.
I‘ve essentially been tapping in and leveraging my entrepreneur DNA for as long as I can remember. I explored it and was curious about it on my own. I go back to my Uncle Ben whose great great great great uncle was, after the Emancipation, a Pullman porter. He saved his money and purchased over 3000 acres of land. Outside of the University of Georgia, Oglethorpe County, not far from the University of Georgia, my great great grandfather owned a store in Atlanta’s historic community. My grandfather worked and also drove a cab on the side. Willie Watkins, a successful funeral home owner in Atlanta, attributes his entrepreneurial spark to my grandfather encouraging him to do more than shine shoes. I would say it’s always been there, though I nurtured it myself.
The violin was my first instrument, then I migrated to piano and organ and keyboard. I could play in churches in and around Atlanta, and they volunteered to pay me. I saw an opportunity to use my innovation and skill as a musician to generate revenue. That’s when it really started. When I got to undergraduate, I evolved from there with more exposure to it. Of course, I didn’t call it entrepreneurship. I called it ‘business.’ That’s where the spark came from. Outside of those tech companies, we have a publishing company. I’ve published four books and we have a digital joint publishing venture with Audible.
The most prominent book was Kingonomics. It speaks to today’s culture and the diversity required for economic parity and inclusive prosperity. Some of the others include Your Manifest Destiny, Solutions for Realizing Your Personal Power in the Obama Era, and Black Trillions: Introducing Symbiotic Economics, which talks about the spending power of blacks and how to leverage it. That’s the framework for economic empowerment I use.
Learning how to effectively communicate and network is important. There’s a certain intuitiveness that comes with being an innovator, which allows you to explore and be curious about different relationships. That’s what took me to Africa, and I ended up advising three countries, and two African Heads of State: Uganda and Gabone. After commuting back and forth for three years, I started a small investment vehicle with my wife. I was transitioning into becoming an angel investor, which led us to 2010 when I started working on Kingonomics.
There were a lot of gaps, even when you’re looking at an investor who wants to potentially write a check for a company. There are so many gaps in terms of looking at fundability, investability, structure, minimum viable product, etc. I tried to encapsulate the responsibility so entrepreneurs of color could step up. It’s not just about certifications. It’s about having a strong company and building that company and it’s infrastructure from the ground up.
What was supposed to be just a book launch turned into this large-scale conference in Atlanta with over 1,000 attendees. We did it again in D.C. for the 50th anniversary and Over 18,000 people came. We did custom discovery market research at those events, and the feedback was that people needed a place (outside of the conference) to meet as well as access mentors, accountability, opportunity, and capital. That’s how the platform was born.
Simultaneous to that, I was invited to do advisory work on the Bible series Mark Burnett was producing with his wife, Roma Downey. The same Mark Burnett who produces The Voice, Survivor, The Apprentice and Shark Tank. After working with him on the Bible series, he requested help with diversifying Shark Tank, where I headed diversify for a couple of years. We got a lot of success out of that. I had the power to shape positive narratives on entrepreneurs that didn’t come from the streets, and represent another journey and kind of narrative.
Most people only see forward-facing diversity and not the inward work that has to go into it, but there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work and negotiating. I use media to shape the archetypes of what successful entrepreneurs of color, particularly black men, do look like, and could or should look like. I worked with Mark Burnett on AD Son of God, a on primetime NBC series. We were able to ensure that color was represented. James, the disciples, James, John, and Philip were black. Mary Magdalene and the arc angels were cast as black. It was the first time in history (and primetime) that a biblical story had been that authentic in terms of having people of color represented on the main stage.
I did that for a couple of years, and became focused on building this opportunity ecosystem that really addressed the nascence of black cofounders in the tech or digital space or innovative space and access the capital, actually building the capital within and without. To connect the two, you’ve got to have the spaces and programming. We need more black cofounders and more black capital, so we’re working on infrastructure that allows those to thrive and to flourish.
The macro, ephemeral–it’s my spirituality. I can’t deny that. It’s my spirituality, my key relationships, the people I allow in my inner circle, and my mind space. For example the relationship with my wife and her contribution towards strategic thinking, planning, and investing. It’s a stacked offer. There are philosophies on top of that, influenced by Napoleon Hill, Dr. Martin Luther King, Maynard Jackson, which provides a framework. And then you take a glimpse and look at the stories and lives of the great innovators like Steve Jobs as well as Booker T. Washington. I think it’s incredibly important to maintain that balance. You can’t want to know about every mainstream technology entrepreneur and not want to know about every inventor like the Lonnie Johnson’s of the world, the African American scientists.
Lonnie invented the Super Soaker. What people don’t know about Lonnie is he’s got over 100 patents, one of them being technology that’s on the Galilean spaceship, the last one that went around Jupiter and is still on its mission. That’s what blackness created. Not just this culture–but individuals today need to recognize the contribution of blacks, creating something from nothing and going where most men or no man has gone before.
I’m not active in a traditional sense as kind of a lay minister. I’m part of a bishop organization called International Bishops Conference. When they asked me to be a part of that, my only rule was that I was allowed to continue my work, which is around dismantling poverty, building up the confidence of young black males and females. As long as they allow me my autonomy–of course with accountability–but to work on the social injustices, that to me is the work of Christ. That’s what it means to follow Christ, not so much building fancy, elaborate buildings and having expensive mortgages and all of those things. Perhaps as a place for convening, I’m not against that at all, but I think there’s so much more that we can do to influence economics, influence education, influence policy. The scripture says, “Above things, I want you to be prosperous and in good health” (3 John 1:2). Whether it’s mental health, psychological health, physical health. All of those different things could be argued from a spiritual context.
Even though the black community has all the resources required to address all systemic inequality, we do require collaborative partners across all cultures, races, nationalities. What we have to understand as entrepreneurs is black culture influences American culture and American culture influences world culture, and it’s the same thing. Black economics influences American influences, primarily through our super-consumerism, and that’s what influences American consumerism. American consumerism influences world consumerism and world economics. So if we understand we’re the foundation of the economic and cultural power base and then start producing and creating what we consume, then that in itself could help level the playing field. And all tides can rise if the playing field is level.
Exposure is key: in the entrepreneur ecosystem, in the investment ecosystem, and particularly in service-based businesses, government contracting, corporate supply things, etc. Success can also breed complacency. So I think you’ve got a generation of entrepreneurs who have thrived off of the certification process of having the minority designation but hadn’t really focused on building the definitive products and services where certification doesn’t matter. There’s a place for both. Certification is great, but having a great company is even better. Buy from me because my company has the best services indifferent of my narrative or my status, my minority status or whatever that status may be.
You have to look at how to leverage to get access to resources. It may be diversifying your cofounding team with someone who has access to resources. I’m not against all black cofounding teams, but I think if we’re going to really talk about diversity and inclusion, I have some really strong cofounding teams in the opportunity hub where there’s a black cofounder, Jewish cofounder an Indian cofounder, and a female one. They’re kicking butt. My white teams or all-Indian teams or my all-black teams are struggling. It’s hard enough building a startup, but when you layer the complexities of race, culture, racism, classism and everything else on top of it, it makes it even more difficult.
Sometimes you can disrupt the status quo by being as diverse as possible at the cofounding team, at the advisory board team, etc. I think that’s what young black cofounders should be open to. This is not a narrative that white is better, I’m just saying we can all do more together than we can apart. Beyond that, what I see particularly with a lot of our African American cofounders as well is they lack acumen in terms of navigating the entrepreneur landscape, how to build a company, how to reverse engineer a company, how to deal with evaluations, how to deal with term sheets–all the technical stuff.
They can be out there hustling, marketing, with the Twitter followers and skip over the fundamentals of building a high-growth business. I don’t care how much of a party promoter you are or were–that’s not what it takes to build a company. Getting the pre-accelerator onboarding piece is essential to walking through the idea through the exit process. Getting the acumen is key, and it’s key for all cofounders, period, but in particular for black cofounders. Completing an accelerator program doesn’t mean you’re legit, but it does definitely mean you fit into the ecosystem. If you’re not in a coworking space, you haven’t been through a pre-accelerator program, or are not associated with an incubator, you are eliminated before you’re good to go.
I am a native of Atlanta. I’m FILA all day: Forever I Love Atlanta. I think in terms of the future of black business, particularly around technology innovation, tech, anything online, web-based, software-based Atlanta is the black tech Mecca. It’s not just emerging. We’ve got four cofounders either online or coming online in the next few. It’ll be a total of about 100,000 web space. There’s nowhere in the world where black people are involved in owning that much entrepreneurial startup hub-ish type space, period.
When you look at the startups that have received at least a quarter to half a million in seed funding, we’ve identified about ten of them. There’s nowhere else on the planet you find find black men and women doing that. From a talent development perspective, when you come into the Opportunity Hub, we’ve got more black coders working, in training, etc. at any given time and any given place we know of. We’re leading in that regard.