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Build The Damn Thing

Nov 23, 2021

The story of Genius Guild, the power of investing in Black entrepreneurs, and the importance of sticking to your core values.

In "Black Muse," the season finale of Build The Damn Thing, serial entrepreneur Kathryn Finney is joined by guests to discuss black excellence, entrepreneurship, and investing.

Featured Ep.8 guests: Renee Wittemyer | Brian Aoaeh | Michael Dyer | Cheryl Contee | Geri Stengel | Sharmayne Lueiza Munoz | Barbara Clarke | Teresa Chahine | Jeffrey Robinson 

Quotes from the show:
“We're looking for black founders who are thinking big, who are innovators, who have ideas that others are like, "Eh, I don't know." I don't know if that works, but we know - because we're operators and investors - that they can work. "   -- Kathryn Finney, Build the Damn Thing, Episode #8
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Kathryn Finney
Twitter: @KathrynFinney
Instagram: @hiiamkathryn
Facebook: Kathryn Finney
Genius Guild
Website: Genius Guild
Twitter: @GeniusGuild
Instagram: @geniusguild
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Produced by Genius Guild Content Studios
Executive Producers:  Kathryn Finney and Darlene Gillard Jones
Post-Production Company: Prosper Digital TV
Post-Production Manager: Joanes Prosper
Post-Production Supervisor: Jason Pierre
Post-Production Sound Editor: Evan Joseph
Co-Music Supervisors: Jason Pierre and Darlene Gillard Jones
Show Music: provided by Prosper Digital TV
Main Show Theme Music: "Self Motivated" Written & Performed by Tamara Bubble
Add'l Music: "Lil' Sumn" by Dreamadai
Special Thanks to The New Bedford Whaling Museum - New Bedford, MA

Renee Wittemyer
I met Kathryn at south by Southwest in 2018 in this tiny conference room. And we made a connection that day, given our shared love of data. And we are huge data fans. And so by really seeing the data, we believe that that's the, that's the basis from which to address challenges and create change.   And Kathryn’s got this incredible talent for painting the picture of what she wants to achieve, opening up your imagination to a better future and how she has this plan to get there. 

She sees opportunities and embraces change and challenge openly as a true innovator. We're proud to be an early supporter and believer in genius Guild and Kathryn’s leadership as an emerging fund manager and her vision of tech innovation that can generate transformational solutions and intergenerational wealth in the black community. 

Kathryn Finney
Venture capital was my occupation, but entrepreneurship is my vocation. So I look at the world through the lens of possibilities and what can be built. The future is built by those who build it. And black people have been building the future and reaping no benefits for far too long. This is why I'm building Genius Guild. And this the season finale of build a thing here, why I chose venture capital as a way to build a new black future.I'm from Minneapolis. George Floyd was murdered about six blocks away from where I went to elementary school. So for me, (sigh) it was I was going to take this really big pause after leaving DID. And the universe is like, "Uh-uh, girl. You know that idea that you've been thinking about for eight years, remember when you started digitalundivided and you originally wanted it to be a for-profit, and you had this idea, but nobody was really funding anything to do with black people because we weren't hot in 2012? Well, the universe has caught up to you, Kathryn, and your ideas and so it's time for you to build this."
Brian Aoaeh
I first met Kathryn in 2013. And in 2013, there weren't many people talking about how to get more capital into the hands of black women who are building startups, or even of getting more capital into the hands of black founders in general, men or women. And she was having that conversation through digitalundivided, through Focus 100.

And then, it became the cool thing (chuckles) it became the cool thing to do. And then, not not too long after that, I woke up one morning and ProjectDiane was in the news. And before ProjectDiane, not many people were talking about trying to get at the data. But ProjectDiane put that conversation squarely in the zeitgeist for people who are thinking about innovation and the funding of innovation.

My name is Brian Laung Aoaeh, I am a co-founder and general partner of REFASHIOND Ventures, and I am the co-founder of the Worldwide Supply Chain Federation.And then, now with Genius Guild, I think it's the same thing. I...I think Genius Guild is going about what it's going to do in a way that is different from other people. it definitely is going about its mission with a lot more experience than almost anyone else that's doing this. And I think that makes a big difference because, when you are doing something that is pioneering, there are pitfalls that no one can predict. There are difficulties and uncertainties that no one can predict. But, if someone can figure out a way to work around the uncertainties and potential pitfalls, I think it's Kathryn. 

Kathryn Finney
We're now in the system of shareholder capitalism, where it's... The value is to maximize the return for the owner, the owner class. Owners should get the most return. 

Rhere was this amazing piece I read about whaling and the whaling industry, and that the whaling industry was one of the first examples of venture capital.

Michael Dyer
Every voyage was a unique corporate entity. So if a couple of brothers, owned four ships, right? 

They own them out right every time they sent one of those voyages out, they would get investors in that particular voyage. And so the risk was spread through the community, and if you're a grocer or a, uh, or a, a blacksmith, or even if you're a, uh, upstanding citizen and you had money, you can invest your money in a voyage, in a whaling voyage. 

My name is Michael Dyer. I’m the curator of maritime history at the new Bedford whaling museum. And sometimes you'll see, there'll be, there'll be six or 10 different investors in, in one voyage. And then that vessel will come back and then it'll sail again. And there'll be a different set of investors in it 

And, the idea was to spread the risk and make as much money as you could. 

Kathryn Finney 
What was not known was that Black people, particularly Black men, were very, very involved in the whaling industry, as leaders in the whaling industry. And this is during the time of slavery. And so, being on these boats was not fun but it was sure enough much better than slavery. Michael Dyer
it was kind of, kind of a melting pot, uh, of labor doesn't mean everybody liked each other and doesn't mean that racism wasn't a thing. Um, but on shipboard, there was a higher calling and the master was the boss and the master answered to the owner. And the owner's idea of a good time was 2300 barrels of whale oil in two years out on a voyage and nothing in between. So he didn't care who did the killing just as long as he got his 2300 barrels of whale oil after two years of investment. The U S government issued black sailors, Siemens passport.  What's really, really interesting about that is that black sailors had greater protections in foreign ports than they did in American ports in the 19th century. So a black sailor who, got into trouble or it was discharged or were sick or something in Buenos Aires or Talcahuano chili or Sydney, Australia would be treated as a citizen of the United States and supported that way by the captain of the ship and by his shipmates. and the U S Navy, if need be would come and, and force the, this is a citizen of the country, whereas that same man, if he wound up a shore in new Orleans or Mobile or Charleston or Savannah could be seized, and sold back into, into slavery. 

Kathryn Finney
So I took all this information and started to really think about what would the company look like? I knew it had to be a for-profit, was not about that nonprofit  anymore. At all. Not gon’ do it. And was talking with partners, that I had worked with. And they were like, we really think this is important. We think the work that you do is really important, Kathryn, and you do work and you build things that change industries. I, I build institutions, that is what I do.  So we received a lot of money, received over seven figures, to build Genius Guild.

Genius Guild is a business creation platform that uses the venture studio model. We have content community and a fund to invest in high growth companies led by black founders. Our thesis is, is that black companies produce alpha, not just for investors, but also for their community and for themselves. 

Another example of how capitalism has been manipulated is my grandparents, my great-grandparents, who had a store in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And that store, and their house on Pocahontas street, was destroyed by the riots, like utterly leveled. And they had insurance and it's been over a hundred years and my family is still waiting for those insurance payouts.

Cheryl Contee 
it's still a challenge. It's still an uneven playing field. So an example of that would be, I am an advisor to a major,, fund angel fund that works with, female entrepreneurs. And they worked really hard to weed out all of the bias, in their system. You know, they, they were really serious about it. 

And they said, we, we felt like we did a really great job of, you know, getting, black and brown entrepreneurs through our cycle, until it came to angels writing checks.I'm Cheryl Conti, Chief Innovation Officer at the impact seat and chair and founder of On average, it takes seven introductions, to an investor to get a white woman funded in their network, takes 50, 5, 0 to get a black female entrepreneur, uh, invested. And that's just inefficient. Like that is just stupid, right? Like, this is just, this is just, you know, annoying and dumb because look, women purchase 85% of everything. These are these, these are facts. So why wouldn't you want someone who understands what women want, what purchasers want to create products and services for the people who are buying them? I mean, this is just like some 19th century, old timey bullshit, 

Kathryn Finney:
At Genius Guild we invest in bold solutions. We invest in three areas. We invest in healthy environments, so companies that are figuring out ways to make our environment, particularly Black communities, healthier and happier. Belonging and connectivity is another one of our areas. We live in a very disconnected world right now, where we're not connected to each other.  And so we are interested in companies that are connecting people. And last, but certainly not least, we're interested in companies that are restructuring and rethinking the flow of capital in our communities, how capital flows in the Black community.

Geri Stengel 
So the business case for investing in black and brown people, is really lived experience. You're going to miss a lot of opportunities for innovation, if only some people are creating new businesses, talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. I'm Geri Stengel, and I'm President of Ventureneer and I'm best known for writing in Forbes, about the success factors of women entrepreneurs.And, people of color have just as good ideas, have the talent, they just need the money to start these businesses, that are going to grow the economy and create jobs. And this is really critical for coming out of the pandemic.
Kathryn Finney 
And so it's been really exciting to work at Genius Guild. This is the first time where I feel like everything's coming together. I don't feel limited. I felt free to be brilliant. I am really smart. I am really, really smart, and that's not arrogance. That's just a fact. And I know I'm really good at what I can do. And I know that when I have an idea and a vision, I can execute it.

All I needed was someone to give me the space. And that's what that partner did. That partner gave me space to be brilliant, space and more importantly, permission to be a brilliant black woman. And it was like, "Go off and do you." 

In a lifetime of doing a lot of really big, interesting things, this is the biggest, the most interesting, the boldest thing I've ever done.

Renee Wittemyer
So increasing the representation of women and people of color as founders and investors is critical to our mission at pivotal ventures to advance social progress in the U.S. and when Kathryn left digital undivided, we just started talking and brainstorming about what she was going to do next. And her vision was compelling. And every time we talked, she had refined and refined this vision, and it was amazing to have this firsthand view into the Genesis of genius Guild.  My name is Renee Wittemyer, and I am the director of program strategy and investment at pivotal ventures. So for Genius Guild, we really believed that the model to invest in market based innovations focused on ending racism and supporting black innovators to sustainably grow and scale, their solutions will have this huge, significant impact on black communities and the racial and gender wealth gap, pivotal ventures aims to disrupt the status quo, really to draw a spotlight on the chronic underinvestment of women and girls of color in the U S and advance action to change it. 

Kathryn Finney
I'm a very convincing person. I can sell really anything, but I knew that I needed another tool. And so, I went back to the partner and said, "I need more money." And it was a big risk, because usually as a black woman, when you ask for what you need, you are usually told that you're being greedy. And that's so ironic. You're asking for what you need to be able to do the work that you need to do, and people are often like, "You should just be happy with whatever we give you and make it work, because we're not going to fully support you."So when the partner came back and said, "We're going to give you what you need," and it wasn't a fight and it wasn't a battle, and it was, "We believe in you," it was an incredibly emotional moment for me, because I knew, as a black woman, that that doesn't really happen for us. 
Renee Wittemyer
We trust in Kathryn’s ability to build, to take risks, to reinvent and question the status quo and to try different approaches. Because at pivotal, we want to seed innovation and support leaders. We want to help people provide them with the resources they need to take on these big problems, especially leaders like Kathryn, who are impatient for change and have a concrete plan of how to get there. 

Kathryn Finney
And in a short amount of time, we have been able to do incredible work. Our first investments are like bold and interesting and ideas that other people wouldn't get or see. But then when you hear about it, you're like, "Of course. Of course that's a great market. Of course this company is making tons of money." We couldn't see it because we had too many blockers. We were blocking our own brilliance, or maybe we're so conditioned to block black brilliance that we can't even see it when it's in our face.”

And so, I'm super excited about that. We have a team now of almost 10 of just the most amazing people. 

Sharmayne Lueiza Muñoz
So I started working with Kathryn as her executive assistant at that time, genius goad was just in the making and beginning of this year, Kathryn asked me to come along and join her full time at Genius Guild. I wasn't quite sure what exactly genius skill was or what it was about, but that Kathryn wanted me to be part of it. I was all on board at that. Okay. Whatever you want to do, Kathryn, if you want me to support you, I'm going to jump on board. 

I’m Sharmayne Lueiza Munoz chief of staff at genius guild. Working with Kathryn has been incredible. She is an amazing leader that allows her staff to grow and develop in the areas that they work in. She sees a potential in you that you may not see, and she brings that out in you and makes you realize like I can do this and if I can't it's okay. And then she'll be there to support and guide you. 

...And we actually all work really well together. Our culture, our team culture is so unique that we're precious of who we want to bring into our team. 

Kathryn Finney
Genius Guild has three sections: a lab, content studio, and the greenhouse fund. And the goal is to find, support, and fund market-based solutions that end racism. And we do that by funding and supporting black founders. And we're... not just anybody who's black can get funding. We're looking for black founders who are thinking big, who are innovators, who have ideas that others are like, "Eh, I don't know." I don't know if that works, but we know because we're operators and investors that they can work.

We're not just looking from the money standpoint when we make investments and support companies. We're looking from the vision and we're looking at the founder. And so, we're looking for companies that serve the black community, but also can scale beyond. And as soon as I started talking about the fund, it's been so amazing, the number of people who have wanted to work with us, who want to invest in us. Our lead investor, Barbara Clark of Impact Seed, I had met many, many years ago,  right when she was getting really in the mix of investing. So Barbara is probably the most significant investor in black women out there.

Barbara Clarke 
For Genius Guild. I had already reached out to Catherine when I knew she was leaving digital and divided. And I was like, let me know what you're doing next. As soon as you know what you're doing, as soon as you figure it out, I want to know I want to be one of the first to know. 

Kathryn approached us to take a leadership position in Genius Guild. Again, Kathryn is good at asking for what she needs and we were happy to step up. I have been an investor in multiple funds and I think it's really important to publicly say, this is a fund that is worth investing in and I'm really excited about it. 

my name is Barbara Clark and I am president and co-founder of the impact Seed, I invest in people of color for the simple reason that they have good ideas and problems that need to be solved and venture capital hasn't recognized it. They only fund a couple of percentage points of all the venture capital goes to people of color. I do not believe that that they only have 1% of good ideas. So that's why I fund them because just because the mainstream Silicon valley venture capital market doesn't see their value, that's their fault, not, not these entrepreneurs fault. So I go where the money is, I'm going to make money off of this. And also they're solving problems. All the companies I invest in are solving problems I care about. 

Kathryn Finney :
I raised over $5 million, close to $10 million, without really saying anything to the public. And I was able to do that because I had spent 20 years building the relationships that could. I had this network. People had saw the work I could do. People saw I could do the work. And so it wasn't a hard ask, because they were like, "Of course, Kathryn can do it. We've seen her do it before."

Teresa Chahine
When a woman is not an economically productive member of society and begins to earn income, she invests on average 90% of that income in her children's health and education. So just imagine the ripple effects of that. Imagine the effects of having such a huge segment of the population that is not economically productive becoming economically productive. The case speaks for itself.My name is Teresa Chahine. I am the Sheila and Ron '92 B.A Marcelo senior lecturer in social entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management.If I had to pick one sustainable development goal to focus on, I would focus on investing in women and to make that even more tangible and concrete, what I'm talking about is helping women make money. When a woman makes money, you can't mess with her as much. She can have more power to make more decisions to change society.[½ BEAT] When women make money, so many other sustainable development goals are reached.
Kathryn Finney
The hard part was Genius Guild hasn't been building Genius Guild. It's interesting. It's been a very different challenge than any of the other times. Um The challenge has been mostly really making sure that we stay true to ourselves, um making sure that we really live with our core values. The very first thing I did when I started Genius Guild was to work on our core values. 
Sharmayne Lueiza Muñoz
one of the things that I really like about genius guild, and that really surprised me. That's so revolutionary to other companies is our core values. And one of our core values, that's my favorite and really has stood out to me. And we put this in practice is the core value of being human. Like we're allowed to be human. We're allowed to make mistakes. And Kathryn gives us that environment, but that she trusts us that if we do make a mistake or where something happens, that's okay. Like we're a team. And having that feeling that, you know, if I make a little mistake or I do something wrong, or I'm not sure the Kathryn’s got my back, the team's got my back and we're going to get through it together. And that's really stood out for me. And I've seen that we actually put our core values into practice. 
Kathryn Finney 
All of these things have been so helpful for us in really understanding who we bring on. If you talk to any of the Genius Guild team members, they will tell you we are very protective of our team and our space. 

We're doing something big and bold and forward-thinking. And so, we need to make sure we're all together on that. And I have a team that is that way, and we're protective of it because we're doing such amazing work. This has been really one of the greatest things I've ever done in my life.

And I think that idea really comes from this genetic link inside of me of my grandparents, of my great-grandparents. People fought very, very hard for me to be here and who fought very hard for me to have that ability to say that I'm going to win. DJ Khaled, right, "All I do is win, win, win, no matter what. My mind's on my money."

Okay. Yes, him and I, we're like here. We're here. And so I think for some people who don't know the language of winning, maybe didn't have that foundation that I had. It can seem arrogant to say that, right. It could seem like, "How dare you, you big black woman, say that all you do is win."

... because as a big black woman, we're not supposed to win, right.I'm only supposed to be losing all the time but that's not the case. And it will never ever be the case. 

Jeffrey Robinson
There is a very big case, significant case for investing in marginalized populations but I-I-I think of it in three ways. Certainly, there's the social justice one, right. There's there’s fairness. And for those people who believe in fairness, that's enough. 

but there are probably two other cases where I would say, "Look, you-you need to think about not just the here and now. You need to think about 20, 40 and 50 years into the future. You have to know that the genius is evenly distributed across all groups. We just have to find those folks.  You have to be very deliberate about it. 

My name's Jeffrey Robinson. I am a professor at the Rutgers Business School. I'm also the academic director of the center for urban entrepreneurship and economic development.Now, then there's the social ... I call it the social science justification of all of this. You want diverse people at the table, people with different backgrounds, different cultural capital coming to the table with different perspectives, to create the next innovations, technologies, next types of businesses that meet the needs of the people in the United States and around the world. You sell yourself short when you have one group of people, a bunch of white guys, who think they know everything about everything and really don't because they just don't have the same background and experience and life experience that they bring to the table.So And at the end of the day, that's not how you build a business. That's how you put one in the ground. So you want uhm  a diverse group of folks who are doing   the innovations, who are creating the businesses, who are bringing their talents to to the forefront. That is how we as a country are going to continue to be competitive.
Kathryn Finney 
Life is about a set of experiences. And I think at the end of the day, it's about what you leave behind. And, everyone wants to know that their time on this world mattered., that's the whole point of living, that your existence somehow made the world that we live in a better place. And that is how I've lived my life -  is   making sure   that when I leave, -cause we're all going to leave at some point-  that I can say that my existence made the world a better place.  And to me, to be able to say that   is an indication of a life well lived.