Acknowledgement #1: I am grateful to Tayo Akinyemi for suggesting that I write this essay, and for reading and critiquing previous drafts. I am grateful to Kange Kaneene, Christian McKenzie, Christine Mendonça, and Lisa Morales-Hellebo for reading and critiquing previous drafts. Their comments and observations helped to greatly improve the final product. Any errors are mine alone. I am also indebted to Nahum Goldmann. My numerous and lengthy conversations with him between June and August of 2017 helped me clarify and sharpen my thinking about supply chain.
Acknowledgement #2: This article does not reflect the opinion of KEC Ventures/Particle Ventures, or of other members of the KEC Ventures/Particle Ventures team. Though I will be leaving the firm this month and we will not be making any new investments, Jeffrey Parkinson and the remaining team will be doubling down on our existing portfolio and working closely with our founders to maximize their chances of success. From the beginning KEC Ventures has been a high-conviction fund, as reflected in our portfolio concentration and follow-on reserves, and so while Fund II will be our last together, the story of KEC Ventures is far from over.
- We have decided to disband the team at KEC Ventures/Particle Ventures – September 11, 2018 is my last day. This is an essay about the decade I spent working on this chapter of my career, starting as the first person on the team that went on to become KEC Ventures.
- While we will not be making new investments, I will continue to be involved in KEC Ventures Fund I and KEC Ventures Fund II as a general partner and Jeffrey Parkinson and Jeff Citron will be managing our two active funds and working with the companies to ensure their success.
- Next, I am teaming up with Lisa Morales-Hellebo to start building REFASHIOND, a new early-stage venture capital fund based in NYC that will focus on supply chain. We’re starting from scratch. Our initial focus is technology and supply chains in the $2.4 trillion global apparel and fashion industry.
- This is not the easiest choice, nor is it even the choice that guarantees me the highest probability of success . . . However, it is the option I am most excited and enthusiastic about – I am teaming up with someone with whom I have been working closely for more than 2 years because her enthusiasm and obsession for technology and innovation in supply chain matches mine.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you’d like to talk about what we’re building and to perhaps get involved in some way – see the end of this article for more details. Sign up for our upcoming booklet about technology, and apparel and fashion supply chains here. Check out: The New York Supply Chain Meetup – Our Vision, and The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation – Our Manifesto.
We arrive with focus, and we stick to it.
– Aliko Dangote
A few weeks ago, we took the difficult decision to start the process of disbanding the team that some of you have come to know as KEC Ventures, or more recently, as Particle Ventures. Our journey towards building an early stage venture fund in NYC began in earnest in January 2011, after Jeffrey Parkinson joined Jeff Citron, Joann Vought, and me, at KEC Holdings in December 2010. On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, for me at least, that journey will come to an end. That will be 3,572 days or 9 years, 9 months, and 11 days after I joined Jeff and Joann at KEC Holdings on December 1, 2008, as Employee #2. KEC Holdings is Jeffrey Citron’s family office. Joann was CFO of the family office. They recruited me to start building an investing team since the family office had not done much direct investing up to that point but expected to do more direct investing over time. That investing team was eventually spun off to go and build an independent venture fund.
Before we started building KEC Ventures; I managed two turnarounds for companies with aggregate annual revenues of about $50 million, started the process of helping the founders to launch a consumer hardware startup in which we later made an investment, and performed in-depth examinations of several startup ideas we considered incubating ourselves. Between 2011 and 2015, we incubated a startup to bring a family of 3 financial derivatives to market – they were created by deconstructing large-cap dividend paying stocks. I assumed sole responsibility for designing the framework for valuing the financial derivatives, writing the forty-page plus white paper that outlined the theoretical justifications of the idea, and driving our effort to protect the IP we had created with a patent. I also worked with a software designer to create a rudimentary version of the product that could be used by early investors in the product. We failed to find product-market fit, and so we shut the company down in December 2015. One call I am most proud of is my recommendation that the family office make an investment in Michael Kors in it’s pre-IPO round. The reason’s why that would be a good investment were not plainly obvious from the data that was available to us. I did some further sleuthing and felt confident that my “buy” recommendation would prove to be the right call. I am not at liberty to share details, but I am confident in saying that it is the best direct investment that KEC Holdings has made between 2008 and 2018.
KEC Ventures grew to $98M of AUM, with 51 investments across 2 funds – a 2011 vintage, and a 2014 vintage. Our team tripled in size. Had we succeeded in raising our 2018 fund, we planned to rebrand the firm to Particle Ventures, and to turn the fund’s focus to supply chain and industrial intelligence.
This is not an article about what went wrong, or what our team could have done differently, or why we failed to raise our next fund. Rather it is an article about some of the lessons I have learned over my 10 years in investment management and research, with 8 of those years having been devoted to building an early stage venture fund from the ground up. I prefer not to dwell on the past. However, I believe that making sense of one’s present, and assessing what one ought to do in the future sometimes requires that one reflects on one’s past. So, in some ways, this serves as my personal reflection.
As I tell this story I will try not to succumb to the narrative bias – our tendency to explain the world around us through stories. I will also try to actively avoid falling victim to the survivorship bias – our tendency to explain processes by focusing on the people who succeed at something generally thought of as difficult or improbable, while ignoring those who did not succeed. Among others, these two biases make us apt to reach incorrect conclusions and draw wrong lessons from events around us.
Now, on with this show . . .
Early-Stage Venture Capital Investing Is An Optimal Stopping Problem
“Suppose you decide to marry, and to select your life partner you will interview at most 100 candidate spouses. The interviews are arranged in random order, and you have no information about candidates you haven’t yet spoken to. After each interview you must either marry that person or forever lose the chance to do so. If you have not married after interviewing candidate 99, you must marry candidate 100. Your objective, of course, is to marry the absolute best candidate of the lot. But how?”
This is very similar to the type of problem an early stage VC has to solve every day; An optimal stopping problem is one in which an action has to be taken within a certain period of time so as to maximize the potential benefit of having taken that action in the first place. These problems become more difficult, when the information available is incomplete, or the process involved is characterized by randomness.
In a situation characterized by uncertainty and a lack of historical information, one encounters several difficult questions. What is the optimal number of observations I should make before I make a choice? What is the most relevant question I should be asking before I make a choice? Am I looking in the right place? There are other questions, but you get the idea. For an early-stage VC, becoming good at solving optimal-stopping problems is about increasing the probability of a successful outcome for the VC’s portfolio of startup investments.
I have been thinking about about how a team of early-stage investors can become good at solving optimal stopping problems for some time. I am still working on figuring out how such a set of strategies might be implemented in the real world using a combination of software tools and human judgement and intuition. My sense is that if I succeed in developing a repeatable and systematic approach to solving this problem in the context of an early-stage venture fund, I will want to protect it as a trade-secret.
Early-Stage VC Is A Multi-Armed Bandit Problem
Suppose you are spending a day playing casino slot machines. You are required to play no fewer than 10 different and distinct machines – no two machines will give you an identical payout. Your only objective is to maximize your winnings at the end of the day.
This problem is one example of a class of problems in which a scarce resource must be allocated between competing and alternative choices in a way that maximizes their expected gain in value over time. Each choice has properties that are only partially known or completely unknown at the time of initial allocation. Each choice has properties that may only become better understood as time progresses or by allocating more of the scarce resource to that choice. Such problems are known as multi-armed bandit problems.
The way I see it, multi-armed bandit problems are a special category of optimal-stopping problems. However, multi-armed bandit problems deserve special focus because the approach to solving them is distinct from the approach to solving other types of optimal-stopping problems.
In the case of a VC, capital and time are the scarce resources. VCs must decide how to allocate capital and time among competing investment options in a way that maximizes the value of the fund’s portfolio many years in the future. We must also make decisions about whether we are going to allocate time and capital to startups already in the fund portfolio, or to startups that are not yet in the portfolio. These choices must be made under conditions of extreme uncertainty, lack of information, and incomplete knowledge – for example one must make assumptions about future states of the world. For early stage VCs, the quality and availability of information is not much better even for startups that are already in the portfolio because the future might unfold in a way that has not been anticipated by the VC and the founders of the startups in which that VC invested.
Moreover, some VC investments are made in competition with adversarial peers. That is, if certain VCs decide to make the investment before a peer VC does, the slower peer may become excluded from making that investment for any number of reasons. For example, there may not be enough of the round remaining to meet the slower VC’s minimum allocation preferences given that VC’s fund size.
So early-stage VCs face the explore/exploit dilemma that is key to how one solves multi-armed bandit problems. Exploration involves doing research, cultivating knowledge, and developing a point of view about a topic relevant to the VC’s area of investment focus. Exploitation involves using the information and knowledge that’s been developed during exploration to accomplish the VCs objectives.
Based on my experience and observations so far, I have come to believe that the best venture capital firms – those firms that have shown persistently high performance over the course of 4 or more funds – have developed internal processes that enable their teams to systematically “explore” in ways that give their teams a competitive edge over their peers when it is time to “exploit”. I think this means that they do a lot of research and development – which leads to the question; What is research and development?
I define research as a systematic and organized approach to answering questions that leads to new knowledge which we may apply to solving problems we currently encounter, or problems we expect to encounter in the future. In the context of a business, research is a systematic and organized approach to solving problems that we expect will create new value for the customer. Development is a systematic and organized effort to use the outcome of research to obtain new sources of revenue for the business.
As an early-stage venture capitalist I think of research as a systematic and organized approach to acquiring the knowledge and insights that will eventually enable me to benefit disproportionately from information asymmetries and uncertainty in order to generate returns that satisfy limited partners’ expectations, it is the systematic act of cultivating knowledge that one expects will payoff in the form of unrealized fund returns in the future. The development part of research and development is the systematic and organized actions that the VC takes to transform the knowledge that has been acquired, gathered, and exploited into realized returns that the fund’s limited partners can harvest.
So, the most successful funds are made up of teams of people who have become really good at team-based learning, and taking action as a result of that learning to turn their knowledge into realized returns. I think it also means that such funds have created a knowledge network of outside-collaborators that enables them to augment what the team is learning with knowledge from the trusted and more knowledgeable collaborators within the network that the team has built around itself. The secret-sauce is how such teams combine the knowledge that they develop in-house with the industry specific expertise and connections of their trusted collaborators.
This leads me to my final observation . . .
Early-Stage VC Is An Exercise In Continuous Team-Based Learning
The future is fluid. Therefore, early-stage VCs must constantly be learning in order to avoid being the last to realize what advantageous new opportunities startup founders are pursuing. The question is, how does one implement a team-based learning strategy within the context of a venture fund that is not a single-GP fund? How does one ensure that;
- each member of the team shares the same mental model,
- the team has a correct and consistent mental model of the universe within which the team is competing, and
- this mental model appropriately values and nurtures the team’s collective ability to learn as well each individual team member’s commitment to learning as a prerequisite for accomplishing the venture fund’s objectives?
Although I do not have an answer yet, I have been thinking about this question for a long time. I have some ideas that I am fleshing out. Here’s a preview: 6 Things I Have Learned About Building High-Performing Teams.
We do not learn from experience . . . we learn from reflecting on experience.
– John Dewey
Where Have I Come From?
Perhaps, I should share a brief summary of my personal background. Most people I have come to know professionally probably glean what little personal information they know about me from our interactions around work. That turns out to be very meagre, since I try not to give away much about myself or my past to people I do not yet know very well.
I am Ghanaian by birth. My parents moved to Kano, Nigeria while I was a little boy and so I attended elementary school in Kano. I have been on my own since I turned 12, when my parents decided that I should attend secondary school at home in Ghana’s Upper West Region, so that I could learn our culture and my family’s history – my parents and my siblings remained in Kano, and my parents and my younger brother still live there. I learned more during those 6 years at St. Francis Xavier Junior Seminary in Wa, in the Upper West Region of Ghana about the advantages of self-sufficiency, drive, and self-discipline than at any other time in my life.
The picture above is of me, in 1987, at home in Nanville, outside the entrance to my family’s compound house. This was during my first Christmas vacation while I was attending Xavier. I am the boy in the blue t-shirt. My classmates were boys who were often the first in each of their families to attend school, and whose parents were subsistence farmers just like my relatives in Nanville. It is the self-sufficiency, drive, self-discipline, and commitment to excellence we were taught at Xavier that produces people like Constancio Nakuma, Methodius “Method” Tuuli, and Aaron Anvuur – who sat directly ahead of me in class for 5 of our 6 years at Xavier, and who along with Edward Tieru Dassah, became my classmate during our final 2 years of secondary school after we graduated from Xavier. Aaron, Edward, and I maintained a fierce and relentless academic rivalry that still serves as a source of positive personal motivation for me.
After Xavier, I moved to Accra, where I completed my secondary education at the Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School. Then, rather than attend university in Ghana or Nigeria, I decided to save some money in order to self-fund my secret plan to apply for merit-based scholarship grants from colleges in the United States. Connecticut College awarded me a Connecticut College Grant in 1997. I am very proud of that accomplishment because my job at this time paid the equivalent of $40.00 per month, in Ghanaian Cedis, and I saved every pesewa I could in order to pay for the SAT I and SAT II exams, the TOEFL exam, and for applications to nine colleges in the United States. I remember very clearly that everyone around me who found out what I was trying to do thought I had lost my mind, and that my failure was inevitable. Many tried to dissuade me, and I endured mockery and derision because this meant I had to forgo the comforts and social activities in which my peers indulged. For example, at one point I could only afford one or two decent shirts, and I had only one pair of decent trousers.
I was rejected by seven of the nine colleges I had applied to, and wait-listed by Carleton College and Connecticut College. The Connecticut College Grant covered the full cost of my undergraduate education. Attending Connecticut College enabled me to pursue a double-major in mathematics and physics – I was the only student to graduate in May 2001 with that double-major. There is no disputing that Connecticut College changed my life.
Before I joined KEC Holdings in 2008 I had worked as a pension actuarial analyst at Watson Wyatt Worldwide (now Willis Towers Watson), as the statistical research analyst for the Group Diversity team at UBS AG, and as the statistical research analyst for the Diversity and Inclusion team at Lehman Brothers. I started my MBA at NYU Stern in September 2005, while I was working at UBS. I earned my MBA in May 2008, two months after losing my job at Lehman Brothers.
I had already started pursuing the CFA Charter when I joined KEC Holdings in 2008 – having passed the June 2008 Level I exam. I became a CFA charterholder in August 2017. The way my life has unfolded has taught me to have conviction in my beliefs, to be self-sufficient, to embrace uncertainty, to always bet on myself, and not to limit my imagination about what I can accomplish if I commit to making it happen. I am not afraid to be different. I have come to identify very strongly with the Connecticut College mascot, the Camel – a symbol of resilience and stamina in the face of daunting odds.
Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
– St. Francis of Assisi
Where Am I Going?
After giving it careful thought, I have decided to team up with Lisa Morales-Hellebo to build an early-stage supply chain venture fund – starting with supply chain technology in the $2.4 trillion global apparel and fashion industry.
I first met Lisa on Wednesday, June 8, 2016 . . . We had been introduced to one another by Elise Whang, founder of Snobswap, now LePrix, in late-May. I responded to say I could only meet Lisa after my CFA Level III exam in early-June. I didn’t expect that Lisa and I would then spend nearly two hours talking about supply chains during our first conversation.
Coincidentally, we had both been thinking about technology and innovation in supply chains since 2014. Lisa had been thinking and learning about supply chains and technology in the fashion and apparel industry before and after building the New York Fashion Tech Lab, and by the time I first met her, she had spent a year traveling to Puerto Rico to visit apparel factories, maker labs, cut and sew shops, ateliers, and universities in order to learn about the existing apparel supply chain and the challenges it faces. She did this at her own expense, with hopes of reviving apparel manufacturing on the island as a catalyst for rebuilding the already weak local economy.
I had been thinking about value-chains in the on-demand economy since August 2014. When I met Lisa, I had just started delving into the topic of technology and innovation in supply chain in a more disciplined and systematic manner after learning about impending regulatory changes for the freight trucking industry. That led me and John Azubuike to take a deep-dive into opportunities for technology startups in freight-trucking (available here and here) and another deep-dive into opportunities for technology startups in ocean-shipping (also available here and here).
During that first conversation Lisa expressed her desire to join an already established early-stage venture fund in order to explore her thesis that the biggest opportunities for investors in the global apparel and fashion industry are to be found in using technologies that have now reached maturity to rethink the industry’s value chains and supply chains. After listening to her carefully, and probing her more than most people meeting a stranger for the first time would, I told her that I found what she was thinking of doing to be a remarkably bad idea; in all the time I had been thinking about supply chain and speaking with other investors about it I had not met anyone who shared her enthusiasm for the topic, nor had I encountered any investors with her depth of knowledge about the issues. I felt very strongly that this would quickly become a problem if she joined an already established team of generalist early-stage venture capitalists. I urged her to go it alone because she possesses what I feel are the three most important things a new venture capitalist needs; a differentiated body of knowledge, a unique view of the world that is based on that knowledge, and a unique network through which to exploit that body of knowledge. Alternatively, I suggested, she should find someone who shared her enthusiasm for the fashion and apparel industry, supply chain, and technology, and together they should start the fund that she had described to me. After that conversation, we kept meeting in person, and speaking to one another frequently by phone. We discussed developments in supply chain technology broadly, and we shared and compared notes on the startups we each were encountering, and discussing what excited us about their respective founders and the problems they had set out to solve. We would also often talk about what it’s like to run a venture a fund, and the unique challenges that emerging managers must grapple with – they are no different than those a first-time startup founder must contend with.
In the meantime, thanks to my many conversations with Lisa, I came to realize what a wonderful opportunity the apparel and fashion industry presents for understanding the opportunity for technological transformation of global supply chains across many other industries. There’s data, and predictive analytics. There’s logistics and transportation. There’s advanced manufacturing. There’s energy consumption and utilization. There’s agriculture. There’s advanced materials. There’s pollution and sustainability. I could go on, but you get the idea – the supply chain issues are numerous and complex. I have spent the past few months reading everything, and watching everything I can about the industry. I am excited by the challenge of digging in and learning all I can about an industry that is so massive and complicated.
During the summer of 2017, after many conversations about supply chain with people who had read my blog posts on trucking and shipping. I made the decision that I will devote the rest of my career in investment research and management to becoming a specialist on supply chain technology and innovation – in other words, I will spend the rest of my career becoming a supply chain technology generalist VC. As a result, I felt that I should now be hanging out mostly with people who are focused on supply chain, and people who are focused on technological innovation. So, I set out to find a community that brings these somewhat disparate groups of people together on a frequent and regular basis.
After failing to find a group that fit my idea of the kind of community I was looking for, I made the decision to start The New York Supply Chain Meetup on August 23, 2017 – you can read about our launch here: Progress Report | #TNYSCM Minimum Viable Launch – Building A Supply Chain Community. Naturally, Lisa is the very first person I called. I asked her if she would help me in my effort to create this community, a community of practice on everything supply chain technology – starting in NYC. My exact words were along the lines of “Lisa, I’m going to get egg on my face if you don’t help me.” After laughing at me, she said yes, and became my co-founder.
Since then we have been side-by-side in the trenches, trying to build a global network of open and multidisciplinary communities focused on technological innovation in supply chain, starting in NYC. So far, our efforts have been mostly bootstrapped – with assistance from Work-Bench, SAP.iO’s NYC Foundry. UPS and CustomInk helped sponsor our launch in November 2017. Based on our initial success in NYC we are now on the verge of launching a number of chapters elsewhere, under the name The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation. Starting at zero, The New York Supply Chain Meetup – the founding chapter of The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation, now has more than one thousand, two hundred and fifty members. It is the largest meetup in the world that focuses on the intersection of supply chain and cutting-edge technology. All things being equal we will launch new, self-organizing chapters in Athens, Bangalore, and another somewhere in Central Europe before the end of 2018. There are also nascent plans to launch chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and Vancouver. We’ve done more than many would think possible, with less than many would think possible.
The past ran on supply chains. The present runs on supply chains. The future will run on supply chains. The world is a supply chain.
Since we first met, Lisa and I have spent more time collaboratively learning about supply chains with one another than with anyone else either of us knows. She is the only person I know whose enthusiasm for, and obsession with supply chain and early-stage investing matches mine. So we believe it makes sense for us to team up to make our-shared vision for an early stage venture fund focused entirely on technology and innovation in supply chain a reality. REFASHIOND will become a fund that invests in startups building the technologies, innovations, and new business models that define the future of global supply chain networks. Initially, we will focus on supply chains in the $2.4 trillion global apparel and fashion industry. Ultimately, our ambitions extend well beyond that.
I can’t think of anyone else I would rather team up with to take on such an enormous challenge. Lisa is an expert at building the sorts of ecosystems that the type of fund we have in mind will need to develop if it’s to successfully solve the problems that supply chain startups often encounter. As Executive Director and Co-Founder, she was responsible for getting The New York Fashion Tech Lab off the ground between January and July in 2014. The New York Fashion Tech Lab is the first-ever accelerator to partner with major fashion retailers and brands. She has served on the board of Parallel18 since its launch in December 2015. Parallel18 is an acceleration program that presents a unique gateway for global startups to scale from Puerto Rico as a launchpad into South American and North American markets. The founders of the startups she advises love her, and I have seen how hard she works to open doors for them with potential customers, potential investors, and other business partners. She innately understands what it means to be a force-multiplier for startup founders because she has been in their shoes herself, as a serial entrepreneur, and has helped other startups scale to exit as an early employee. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University, which was the only school she applied to, and graduated with University Honors.
We have complementary skills; Having never used a computer before I arrived at Connecticut College in 1997, I abandoned computer programming after 2 semesters of coursework during my freshman year. She had to teach herself to code, architect taxonomies, and map personalization systems early in her career in order to eventually build Shopsy.
We get along well, as you might guess from how much time we spent talking about supply chains when we first met each other more than two years ago, and how much time we have spent talking to one another about supply chains since then. I would trust her with my life. We both know what it is like to be an outsider – one may say it is the only thing we know. Neither of us takes opportunity for granted. Neither of us is afraid to be different. We have both learned to embrace uncertainty, and to use it to our advantage. We have learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To outsiders looking in, we probably make an unlikely pair; a Puerto Rican woman and an African man – but we are more similar than dissimilar; for example, we both are only one generation removed from grandparents who earned their living through subsistence farming.
I am more excited about what Lisa and I are setting out to do than I have been about anything else I have worked on so far. Here’s a small and incomplete preview of our vision: The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation – Our Manifesto and Shipping And Freight Resource: Executive Insights: Brian Laung Aoaeh and Lisa Morales-Hellebo, Co-founders of The New York Supply Chain Meetup. We both feel fortunate to be able to do this starting in New York City.
How Can You Help Us?
We’re currently working on a booklet about the convergence of supply chains and value chains in the global apparel and fashion industry. We expect to publish it in late November. Sign up using the link at the end of this article in order to know when it becomes available. We will have more to share about what we are working on as time progresses. When we do, we hope we can count on your support, and encouragement. Until then;
- It would be awesome to build what we have in mind as entrepreneurs-in-residence at a big corporation that views supply chain innovation as critical to its mission, and the future well-being of its business. We welcome opportunities to have conversations along those lines.
- Sometime in the near future, we will kick-off conversations with investors who wish to consider becoming limited partners in our fund. Let us know if you’d like to speak with us once we’re ready. Tell any investors who might be interested in what we are doing about us.
- We are eager to meet, get to know, and collaborate with corporate executives, startup founders, technologists, academic researchers, investors, and journalists who share our commitment to technological innovation in global supply chain. If this describes you, please connect with us personally. Also, consider joining the global community that we are building, or starting a local chapter where you live. Our contact info is at the end.
- We will need to support ourselves and our families while we build REFASHIOND. To do that, we are willing to take on consulting assignments for corporations, governments, large nonprofit organizations, foundations, and multilateral organizations with consulting needs around open innovation, supply chain, technology, and startups. We’d love to work with companies that are thinking about starting down the path of creating a corporate venture capital arm. Please do not hesitate to let us know if you wish to engage REFASHIOND’s services.
- We’re also happy to act as consultants to family offices, in the United States or abroad, that wish to explore setting up their own venture capital investing practice, such as KEC Holdings did. Please do not hesitate to let us know if you wish to engage REFASHIOND’s services for that purpose.
- If there are other ideas you feel we should consider as we start building REFASHIOND, please let us know. Our contact info is at the end of this article.
I learned the most important lessons about what it takes to build a business at my mother’s side – she quit her job as a primary school teacher in Kano, Nigeria in 1981 and started trying to build a small business at home. For several years she baked and sold meat-pies through a network of kiosk operators on the campus of Bayero University, Kano. I was responsible for peeling and dicing hundreds of Irish potatoes every day, after I got home from school. They were a key ingredient in her recipe. She baked and sold whole wheat bread to the community of expatriates in Kano, and with my dad’s help, she also raised 1,500 chickens which laid eggs that we sold to the expatriates who bought the whole wheat bread she baked. I bore a significant amount of responsibility during each of those endeavors. I know what it takes to build a business from scratch – the physical effort, as well as the psychological and economic pressures with which one must grapple. For example, I know what it is like to wake up to find that all 1,500 layers we were raising had been wiped out overnight by an infectious virus. This happened more than once – sometimes we suspected sabotage by our neighbor who started a poultry farm soon after we started ours, but we had no tangible proof. My affinity for startup founders can be traced directly to what I learned about the challenges of entrepreneurship from working beside my mother.
After several pivots, she eventually started a school in 1986. More than three decades and hundreds of students later, she’s built a reputation for excellence and her school is highly coveted in Kano. Her very first student is now an early stage VC based in Brooklyn, NY – his name is Rashid Galandanci. I often joke that my mom is probably the only African elementary school teacher who has trained two little boys to go on and become venture capitalists in New York City.
So, when people ask me what motivates me I tell them that I wake up every day trying to become the kind of investor my mom would have loved to have by her side over the years, since she started trying to build a business in 1981. That isn’t going to change. I am leaving KEC Ventures/Particle Ventures, but my commitment to the founders leading the startups in the fund’s portfolio does not end. I will always owe Jeff Citron, Joann Vought, and KEC Holdings a debt of gratitude for taking a chance on me when I met them. They created a perfect environment for “a boy from a small village in northern Ghana” to teach himself what it means to be an early stage technology venture capitalist in NYC – it is not lost on me what a rare occurrence that is, nor do I intend to shirk the responsibility it places on my shoulders.
I am eager to greet the challenges Lisa and I will encounter as we start building REFASHIOND. Whatever they are, I expect that we will each have to work harder than we have had to up till now if we are to succeed – patiently building our vision, brick by brick. Fortunately, we’ll be working on something about which we are both obsessively enthusiastic. Bring it on.
Are you afraid? Good. You’re in the great game now. And the great game’s terrifying. The only people who aren’t afraid of failure are madmen like your father.
– Tyrion Lannister, speaking to Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 10.
How Can You Reach Us?
- Brian: Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram
- Lisa: Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram
- Sign up for our upcoming booklet here.
- Remember to check out: The New York Supply Chain Meetup – Our Vision, and The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation – Our Manifesto.
- Join Our Growing Community: New York, Athens, Bangalore, Singapore, and Vancouver.
Update: September 5, 2018 at 14:04 to clarify language around KEC Ventures/Particle Ventures.
 Lee Hower has done a great job exploring the factors that cause venture capital firms to fail. See The Rise and Fall of Great Venture Firms – Part I and The Rise and Fall of Great Venture Firms – Part II.
 Theodore P. Hill, Knowing When To Stop. Accessed on August 20, 2018 at: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/knowing-when-to-stop
 This is a trademark that belongs to The New York Supply Chain Meetup, LLC.