Lisa: Welcome to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. I’m Lisa Calhoun, the Founding General Partner of venture capital firm Valor Ventures right here in Atlanta. I have a fantastic, relatively famous local innovator with me on the show today. He’s the producer and host of the Disruptor Studio, and also the Chief Innovation Officer at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Alex Gonzalez, I’m so glad to have you with me here on the show.
Alex: Well, thank you, Lisa. Well, famous? Those are grand words today, so thank you.
Lisa: You’re so welcome. Well, if people haven’t met you, they should. After this program, I’m sure they will be seeking you out. Tell me a little bit about your history in innovation in Atlanta — it certainly goes past Disruptor Studio and the Metro Chamber.
Alex: Yeah, even beyond Atlanta, frankly, at the core of my background is a corporate side, so being at big companies like GE, Equifax, and Chubb Insurance and things of that sort. Over 20 years of corporate experience in a bunch of different cities but ending here in Atlanta during my stint at Equifax, and in all those roles, even before I was using the term innovation in my roles, a big part of my role was about how do you become more customer-centered. How do you kind of change the norm or be more disruptive? How do you enter new markets? Even when I was a GM of the business or was running strategy or whatever the case might be, what I always came back to was this whole aspect of innovation. I kind of grew up building this kind of skill set around innovation in kind of a corporate setting and talking about things like customer experience and brand innovation and product innovation and all that, and fell in love with it so much that I went off on my own and started really exploring the topic innovation in the broadest sense — including startups, mid-market companies, creative culture, universities, and did some coaching of executives around that topic. That’s when I started really getting into launching Disruptor Studio and talking to people about innovation, but also falling in love with innovation here in Atlanta and realizing that we have all the elements here to create this uniquely innovative culture.
That’s where I crossed paths with the Metro Atlanta Chamber. They had this incredible opportunity to use the chamber platform to help curate, connect, and promote us as a leading innovation hub.
Lisa: I definitely want to talk about Atlanta, but before we get into that, I want to sort of mine your history in corporate innovation. Can you share with us what the corporate innovation journey really is these days and how it might be changing?
Alex: Yeah, what’s so tricky about corporate innovation is that it’s so unique for each company. The corporate innovation journey is really grounded in so much about the culture of the company, the strategy of the company, and where they’re going.
A lot of times when I talk about corporate innovation, I really step back so many degrees to say, “Okay, what is your purpose? What are you doing? What’s the journey? What’s the risk tolerance of the organization, and how to use innovation to ultimately get to where you want to go?” Because I think there’s always these mistakes that are made where you innovate in a silo in isolation when you should be innovating to reach your objectives — your strategic objective — both short term and long term. Obviously in the environment we’re in now, corporate innovation, I would say, is absolutely critical. I think during times of crisis, you always have this normal retraction that occurs in terms of investing in the long term, and sometimes not even just about “Do we invest in the long term?” but it’s about “What are our priorities for the future?” I think for corporate innovators right now, it’s about understanding who they are, who they’re going to be — both in the short term in the long term — and adjusting their innovation to that.
Lisa: I think that we’ve all become newly sensitized from this COVID-19 situation, and really global crisis and economic fallout, to have we been innovating in the right directions? How will things change? I’m wondering how you feel about that.
Alex: Yeah, and I think you’re exactly right. One is I think we’re still learning how things are going to be changing. I talk a lot about this term “confusion tolerance,” which is the ability to take in information and kind of suspend drawing a conclusion to it until you understand fully what it’s all about. Right now, it’s important more than ever because things will be very different. Some things will not. We’re trying to figure all that out.
What I would say right now is that with the COVID-19, and with the economic realities we’re facing into, what we do know, at least from those focusing on innovation, is that you’re going to be all of a sudden given more scarce resources — possibly less time, possibly less tolerance, whatever it is. I’m a big believer that constraints create fast innovation. We’re seeing that in the medical field where they are racing against time to solve for COVID-19 in terms of immunization or tests, whatever the case might be. I think beyond the healthcare area, we’re going to see that in industries like travel. What does this mean? Is this a blip? Do we have to reinvent what we do? You’re going to see this in other companies and it’s going to make people sharper in what innovation matters. How do you become more empathetic to human needs?
What I will say is, I think the biggest mistake anybody can make right now is that this is not the time to innovate. This is absolutely the time to innovate. This is absolutely the time to innovate in a way that focuses on what is absolutely critical to advance either humanity, economies, even individuals. I have an article that’s out, or a blog post, about this. I talk about how this is the time to innovate yourself. How do you operate? Now, we won’t know, to your question, Lisa, what this means over the next 6 months, 12 months, 18 months, 24 months every time there’s some sort of crisis or downturn, whatever the case might be. Obviously, this is magnified because it’s a public health crisis, not just an economic crisis. We know that companies are born out of it, and we know that new things happen. But this is where I think the innovators, whether you’re an entrepreneur or venture capitalists or corporate innovator, you got to really start taking a long view in terms of what’s occurring while you’re solving to help remediate what has to happen right now, too.
Lisa: What do you think is going to happen with the role of startups and corporates? It’s always been a close intertwined role, and to your point, every corporation does innovation individually. But do you think the trend is going to head towards building in-house or acquire promising growth?
Alex: I think — this it cuts back a little bit to corporations and their own culture tolerance — but I think over the long haul, we will continue to see this need to collaborate. Collaborate could mean different things — it could be partnerships, it could be acquisitions, whatever the case might be. In Atlanta, obviously, a great example with Engage Ventures on what they’re doing in terms of drawing value between big corporations and startups and helping drive value together. I think you’re going to see that to continue.
Here’s one thing that we do know looking into the landscape going forward: there could be some immediate needs where companies might retract because they can’t take additional risk or they don’t have the capacity. I think as things evolve, but even in the short term for companies that are solving for right now — think about startups focusing on healthcare. Some of them are so close to what they’re doing, whether it’s through how to serve patients or whether it’s bioscience related, it would behoove corporations to partner with them that could potentially get solutions out faster. I’m always a believer that the need for corporations and startups to partner and engage is essential. It’s part of a good, for a corporation, it’s a good part of their innovation portfolio. I don’t see any reason why that would change as we go into the future. In fact, I would argue that it’s going to be needed even more than ever.
Lisa: We’re certainly seeing an uptick at Valor with our Innovation Council. We have over 52 corporates on that Council and Robin, of course, runs that — our General Partner Robin Bienfait. Over the last couple of weeks the inbound opportunities from groups like Mount Sinai in New York working with Lockheed Martin on things that can create a little bit more streamlined operations. There’s a strong need with sort of the shelter-in-place for a lot of major corporations to do more with their teams at home. We’ve really felt quite an uptick in their ability to collaborate with or onboard new technologies. It’s really amazing. I think that that’s going to spur a bit of — there’s a lot of economic pressure, and I’m not trying to minimize that, and I know a lot of us are hurting from it — I think there’s also going to be a creativity that comes out of this time that’s going to be refreshing for the whole innovation ecosystem.
Alex: Yeah, and to that, Lisa, you’re exactly right. This is going back to before about kind of the constraints, whether its economic or willpower or whatever it is, it’s going to create an immense amount of efficiency, which should create an immense amount of focus on the right innovation that is needed. Then you’re going to see this situation: so when a company reaches out to an early stage company — a scaling company, a venture capitalist, whatever the case might be — seeking to partner or acquire whatever it is, in this environment they’re pretty darn serious about what they need at this point. I think it’ll create some efficiencies and potentially some great creative juice in terms of solving some real problems. That’s where I get back to. I think the constraints and the pressure right now is going to create so much efficiency and so much focus around innovation.
Lisa: It’s a great point, and how this all plays together right here in our local area in Atlanta. Now we have a lot of listeners, of course, that are corporate leaders. We have a lot of startup leaders, and then we have technologists who maybe in their career have worked in startups and on the corporate side. How do you think Atlanta is positioned for this new reality? What are some of the strengths and maybe even the weaknesses that you see coming into play?
Alex: In terms of the innovation economy, the fundamentals have been in place.
We’ve kind of gone into this situation and, of course, this whole this whole crisis overall. As Atlanta going into it, we had a strong economy, diverse economy in terms of industries, strong in the innovation economy, strong startup ecosystem, and, as you know, leaning heavily into the diversity of talent and people and industries. All those variables, I think, still continue. We are also seeing us, as we get into this crisis, really leaning into certain industries that are fundamental for the world but that have great strengths here in Atlanta, like on the logistics side, and also of course, in healthcare. I think that’s definitely the advantage — or I’d not even say advantage — that’s the strength of Atlanta going into it and going through it and going on the other side of it. Those fundamentals don’t go away. I think as leaders it is “How do we continue kind of optimizing that?” and “How do we continue the strength of what we have in terms of collaborating together to be able to even be stronger?” That’s not just to solve problems here for Atlanta, but solve problems with the country into the world. I think that will continue as well, too.
The challenge is we, obviously, are all looking at how this virus will play out and what’s the length of the economy being slowed down — whatever the case might be. We’re just going to have to look into the future to understand that, but I think we had the foundation and the resiliency to be able to get through it.
Lisa: I was looking at that recent study from WalletHub that Atlanta is on deck, basically, to be the 8th largest city in the US, which is pretty amazing. I think that’s 2022 is when that’s a possibility. In the meantime, we’ve got Atlanta always in the highest rankings among quality of life. When you think about what’s changing in cities, density, to some extent, has been positive until Corona, and then density became difficult. I’m just wondering how you think Atlanta as a city that has, generally speaking, strong quality of life, strong value of life, strong life economics — still a lot of the benefits of a really large city — is going to compare in the future against maybe some of the super dense urban centers like San Francisco and New York, who’ve been some of the hardest hit by the Coronavirus situation?
Alex: Yeah, I think, obviously, we’ll see how that plays out. Getting back to the fundamentals of what makes Atlanta great, part of it, what’s happening in Atlanta now is that, I like to think of Atlanta as kind of in this teenager phase where we’re kind of figuring out our identity and we’re shaping. We’re shaping our identity as we speak. I think that we’ll continue to do so because we have the strength of this growing urban center and I believe will continue to grow. You see that even in the tech ecosystem, what’s happening in Midtown around Tech Square and all that, but we’re also seeing different pockets, creative centers, being born — what’s happening with the BeltLine and the job of that and lifestyle. But we also sometimes forget that we’re this huge Metro as well with millions of people living outside the city center as well. You’re seeing pockets of — speaking specific to the innovation economy, like what’s happening with Atlanta Tech Park, of course, where Valor is based out of in Norcross, and what’s happening with Tech Alpharetta. What I love about Atlanta, it’s like there is this incredible diversity, not just of talent, not just industries, but also in terms of how you want to live your life. Again, this is where I think we’re well positioned. Look, I still think urban centers will continue to grow. I think this is where science and so forth. Well, it’s just me, I’m not an economist, I’m not a scientist. But I think, as humans, we will solve for that because there’s an element of what humans crave and we solve towards that. I think urban centers will continue to grow, as will Atlanta, but I also think in Atlanta we’re going to see this interconnected series of communities that we have — both urban, suburban, and so forth — the strength that we’ll continue to lean into.
Lisa: When you think about Atlanta, and I know maybe looking a little bit to your role with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, what do you think really stands out that makes Atlanta unique? If anything, but just from your experience. There’s a lot of cities out there, and I know Atlanta is constantly competing with other cities to draw corporates to the city, for example. What makes Atlanta stand out in your opinion?
Alex: Well, just some fundamentals is definitely lifestyle and affordability that is clearly an advantage, but at the same time being, as you mentioned, one of the largest population centers. That combination is just incredible and great. Things like weather, things like having — granted, even though at this time there’s no travel — but being a logistics center for travel with our airport and convenience.
You have all those kind of elements, too, but if you can start getting into it, the other element — to start a little bit about the innovation economy, both startup and corporate — what you see here is the growth of a startup ecosystem, a huge corporate center with a lot of innovation centers here. We have over 30 corporate innovation, or close to 40, corporate innovation centers. You have a creative culture here, and not just about movies or music, but just even digital creatives and so forth that’s growing here. Our university system of hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in the universities around Atlanta. The collision of all those things is what makes Atlanta unique.
Then on top of that you put culture that, as I mentioned, is being shaped as we speak. I’d like to say that culture is our strength and that spirit of collaboration, the spirit of inclusion, all those things, is what makes Atlanta unique.
I always say it’s not one thing that you could put your finger on, it’s a combination of all those things that can bring unique value. By the way, when you have different attributes like that that collide together, that’s where the best innovation is born. That’s why I think it’s a great environment for innovators, both startup and corporate.
Lisa: I completely agree with you on culture. I think one of the things that Atlanta has going forward is something we seldom talk about, which is we have the greatest density of Hispanic and African American founders in the country in one city. When you get that kind of diverse perspective in forming what’s already a very strong corporate community — traditional roots and things like logistics and finance — I think that that is a true collision of best of breed ideas that can come out of the city. I really liked what you said about culture and I think that that’s our differentiator for me.
Alex: One thing, as you mentioned, about even talent as well, think about talent here in Atlanta. With the diversity of industry, the diversity of talent, you have people who would one day be working at a large corporate financial services firm, the next day be working for a digital agency who happens to be supporting another company, and next thing they go creative. It’s the ability for our talent to see so many perspectives within the city, within the region, is pretty powerful, which makes us have a pretty strong talent base as well. Our talen, of course, embraces the culture that we will continue to shape. To your point, the diversity of Metro Atlanta is what makes it even stronger. That’s what makes us unique for sure.
Lisa: One of the things that Atlanta occasionally comes under fire for, and I think very often deservedly, is inclusion. Now, while we have been the birthplace of leaders like Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, we have a lot of things to be proud of. They’re also things that we’re not so proud of and that are kind of under change in cities always being rebuilt. How do you feel, as a Hispanic leader, about the inclusion in Atlanta now and the direction is going?
Alex: From my perspective, I think for me as a Hispanic leader, you know what I will say is I’ve lived in different parts of the country and personally, coming to Atlanta, there’s this incredible diversity. One is obviously in terms of race and ethnicity, for sure, which I just embrace and love and see very strongly here in Atlanta. But also in terms of diversity of thoughts, backgrounds, and perspectives. It’s a place where — I’ve been to parts of the country where you’re almost an outsider if you’re not from there, you didn’t grow up in that city, or whatever the case might be. Here in Atlanta, you kind of embrace the fact that you have people in different schools, different states, different backgrounds, and ethnicities. It is definitely one of our strengths.
What I love about it, too, is that there is also this incredible recognition and desire to focus on that. There are so many groups around Atlanta that are focusing how to drive inclusion. For me, we are uniquely positioned around this aspect of inclusive innovation. We talked about startup cultures and what we could bring to Atlanta — I think Atlanta is positioned and should be the leader in terms of growing the number of African American, Hispanic, and women entrepreneurs and be a leader in that and really set the blueprint for how to do that.
Lisa: I couldn’t agree more.
Alex: By the way, to me, it’s not just an element of “this is socially good” although it absolutely is socially good. It just makes business sense. When people say “What’s the secret to grow the innovation economy in Atlanta”? and I talk about inclusive innovation inclusive entrepreneurs and it’s one of those steps, it’s because it is good because it’s representative of how the world looks like. It’s more representative of what consumers are feeling if we do that. There’s a lot of great people around Atlanta that are working on that as well, including, obviously, you and what you’re doing with Valor.
Lisa: Thank you. I really have to say I have been so grateful to the corporations that have gotten around our program Startup Runway. The startup runway foundation is — to your point about where we’re going to see a lot of great innovation — the largest pitch event for as yet unfunded startups who are led by people of color and women. It’s become the largest in the country, born right here in Atlanta and the very first presenting sponsor, Cox Enterprises. It really is beautiful to see stories like that coming out of the city, and that’s just a few years old. We were glad to announce, just this year, that we’re going to be able to take this Atlanta homegrown program that’s touching thousands of startups from underrepresented founders and actually have it in Chicago this year for the first time, which will be this summer. To your point, the collaboration between the corporate and the startup community is creating new opportunities.
One of the studies I most appreciated this last couple months was from the Kauffman Fellows and MaC Capital. Marlon over there found by looking at an AI database of founder images, looking at 20,000 founders across the last 10 years, that underrepresented founders returned 30% more capital to their investors.
Alex: I believe it. By the way, our community in our business community believes it, too. Look, I want to make sure, from a Metro Atlanta Chamber perspective, we are here to help convene and catalyze things that are going on in our region. So many people for years, or organizations out there, doing great work at a grassroots level and at a high level in terms of driving inclusion, particularly around entrepreneurism.
One of the things we’ve done over this past year is we convened different leaders in our program called Plato — Plato as in the philosopher. It’s really to understand: how do we drive the region forward? One of the things that came up is about this inclusive innovation entrepreneurism. That’s important because these convenings we did, these gatherings we did, were or some of our corporate CEOs from some of our biggest companies, entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, investors, people from the creative industries, people out scaling companies. Consistently people look at that and say 1) this makes business sense, to your point, Lisa 2) we’re just uniquely positioned in Atlanta and 3) there’s a lot of groups really working on this. We need to be a leader around inclusive innovation, inclusive entrepreneurism and we’ll continue to be working towards that.
Lisa: I think it’s truly Atlanta’s secret weapon. I truly do. Were there any takeaways from the Plato group that you can share with our listeners?
Alex: Oh, look, a lot of it, I think, is consistent with what you talked about. One, it’s recognition that we have an incredibly diverse talent base. So much of it also is the power of convening and driving connections between groups from corporations to startups, and also recognizing: how do we help? How do we connect groups that are new and really going along this battle, going along this journey of inclusive innovation?
The other element, including race, gender, and ethnicity, is also multi-generational diversity as well. How do we move forward in Atlanta and how do we help different generations learn from each other? When we think about diversity of thought, it’s also about generational because the fact of the matter is how we lead business 10 years from now will be different from how we lead business now. It’s really understanding those perspectives, but the collaborative nature of it, and really getting focused around this as a business community is really what the big takeaway is for me.
I was just beyond ecstatic to see how unified, without really much prompting, it was that all these leaders came together to say “This is important.” That’s what I’m just absolutely ecstatic about and will continue that work.
Lisa: Exciting work. Well, people are listening, they’re hearing about the depth of your network along several indices. Of course, you’re a very inclusive leader, Alex. It is one of the reasons I’m really grateful to have you on the show. Tell me about some of the people that startup founders in Atlanta listening to this show — who should they be getting to know? A couple of shout outs for leaders that you really feel are making a difference and should be on every founder’s radar.
Alex: Yeah, and there’s so many. I’m going to feel awful because I’m going to exclude so many as well, too. Some founders themselves that have really turned into what I would say big influencers, kind of really are acting well beyond just founders or investors now, two folks.
One, which you know, Lisa, is David Cummings, of course, who is a founder himself and very successful entrepreneur now investor, but also really was a catalyst when he opened Atlanta Tech Village, which is now the fourth largest entrepreneurial center in the country, here in Atlanta. What he’s doing as well, in terms of inclusion, with the It Takes a Village Program they just recently launched as well.
Then Paul Judge, who of course with Tech Square Labs, a great founder and investor. He’s also doing so much even to, along with David, how do we shape this innovation economy and how do we drive inclusive entrepreneurs? How do we collide, create? In fact, Paul spent a lot of time thinking about how we collide creative culture and tech culture to make us even more unique. You see that with his investment in A3C Festival and so forth. Those are two that I think a lot of people know those names, but really even if you don’t get to know them, follow them because they have a lot of great perspectives. Just interesting with Paul, his fiance, Tanya Sam — the two of them have been doing a lot in terms of driving inclusive entrepreneurs and then both are very involved with Ascend and various programs. Tanja herself is focused very specifically around women entrepreneurs, particularly African American and Latin and Hispanic women, to help drive those early stage entrepreneurs forward.
A few other names I’ll mention. I’ve been really impressed with what Bernie Dixon is doing with Launchpad2x to help women entrepreneurs. In fact, in this current situation with COVID, the advice she’s giving these entrepreneurs is just amazing to get them through, in addition to what she’s doing to advance women entrepreneurs.
Definitely, definitely, definitely people should, and in this environment, should know Jay Bailey and the Russell Center for Innovation Entrepreneurship, which is literally just opening or still opening, so they’re still building it out. His mission is around driving black entrepreneurism in a very scaled way and their innovation center is going to be one of the best in the country, for sure. He’s a good person to know.
Those are just a few, but there’re so many people like Lori Oliver and Shahana Mentonelli with Birth, who are helping women entrepreneurs in not traditionally tech, but scalable, businesses kind of focusing on CPG. They’re former Spanx executives that are focusing on that. Then, of course, you have groups like ATDC with John Avery, The Gathering Spot, and Switchyard. Lisa, I could go on forever, but those are just a few names.
Lisa: Lots of places to get engaged. Lots of people to follow. Depending on where you’re coming from, you can get real, meaningful insight. To your point, Atlanta is a big city. It’s really huge.
Alex: It is. Obviously I mentioned David and Paul who have been really at the center of our innovation ecosystem growth, but there’s many of the venture capitalists around town, Lisa, and, of course, folks like Sig Mosley, who started all this. There’re so many names, too, that I hate to leave out who really have been a foundation on this. There’s definitely so many people that’re focusing on the growing innovation ecosystem, but also helping drive this aspect of having an inclusive innovation ecosystem. What I love about it is it continues to grow every day as well, so that’s wonderful.
Lisa: Well, you have quite a network and I’m glad you could spare some time for the program here. How do people get in touch with you and want to reach out for a little bit more? How do they find the Disruptor Studio? How can they follow up?
Alex: Yeah, the best thing is social media. Obviously, LinkedIn is a very active platform for me, so it’s a great way to connect. Just look me up on LinkedIn as Alex Gonzalez — I think @agonz is the handle there. Then on my other social media platforms are Twitter and Instagram and Medium where I do blog quite a bit around innovation and every aspect of innovation, but personal innovation, and also corporate and startup innovation as well, too. My handles on those are @alexginnovation. On there, you’ll see stuff on Disruptor Studio, but definitely you could look at LinkedIn and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube for the Disrupter Studio. We have interviews of some great entrepreneurs and innovators from different walks of life on the Disruptor Studio, and we’ll be continuing to grow that as we move forward.
Lisa: Alex, was awesome talking with you today. Thanks so much for your time and insight.
Alex: Thank you, Lisa. Thanks for everything you’re doing with this podcast and with Valor Ventures.
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