Lisa:

This is Lisa Calhoun, Founding General Partner at Valor Ventures, and you’re on the Atlanta Startup Podcast. Today, my special guest is Nyra Jordan from the American Family Institute. She’s a sponsor of Startup Runway here in Atlanta, and the presenting sponsor now in our new series in Chicago. Nyra, welcome to the program!

Nyra:

Thank you. I’m so excited to be on the program today. Thank you for having me.

Lisa:

I’m glad you’re here, too. I think you have a fascinating Atlanta story for someone who does not live here. How about you share with our listeners a little bit about how you even got connected into Atlanta and why you’re flying here a couple times a year, at least when I see you for Startup Runway?

Nyra:

Yeah, so being a part of American Family Insurance, Georgia is one of our sales states. Atlanta has always been on the radar for us because of our insurance agents and the fact that we sell in Georgia. When we launched the institute in late 2018 and we were thinking about “Where do we want to show up?” Where do we want to help continue to help build an ecosystem or be a part of a thriving ecosystem?” It was logical for us to look at Atlanta. It only made sense that when we want to look at how we can drive social impact deeper and get connected to startups that are doing incredible work, Atlanta was the logical place for us to do that. I should also say, when I was in graduate school, so many years ago, I went to Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia and Atlanta was a place that I would come to very often with my friends where we would hang out. On a personal note, Atlanta is just a place that’s very near and dear to me.

Lisa:

Oh my goodness, I did not even know we had that in common. Georgia has a program called Governor’s Honors, and it’s for high school students and it’s held at Valdosta State College. I lived in the dorms all summer, I went to the cafeteria, and there was nothing to do but read in the library when I was there. It’s fun to have that point of connection with you. I know the road between Valdosta and Atlanta really well, and it is an empty road.

Nyra:

Yes.

Lisa:

To get back to some of the other experiences that we shared, I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with you on the Community Prize that’s presented at Startup Runway in Atlanta, which for those of you who haven’t been or hopefully you’re planning on attending our next one this spring, the Community Prize is given to the startups that the community, the audience, the viewers think is the best and most investable. The last time we awarded this prize in the fall, it was to a wonderful startup called Mini City that actually provides a software platform that helps shelters manage homeless people and helps them gain access to resources and track their ability to access those resources. Nyra, you’ve made such a huge impact in giving grants to startups like these that are outside of the traditional “you sin or strike” zone of venture capital. Why does American Family Institute focus on companies like these?

Nyra:

We feel very strongly that our venture capital investment strategy basically helps us support communities. We’re all about supporting the dreams. We’re American Family Insurance. Our mission is to inspire, protect, and restore dreams and we feel that the most valuable thing that anybody really owns is their dream. When I see startup founders that are realizing their dream, and then those dreams are connected to social impact, it only makes sense that we look for those founders that are doing that incredible work. That’s why the partnership, honestly, with Startup Runway was just a no brainer for us. It’s not often that you run across partners that align so beautifully to your mission and are trying to do the same thing, like provide access for underserved founders, make a difference in their communities, use an incredibly innovative tool like venture capital investment to do that. It was just logical for us. 

So it’s really at the core, I think, of who we are as a company. The Institute is an extension of our corporate responsibility strategy, and that is all about “How do we serve the communities?” Again, it was just logical, it just made sense. We just feel like that’s a way that we can just go deeper in helping communities just be better, helping founders be better, and helping people that have dreams to change the world do that. We’re proud to be a part of it.

Lisa:

It’s wonderful having you be a part of it. You know, The Institute, as I remember, is relatively new. It’s not brand new by any means. I think it’s so forward thinking of a legacy provider like American Family Insurance to create an institute that’s focusing on social impact and helping people with their dreams. Could you share more about that evolution? I think you were kind of on the ground zero of it. I’m sure our listeners really enjoyed that story, because it’s unusual.

Nyra:

Yeah, I love telling the story of The Institute. I was very fortunate to be a part of the team to ideate and really think about what this could be. My background prior to being a part of this Institute and being in venture capital was corporate responsibility. Being a part of that team, I was able to help kind of realize what this could be. American Family, because of our commitment to the community, we felt that there were some things we were doing really well like from a philanthropic standpoint, and Atlanta is one of those cities where we feel we show up very proudly. We have connections to the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United and other philanthropic efforts that are going on there in that city. We do that in all of our operating states. We felt that there were things we were doing well, but we also recognize that there are really deep social issues that are happening in our communities that we, as an organization, could no longer ignore. We were challenged to think about how we can look differently and address these issues in a way that is a little bit more innovative, a little bit more disruptive. The Institute really was born out of that. As I said, we opened actually October 3rd, 2018, which is American Family Insurance’s birthday. While based in Madison, Wisconsin, we have a national focus. 

We have four priority areas in which we feel that our mission at The Institute is to close the equity gap.

We do that through economic opportunity for all, which is the area I oversee, which concentrates on advancing opportunities for people in businesses and communities across the country that don’t typically have access to capital or access to financial services. Within that space, we also have a particular focus on criminal justice reform, so we look to support startups that serve or founded by individuals that have a past of incarceration. Healthy use development is another one of our investment areas where we are addressing social emotional and mental health trauma that many of our young people encounter. Many of our investments in that space also focus on the adults that have to care for those youth because we feel that healthy adults make healthy children and healthy youth. We look for investments in companies that are advancing equity and learning, particularly within the K-12 space. How can we bring innovative classroom solutions that engage directly with the youth teachers, as well as district administrators? Then our final area is more around creating resilient communities. If we think about the implications of climate change on vulnerable communities and the inability of those communities to survive after that, we want to look for investments that are looking to mitigate some of the issues around those topics. 

That is really kind of how we came about. We look for those venture capital investments across the country that align into those four focus areas. Within that, we also want to make sure that we have a focus on underserved founders that don’t typically have access to capital. Our mission is to make sure that yes, we are providing or we’re getting a financial return on investment, but social impact is an equal criteria that we look for when we are looking for those venture capital investable opportunities.

Lisa:

This makes you a unique investor that’s perfectly suited for this time. All of those issues are so critical, and I think we feel them in even sharper relief here as we talk during our COVID quarantine. It’s like there’s a time to be a social impact investor, this is it. Congratulations to you on your vision and foresight with this. It’s really it’s really prescient. Looking at these investments, I just have a ton of questions, but a couple of them are: Can you tell us about an investment you’ve made recently? And just to follow up on that, at what stage does American Family like to make a venture capital investment?

Nyra:

We go from seed to series A or B. Some of our recent investments I’ll talk about that aligns in my space is a startup called Pigeonly.

Pigeonly is actually Las Vegas based, and it’s a low cost communication platform that makes it easy for families and friends to support and connect with incarcerated loved ones. Pigeonly lowers the cost of prison phone calls and basically enables family members to send their loved ones greeting cards and letters and photos digitally through their phone or tablet or their computer. Additionally, its founder, Frederick Hudson, just made an incredible impression on us at The Institute. Because of the social impact that they make, they reduce the cost of prison phone calls up to 80%. If individuals have ever had to interact with someone that they love that is incarcerated, you know that those phone calls are quite expensive. By enabling Pigeonly or supporting Pigeonly in enabling families to stay connected, this reduces recidivism. By having that connection while you’re incarcerated, and through that whole incarceration process, when individuals return to their communities, they’re more likely to not return back to that criminal behavior. That is an example of how we think about social impact, and particularly how it aligns into the space of economic opportunity. That’s one of the things that we look at. Pigeonly is a great example of that. We love Frederick and we love that organization. They are also thinking about how they’re even expanding their offerings in terms of mail and a lot of prisons are, particularly now when you think about COVID and families are not able to visit their loved one, it makes this business model even that much more important.

Lisa:

That’s a great example. You know, I think you said Las Vegas. Did I hear that right? 

Nyra:

You did.

Lisa:

Are you looking outside of the traditional venture hubs on purpose? Is that accidental? Tell me how your deals flow with this fairly unique, very forward thinking model. How are you seeing deal flow come in? Is it from the traditional venture hubs? Is it non-traditional cities? What are you seeing?

Nyra:

I would say it’s all of that. And yes, we recognize that there are deals that are coming from those traditional locations, but we are very intentional about looking elsewhere. I feel that one of the things, particularly because we’re dealing with certain social issues that impact underserved communities like incarceration, it’s important to get proximate. We use that term a lot at American Family to understand our social issues — that there are communities that have an incredible amount of innovation because of the lived experience of some of these social issues. We absolutely look outside those other hubs. We get deal source through your typical VC partners that you would think about when you think about venture capital, but we also get an incredible amount of deals that come through us from other cities. We are actually looking in Milwaukee; because it’s close to home for us, we are concentrating in that city. We are seeing wonderful innovation come from that city. We also think about: how can help cultivate some of the innovation and startups that may not exist at this point in time? What resources can we help provide to really, really early stage founders to help them stand up their organizations to help them be successful? We feel like all of that is within bounds for us in terms of venture capital investment, in terms of social impact. We talk about capacity building within communities as something that we do. Those are all ways that we think about how we can help support communities in the work that we’re doing.

Lisa:

Well, I see you uniquely positioned to do it in a way. Just before we started with the recording as we were getting settled, we were talking about your large agent network and how actually, because of American Family Insurance’s large footprint, you have people in a lot of major cities across the country that really shared these visions and these passions. Do you see them being involved? Is that part of the vision?

Nyra:

Absolutely. As you said, we have an incredible agent network, so I think it’s really something that we want to do. Our agents are small business owners. They are interacting with the communities. They have to think about how to leverage innovation and the work that they’re doing, so we’ve been talking to them about startups. I think at the last Startup Runway, there were several Am Fam agents that I invited that showed up because they want to get connected to this ecosystem as well; they want to be mentors to some of our early stage startup founders, they want to help ideate, they want to help provide potential customers through their customer pipeline. I think there is a great opportunity for us to think about how to marry these two things that we have been working internally — how to make that connection to our sales force, to startup founders, to cast, to learn, to provide those customers. I think the possibility in my mind are endless in terms of how we can make that connection across these two worlds.

Lisa:

Well, it’s a lot of fun to see and I’m really glad you’re here to share it with us. One of the things I’m excited about doing with American Family Institute is our new program Startup Runway Chicago where you are the sponsor, I know. This is going to be so fun! For additional excitement, we get to launch it in a time when most cities, including yours and mine, are on lockdown. Just looking forward, I think that one of the interesting things is how much the Coronavirus pandemic is allowing a lot of rethinking of old models and how can we get more people around startups who are not necessarily able to take two or three hours out of their day in a major urban center and drive to see them, but can actually perhaps get engaged in mentorship via a Zoom call or other coordinated activities. It’s interesting times. All that to say, I guess I just want to ask you — it’s very early days, I know — but how do you think the pandemic may impact some of the work that you’re doing at The Institute? Silver linings or headwinds? How is it feeling today?

Nyra:

I think the challenge that we’re going to have — I mentioned this whole idea of getting proximate — and I think the challenge for us is: how do we continue to stay close and proximate to startup founders as well as communities who are dealing with these issues during this time? A lot of the work we do within communities help inform our VC activity, making sure that when we are making decisions on how we’re investing our dollars, that we are really looking at those social issues that are solving the problems that we feel are out there. How to stay connected when you’re physically distant? How can you continue to remain connected to the communities and to the ecosystem? How do you build an ecosystem when you can’t be in the same room together? That is the challenge that we’re trying to figure out. How can we build virtual communities? How can we still serve the communities that we want to serve in a way that’s meaningful? And this whole idea force innovation, right? We’re in this situation where we’re having to pivot quickly. It is adjusting our thought process and how we are engaging with the founders that are in our portfolio, but also those startups that we want to be connected to as potential investors.

Lisa:

Ours too. I mean, as an active investor with my Valor Ventures hat on, it really is something that is forcing us to be extremely thoughtful, and I think that’s always a good thing. To some extent — this is just a personal feeling — but I felt, because my travel schedule was really packed, that I had too much noise in my travel schedule. For example, what if I saw someone who is a medium-strong or medium-important relationship, but I would see them nine times a year because we’re all at the same conferences? I’m really rethinking that lifestyle, personally, and thinking about building stronger, more elegant, more crafted scaffolding in the relationships that I’m pursuing for Valor. How do I make each meeting very meaningful, but maybe not so much of a back-and-forth as as previous to this experience? It’s very, very thought-provoking, and I think a lot will come out of it for investors.

Nyra:

I think there is an intentionality about the connections we’re making. It’s funny that you say that too. We’re here,we’re on lockdown. I’m here with my family. Everybody knows you’re on lockdown, right? I feel like I’m getting requests for meetings, requests for phone calls, but I’m actually coveting my time a little differently because I do want to allow that family time that I would not have gotten otherwise. To your point — I’m on a plane, I’m in this city and traveling, and this has forced, in an incredibly fortunate way, a very blessed way, to be able to spend this time. How am I intentional in the conversations I’m having? I’m having the deeper connections that I want to make in a way that enables me to still take care of myself and take care of my family because I think it’s easy to be on Zoom back-to-back and recreate that schedule that we all had when we were out in the real world. I agree with you. Absolutely, without cinema.

Lisa:

I wanted to talk a little bit about why Chicago, because Chicago is, in so many ways, an iconic city and it’s the one that American Family Institute, after looking at a lot of interesting cities, landed on as a great place to stand up the Startup Runway program for underrepresented founders. For those listeners who have no idea what Startup Runway is, let me give you a quick overview. Startup Runway is a foundation. It’s a nonprofit 501(c)3 foundation that Valor started in 2016. Its purpose is introducing underrepresented founders to their first investor. I am so excited to bring the program, thanks to presenting sponsor American Family Institute, to Chicago for the first time this summer. We’re targeting June and yes, we’re having to reflow so much because we have to make sure it’s safe and that everyone’s in a good place. Regardless, the city has so much opportunity. I just wanted to get, Nyra, your thoughts on that? Why Chicago? Why did it rise high for you as a city that could really be a great landing spot for Startup Runway’s program?

Nyra:

Yeah, first and foremost, I’m from the south suburbs of Chicago, so again, a personal connection to Chicago for me. I also think that when we look at the social issues that are taking place within our larger cities, absolutely, Chicago is one of them. I feel like the opportunity to leverage innovation in a city like Chicago is just — I think it would just be incredible. I think, also from the standpoint of American Family and the communities that we serve, like Atlanta, we are present in that city. We have philanthropic activities that are taking place there, but there is an opportunity for us to do deeper work. We want to be a part, again, of cities that have really healthy and growing ecosystems. I think Chicago comes to mind for us. How can we be a part of the question we talked about internally of the startup VC ecosystem that doesn’t have anything like Startup Runway right now? So what better city to bring an incredible program like Startup Runway to it? I mean, just for us, it was logical. It’s again, us being a Midwestern company and located in Madison, Chicago is a close neighbor to us. Being able to innovate in a place that’s close and near dear to us definitely went into our decision to start it there.

Lisa:

Well, and I think it was a smart one because it was interesting — right away, the venture capital community in Chicago really raised their hand and said they wanted to be a part of it. I know probably my first conversation was with Chicago Ventures, but then soon thereafter, Lightship Capital, Raising America Fund, Vitalize VC. We get inbound every couple of weeks from a venture capitalist in the Midwest that wants to support the program, wants to be a part of it, wants to meet the founders that we’re attracting through Startup Runway. I’m really expecting great things. For those who are listening and maybe have a friend or a founder in the Chicago area, broadly in the Midwest, they should certainly apply. We take open applications through startuprunway.co, and if you apply there and you’re in the Midwest, we will automatically direct you towards the Startup Runway Chicago program that has a whole lot of momentum behind it. 

In terms of investing, now I’m going to just totally talk about you as a person, Nyra. I’m curious about your own journey as an investor. Is there anything you could share with people who are listening and think “maybe someday I’d like to work in venture capital.” How did you get into it? Any demystification you can share? It’s a question I get a lot so I’m enjoying asking that to another woman.

Nyra:

That’s awesome. I would say VC was not on my radar as a career, and I actually got here through corporate responsibility. Being challenged a few years ago to think about how we as a corporation, Am Fam as a corporation, could engage in an innovative way to drive social impact. That was really how I came to VC. I would say it feels like, with a lot of things, we grew up and you’re told there’s this path you go through to through life. What I’ve just really uncovered, which I don’t think is unique to me — others have probably come to this as well I’m sure — is that there is no pathway. I was just kind of open to what emerged for me and I think through the corporate responsibility work, which logically led to social impact and then the conversations where we talked about “How can we leverage venture capital?” I should say American Family has a background in venture capital through our program Am Fam Ventures, which invests in InsurTech. Being able to learn from that part of the organization, which has been around for over 10 years now, to talk about how we can leverage VC in this work, that was really through those relationships in the organization that I came to venture capital and have had a blast and applying it to driving change in communities. So that’s really how I got here. My background is not in finance. My background is in criminal justice, administration, and social innovation and strategic planning. And that is really how I landed here.

Lisa:

That is great to hear. You know, I think you’re definitely not alone among venture capitalists. Passion leads a lot of us to this space of funding frontier innovation. The dreamers of this world, with some solid quantitative analysis behind them, historically make great venture capitalists. It’s awesome having people like you on the team that have unique expertise in things like criminal justice. I think that, if I had a criticism of our industry, it would be that we have too many private equity, investment bank, and finance people who went to one of three schools — something like 70% of these go to one of three schools. I’m not even going to mention that — you guys can guess. That’s a lot of groupthink, and that depresses returns and innovation. So looking at things from a different perspective, I’m a huge fan. I think that’s an excellent background. Is there anything you’d like to share with our audience before I ask you to share how to get in touch with you or with the American Family Institute? They may feel that they have an investment that you should take a look at since you are a national seed and series A investor with a social impact agenda. That’s a pretty exciting investor for a lot of our audience.

Nyra:

I absolutely encourage everyone to go to AmFamInstitute.com and learn more about all of our focus areas. You can see the team. I think the great thing about that website, however — which I think is an important thing to add about what we do — because we are social impact, we feel like storytelling is a big part of what we do. We believe that it’s important for us to tell the stories of the incredible startup founders as well as organizations that are working in this space. When you go to that website, you’re going to see videos not just about the companies that we’ve invested in — we believe in absolutely supporting our founders and standing by our founders and highlighting their stories so you’re going to see incredible videos that have been done about them — but there’s also a couple of videos about some of the organizations that we’ve supported. To us, what is key is how do we tell the stories? How do we educate through storytelling? I think we feel that we are, and want to be, a partner of choice. That’s one of the things we feel like we bring to the table as a venture capital firm. I encourage everyone to go to AmFamInstitute.com. All of our social media is @amfaminstitute. Whether it’s LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, we’re on all of them. We’re on Facebook, if people are still on Facebook, and you can find us and see our stories. I would say definitely reach out through LinkedIn, you can reach out to me, Nyra Jordan, on LinkedIn because we do want to get FaceTime and to learn about all of these incredible startups. If they are not in line with us, we do have a network that we want to share the stories with and share a possible investment with. Absolutely reach out to us through any of those vehicles.

Lisa:

Awesome. I’m just going to, shameless plug, say if you want to connect more with this beautiful spirit, Nyra Jordan, she’s deeply involved in the Startup Runway. Whether you’re in Atlanta or Chicago, please connect with both of us there. We would love to speak to you. That would be great. And it’s coming up! We have a couple of events coming up — one this spring in Atlanta and this summer in Chicago. So Nyra, thank you so much for joining us. It was a joy having you on the program.

Nyra:

You’re so welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

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