Building Level Playing Fields of Opportunity
Interview with Derrick Morgan.
Describe your background and how you define yourself outside of being an athlete.
I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, primarily outside of Philly. It was me and my mom for the majority. I was the only child. I grew up playing all sport and then began to focus on football in high school, being that it was my best way to get a free education.
I put all my efforts into my education and being my best at football, graduating early from high school a semester early to enroll at Georgia Tech where I majored in business. Then I left [college] early for the NFL after being drafted by the Titans in 2010 and have been there ever since.
I’m going into my 8th year in the NFL and have been fortunate to have my career in one place and gain the consistency. Being located in one place and been married for the last three years and have two beautiful children. I’m trying to enhance my endeavors off the field and find what my purpose is away from football.
I would define myself apart from football based on my spirituality and that foundation [I received] being raised in the church. My grand-dad was a minister who had a great influence on my faith. And that’s where I base my identity. Didn’t come to that overnight, through injuries and trying times in my life, it’s enabled me to get to this point and really looking to grow and learn different things and continuing to stretch myself.
What’s the experience of being a father, husband and being a professional athlete while investing in new projects?
It’s all about finding balance. Being in the NFL is very time consuming, but I’ve figured out how to juggle everything and make sure that I have my faith and family as priority over everything. Being a present dad is something I’ve been doing in being intentional. There’s nothing in the world like having a family. It’s the most fulfilling thing in my life and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Why are you passionate about ecosystem building?
For the last two and a half years, I’ve been more interested in STEM education and entrepreneurship as means for kids to find success and for them to come to experience with those things. It started with me doing things with a friend at Microsoft connecting athletes with students through tech. Students are introduced to gadgets and pairing that with athletic events.
Seeing how kids took to technology and how well versed they were and interested in it,and seeing these kids with their own business plans, I was like “wow, this is cool”. It really sparked my interests.
“There’s always other ways to attain success. Not just go to school, get a degree, and go out and work for someone. There’s a lot more options for kids, especially the way things are trending.”
Me and my cofounder Michael Peterson have been trying to figure out ways to impact this generation coming after us. Through that journey, we’ve gotten paired up with Rodney, an answered prayer—a mentor who has no motive and is willing to help.
Rodney introduced us to this concept of building ecosystems. The more I’ve been learning, it’s been the perfect description for what we’re trying to do. The entrepreneurs, the high school kids with a great idea, the next Uber or Spotify, that’s the foundation of this community. There are people/institutions that contribute, be that universities, government, mentors, investors. We have all of those people who we hope to have an inclusive mindset where everyone is helping everyone, there’s information sharing going on. It really helps to facilitate success for entrepreneurs or students who are looking for opportunities.
The more I learn about it the more I think about how many jobs are created from this model. Over 40 million jobs have been created from startups over the last 30-40 years. So this is a big platform for job creation. And with that job creation comes opportunity, especially [for] people in the minority, which is our focus.
So I feel that [Huddle Ventures] is a definite way that we can give back and facilitate opportunities for people who would not normally get these opportunities.
“We’re trying to level the playing field for people who have business ideas who don’t have access to the resources that their peers might have in different communities.”
The more that I learn about it, the more passionate I become about it. It’s a definite strategy to impact our community in a positive way.
Can you speak to the significance of your launching [Huddle Ventures] at this time in your career? Why is this timing significant for you?
It’s been a long time coming, always understanding that there’s more than football in life. I just turned 28, and football doesn’t last forever. I’ve been planning and investing in myself to set up an easier transition from the game into the real world, working to harness my platform to gain access to these opportunities. Just to help facilitate things and using my access in hopes of being successful. This is birthed out of wanting to make sure that I’m not left sitting on my hands once my playing days are over.
You hear from athletes who are done playing and they don’t know what they are doing. Football has been their entire life. It’s scary. Because people classify it as a death. It sparked me two years ago to get my MBA from the University of Miami which opened my eyes [to opportunities] outside of football.
It’s a natural progression of things that have brought me to this point. I’ve put the time and energy into investing in myself and educating myself. Really, it’s God is putting everything into play at the right time. It’s fun to see things come to fruition.
Creating and Sustaining Effective Startup Ecosystems
Interview with Rodney Sampson.
How does your foray into Huddle Ventures continue the work you’ve done around ecosystem building throughout your career?
In doing this work for a while now, what I’ve discovered is that there are archetypes of ecosystem builders. Whether that’s Steve Case and the work that he does, Dan Gilbert in Detroit, you start to notice that there’s an archetype of people who want to build these centers and ecosystems, accelerators and coding bootcamps. The majority of those people are incredible. They have had exit upon exit.
When I met Derrick Morgan he seemed like he wanted [to do] more. He didn’t just want to be an entrepreneur or an investor or create a traditional athletic foundation. He really wanted to create jobs and fund businesses.
So I said, I have the perfect product for you, it’s called Opportunity Hub. Huddle Ventures and Opportunity Hub are two distinct entities. While Huddle Ventures is new, OH has a four-year track record of success. We combined them together and formed a new entity called Opportunity Ecosystem. Huddle Ventures is an equal partner in OE through the investment of capital, time, and influence.
“If you can imagine, the professional athletes that receive 30, 40 or even 50-million-dollar contracts throughout their career are thinking about where to go from there and they can change their communities. He’s thinking about social impact investing, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and different investments.”
That’s the prime target customer: Someone who wants to launch an opportunity ecosystem in their city and eventually put a physical entrepreneur center or Opportunity Hub there as well.
You’ve seen the highs and lows of many different startup communities. What can you point to as some of the most important factors in sustaining a successful startup hub?
It really depends on who’s launching an ecosystem and ultimately what their objectives are. I know some ecosystem builders that have built an ecosystem around a real estate complex. So they’ve built fabulous properties in an amazing part of town inhabited by upwardly mobile yuppies who want to work there and they can afford it.
So whether it was Packard Place in Charlotte or the Atlanta Tech Village, they’re doing what they do. People are paying to be there. Whether they are working on big problems and building products that will scale up and create a lot of jobs is to be determined. But the majority of the startups never reach that.
It goes back to the motive. Is it a social impact motive with community and economic development needs in mind? That’s where you see [ecosystems] being more intentional about inclusion or diversity or solving some of the true pain points that are plaguing some of the community in certain cities.
You also look at the macro role of [the local] Chamber of Commerce in that city and the city government itself. Most of the time they’re working to attract larger companies there and then they have to match that with talent that that is either there or not there.
These startup communities are starting to address a few different things. A failed startup founder can make an amazing employee of a company. Companies are looking for innovative talent and people who aren’t afraid to take risks. They want people who are entrepreneurial and you just don’t get that in a [traditional] corporate culture.
You can do all the workshops and retreats and seminars that you want to, it just doesn’t shift.
So you have to hire people that have done that and are working probably in the interim so they can figure out the next big thing or problem they are trying to solve. They bring culture and value to your company.
I also think you have to present ecosystem building to traditional institutions in a way that they understand it. I think we tend to get caught up in our lingo when we’re talking about MVP, pre-accelerator, incubators, and funds and all these cool constructs, and it just doesn’t resonate with a lot of the traditional decision makers. And so the long-term sustainability of this work is also being able to talk to different audiences in the languages that they understand.
The player that we partner with in a particular city has to understand opportunity ecosystems through their lens. When we go to sit with the mayor or the economic development arm of that city, we then have to be able to communicate it in a language they understand and be that translator toward the ultimate goal: To create amazing talent and amazing companies that create more companies that scale to create more jobs. Then ultimately, that will create wealth and transform communities.
An ecosystem is only as strong as its economic lens. It’s not determined by how many cool pop up events and how big is your conference, how large is your social media following. At the end of the day did XYZ company raise a seed round? Did XYZ company raise a series A round? Did they hire 25 people? Did they get bought? Are they economic contributors to the output of this respective city?
“Our ecosystems have to be measured by small companies growing there and then sustaining and the foundations and offices and investors who show up; people who say they want to be involved and city leaders that want to be involved.”
We’re seeing that happen in Atlanta where city government was at first reluctant. They didn’t understand. They were focused on big companies and bringing them to Atlanta. But now, [we] just announced a $15 million venture fund in partnership with the Georgia Tech incubator, and 10 Fortune 100 companies who put up $1.5 million each.
Four or five years ago corporations weren’t investing in startups, and now they’re asking “where can I sign up?”. Now we’re starting to see sustainability in the Atlanta ecosystem and we’re seeing growth and buy-in and stakeholders and that’s when that ecosystem really starts to sustain itself and take off.
What are your thoughts on how cities can support relationships with corporate entities?
There are some larger cities, like San Francisco and Silicon Valley, but a lot of people don’t know it was the state’s pension fund that seeded a lot of the infrastructure development of building up the ecosystem that now exists.
There was no Paypal. People weren’t writing big checks back then because [the infrastructure] simply didn’t exist. It was only state pension funds and state and municipal dollars that really helped to start that. The same thing [can be said of] New York City. NY has its own venture fund and these buildings the city has donated to organizations and helped them gut them out.
I was visiting New York almost a decade ago and walking through coworking spaces [though it wasn’t called coworking back then]. Now I see why their ecosystems are much more developed. They’re not as inclusive as they should be, which is another story, but you can see where municipalities made the investment.
Look at Chattanooga and how the city invested in bringing in gigabit internet and built a whole ecosystem around innovation. Portland and other cities have their own venture funds for minority businesses.
When you really truly build ecosystems that pop off and grows cities are involved. One is when we come to town, give us a building. You’ve got an old warehouse building that’s brick in an underserved part of town. Give us the building, retrofit it and give us a little capital to hire teams so we can get off the ground. That’s number one.
Number two is, walk us over to your workforce agency and say hey, fund a coding program using some of those workforce dollars and start developing talent through opportunity, through youth and underrepresented people.
Then, let’s go to the economic development arm or to the city pension fund. Let’s set up a $5 million, $10 million fund so we can attract some startups to the city. Things that cities can do if they really want to get these off of the ground. They just have to look at these assets and look at how they can combine the resources.
And then cities can do public-private partnerships going after foundation money, institution money. You can attract that to the city, where an Opportunity Ecosystem sets up in town, the local foundation may not know about it, but they know the mayor and they’ll take a meeting. It is influence, it is assets, and some capital that bring to the table. Put it into the general budget and into the general fund and make that investment in building up that local ecosystem.
What kind of insights do you think you’ll bring to the table with this new initiative Huddle Ventures?
I think we bring four years of hindsight and four years of failure. We thought when we first got started it was enough to just have coworking space. [But then] wait, people working in here don’t have any direction, and we thought, oh, people need mentors, connections to people who’ve done this at certain levels who will come in, share their expertise and serve as mentors.
Then we also learned that there’s a gap between an idea and an accelerator. There’s a need for a pre-accelerator. And then we [had to define] what types of deals should we work on and who should we invest in? Is it cute little apps and the small problem that is easily executable? No, let’s get behind the hard problem that is going to take all of us being involved to solve it.
If we solve it we create companies like what Dr. Paul Judge has done with Pindrop and Allen Nance with IONIC, and now LUMA.
“You see these very fast-growing rocket ships that are developing and people are saying let’s huddle around hard problems.”
I think that’s the hindsight advantage that we offer instead of just popping up. We’re seeing a lot of this and I’m concerned because I think sometimes mediocrity can get to market faster, but it’s not sustainable. And so I’m seeing a lot of mediocre things being launched. People say we have an incubator, we have a space, we have this, but they’re not taking the time to go and learn from people who have actually done this and go partner with them so that they don’t make the same mistakes. There’s something about the time value of excellence. We can show you how to do it the first time so you don’t have to learn on your own.
That’s the part of this about the body of thought leadership around company building, around building these hubs. I built out four campuses in a four-year period. Then, when I partnered up with Paul and Allen, I realized there were some things that I didn’t know. So I had the opportunity to learn. And I was able to share things with them that they didn’t know. Iron sharpens iron. And that’s how you don’t have to spend time figuring it out. You can actually tap into a repertoire of success and failure so that you can get it right the first time.
I think there’s an incredible value-add that we bring to the table that others may not be thinking to do. We’re trying to productize our four years of experience to take it to the market, say partner with us, attach to our brand, let us show you the blueprint, roadmap or the playbook so that you don’t have to go to figure this out yourself.
A Family Legacy of Community Knowledge Sharing
Interview with Michael Peterson.
You are an artist, an athlete, and business leader. How did these interests converge for you?
Art has always been something always at the core of what I do. The freedom of the individuality of art has been something I’ve always been drawn to. So I’ve always brought that approach to business and sports. As I reflect back on being a college football player at Georgia Tech, I was probably more of an artist first, or an athletic artist.
So I’ve always known and have been drawn to the higher end of the ladder in every industry in art. Trying to understand the difference between high end art or what you might see at the mall. I’ve always been on the exploration of what is the ceiling of what I’m participating in and how do I make it unique.
Historically, your family has played a significant role in helping to shape communities, can you share about how it shaped your interests and how you see your work in Huddle Ventures?
The main thing that has shaped who I am and their affect on me has been their emphasis on education. [For instance] my parents sent me to an all-boy Catholic school and then I went on to Georgia Tech.
My father’s father was very instrumental [in the community]. He started a church in Detroit and scaled it to 30 to 40 churches down the east coast in the early 50s and 60s. I could recall imagery in my home of my grandmother and grandfather boarding their jet. And reading books about my grandfather and his love for flying and teaching his wife how to fly.
On my mother’s side of the family is where I got more of the art [influence]. My grandmother was an artist. She was famous in her town of Roanoke, Virginia and so I grew up seeing her paintings in the house. Seeing someone in my own family’s painting hanging on the wall, I always saw myself doing that as well.
So having these influences, I took from these ingredients of what they had and what their strengths were.
Another strength was one of the ecosystem builders, Booker T. Washington. My great-great-grandfather Edgar Long, his mother and father were born into slavery. They built Christiansburg Institution in VA, an all black school [which ran from] kindergarten to 12-grade. My family built schools with Booker T. My great-great-grandfather was the principal of the school. It was great to go home during the holidays and see images from the early 1900s with Booker T. and the [school’s] football team and unconsciously pull from my kin which also inspired me.
What role will you be playing to define what ecosystem building means for Huddle Ventures, and how will it translate across the companies and partners you choose to work with?
When I met Rodney and discovered this term “ecosystem builder”, as we’ve been working together and as the definition becomes more broad, I started to recognize that I’ve been ecosystem building but in different areas. Because my dad was able to provide the way that he was, it afforded me the opportunity to think outside of the box, but also it gave me structure and discipline.
I’ve always believed in building up others and knowledge transfer and sharing the things that I know to empower those around me.
“My childhood was made up of me always starting some business: whether it was a car wash or some clothing company or ordering clothes from China. My partners in the business and employees were 9 out of 10 times were athletes.”
When I was reintroduced to art after taking a break to play college football, I met an artist collective here in Atlanta called Smoke School of Art. Meeting them really changed my thought process in every facet whether it was art, business, or sports. So I was able to use art as the outlet but what I recognized at Smoke School was that it was about sharing the information, resources, exposure.
I started to look back on my life and started to see how I’ve always been this nucleus that was able to galvanize like-minded individuals around certain ideas. As I’m learning and implementing into the ecosystem, I’m starting to realize these are the things that I’ve always been doing. The things I do best is that I bring the right people to the table. I establish the right partnerships. As we start to unveil the potential cities where Opportunity Hub will be placed, you’ll start to see these partnerships come to fruition. As we start to investing, you’ll also see this extension.
When I look at my grandfather, my dad’s father, who I actually didn’t get an opportunity to meet but know a lot about, and I see how strong his faith was, I am allowing my faith to lead me and my intuition to guide what we need at the time. I’m wearing a lot of hats but being an ecosystem builder allows me to use all my gifts and talents. Where other jobs and other things I’ve done in the past may have only allowed me to utilize one or two. It’s naturally who I am, so I can only bring myself to that equation.
What are the gaps that you are seeing in the opportunity climate where HV can dive into work on issues are foreseeing?
I don’t know what the future will bring for Huddle Ventures but I do know that concerts and sports and the only thing that are the last things we watch live. Everything else is recorded. Athletes are used globally to market company’s products and their own companies. There’s an opportunity to leverage the visibility and the platform and help athletes understand their own platform and how to use it whether it’s for their own business or an initiative I think Huddle Ventures will provide the opportunity for all athletes to realize where they fit into the ecosystem.
“That’s our whole mission—whether you’re an athlete, entrepreneur, or student, it’s to help you find out where you fit, and then once you recognize where you fit, then the ecosystem will basically run on its own.”
We broaden the landscape of the technology industry for communities of color through early exposure, education and training, inclusive ecosystem building, and access to capital.
Technology is the fastest growing and most impactful sector shaping the growth of the workforce, enabling entrepreneurship, and influencing the future of the knowledge economy.
Unfortunately, this highly innovative industry remains an exclusive club dominated by majority white men. Nationwide African Americans and Hispanics make up less than 8 percent of the workforce in high tech jobs, respectively.
In recent reports, tech industry giants have revealed a less than 2 percent representation from these racial groups marking a significant challenge within the industry to address discriminatory hiring practices which create harmful economic impacts for underrepresented racial groups.
Past and current discrimination extends toward entrepreneurship as well.
Less than 1 percent of all venture capital dollars are invested in African American or Latino-owned companies.
Additionally, a projected $1.1 million in sales and 9 million jobs created by would-be minority small businesses and entrepreneurs is being forfeited in the US due to discriminatory lending practices and lack of access to capital.
With over 600,000 IT jobs unfulfilled in the US alone and a predicted 1.1 million that will go unfulfilled by 2020, we cannot afford to skip out on cultivating talent to help drive the future forward.
Derrick Morgan is managing partner at Huddle Ventures, Huddle 360, and Opportunity Ecosystem.
He was a first-round NFL draft pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2010 out of Georgia Tech where he was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Derrick has remained a starter on the Titans defense as an outside linebacker since 2011.
Morgan recorded 4.5 sacks in the first four games of the season.
In addition to leading an impressive NFL career, Derrick is an outspoken activist on the research and benefits of medical cannabis as a neuroprotectant for NFL players who are exposed to excessive brain trauma throughout their careers.
Early this year, he put pressure on the NFL to make research on the topic a priority in the interest of long-term health effects of players. He even donated money to research at John Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania for studies on the healing properties of cannabis.
Derrick’s commitment to building strong ecosystems as drivers for entrepreneurship is an extension of his work as an active real estate and business investor. (ADD EXAMPLES / DETAILS)
He attended Georgia Tech for business management, and earned his MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship from the University of Miami’s Artist and Athlete program.
Michael Peterson is managing partner at Huddle Ventures, Huddle 360, and Opportunity Ecosystem where he oversees investor relationships and portfolio services.
Prior to founding the Huddle suite, Michael began his career in the private sector as a business development professional for leading information technology companies including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Lenovo, and IBM.
A champion for leadership and entrepreneurship as key values to transforming people and communities, Michael has built his life on principles he learned from his father—a corporate IT executive who believed in investing in the personal development of others. Early on in his teen years, Michael developed a passion for building supportive ecosystems, launching several micro businesses while often employing and empowering his friends to realize their leadership potential.
Michael played Division I football in college and went on to build relationships with notable professional athletes—many of whom became the first clients to his artwork business. Through these relationships, he laid the groundwork for educating pro athletes on the value of long-term wealth creation—even helping to vet business deals for sports managers and their clients.
Michael remains passionate about training athletes to think critically about leveraging their careers to create opportunities within their communities. This notion is modeled after the values of activist athletes like Jim Brown who created the Black Economic Union formed to help black people become competitive in the business world.
Michael earned a bachelor of science degree in business management from Georgia Tech. He also studied art at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Rodney Sampson is founding partner at Huddle Ventures, Huddle 360, and Opportunity Ecosystem where he leads the firm’s investment activities and oversees strategic ecosystem development partnerships to impact underserved communities.
With a passion for building diverse teams and inclusive startup communities, Rodney also serves as chairman of Opportunity Hub and Partner at TechSquare Labs—a 25,000-square-foot technology hub and venture fund in the heart of midtown-Atlanta boasting a portfolio of high-growth companies that have raised more than $250 million in venture funding and created more than 500 jobs.
In addition to being a prolific ecosystem builder, Rodney further reaches in-need communities to increase minority representation in the technology industry by removing barriers to opportunity. As a partner of the Katherine G. Johnson Fund, he helps to run a national $100 million dollar code school scholarship initiative with The Iron Yard, Code Fellows and Operation Hope designed to provide women and minorities with full tuition scholarships across 25 cities as their onramp into the tech field.
A noted serial entrepreneur, Rodney has decades of experience as founder of four companies (two sold to larger entities), author of four books including Kingonomics: Twelve Innovative Currencies To Transform Your Business & Life: Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advisor to companies such as Digit, Sandbox Commerce, and others, and served as the first Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Mark Burnett Productions—executive producers of the hit ABC show, ABC’s Shark Tank.
He holds a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Tulane University and a MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management