From Jamaica to Europe to Silicon Valley: Crossing Cultures with venture capitalist Marlon Nichols
Marlon Nichols is a General Partner at Cross Culture Ventures, a venture capital fund he co-founded after a successful career at Intel Capital. Marlon is one of the most thoughtful people we know when it comes to thinking about getting into venture capital and what it takes to start and build a great firm.
Name: Marlon Nichols
Grew up in: Mount Vernon, New York
Role: General Partner, Cross Culture Ventures
Favorite Book(s): The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Degree: Cornell University (MBA), Northeastern University (BS MIS)
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and lived there for the first several years of my life before my parents moved our family to “Money Earning” Mount Vernon, New York. This was just the first of many sacrifices that my mom and dad made to ensure that I was afforded opportunities that they were not.
What is your favorite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I definitely believe that the journey is just as, if not more important than the goal or treasure. That journey builds character and helps to define us. I honestly believe that if there isn’t a journey we will never truly appreciate the treasure. I’ve read the book several times.
What issues are you most passionate about?
As a Jamaican born, black male who didn’t grow up in a wealthy or well networked family, I’ve had to work a little harder than some to reach my goals. Whether it was athletics, school, corporate politics, or venture capital I had to teach myself until I could identify the right mentors. There just seemed to be a ton of unnecessary obstacles or hurdles that I needed to clear before achieving each goal. Lots of scratching and clawing to get to this point and there’s still some way to go. So the thing I am most passionate about is creating opportunities for boys and girls with similar backgrounds to mine. This was the catalyst for starting Rise to College, a nonprofit focused on helping talented inner-city high school students to successfully apply and matriculate to this nation’s best universities. This is also why I served on the board of the Peninsula College Fund, a nonprofit that provides scholarship dollars and mentoring to first generation college students from less affluent neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
The best advice I got prior to getting into venture was to be a VC before I was actually a VC. In other words, interact with entrepreneurs like an investor would, study markets, technology, and trends like a VC, and share interesting deals with VC firms where you aspire to work.
How did you originally get interested in technology? What led you to major in MIS in college?
I’ve always been interested in technology. As a kid I just thought it was cool. I remember getting my first computer, a Commodore 64, and not knowing what to do with it. Better believe I taught myself how to use it! When I got to college at Northeastern University, I started out as an architecture major. Not really sure why, other than to say there were some television references while growing up that made it seem appealing. Once in college I quickly realized that architecture wasn’t for me and started to look for an alternative. At the time MIS was a new major and it interested me because it combined business and technology. As mentioned, I’ve always had a passion for technology. The business side interested me because I saw it as a way to help my mother in the business that she founded and still runs to this day, a beauty salon in Mount Vernon named Starlight.
How did you get your start in enterprise software?
It was kind of crazy actually. After graduating from Northeastern in 2000, I joined a dotcom consultancy, Breakaway Solutions. My timing was ‘perfect’ since all of our customers were going out of business. Luckily I was able to peak under the hood of a number of our customers’ businesses before leaving Breakaway Solutions. What I learned at that point in time is that startups drove true value, especially the ones that address real pain points for other businesses. So it was clear that I needed to join an early stage enterprise software company and that is exactly what I did. I was fortunate to land a job as global implementation and strategy lead for a company named Frictionless Commerce in Cambridge, MA.
I hear you took a role in Europe? What led you to make that decision and what was the best lesson you learned from the experience?
Yes, that’s right. About a year after joining Frictionless Commerce I was tapped to move to London, UK with two other team members to open the company’s European office. It was a tremendous experience. I learned exactly what it was like to work in a true startup, having to wear several hats and stepping outside of my comfort zone. Living and working abroad also taught me that business practices and norms can be quite different in other parts of the world… One size fits all business models don’t work on a global basis.
You have been on the path to venture capital for a while. When did you decide that this was a career you wanted to pursue?
My introduction to venture capital came during my time with Frictionless Commerce. From time to time I would interact with some of FCI’s VCs and those interactions peaked my interest in the profession. After leaving FCI and moving back to the US I joined a boutique consulting firm focused on media and entertainment strategy. A few years in, I paused and reflected on the professional experiences that I was fortunate to have had. In some ways my career was rewarding, but I was looking for more. Venture capital appeared to be a profession that would allow me to work with emerging technology, interact with extremely smart people, and truly be a part of the change that entrepreneurs sought to bring to our world. There was something beautiful about that last part. It also helped that if you do it right you can change the lives of your family members for generations to come.
So tell us about BR Venture Fund. What is it and how did you end up in a leadership position there?
BRV is Cornell University’s pre-seed and seed stage venture capital fund. It is led by seven MBA students who are advised by Professor David BenDaniel, who helped to create the entity. I became the managing partner of the fund through pure hustle. BRV and the Park Leadership Fellows program were my primary reasons for choosing the Johnson School at Cornell for my MBA so before touching down on campus I started working on deals for the fund. Through my work product, demonstrated network, and passion for the space, I made it damn hard for anyone to say no. During my team’s tenure we grew the fund’s associate pool to 61, up from ~20. We also created a partner program with name brand west coast and New York based VC firms – we provided associates for diligence and they invited us to participate on deals. We really did our best to raise awareness for the high quality work that BRV had done and is capable of. I’m proud of my time with BRV.
My friend Charles Hudson says the best way to get a job in venture is to have a job in venture and it seems like BRV was a great on ramp into the venture business. What was the most important lesson(s) you learned there?
Yes, I think that’s true with most professions, but is taken to another level in venture. The best advice I got prior to getting into venture was to be a VC before I was actually a VC. In other words, interact with entrepreneurs like an investor would, study markets, technology, and trends like a VC, and share interesting deals with VC firms where you aspire to work. The most important lesson I learned during my time with BRV was to trust my instincts. Young investors have a tendency to acquiesce to seasoned investors. While it is important to keep an open mind and to be a sponge, you have to balance that with self-confidence and your interpretation of the data. For me this played out as a missed opportunity in a deal that ultimately did very well.
What led you to Intel Capital?
My path to Intel Capital was an interesting one. During business school I was laser focused on recruiting for venture capital and was reluctant to interview with tech or any other kind of company. Fortunately a close friend, Rhomaro Powell, convinced me to attend the National Black MBA conference and job fair. That was where I learned about Intel Capital and Intel’s Accelerated Leadership Program (ALP), which was known for providing a path into Intel Capital. Long story short, I passed up an offer to join a midsize institutional venture firm to accept an offer to join Intel’s ALP. I did my first rotation with Intel Capital and was hired out of the program into Intel Capital.
When I set out on my path into VC, my dream was to ultimately launch my own firm so it was always just a matter of time. Honestly though, I thought it would be five to seven years later than when it actually played out.
You were on a great trajectory at Intel Capital. How did you make the decision to do your own thing?
When I set out on my path into VC, my dream was to ultimately launch my own firm so it was always just a matter of time. Honestly though, I thought it would be five to seven years later than when it actually played out. There were three primary factors that drove me to accelerating the plan.
1 – My exposure to the talented, ambitious, and global members of my Kauffman fellows class (class 18). I spent a great deal of time with this group and learned a ton about what was possible. I saw a number of my classmates start successful VC firms around the world, some with less investing experience than me so I thought why not me and why not now.
2 – The development of emerging managers’ investment vehicles and the willingness on the part of institutional investors to allocate dollars to the venture capital asset class at nearly, if not record levels. There may have never been a better time to raise a venture capital fund.
3 – I connected with my partners, Troy Carter and Trevor Thomas. I couldn’t imagine going on this journey with anyone else. Our skill sets and experiences are very complimentary and our core values and vision to build a world-class firm couldn’t be more aligned. Cross Culture Ventures is a family!
So how did you get started with Cross Culture? It was you and Trevor at first, right? How did you connect with Troy Carter?
CCV started as my Kauffman Fellows field project. Kauffman Fellows provided countless resources to investigate and research the investment thesis. So I leveraged them and was fortunate that Trevor also found the concept of cultural investing interesting. He agreed to assist with the research. As things started to heat up and we realized that there was something there, we started reaching out to folks in the Kauffman network and our outside networks to find advisers. One such adviser is Freada Kapor Klein, Ph.D who I’ve considered a mentor for a number of years. Freada has always been generous with her time and knowledge share. When I shared what we were building towards, she immediately said, “You need to meet Troy.” As usual she was right. Trevor, Troy, and I connected straight away. It was scary how aligned we all were. In the months that followed we took the time to get to know each other and each other’s families. We got to the point where not creating Cross Culture Ventures would be something that all three of us would deeply regret so we got to work.
What is it like to work with Troy Carter who seems to be so many places doing so many things it’s like he has cloned himself?
Troy is exceptional! But what I most appreciate about him is his humility. The guy has seen terrific levels of success in music and in angel investing, but whether he is interacting with the larger Atom Factory team or the CCV partnership, he is just another participant in the discussion that has ideas that are no more important than anyone else’s. At least that’s how he makes everyone around him feel. He is very easy to work with! Yes, there are several bits of iron in the fire, but the key is hiring a strong team and ensuring each venture ties into the overall goal. For example, SmashD Labs, our accelerator serves as a screening platform in the media space for Cross Culture Ventures and is led by our rock star venture partner, Suzy Ryoo. We invested in one company, Sidestep, out of the first batch—the model is working out so far. Troy and our fund are methodical and strategic in every move.
VCs hear from LPs about the importance of the investing team dynamic. I hear you all work really hard at this. Would you be willing to give us some insights into how you think about it or examples of what you are doing?
Nah, that’s proprietary! Just kidding. Well kind of… We are building a world class venture firm and in order to do that the team must be close knit and must stand the test of time. Without going into too much detail or divulging our secrets, we did the work of truly getting to know one another from day zero. Then we worked with a professional coach to help us understand how to effectively communicate with one another and to develop the tools/processes for having difficult conversations or to effectively deal with challenges as they might arise. We take this very seriously and are deliberate about putting in the time and work.
Your early experience in VC was with already operating funds. What has this experience been like to raise money?
The fundraising process really gives you an appreciation for what entrepreneurs go through. It affords us an authentic level of empathy as we meet and work with startups. It has also cemented my belief that deals are done based on relationships. We all want to work with people we like, respect, believe are talented, know to be competent, and that we trust.
It can also be dangerous if an investor presumes to know the startup’s business better than the CEO/management team and steps into a role of operator instead of adviser. It’s super important to listen and to allow the management team to run the company.
How has the advice you give entrepreneurs evolved over time?
Experience can be a gift and a curse. I’ve seen so much while investing in, working with, and serving on the boards of various startups. These experiences in many cases help me to identify and call out things before they happen so that my portfolio CEOs can preempt or effectively react to certain challenges. This is often a good thing and enables me to add real value. It becomes a negative if you look at all companies as the same because they’re not. So, I make a concerted effort to look at every company and every situation as unique. What may have worked for one company three years ago may not work for a similar company today… Markets and circumstances are ever changing and we must adjust accordingly. It can also be dangerous if an investor presumes to know the startup’s business better than the CEO/management team and steps into a role of operator instead of adviser. It’s super important to listen and to allow the management team to run the company.
What drives you?
At the beginning of this conversation I mentioned that my parents made a number of sacrifices to provide me with opportunities that they weren’t afforded. I feel a very real need to succeed as a way to pay them back and to provide for them as they grow older. I am determined to change the social class of my family. I am also quite passionate about creating a legacy of change that my children and grandchildren will be proud of and inherit.
Who have been some of your mentors?
I’ve been fortunate to have crossed paths with some influential and successful people that have taken an interest in me and in helping me to find success. I can’t list everyone here, but I’ll name some of the more recent folks.
1 – Professor Risa Mish (Critical Thinking and Leadership Development Professor at the Johnson School, Cornell University) was my primary sponsor throughout my business school career. She taught me several lessons around leadership and how to approach problem solving. Risa also helped me to find my personal flow with respect to public speaking. I often call her my fairy godmother.
2 – Danielle Brown (Chief Diversity Officer and Chief of Staff to the CEO at Intel) was my direct manager when I joined Intel. Played a key role in my moving over to Intel Capital and leveraged her influence to have Intel sponsor the cost of the Kauffman Fellows Program. It is not cheap, but well worth every penny.
3 – Lisa Lambert (VP and Managing Director at Intel Capital) was my direct manager at Intel Capital on two separate occasions. Also supported me in my pursuit of the Kauffman Fellowship and served as my mentor. I learned a great deal about investing from one of the best investors that Intel Capital has seen.
4 – Marc Jones (CEO at Aeris Communications & Chairman of Management Leadership for Tomorrow) has been a friend and mentor in all facets of life. Marc is the person I turn to when things aren’t going as expected. His sage advice always leads me back to a positive place.
5 – Phil Wickham (CEO at Kauffman Fellows Program) has advised numerous successful venture capital firms. He continues to be a key resource as we grow Cross Culture Ventures. Phil was also instrumental in helping me think through my career as a venture capital professional.
What advice do you have for young people of color who are looking to get into technology and/or entrepreneurship?
If you can picture it, you can achieve it! It’s just a matter of working both smarter and harder than others that don’t look like you. Be authentic in your pursuit of your goals. Be diligent about understanding the requisite steps to achieving each goal, then act in accordance. No one ever does it alone so find your support structure/team. Identify people that have found success where you would like to and engage them as coaches or mentors. If it’s worth it, it will be difficult so don’t waiver. Believe in yourself, for if you don’t know one else will.