On Friday, LeShane Greenhill started his one-year term as the Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) for CODE2040’s partnership with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. As an EIR, Greenhill will not only work on continuing to grow his startup, the data management platform Sagents, but also help further the goals of CODE2040, which is working to create more access and opportunities for blacks and Hispanics in the innovation economy. As one of seven EIRs around the country, he’ll receive support fromCODE2040, as well as Google for Entrepreneurs, in addition to earning a $40,000 stipend. Greenhill’s schedule is busy, but he found the time to chat with us about his experience as an entrepreneur and his new role as advocate for diversity and inclusion.
Q: How long have you been an entrepreneur? And what can you tell us about your latest venture?
A: I am a five-time entrepreneur and and three-time failure. I started my first official venture in 1999. Wizzkids.com was a financial literacy site for adolescents. Sagents, my current venture, is a data management platform that streamlines the cleansing, tracking and reporting procedures for corporations that have to maintain contractual compliance with small businesses. We are industry/vertical agnostic, but our professional-level platform is for companies with revenues between $100 million and $500 million.
Q: You went to University of Memphis; what did you study, and how did your experience there prepare you for entrepreneurship?
A: My focus was Management Information Systems (MIS). I would say my actual preparation for entrepreneurship started prior to college. In 9th grade, I began making my own money by cutting grass in my neighborhood. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship. In the 11th grade, I began participating in Junior Achievement (JA) and Business Professionals of America (BPA). It was through these courses that I began to learn how to run a business. For two years, I competed regionally in the interviewing and small business contests. My senior year we placed third at nationals for small business operations.
Q: How many staff do you have at Sagents? And would you call it an inclusive workplace?
A: Absolutely! We currently have five associates—three male, two female and a mix of black, white and Indian). We’ve adopted a 360-degree feedback loop that allows for all perspectives to be heard. I am also a firm believer in feedback in the moment.
Q: Why is that important, not just for founders to look different and come from different backgrounds, but for the workers, as well?
A: My belief, as it should be with all businesses, is that you get the best person for the job. However, it is hard to say you have the best person if the pool you select from is not diverse. We all have different backgrounds, even within the same culture. Those unique experiences that comprise our background can and will provide valuable insights, generate new perspectives/ideas, and deliver an educational experience that only human interactions can give.
Q: Why did you want to be a CODE2040 Entrepreneur in Residence?
A: About 60 percent of Sagents clients use our software purely to track spend with minority- and women-owned businesses. Just based on this fact, discussion of diversity and inclusion is a natural part of my conversation. When I was made aware of this EIR opportunity, I felt it was a natural fit for the type of work that Sagents is involved in. Participation in this program will increase our exposure and deliver resources (financial, development, etc.) we previously did not have access to. Success is never guaranteed, but this increases our chances.
On a personal level, I have always had a passion for helping others discover new opportunities and making them aware of resources that can elevate their career or entrepreneurial aspirations. This position allows me to do exactly that on a larger scale.
Q: Why are initiatives like CODE2040 important?
A: CODE2040 is intentional on helping underrepresented minorities; specifically African-Americans and Latinos create more successful tech start-ups and identify new tech career opportunities. Some people have asked ‘Why African Americans and Latinos?’ For starters, approximately 20 percent of all tech degrees are obtained by these two demographics every year, yet they make up less than 10 percent of the tech workforce. Further, approximately 1 percent of all VC dollars are invested in minority-led startups.
These numbers are not encouraging and they do not reflect the depth of talent and disruptive ideas that can be harnessed within these cultures. Lastly, an increase of opportunities and investments in these untapped pools can help to significantly decrease income inequality.
Q: Assuming tech or entrepreneurship is not inclusive enough, why is that a problem for the groups that are being excluded?
A: Because it creates income inequality and the digital divide will continue to get worse.
Q: And why is that a problem for founders who don’t see people like them in entrepreneurship?
A: Visualization is one of the best motivators. And if you don’t see it, you can easily believe that that type of success is not for you. I was fortunate to have successful mentors and an uncle who was an entrepreneur. Because of that, I grew up with A different mindset than some of my friends.
Q: Any entrepreneur would say they face myriad challenges, but are there special challenges for black entrepreneurs? If so, what are they? And what challenges have you faced as a black founder?
A: Yes. The best way I can answer this question is by referring you to a set of tweets by @_mattjoseph. First of all, the fact that we don’t see a lot of successful exits by black founders can create an unconscious bias that we are not investable. And second, unlike a lot of my counterparts, I don’t have friends and family who have the finances to invest. I have had several conversations with investors and within the first four or five questions they ask, “How much has F&Fs invested?” When I say nothing, it is like an automatic disqualifier.
Q: One of the issues we’ve seen identified over and over is that while there may be minority founders, there aren’t many minority thought leaders and investors. Would you agree with that, and if so, why do you think that is, and what can be done about that?
A: Yes, I agree. The lack of minority thought leaders is not because they do not exist. Conferences, publications, and other outlets should increase their outreach to leaders within the minority community. Get out of their comfort zones. That’s not to say that it is not being done, but there is room for significant improvement. There is no shortage of thought leaders who are willing to participate on panels and/or be keynote speakers.
Photo Credit: Walker Chrisman