Networking is similar to a contact sport like football, soccer or basketball. If you don’t really put in the work, then you might as well stay on the sideline. Building a network can be a little intimidating — whether you are just starting out, navigating a career change or are even mid-career and just need a boost. On today’s episode of Powderkeg: Igniting Startups, you’ll learn from two serial entrepreneurs that built entire networks full of career-changing relationships, all by using some really practical professional networking tips that you can start using today.

First, you’ll hear from Evan Burfield. He is the CEO of Union, a digital platform that connects innovators around the globe, and one of the co-founders of 1776, the nation’s largest network of entrepreneurial incubators with 10 campuses across 5 states. Starting as a persistent young entrepreneur, Burfield has built up a successful set of businesses and helps startup ecosystems across the country thrive.

Broadcasting live from Nigeria is Stephen Ozoigbo. He launched the African Technology Foundation to globalize innovative technologies of New Africa, and is Managing Partner of a US State Department program called LIONS@frica that helps launch and expand technology companies in Africa. Working largely on an international scale, he has been involved in a number of startups across the globe.

This podcast episode was recorded in front of a LIVE studio audience as part of the Innovation Series at Kenzie Academy, a tech and coding school focused on apprenticeship as a way to skill-up the next generation of the tech workforce, located right here in Downtown Indianapolis. During this engaging conversation, Stephen and Evan share how they’ve built the relationships they needed to get their ideas off the ground, and their networks today as they change the world with their companies.  

In this episode you will learn:

  • How to get a mentor to accelerate your growth
  • Professional networking tips to grow your career.
  • How successful professionals network and where they started from
  • Why a network connection is more than just a tool for communication
  • How making a business connection is similar to making a new friend
  • Why it’s always, always better to give than take

Please enjoy this episode on professional networking tips with Evan Burfield and Stephen Ozoigbo!



If you like this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. You can also follow us on Soundcloud or Stitcher. We have an incredible lineup of interviews we’ll be releasing every Tuesday here on the Powderkeg Podcast.

Evan Burfield and Stephen Ozoigbo quotes from this episode of Igniting Startups:

Links and resources mentioned in this episode:

Companies and Organizations:

Kenzie Academy


African Technology Foundation



Start Up America

Smith Barney

Citi Group

Morgan Stanley Smith Barney


Chok Leang Ooi – @chokooi

Evan Burfield – @eburfield

Stephen Ozoigbo – @Innovate_Africa

Did you enjoy this conversation? Thank Evan Burfield and Stephen Ozoigbo on Twitter!

If you enjoyed this session and have few seconds to spare, let Evan & Stephen know via Twitter by clicking on the links below:

Click here to say hi and thank Evan & Stephen on twitter!


What stood out most to you about what Evan & Stephen share in this podcast?

For me, it’s why it’s always, always better to give than take.

You? Leave a comment below.


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Episode Transcript

You have to like invest tremendously in understanding who are all the different stakeholders who influences them. What are their constraints? What do they want? What do they fear, you have to know that better than anyone else. And you should be systematically figuring out how you go build real relationships with all of the important people across that.

You are in the audience, the live audience for a very special edition of powderkeg igniting startups live. This is part of the Kinsey Academy innovation series, in case you cannot read. We are super, super excited to be partnered with Kinsey Academy, because it allows us to do not only our normal podcast, which is published weekly, on But we’re able to do something this this very special event every other month with people that have been flown out into Indianapolis, Indiana from around the country. So we’re here in Kinsey Academy headquarters, which is not just this floor, but also the floor above and below. So an amazing campus here with amazing students and faculty that are really helping to create the future workforce for technology. And so to talk a little bit more about this tech and coding school, please help me welcome to stage the founder and CEO of Kinsey Academy, Chuck boy. Yeah, thanks, Chuck. But before we get started, I know that there’s some interesting things that you’ve been doing. You’ve been kind of messaging me from the road? Well, I guess I should say from the air sometimes, because you’ve been all over the country and probably out of the country, as well, with everything that’s going on with Kinsey Academy. There are a couple of really interesting things coming up. Right now, for Kinsey, do you mind sharing a couple of those things?

Yeah. But before going to that, for people who are not familiar with Kenzie Academy, where a new technology school, that is training up workers, tech workers for high paying jobs in the city, and also hopefully within the rest of the Midwest region, where our programs are way longer than the bootcamp so students actually get to learn the product of something and be jumped ready, but also less than half the time of a traditional four year computer science program. So the goal is to be able to train people in a short time possible, but long enough that we can students can get all the right skills and be highly employable when they leave Kenzie.

So you started as a six to six month a two year program. Yeah, correct. Yeah. And now and it started as on the physical premises only here on campus, and your first campus here in Indianapolis?

Yep. We started with just a tiny space over there. And, and then we knocked on the war, we got this next thing we know, we occupied majority of the building here. And I think we’re running out of space towards the end of the year,

congratulations. Well, the good news is, you’re not going to have to be in the space very soon, very soon. You can do the online version. Is that correct?

Yeah, we’ve been experimenting with a new model that’s actually very interesting. That’s very different from what you think about how you learn in a classroom environment. So one thing is we virtualized the classroom. And what that means is that we actually have instructors that are everywhere in the country. So we have instructors teaching from San Francisco, from Silicon Valley, from New York, from South Carolina, from Louisiana. And if you walk around campus, you see a lot of big screen TVs with a live video feed. So actually instructors or anybody can actually get on that screen at any time, it’s always on and walk up students can be here. And when we have our new campus in Nashville, and Kansas City and our replaces, we may not even have an instructor in those cities. And students can just walk up to the TV and have a conversation with instructors, regardless of where they are.

I love it. It’s all about thinking globally, and finding those people that know sort of the best in class strategies, tactics and skills to train people.

Yep, that’s how you can find the best instructors, no matter where they are. You get instructors from Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, we somehow managed to convince some people to quit Google to come join Kenzi as an instructor, so that’s either they’re crazy, or they they’re they’re passionate about teaching our students. But the best thing about Kenzi is you do not learn from a faculty who is probably better at research. You’re learning from people, hiring managers that we know that want to train people that they themselves want to hire.

Yeah, well, I’m the only thing that you launched pretty recently. Is the the tuition program that allows people to pay based on salary. Is that correct?

Yeah. So this is another innovation. I can’t claim that we created it, but we are one of the first adopters of it. The other big adopters, Purdue University, there’s a backup on the program. So it’s called An income share agreement that we all if you read the news today, everyone’s freaked out by the whole student loan like there are people Oh, even $100,000 in student loans, some hundreds, yes, some paying into their 60s and 70s. Talk about lifetime servitude. So we also want to show that there is a better way to finance and pay for education that doesn’t require you to repay For the rest of your life. So with the income share agreement, what we’re doing is we aligned the schools incentive with your outcome. And what that means is that the school pre pays your tuition upfront, you only pay $100, we call it a commitment fee. So it’s not free, you don’t feel like you’re getting a free ride. And then you you do the Kenzi program, you don’t pay tuition upfront. And when you graduate Kenzi, if you never make more than $40,000 a year, you walk away, always nothing. Wow, try doing that with a student loan. But on the flip side, don’t try doing that. They will get you even past 10. I’ll get you on the flip side, if you do well. And we’re seeing our students graduating making 50 to $70,000 a year in Indiana, which is a very good pay, and comparable to people coming out of a four year Purdue computer science program you paid for. So you contribute a percentage of your income for four years. And then you’re done. And for any man where your income, so you get laid off or you you you’re used to take care of a sick child or parent, when you you don’t make payments that month. And you go into deferment, and there is no interest interest does not accumulate. Unlike a student loan. I love

it. I love the work you’re doing here. And I love that it’s expanding around the country. And now online. So anyone in the world can literally take Kinsey academy classes.

Yeah, rural Indiana and everything. And what’s most exciting is we partner with Kelly Services. And we cannot publicly publicize it. But every candidate students who enroll who needs a job, get a tech support job that they can do from home. And the hint is it would accompany with an apple in their logo.

So I’ll pretend like we’re not live streaming right now. Yeah,

I didn’t say which company to say they have a certain kind of logo. So everyone pays way above minimum wage. So that allows a lot of our students, even remote students in rural Indiana, as long as you have a fast broadband connection, you can get a job that helps you pay your bill while you’re attending school or from your living

room. I love it. Well, and I’m sure we’ll have even more news next time. We’ve got got you on the podcast here. But you mentioned the best in the world, people who are experts in what they do. And we got two tonight for the show. Yep, first one, we flew in from DC. Yep. And this is actually someone that I’ve known for almost a decade now. And I didn’t even realize I know too, so super excited. You’re like, we got this guy. His name is Willow. And I’ll tell you here in just a second. But I’ve known him for so long because he’s been working in startup ecosystems and communities around the world. I met him through a program called Startup America. I was startup Indiana, he was startup Virginia, DC, DC. I didn’t know if DC had its own thing. Close enough. But long story short, we had a lot of beers, we shared a lot of knowledge. And this This guy knows so much not just about building startup ecosystems, but about building startups. He’s an angel investor himself. he co founded 1776, which has its own fund that is invested in dozens of companies around the world. He’s also the co founder of union, which is a platform that powers these communities. He is an expert network builder, and is a master at building relationships, which we’re going to talk about tonight about how to build professional relationships and advance your career. Please help me welcome the co founder of union and an Burfield. We can grab seats here because our next guest is going to be tuning in all the way from Nigeria is actually born in Nigeria. I grew up in California. And is is the managing partner of a Silicon Valley corporation that is looking to really help launch innovate, launch and innovate with tech companies in Africa. So clearly a global thinker, we’ve got a very global conversation and I because literally our last guest for the evening is the partner. Sorry, managing partner of lions, Africa and CEO of African Technology Foundation, Steven. I forgot to ask him how to pronounce his last name.

Rhymes with rhymes with gazebo.

Zebub zuba.

There you go. There you go.

I did it. Sort of. Steven, thanks for being here. Let’s go for Steven. Pause is going across the Atlantic to you right now. So I want to dive right in and maybe learn a little bit about the backstory. And actually, I don’t know a ton of your earliest backstory. And so I would love to just hear kind of how you got your your start to your Korean tech because I know it started at a very early age.

Yeah, it did. I was I think it’s a really pretty classic story in a lot of startup ecosystems, but I was um I got a horrible student I got expelled from third grade had to go to like a special private school got back in and fourth and fifth grade, I got expelled again in sixth grade. What did you do? I really really didn’t like authority I really didn’t like authority and which is hard to do in third grade. I mean, like, you gotta you got to really, really challenge the principal or military school,

the actual story out of the

but no, but you know, I managed to get into we in was born and raised in Northern Virginia, just outside DC and we have a magnet Tech High School there. It’s pretty effective. It’s like, I somehow kind of got in there. And so I you know, I would say like, I don’t even remember what what remember when I learned to code like this sort of, I think the rise of these boot camps is so phenomenal because I had exposure to programs in my regular elementary and middle school in high school so that by the time I got to the end of high school, I’m going to age myself here, but we were like coding on pre super computers, which is now probably less powerful than your iPhone. But at the time, it was really cool. And but still didn’t like authority. And so I I graduated and I was kind of supposed to go off to college and just decided I want to. And my parents were remarkably understanding. And I kind of bummed around for a year or so and then ended up kind of stumbling into finding a software company. And so we

had all that, how did you how did you stumble into moving around, and

then all of a sudden, you’re you’re counting. So started my so I went to a really geeky High School, let’s it was like sort of a halfway house for socially awkward geeks. And my girlfriend at the time, she was a year behind me in school. She ended up going off to MIT when she was 16. So she was she was like, freak spark. But I would I wouldn’t hang out at her house all the time. She was a year behind me and I wasn’t, I was literally bumbling around. And I ended up getting this whole series of conversations with her father. And he was I think, at the time 57. And he was a Chinese immigrant. It’s what we call the sandwich generation. So he was getting ready to sort of pay for MIT tuition. He was planning for some retirement and he was supporting his parents back in China. So he would talk all the time about financial planning and how awful the software and tools were enduring. This is 1996. I’m really aging myself here. And, and I and we ended up coming up with this concept for a better way to model financial systems. And I went off and I wrote a prototype for it. And it was, it was really cool. And it was basically an object oriented way to sort of model these financial systems that were faster than doing a spreadsheet and, and he really liked it. He’s like, Hey, I have a friend who invest in some stuff like this. I put together a pitch deck. How did

you know to put together a pitch deck?

Well, so that that actually informs a lot like all this stuff. He’s so unbelievably, like, we’re even the fact that we’re sitting here right now listening to the kinds of stuff you do at powder keg, in something convened by Kenzie Academy, which is training seals, like none of that existed in in Washington, DC and making mistakes. Like, I remember going and getting a book from the library physically, and turning the pages and reading, like how to write a business plan for small businesses. Which, by the way, is completely irrelevant to anything we were actually trying to do at the time. It was like, totally just trying to figure it all out as we went along.

But you had a good mentor, and you’re at the time, girlfriend’s dad, I’m

sort of although he didn’t really know like, he worked for government contractors whole career, like, you didn’t really know how you did this stuff. Like he was a, he was a manager in a big, big company. And so we were both kind of coming at it from totally different places in life. And we were both figuring out as we went along, and like, the crazy thing was, I put together this pitch deck. I was 19 years old. I walk in, I pitched this guy. And my basic pitch was like the baby boomers are all going to get old. And they’re going to have to figure out retirement planning for tools suck. We’re going to build a better one. And the guy was like, cool, like, by the premise, this demo looks great. How much what do you need, and we literally had not thought that far ahead. So we went back that night, we were like scrolling. And we would go in and meet with him the next day. And we’re like, we need a million dollars. He’s like, Great, okay, cool. Well, I have my attorney strat up and I was like, what do we do now?

For those that don’t know? That is called beginner’s luck. Totally.

Totally. Totally beginner’s luck in like, in and you know, I’m like, super unbelievably sensitive nowadays, where I’m in life to like the concept of privilege and like, rocking up at night teen and like, it really helped that I seemed like the kind of geeky people that you saw on TV. I guess I was really, really geeky at 19 And like, I seemed like the kind of geeky people one imagine we’re doing things like this, I think it was a huge advantage. And, and, and that’s informed a lot of stuff but like it was hard from then on like, there were no resources, we had to figure everything out. Like even getting to the point where I could find mentors who had built anything that looked like a high growth software company was hard. At one point, I literally drove down to Charlottesville to UVA, and I just wandered around the business school, knocking on the doors of professors, because we were operating the financial services space, like anyone who seem to know anything about financial services, and actually convinced two of these professors to like join my advisory we’re talking about like networking and how you do it. Like I was just persistent. And at one point,

and what was it that what was it that got them over the edge?

Audacity, like there’s this 20 year old kid rocking up going, I just raised a million dollars, will you be on my advisory board, like, there’s a certain advantage at times of being in the unit a brilliant, a crazy category, where they just have to ensure that you’re not clinically insane, in which case, there’s probably something interesting there. V. And so like in the same thing, when I was like it in every step in the process, it was like having to figure everything out all over again, each time. And, you know, when I moved forward later in life, and sort of had the opportunity to get involved in sort of America like that was that’s always been my touchstone is like, this stuff doesn’t need to be that hard, right? Like the kinds of resources that that you guys are creating here to Annapolis. What I’ve tried to do in Washington, DC, and now up and down the East Coast with 1776 is like, how do you help people of of all walks of life, have different genders and different backgrounds, get access to like, everything that can unlock that sort of potential and the ideas that they have, and make it about their grit and their idea, not just having access or not to the networks that give you access to this information. And I

want to come back to that and get some of your secrets on how to get access to those things and how to forge those relationships. But first, I would love to hear Stephen, some of your story of how you broke into tech because I know you didn’t start your career in tech. Right? You started in in banking. So how did you make that leap into the tech world?

I think for me, it was the crash of 2008 was one of the most important things that happened to me when it came down to my transition. I was always kind of a tech guy. I had a master’s in information technology. But I found out from a professor in class one day that I was more of a people person than a nerdy geek. So he kind of gave me the advice and said, Hey, why don’t you kind of focus on being more of a manager of nerds than a nerd yourself. So I went with that. And in the power of relationships, I got to know a good friend of mine who offered me an internship at Smith Barney in Beverly Hills. And what that internship did for me it was it exposed me to the financial markets at a time where I knew nothing about finance, I would I would switch the business channel every time it came up. But um, when I got this internship that it meant that I would effectively have to watch the stock market so I could come back to work the next day and sound smart and be like one of the guys. And I did that and because everything in finance is pretty much run on technology nowadays. I got a quick appreciation for it. And I grew within the ranks. And five years later, I was doing pretty well with Citigroup and Smith Barney. And at the time where the crash happened. We were actually Morgan Stanley Smith, Barney. And in that period, you know, it became a thing about globalization, I needed to expose myself to a world out there. I’ve always been a global citizen. As as was mentioned earlier, I was born in Nigeria but grew up around the world. And I went for an MBA and global business spend time in China at Fudan University, as well as my alumni role is Pepperdine University. And in that time, once the crash happened, we all came out, graduated with MBAs and we’re telling ourselves what are we going to do next? Right. So we went into consulting, I took my global mindset, and started consulting for Chinese tech companies that wanted to set up in Silicon Valley, and any other type of companies I wanted to set up in Silicon Valley. And the first paying clients we had were from Catalonia, Spain, and they were a high tech company that was doing a big SAS product that has CRM, ERP everything tied up in it And we launched them in Silicon Valley. And they raised funding and their governments were kind of like, Okay, how did this happen? Who helps you out? Because this was, if anybody knows the history of Catalonia and Spain, this was at the time where the whole secession thing was really hot. So they went back to the government, how we helped them. And then they flew us out there and asked us to become their international advisors for foreign direct investment. And that’s when I actually ventured fully into tech, and started taking technology companies setting them up in the valley, getting investors to look at some of the companies that we had set up, and actually started investing in Samba. But the African bugs that kept kept biting make, for lack of a better word. And when President Obama came calling with opportunities around his administration, and getting innovation in Africa, up to speed with the help of the State Department, you know, again, I said yes, and I took that opportunity, and started advising the USA department on all of their Africa innovation with regards to the lions Africa program, which we still managed today. So for me, it was a combination of what would be an economic downturn, but which led to a readjustment of my perspectives on life. And then more importantly, taking a global perspective and localizing it. So I’m currently speaking to you from Lagos, Nigeria, because I’m closing deals down here this week. Some of them will be on the news in a couple of weeks, as long as we can close knock on wood. And, and they’re quite substantial. And a lot of them are deals that are three, four years, five years in the making. And they’ve taken that much time in, in us getting them set up in us getting the operations running, in us getting the type of investors that are mature enough to look at the African market, assess the risk, understand the play, the games that we’re playing out here. And then more importantly, the cross cultural ambitions of these investors, because we are proud to put together now for this deal, a syndicate of investors that are out of four continents. And it’s the story of my life, like we have investors from France, from Norway, from the US from Nigeria. And all of these investors have come together to look at these technologies and know that

they really medical places. So I’ve come at this with a very, very global mindset. And that global mindset is what has gotten me thus far. So from Silicon Valley, to Lagos to Morocco, to South Africa, I’m a chuck, chuck and I, our history goes as far back as a couple of years ago, when we did something called geeks on a plane. And Chuck was one of the geeks we had on a plane, he came out. We did three weeks in Africa, started in Lagos, Nigeria, Accra, Ghana. And then chuck went off on a plane with a few guys to Tanzania and to see the Safari, some awesome pictures. I was in part of that. And then they met up with being in South Africa again, and we hang out there as well. But in that whole time, he got to see a lot of the startups and innovations that were coming out of Africa. So yeah, it’s been a theory of me staying on a plane living with a boarding pass in my pocket, and always saying yes to international opportunities.

You mentioned you mentioned kind of some of the people you’ve met along the way and the ability to think globally. Is there someone some mentor along the way that really helped you with kind of thinking beyond just your local geography?

Absolutely, my my current attorney friend, mentor, sensei and guide Mr. Richard Horning. He’s a man who I’ve known as an attorney and friend for the last 1011 years. He’s an American, and is currently the is the console the Honorary Consul for the country of Estonia. Now, he’s from California, true and true. But he’s been able to guide me through a lot of things. When we started the Africa Technology Foundation, we started off in his office and it was, you know, a combination of things but at the time, he was running something called the silicone Vikings. And silicone Vikings were meant to be for anybody knows the Vikings in Scandinavia. You know, this was meant to be and an investment vehicle to enable Scandinavian companies from, you know, all parts of Scandinavia to set up in Silicon Valley. So he’s someone who I always go to when it comes to to international deals, cross cultural activities, he’s always on a plane somewhere, we’re always always looking at political activities, socio economic activities. And for what it’s worth in the valley, we are both known as the International guys. So it helps out whenever I have deals from Africa and I have a lawyer that can look at it. It helps out some time. I mean, literally, before this meeting, it’s it’s about 11:30pm here, but he’s in California. And he just sent me a deal of a client who was in his, in his office doing something in Africa. So he’s my, he’s my go to person. Of course, in my time, in Catalonia, I met a lot of friends, I made a lot of friends, Barcelona is my favorite city in the world. So that that experience also helped a lot China, Shanghai, you know, lots of friends there, you know. And then, of course, you know, I got good friends like Chuck who want to bring me down to Indiana and HEVC, the great things going on in the Midwest and everything out there. So always say yes, guys, it’s all about that global mindset. If you say yes, good things come.

But I’d love to ask you more about how you kind of forged that mentor relationship with with your sensei, as you said, but But first, I’d love to hear from you. If you don’t mind, how you ended up connecting with Stephen and, and how opportunities like events like, you know, maybe not all of us in this audience will get invited onto a plane with a bunch of geeks and investors. But you do seem to have a knack for meeting people at events. Do you have any advice for the people here and the people listen to podcast on how to connect with people?

Yeah, so my last company agility, it’s called agility that I owe that I stepped out for the start Kenzi when I started eight years ago, was trying to figure out how to get customers. No clue. You know, I’m a geek, you know, I can’t I can code, I can talk to computers, I’m very bad at talking to humans. And this by chance, the opportunity came on to start a business, I never thought that one day will be in entrepreneurship. And, you know, like, a lot of my competitors, they tend to take the easy way out, you know, send cold emails, you know, LinkedIn, bombarding strangers, and LinkedIn and all that. And I thought that, hey, let me try something different. And why don’t I just go out and just keep meeting people and build a network? It is a lot of hard work, it is very tiring. But it turns out, that was the source of 90% of all our business today, was going up and building lifelong friends. But not with the initial concept. I just want to it’s not a transactional relationship. Like when I meet Steven, my first thing on my mind is like, how can I get a sale on him? It is, how can I meet him get to know him learn from him? And how can we be buddies and over time, our opportunity to do business together? So with that, that allows

me not allowed to lie, Chuck, this is a live broadcast wasn’t about how many shots we could do together?

Yes. The best business deal, Stevens right. The best business deal I’ve done is in a bar at 3am. Somewhere in the world, where we’re all totally half drunk. And we’re like, yeah, we’ll do business together. I’ve put a lot of years at bars. But it is about going up. It’s the hard work of going out building relationships, that one on one interaction. No, forget all your mobile social media everything, people started getting very lazy and feel like they can do everything behind the computer screen and do not discount the value of actually going out and building a relationship and meeting someone face to face for coffee. And that is the old fashioned way. And it’s worked so well, for me. And as the business grew, I get to know more people and I start getting invited to some exclusive trips like gigs on the plane. Contrary to popular belief, when people hear geeks on the plane, they imagined bunch of like Silicon Valley, billionaires in private jets, and probably one private jet per person of flying to the country. We all fly economy. Some of the investors are in business class. But yeah, we go together, you get invited into groups like this. And and it’s usually entrepreneurs and investors and sometimes even State Department people. And then for two weeks, you as a group travel to four or five cities nonstop. So at the end of the trip, you became the best of friends, and probably have some embarrassing stories to tell each other as well. Well, that’s how we got to meet. It’s from there. I met people. Today I have friends nearly every region in the world.

But networks like that can be so powerful. And Evan, you’ve literally built software to power networks like that from TechStars to 500. Startups and ecosystem accelerators around the world now. What what is one of the most important things you can do as a professional or as an entrepreneur? are to help navigate networks, find the people that you need to find. As you’re kind of going, going through your journey,

you’re gonna think, particularly as I’ve gotten older, and my, my bandwidth has become more constrained, right? So I probably get to this question now as somebody who’s 42, with a three year old and an 18 month old who’s not out at bars or three in the morning anymore, and is not on planes nearly as much as I used to be. I mean, I, I used to be all over the world all the time constantly, but but I’m not. And like, what, what, and I actually think I’m probably more effective now. And what it’s forced me to do is really, really focus on deeper relationships with people who are kind of Nexus Nexus ism of the relationship. So what I mean by that is like, there’s amazing things that are happening in terms of startup ecosystems across the Midwest, like I can’t possibly know, the people I should know, in Columbus and Indianapolis and Chicago and insert 25 other cities, right. But like, I know that if I wanted to reach almost anyone in a startup ecosystem, Midwest, like I call you, I call me stole, I call Kevin Willer in Chicago, right? Like they, I can pull that thread, and probably get through one or two hops to wherever you need to get to end, like, investing in those kinds of relationships are probably much more important to me now than sort of just being out there and engaging with lots and lots and lots of people.

Talk to me a little bit about how you do invest. How do you invest in those relationships? So that when you need to pull that thread, there’s something on the other end? Yeah,

I mean, look, I think, you know, he said it right. I mean, don’t, it’s necessarily transactional. And so, you know, I think that element of being able to, in some way have shared experiences together, being able to share stories, a lot of this stuff in what you’re what you’re saying about, like, the old fashioned way, like, it’s about building relationships, and building relationships don’t happen immediately. And they don’t tend to start with a transactional basis. Sometimes they do, but they don’t tend to be tend to start with some sort of shared experience. And so like, I know, certainly for me, like, I started work was only like a thing for what, two years really, like, it wasn’t what this long thing was, like, it was it was, it was great bonding, and like, it was some interesting experiences and interesting places, and you’ve got to know people, and it was a shared experience, right? Like, like, nowadays, the whole sort of startup ecosystem feels really obvious. But, you know, eight, nine years ago, it wasn’t. And it was very, very much on this sort of crazy journey of like, Hey, we’re all in various ways, trying to like shift the economic arc of our cities, none of us know what the hell we’re doing. We’re all throwing random experiments out there. Let’s share, let’s collaborate and like, Now roll forward, that’s a foundation, a set of shared experience instead of bonding that like really matters, and has huge implications. And now,

people who are members like work together, they’ve co founded organizations together.

And so when I, when I, when I look at like the texture of my network globally, they’re almost always like these sort of key concentration points in my life, like the start of America experience or at its 1776, we had this crazy idea. At one point, we were like, wow, we’re seeing these incredible startups doing things in in really important sectors here in Washington, DC. I bet there’s startups like this all around the world. Let’s go find out and we launched this program called Challenge Cup. And like the first year, we went to 16 cities and moved to 32 cities. In the last year we did, we went to 72 cities around the world. And like, again, like my own global network, like having, I didn’t go to all 72 cities, but like having gone to a lot of the personally like it’s crazy how being on the ground for two or three days for like this super intense bootcamp competition thing, like a lot of people I call on in these cities, I realized, like, I’ve only actually been in person with this person for maybe eight hours or three days, but it was, it was intense, it was connected, it was meaningful, it was there. And now if I call up and say, you know, hey, I’ve got a startup. I’m trying to support that I’m an investor in can you make an introduction? Like there’s a basis for that conversation?

That’s great advice. Steven, is there anything that you would add to that?

I think for me, it’s It’s the power of networks and how you learn from them every day. Personally, for every entrepreneur that I see nowadays, coming out of an incubator and accelerator all all over Africa, you know, they are data points for me their data points because whatever product they’re pitching whatever technology they’re selling, whatever solution they’re trying to implement, is a direct indicator of what’s going on in their immediate environment. And that allows me to have this very Pan African view of what’s going on across the continent. So just like, you know, your experiences with sort of America sort of Indiana, you know, I was in a room with with Chuck on his birthday when he told me about Kenzie Academy, and he said, and when we were in San Francisco, and he says, I’m going to Indiana, you know, and we’re going to do this, right. And this is what it’s what the plan is, and this is how we’re going to do it. And, you know, in the next five years, all the tech companies are going to be hiring out of out of my academy. And, you know, there were no shots being done. So he was perfectly sober. And I said, Well, definitely, that if you’re gonna do this, you know, whenever it’s set up, you know, let me know, because I would love to support it. You know, so here we are. And so sometimes it’s it’s part ambition and part negotiation. But at the end of the day, it’s this Free Will around networks and knowing that, even though it’s not transactional, if you’re gonna go into a new relationship, I would urge you to be the giver. Before you are the receiver. I think for me, that’s the, that’s the critical part for me outside of just saying, yes, every time I go into a relationship I try to get first.

I love that. And one of the one of the things we were just talking about just navigating networks sparked another thought I met with Evan earlier today, and we just had a really great conversation because Evan is is the master at this. In fact, he’s written a book on it called regulatory hacking. And it’s all about how to basically navigate the network. That is the government. And it’s a very important and powerful network. And and I was wondering, maybe if you could share a little bit of why you decided to write that book. Why did that? When you talked about you said it’s a labor of love?

Yeah, I mean, so again, I’m a role creatures of circumstance. And I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and my father was a lobbyist for the transit system. And my mother was a prosecutor, right. And my sister is now a judge and other sister of the cop, like I come from a very public service, public sector kind of kind of world. And unlike when I was getting ready to build 1776, and I was I was we, Donna, my co founder, and I were kind of looking at, alright, if we’re going to build something that’s gonna be a catalyst for sort of, because this when DC what should we focus on? It seemed really obvious, right? Like, what makes a DC unique and different from other cities in the world? Well, it’s, it’s the most powerful city on Earth. It’s its government. Its its regulation, its connections. And that was also I think, very inspiring to us. Because it was like, Look, we don’t want to build yet another dating app. We don’t want to build subscription cat food services, although my wife does literally use a subscription Catherine service, because we have like five cats.

Like we just You must like it if you don’t want to build another one. Yeah, we,

I mean, at this point is just Amazon, which is, but like, we didn’t want it, we didn’t want to, if we’re gonna put our time and energy into something, we wanted to build a startup ecosystem that was going to focus on transforming healthcare or, you know, changing the way development works in different markets around the world, or, you know, how do you make people’s lives more secure? Right, like, what are these big interesting problems, then? You know, the interesting part, right, is that these these sort of big, important problems all tend to be in sectors that are highly regulated, and they tend not to have already undergone technological transformation for exactly that reason. Because entrepreneurs look at that and go, yeah, there’s all these rules, there’s gatekeepers, it’s messy, it’s not, it’s not just about building a really slick product. And so I’m gonna stay away from it. And we thought, instead of doing that, like, Let’s lean into this, let’s become the best of the world at helping startup to do this. And so, between 1776 between our Challenge Cup program, I probably over a four year period of time, probably met with literally three or 4000 startups in these sectors. And I felt like I was telling them the same stuff over and over and over and over again. And at some point, I went, you know what, I’m going to take all of this seminar, I’m gonna write a book about it. I’m going to tell the stories of the startups that have done this successfully. And that’s the premise of regulatory hacking, which is kind of, you know what, building a startup that’s really not in the way that can sometimes grate on people, Silicon Valley’s sense of Hey, dude, my VR app is going to change the world like no, like, literally, we’re going to try to make people’s lives better by figuring out how to scale up and alternative to college that actually gets you into a degree without a real job without being burned with college debt, right? That’s really changing the world. And that shit is hard. And it’s incredibly complex and regulated. And you have to deal with government, and you have to deal with all these things. So that was the premise of the book. I think part of it, though, for me is also like, I’ve always been someone who, like builds networks across lots of different domains. So I have entire networks of like, you know, government policy people, I have networks of startup ecosystem, grassroots people, I have networks of like high end VCs, I have networks of, like, in part of, I think the interesting part about the book, as I was realizing is like, I don’t think I could write the book, if I hadn’t, over time built these meaningful relationships and connections with lots of different types of people who view the world differently, to be able to sort of synthesize that together into a different approach to building companies.

Well, and one of the things he talks about in the book is this concept of influence. And how important that is, in building a career in building a network. Do you mind sharing, one of your best pieces of advice is on generating your own influence as professional? Yeah. So

what did what was? How much influence did you have? How much social capital did you bring to the world of higher education, when you get started, this goes to zero, exactly. Like sometimes that’s the case. But a lot of the times like you really want to go solve a problem, you bring some acid to it, but like, I in what I advise startups on this all the time, like building influence is no different than building capital, building talent or building a brand for your startup. It’s a process, it’s intentional, it’s conscious. One of the concepts I talked about a ton is if you’re going to build a startup or complex regulated market, you need to understand your Power Map, you have to like invest tremendously in understanding who are all of the different stakeholders who influences them, what are their constraints, what do they want? What are they fear, you have to know that better than anyone else. And you should be systematically figuring out how you go build real relationships with all of the important people across that right. And be intentional about that. And I think there’s often this mindset, which kind of comes from there’s there’s sort of this libertarian streak that period of the valley sometimes that sort of argues that government is is dirty, and government is bad, because it’s about relationships, and it’s about who you know, and it’s about. And really, there’s some sort of beautiful ideal of just building an amazing product, that the market that the whole market rallies around without having to deal with that messy relation well, but you know, what, if you want to go and transform like the healthcare industry and transform clinical workflows, that’s a really noble mission, and you’re going to have to know people, and you’re going to have to build influence, and you have to apply that influence. And you’re going to have to be pretty freakin smart about how to accumulate and use power to achieve your end. And that’s not an accident. It’s an intentional structured process. And the people are really, really good at it can use it as an unbelievable weapon, and the people who aren’t have noble intentions and fail.

Partnerships, very, very important. That’s why we partner with Butler, you know, we partner with other universities and all it’s because they have those access, they have those relationships, when it comes to accreditation, when things and all of that, and like it will take us years to to do it entirely on our own. But through partners, we can accelerate that and do that in months instead of years.

I really appreciate both of you sharing your perspective on this. And I think in particular, Evan, just your background, being in DC, learning how politics and power and influence work really allows you to share a unique perspective. Sir, before we close, I was wondering, Steven, if you might share. You know, you were born in Nigeria, you spent a lot of time in Africa. If you might be willing to share one lesson you’ve learned about growing your career, building your network, that that you learned in Africa

absolutely is a critical part of working across a continent like Africa that has to deal with cross cultural management. You know, Africa is not a single country. You know, 5556 and you have all kinds of activities that will kind of transcend political lines, transcend regulatory lines, transcend cultural lines. And when folks come in here, some things and some decisions are made even at city level. So it’s still just as complex. And when you start layering, you know, culture and you start layering religion and you start layering, gender matters and activity, and even down to what could be looked at as ethnicity and ethnic activities on the continent, you find that it’s a very, very complex beast. So what we’ve done and what has worked for us quite favorably is having the partnerships, like Chuck mentioned with the likes of the US State Department, means that everywhere we go in with the lions Africa program, we’re welcome there. And were welcome there. Because we have diplomatic relations, were welcome there, because we’re advancing the cause of innovation, partnerships. But we’re also welcome there because we have access to the Silicon Valley’s of the world, where some of our local economies aspire to be like or aspire to relate with. So what that does is, if you’re finding a relationship, that’s difficult, on the negotiation part, you may find it easier on the aspiration part. And, you know, in Washington, we call it lobbying. And some parts of Africa, they make it clear for us not to accept bribes in any kind of kickbacks. But you find be ethical, you know, lines that you must not cross. So in those kinds of complexities, you know, a lunch meeting is not always a lunch meeting, in those kinds of complexities. You know, a Christmas gift is not always a Christmas gift, especially when it’s the middle of May, right. And in those kinds of complexities, you find it you want to be able to balance out what is the highest integrity activity, what’s the highest innovation activity, what’s the highest aspirational activity, and then to that startup that’s looking to globalize themselves, and what’s the best way that they can create value to their economies? You put all that together? And

he was about to give that like best

John nugget.

Oh, we lost you for a second. Do you mind repeating your last sentence or two?

Yeah, so those lines are always interesting to negotiate around.

Totally agree. Any closing advice on how to afford that right partnership, or that right mentorship or that right? relationship? You have like a quick nugget of advice, even though you might leave us with?

Yes. If you go to pick your partner’s and you’re confused, if you’re married, ask your wife do whatever she says. Amen. Because I found that every time I made a mistake, I came back home and I told my wife, she’s like, I told you not to do that. And I’m like, Well, you didn’t say it loud enough. So I think she’s my first litmus test. If she doesn’t like it, she didn’t like Chuck, I wouldn’t be here, believe me. It’s midnight, and I’m here, you know, and she’s she’s home in California. So she said, this is a crazy thing. I’ll do it. I’ll be like, Chuck, I’m sorry about can’t do it. You know, but I say that to say that sometimes you have this, you know, gut feeling about stuff. And I’ve made a lot of decisions that had all the right parameters and went wrong. And I made some decisions that went with a gut feeling. And it was right. I’ve made decisions that were based on pattern matching, which is something we do a lot when you see a lot of entrepreneurs. But at the end of the day, you know, do your analysis, get the data. Do all the right things, check, trust, but verify. And then go with your gut and ask your wife.

Thanks, David.

My wife is her name is Deanna Chernova. She’s literally born and raised in Russia and is exactly what you would imagine as this incredibly icy Stone Cold says nothing in a conversation sits there quietly and then afterwards, she’ll be like, Okay, so this person over here was very clearly uncomfortable. This person over there, do not trust that person that breaks the entire social dynamic down for me in this in this completely clinical way. So for me, it’s not just trust your wife. It’s like literally having this like, Russian spy right there with it. And not literally not literally, that’s a very sensitive topic in Washington DC. But like, figuratively, figuratively. V. Yeah, look, I mean, I think this is hard. And I think Chuck talked about this, like I I’m not an extrovert I find going out and meeting people and interacting with people to be incredibly exhausting. I after this evening, I’ll talk with some more of you guys and we’ll probably hang out and then I’m gonna go back to my hotel room and like curl up in a ball and probably watch a subnet Please before bed, right? Like I, I don’t find it easy. And it’s, it’s it is hard and it is difficult. But it’s valuable and important. And I think

how do you talk yourself into doing it? If it’s hard and it’s difficult doesn’t come naturally? How do you,

I find it’s like for me and it’s hard, right? Because I, I’ve been in a place for a pretty long time, right career now where I almost always have a formal role to play. When I’m out interacting with people, right? It’s not just, Hey, I’m me. I’m Evan. It’s I’m here like this, this is relatively easy. I’m here as a speaker, you guys know what to come talk to me about? I don’t have to sit there awkwardly going. So what do you do? What do I do What like, and that makes it easier for me. And that’s probably made it easier as I’ve gotten into it. But like, I think the hardest part is that you’re, you’re constantly putting yourself out there. And as I’ve gotten older about it, it’s like, there are things that I believe they’re things that I think there are things that they can write about how you deal with startup ecosystems, or how you engage with startup ecosystem or regulated markets. And there’s things that I think are wrong, and you know, I have a viewpoint and I’m willing to share it, and a lot of people disagree with that. But I think the reality, right is, if you’re gonna go out there, you’re gonna say something, something of substance and something of content, if you’re going to take a viewpoint, if you’re gonna go interact with people, some of them are going to disagree with you, some of you are going to like you, some of them are going to think you’re the greatest person ever think you’re an asshole, right? Like, this is life. But you can’t like there’s almost nothing really, really meaningful and transformative in the world that any of us are going to accomplish that isn’t going to require putting yourself out there and going out there and building relationships, and leveraging a network of humans. And that’s that’s generally like, what motivates me is there’s something big that’s important to me that I want to do. And I go deal with the pain.

Chuck, do you have any quick words of wisdom we had about Stephen go to sleep here at some point,

I’m just going to answer something differently in a short way. How I think about partnerships and relationships, I generally enter into a partnership in a in a situation where I give them 51%. And I think 49, I give them more than I take. And that has worked out so well for me. Because I’ve seen so many times where people who wants to score every single point, every business deal, every partnership they go in, they negotiated down to the most minut unnecessary details, because they want to come out of the the partnership ahead. And I find that by coming up a little bit behind. It creates a lot more trust. And over time, because of that we built a much bigger pie. And we know one plus one equals you know, four or five, instead of you know, one plus one equals you know, one and a half.

That’s really good advice and a good way to frame it. I appreciate you sharing that context me I appreciate you sharing your your vulnerable perspective on connecting with people. And Steven, I really appreciate you staying up to do this conversation. Thank you. This has been really awesome. And I hope to talk to everyone here again and look forward to engaging with people here in the audience. For those who are tuning in on the live stream, please feel free to drop a comment below. We will share this link with all of the speakers here so that they can jump into the comments answer questions if you have them. If you’re listening to the podcast, please subscribe forward slash iTunes and go to Patrick to find a link link to the shownotes which will have everyone’s social handles on their links to their website so you can learn more about the programs they’re involved with, and hopefully get in touch with them to continue to grow your network and your career. Thanks so much for being here. Thanks so much for tuning in. And we’ll catch you next time on power. Igniting startups.