By Jacqueline Holness
If you watched nine-year-old Mikaila Ulmer score a deal for her BeeSweet Lemonade, Christopher Gray land a deal for his scholarship database company Scholly, Erica Barrett close on a deal for her Southern Culture Artisan Foods or music mogul and venture capitalist, Troy Carter appear as a guest Shark on ABC’s hit television show “Shark Tank,” you can thank Rodney Sampson for his pioneering behind-the-scenes initiatives.
“We increased the number of women and minorites who pitched on the show,” says the serial entrepreneur and angel investor who worked as the first Executive-In-Charge of Diversity and Inclusion for Mark Burnett Productions, which is responsible for the shows “Shark Tank,” “The Voice,” “The Bible Series” and more. “Most major publicly traded companies have diversity initiatives, but private sector spaces like Hollywood, film, faith and technology have not matured enough to the point where diversity from the top down is a priority.”
Sampson experienced this first hand as the cofounder of a high growth technology startup in 2000 on which he became the first black person in Atlanta to successfully raise a seven figure seed round to launch and grow his startup. While working on a MBA at the Keller Graduate School of Management, he also worked as the chief administrator at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Southwest Atlanta. “I noticed how much money Pastor Timothy Flemming was spending each month on securing television time on different national television networks.” As a result, Sampson co-founded Multicast Media Networks with two partners on the campus of Georgia Tech and launched their first niche content platform, Streamingfaith.com. “We were the first to live stream churches and faith-based TV networks over the Internet and offer these organizations a 2/47 video broadcast channel for less than what they were paying for a weekly half hour broadcast on national cable. Some of our early clients were Dr. Creflo Dollar and Bishop Eddie Long in Atlanta, and Bishop TD Jakes and Trinity Broadcasting Network globally,” says Sampson who later sold the business for nearly $20 million to a new media company in the Hague. “It was the first company where I learned what raising private capital was like. It was incredibly difficult, especially as a young black man. When you come from a community that doesn’t have a lot of high net worth individuals and when you do find some, they are acclimated to more traditional investments, not really tech startups, it can be tough. We persevered and we won.”
So, in 2013, when Sampson launched Opportunity Hub, the thesis was to reduce and eliminate the barriers for minority technology founders to ideate, start and launch and scale a company. OHUB, as it was affectionately referred to, quickly grew as the largest black owned entrepreneurial center in the nation; and third largest entrepreneurial center in Atlanta. OHUB offered co-working space, dedicated office space, an entrepreneurial curriculum that featured over 300 events per year, a pre-accelerator and early stage investments for select companies.
“We grew really fast in Atlanta. In fact, the last joint venture that Herman Russell did before he passed was with us. We launched an Opportunity Hub on the Paschal’s property on Northside Drive on Atlanta’s Westside.”
In 2015, Sampson merged Opportunity Hub with Dr. Paul Judge and Allen Nance to launch TechSquare Labs, a company-building studio, Google for Entrepreneurs Technology Hub, seed fund, co-working and corporate innovation lab. “We purchased the old Office Depot, [which is] 25,000 square feet, by Georgia Tech on Spring Street in Midtown. We also have a $25 million venture fund that invest in early stage technical founders that demonstrate defensible intellectual property and a runway to success.” To date, the TechSquare Labs’ investment portfolio of startup companies have raised more than $250 million in follow on venture funding and created more than 500 jobs.
Now, he is charting out a new path as an inclusive innovation, entrepreneurship and investment ecosystem builder. Following in the footsteps of iconic entrepreneurs turned ecosystem builders like Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas, Dan Gilbert in Detroit and Steve Case in Washington, DC, Sampson recently launched Opportunity
Ecosystem with Derrick Morgan, a startup investor and linebacker for the Tennessee Titans at this year’s South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas. Opportunity Ecosystem partners with cities, foundations and schools to launch diverse and inclusive startup communities from the ground up. This year, Sampson and Morgan took 100 black and Latino college students from 41 HBCUs, HSIs and PWIs to SXSW, which is billed as the largest technology, film and music festival on the planet.
“We’re about to see a disruptive shift in the workforce of America. The education that is being taught today is not preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow; so it’s important for our community to learn about artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing and automation so that we can build and invest in these technologies; not just use them.”
While at SXSW, Sampson also announced a $100 million coding scholarship fund in partnership with #YesWeCode, the organization founded by Van Jones and the late, Prince. Over the next five years, the #YesWeCode Fund aims to award $100 million in diversity scholarships to women and minority students who are currently underrepresented in the tech workforce. The Iron Yard committed $40 million in full-tuition scholarships to attend their immersive programs in 20 cities, and Code Fellows and WeCanCodeIT! committed $5 million and $1 million, respectively. Operation Hope and Opportunity Hub will provide financial literacy and entrepreneurial training to the students who matriculate through the coding schools.
“The average cost to attend a coding program ranges between $12,000 – $20,000. The scholarships raised to date will train over 3,000 new black and Latino software engineers and yield a starting annual economic output to the technology workforce of over $150 million per year. It is from this pool of talent that we believe will arise the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Rodney Williams, Jessica Matthews or Paul Judge.”
While Sampson is known today as a successful exited technology entrepreneur, angel investor and the author of four books including “Kingonomics: Twelve Innovative Currencies for Transforming Your Business and Life Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” many don’t know how he got his entrepreneurial start. His very first business was created as a Frederick Douglass High School student. “I played the organ and piano, and I would be asked to play at churches around Atlanta, and I would get paid for it,” says Sampson, who was consecrated as a bishop in the Old Holy Catholic Church (International Bishops Conference) in 2010. While earning a bachelor’s degree at Tulane University, he threw parties with his best friend and co-owned a club that catered to college students. As a Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine student, Sampson opened a restaurant with the Omega’s in Harrisburg, Penn.
Many ask him what’s next given all he has accomplished in tech.
“The goal is to continue investing in the smartest talent solving the toughest problems. From there, we want to support these startups in raising more follow-on capital and creating more jobs. Although TechSquare Labs is focused on Atlanta, I’d like to see other cities, municipalities, and colleges and universities launch similarly inclusive innovation, entrepreneurship and investment ecosystem-building initiatives.” AT
Connect with Rodney Sampson at the 2017 Men of Excellence Reception May 9th @ 6:00-7:30 PM.