We are a community for Black students, alumni, faculty and staff at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business.
How did your Merage experience support your career in finance at the time?
A lot of the jobs that I sort of qualified for were moreso back office until I was able to get that MBA. Having those credentials, especially from a well-accredited school carries solid weight and a lot of respect. It's been absolutely a game changer, whether it’s applying to front office roles, or having something in common with a colleague from an on-paper standpoint.
It was really helpful for two things:
One is developing cold networking skills. I work in an industry where your network is definitely your net worth. It's very much all about who you know, so building the muscle of being able to go out and network cold for new opportunities is advantageous.
Secondly, an MBA also helps with building your warm network--the UCI community, the alumni community, the Southern California community--and growing it from there. I tell people that an MBA is not like a JD or an MD where we're legally allowed to do something different at the end. The biggest asset of having an MBA is very much going and meeting people at the ground level before you grow into your careers. You’ll have a lot of strong contacts in a lot of different places.
While you started your career in corporate finance, you eventually pivoted into venture capital, most recently working for Fintech Investment firm, Fiat Ventures, as a Strategic Advisor. What led you to this career switch?
With corporate finance, I was mostly on the sales and trading side of investment management, mostly credit at companies like State Street and Guggenheim Partners. It was a really good introduction to finance, and many of the buy-side asset managers in Southern California have a really good reputation, which helped bolster my resume and experience. Fiat invests in early stage fintech companies, so not only do I have experience in finance where I understand the pain points these fintech companies are trying to solve, I have connections to people who work in finance, and would be customers of these companies.
My interest in the venture capital space started in 2018-2019, but because Southern California doesn't have a huge venture presence, I wasn't really getting many opportunities. Around 2020, when George Floyd passed, it made me take a deeper look into what I was doing. The more I learned about venture capital, the more I felt like this could be an opportunity to increase inclusivity in a predominantly White space. In 2022, venture capital for Black entrepreneurs fell 45%, so clearly there’s still a long way to go in terms of equal opportunity for investment.
I'd say one thing that I love about UCI versus other MBA programs is that other programs will teach you how to run an existing corporation, whereas UCI has a lot of classes on how to build a business. So, by the time I transitioned into the tech world, a lot of the lessons I learned in school, I could put to use in practical application.
You know, I just wrapped up a final project on this, and part of our research was citing that Gartner even predicted that 75% of VC's are going to be using AI to inform their decision making. I’d be curious to hear from you on what AI influences you’re seeing in VC and where you see it going?
In the craziness of AI, there are a couple types of ways investors look to AI:
First, I consider investors that have AI as the investment thesis. In this scenario, the VC can be early stage or growth stage, and is not necessarily using AI themselves but investing in companies that have AI applications. Because of the buzz that OpenAI created, more companies are tailoring their pitch to VCs to show how AI is changing their sector. Right now, as companies look at their operating costs, the #1 cost you have is usually talent. VCs want lean companies that know how to leverage AI to scale. The cost-effective founder is one that says, “As we're building, we can increase our revenue without increasing our overhead,” AI is a good tool to help scale the business, especially in the early stages.
Second, I consider investors that are using AI for deciding which companies to invest in. I think that will be more so at the later stages, like Series B through private equity, where you can evaluate the last twelve months of cash flows and project finances. AI can make data-based decisions and handle the work of several analysts in a short period of time. This doesn’t really apply to the early stage investors, where it's still very much about the belief and the founder. In the first few years of a company, you have to pivot the business enough to where there is really no predictability to it. It’s going to be about investing in the person than investing in the idea itself, so AI isn’t as helpful in those types of decisions.
While we commonly associate Silicon Valley as the hub for VC, what are other geographic locations on the rise for VC opportunity that we might not be thinking about?
There's obviously the Bay Area for all things enterprise software. New York has definitely entered the chat, especially in the fintech space. LA does a really good job at both the creator economy and fintech.
Markets that a lot of people aren't paying attention to, or at least as much attention as they should be, are Tulsa, OK, Atlanta, GA, and Boston, MA. Boston's pretty big in medtech, especially with so many well-endowed universities and well-known hospitals. Atlanta has a very good community of bootstrapped entrepreneurs that do consumer tech and health tech. They've got a community called Atlanta Tech Village, which is basically like a coworking space for startups. It's got ~300 different founders in there that they consistently highlight. You’ve also got a rich investor pool in Atlanta, particularly when it comes to impact investing.
In Tulsa, OK, there's a really big focus on impact investing as well. As you may notice, each town kind of has its own sector that it focuses on. The scene in Oklahoma is pretty much bankrolled by George Kaiser, an oil tycoon (and Chairman of BOK) who transitioned his focus from oil and gas into sustainable energy. The team that manages those efforts, Attento Capital, have done a great job building that ecosystem. And because they’re based in Tulsa, right down the street from Greenwood, he's giving a lot of non-dilutive equity to Black founders.
You recently made the decision to start working as an independent consultant, can you talk about what that experience has been like so far?
Right now, I'm serving as an independent consultant for a few emerging VC funds.
In my previous role, I developed relationships with close to 500 different VC fund managers. I performed full due diligence, created proprietary performance benchmarking, and established feedback loops to help the fund managers improve. In developing all of those relationships, I had a lot of fund managers who said our interactions were super impactful. A few of them asked if I could come on and help build out their infrastructure based on the other funds I’ve seen, so that's essentially where I'm at right now.
Do you have a tip for the alumni who might be reading this, even if they're not venturing into VC or if they aren't even doing finances -- what tips would you have for someone who's going out on their own as a consultant?
Surround yourself with people who know more than you because there are so many little technical things like forming an LLC, reviewing advisory agreements, putting together RFPs (Requests for Proposal), data rooms, and DDQs (Due Diligence Questionnaires). I bounced a lot of ideas off of the community and people that have been there, and sometimes they'll let me into the project so I can see it first-hand, but definitely surrounding yourself with a community of people.
While this especially rings true for the Black community, graduating from UCI, you have the ability to play both fields at your discretion. So, in terms of your greater network, obviously don't necessarily discriminate in who you bring into the community. For me, in terms of senior mentorship, I tend to have the most impactful support from people that look like me because we can relate more closely.
I've got a really good close circle of Black senior leaders that I lean on often. That has been super helpful and super impactful. There are a lot of senior leaders who are looking to mentor a lot of young, Black students who are coming into the workforce. Organizations like Black Management Association at top-tier schools are great because a lot of times, companies looking to hire black talent will exclusively look to HBCUs. HBCUs are amazing and their alumni bases are super high quality. But there's a lot of us at private and public schools across the country, and we’re bursting at the seams with talent.
Thank you, Spencer! And, thank you for your work in co-leading and coaching the BMA Pitch Competition!