Aaron Samuels tells us about investing in intersectional founders, he explains what identity saliency is to Minnie and he shares how he and Brian Hollins were able to parlay their scout investing into $66M Collide Fund I.
Today I am in person with Aaron Samuels in Venice. Aaron is the founder and managing partner of Collide Capital, a new $66M Fund I. He is also the founder and COO of Blavity, a publication that reaches over a hundred million people a month. He's a nationally recognized spoken word artist, author, Forbes 30 under 30, and one of the guests that I had to pursue the hardest to come on this podcast.
No, no, no, no. I wanted to be here from the very beginning. Well, I got to, you know, build the anticipation. Anyhow, thanks for coming over today. Thanks for having me. I'm, I'm really excited about this. I've been looking forward to this for a while.
So Collide Capital, we are a $66M seed stage venture fund focused on backing intersectional founders. We primarily look at three main buckets. We look at enterprise SaaS, we look at the regenerative economy, and we look at Gen Z. And this is fund one for you guys. Congratulations.
Like, was it hard to raise like 66 million fund one is a big deal? Yeah. I, I think, I mean, I think it's always hard to raise no matter what size the fund is. We were really fortunate to have had some pretty fantastic mentors several funds that we'd consider peers or a few stages ahead of us really. You know, really reached out their hands and, and offered advice guidance o over the course of the fundraise process. But the reality is it's always gonna be a hard game. And so when you say other funds I think I saw like light speed, I can't remember, but like some of the other. big series A type funds uh, invested in you. Do they see you guys as sort of a feeder for their programs? Yeah. I, I think so. I mean, I think I think it's a combination. So you mentioned light speed. Uh, light speed has been a fantastic mentor to both Brian and I. We both, uh, were part of a scout program through light speed. We also are part of programs with Bain Capital, with Insight Partners, um, with General Catalyst and have LP relationships with. partners at several other venture funds And I think that because of that actual LP relationship, it just makes the, it makes a conversation a little bit more fluid for sharing deals. Many of these funds. They will invest, you know, up until the series B, several of them, even, even later stage. So because we're focused primarily on seed and a little bit of pre-seed, oftentimes we can find deals a little bit earlier in the pipeline and then we share our top performers with those funds. That's a great list of funds to have as either investors or partner relationships with. Do you have thoughts on how to build that relationship It's brick by brick. I, I don't know that there's a shortcut for most of the folks on that list. We started the relationship, we started sharing deals. We looked for opportunities to begin in small ways, and then over the course, Years and years. You develop trust. I don't know that there's a shortcut to trust. A mentor of mine once told me that trust is giving somebody repeated opportunities to screw you over and then observing them not screw you over. And until you have those repeat opportunities, there's no way that that trust can really be built. So when I sit on the other side of that table, Which is not asking can I trust somebody, but really saying, how do I convince somebody to trust me? It means I need to give, I need to create multiple opportunities where I could screw them over and then show them my character and show them that I will not, and in fact, that I will be the person that I, that I told them that I would And. As a component of that, I think you guys did a a pilot fund. We did. We did. We called it, uh, we called it a fund zero. It was a proof of concept fund. I think it was one of the, one of the better things that we did in terms of, of having results for our fundraise. The way that it worked is effectively we got permission to roll up a combination of four different scout. So we scouted for light speed. We scouted for Canaan Partners. We scouted for a firm, uh, in the Bay Area called Para vc. And we scouted for a firm based out of Boston called Flybridge CapitalMost scout vehicles either require or at least ask pretty strongly for you to only scout for them, right? And from the beginning we had to create a sense of trust cuz they had to know that we weren't cherry picking deals. That if I saw a deal that was a fit for light speed, I would always bring it to light speed. If I saw a deal that was a fit for Canan, I would always bring it to Canaan. And sometimes that meant that I would bring a deal to both parties and have to disclose that. . It was funny though, in practice that actually rarely happened, and I think one of the things that Brian and I learned during the process is, All of these funds have a very different perspective on the world, and it was actually pretty rare that a deal would be a down the line fit for different funds. I don't know that much about scout programs. Were the scout programs pretty similar in how they were operated, or did you learn things about like how scout programs are Yeah, so we, we learned a lot. there's no. Perfect standard for what a scout program is supposed to look like. We participated in four Scout programs. They, they worked for completely different ways. There's some similarities across the board. Most programs have a pool of capital that you can draw from have some type of control, some type of parameter for like how to approve a deal. Some of them have. Person, like effectively a single partner that you have to run the deal by. Some of them have an investment committee that you have to run the deal by. Some of them have different stipulations of the diligence that you have to do. And then there's different ways that that scout programs are, are compensated. some of them will pay you out a cash finder's fee for doing deals. Some of them will give you. Give you carry in the dealer, pass through the carry that the firm has for the deal. Some of them have a kicker, like an incentive for if the firm decides to double down on the deal later on. Cuz it meant that you sourced the deal that then they invested out of their core fund. So there's ranges but most of them Uh, function to tap people that they believe have a lens into an ecosystem that they don't have but want. Um, and so they're using us to scout new opportunities. And I think for both Brian and I we were tapped because of our unique perspectives and and access to founder ecosystems. Yeah. Well, let's talk a little bit about that because I mentioned Blavity at the beginning reaches a hundred million people a month, which is amazing. I mean, that's a whole just incredible network. so tell me a little, like founding of Blavity. Like how did it get going? Yeah, it's great. So, uh, so Morgan, Jeff, Jonathan and I all went to undergrad together at Washington University in St. Louis. Uh, we were all part of the black community. Me, Morgan, and Jeff were all urban scholars, which was the Black Leadership Scholarship program on campus. And so we were all passionate about St. Louis, about the Midwest, about the black community, um, about leadership. And we graduated. We all ended up in corporate spaces. Right. Where we oftentimes found ourselves as one of very few people of color. I think I heard you were the only, were you the only black person in your Bain cohort? In my Bain Associate Star class in New York. Yeah. I was the only black person there and, and there were actually no black people in the cohort before me or after me. crazy. Yeah. So in three, in three years of Bain Associates in New York, I was the only black person. Yeah, I didn't love that part of the, of the experience. Okay. So you didn't find your black community at Bain? I I did not find my black community at Bain. and similarly talking, talking to Jeff, he, he didn't find his black community at Palantir and Morgan didn't find her black community at Intuit, and Jonathan didn't find his black community at LinkedIn. Right. And so, you know, we all reflected a lot about what we had as undergrads, which don't get me wrong, Washington University in St. Louis. Also a primarily white institution, but the black community there was very strong. So even though it was a pwi, we felt that we really had a grounding of community there. And there was this experience that we had Usually around lunch. Um, But oftentimes around meals where you'd kind of walk in the dining hall and there'd be a couple black people sitting at a table. They'd, you know, wave over to you. You'd go, you'd pull up a chair, you'd sit down. Pretty soon the table's full. More black people would walk in, you'd wave them down. They'd pull up another table. They'd pull up another chair. Pretty soon there's like 30, 40, 50, like black people that would all just sit around at the center at this That that was always like the cool table that I always felt a little intimidated by. I always be like, wow, what a tight community. it was, and it it was cool. And it was tight and it became the place that you went for anything. If I needed help with my math homework, you know, Hey Aaron, oh, you know, go talk to Troy on the other side of the table. He took that class last semester. Oh man. I'm having trouble with my love life. Oh, go talk to Whitney. She's gonna give you some advice about how to be a better partner. You know, given the fact that you're a freshman, you don't know anything about, Like, oh, I need an internship. Oh, that's okay. You know, go over there. There's a group of people gathering, talking about internship through the summer. That table was where we, where we got everything that we needed. It represented the total cacophony of all of the conversations that were happening in the black community. And that experience of sitting there, seeing other black people, having them move toward one another and actually support each other. We called that black. UM, or B Blavity for short. So when then we found ourselves years later in these primarily white corporate spaces, we found ourselves missing that, and we started asking ourselves is there a way that we can replicate that feeling that we had as under. In the rest of the world, Was that a popular thing that VCs understood? No. Okay. It doesn't sound like, I mean, okay. It was not, And at the time, , you know, we launched a company in 2014. At the time, the magic number was a million users. You kind of needed to have a million users before anybody would take you seriously, because that was around the number of users that you needed to have before you could start getting credible ad dollars. And I remember, I remember when we hit it, uh, we hit a million users right around, I think it was like right around December of 2015. So we, you know, we were kind of 18 months that's pretty um, it was pretty fast. No, we, we, it was working, you know, it was growing, we're making content. It was incredible. And this was all with a, a bootstrapped team. you know, some loyal interns, you know, working nights and weekends. And I remember when we hit it. Um, and then we started getting interest. From VC funds Great. And now I mean, you have such an interesting lens, like how do you think about the content world today? Yeah, I, I mean, I think about it all the time. I spent years thinking about it. There's a few different ways I can answer that question, so let me, let me take one. Yeah. And you can, you can direct me if you want me to go a different way. I think that spending time observing content at its core is about spending time, observing trends looking at what people are interested. And looking at what people are interested in talking about is a reflection of what people will ultimately do in terms of behavior. It's not a perfect one-to-one match by any means but it's sometimes a good indicator about how people will interact in the world. It's a study of culture. I think that most venture capitalists at their core want to do just that, right? You're looking at human behavior, you're looking at trends, what you're really asking yourself is based on what people. Chit-chatting about today, what will people be buying seven to 10 years from now? Yeah. And it's not just like what they're gonna buy, but also how are they gonna live differently? How are they gonna work differently? Where are they gonna live differently? All those things. But I also think the type of content changes, like, do you think, I mean, the format of content changes a huge amount. Oh, absolutely. I mean, when we started Laity in 2014, we said that we were gonna be mobile first, social first, and people looked at us like we had three heads. What are you talking about? Things that you say in 2023 that are so they're obvious. You wouldn't even say it. It's of of. Course you're gonna be mobile first. Like, what, what other option is there?
So, absolutely, I think media changes, content consumption changes, content distribution changes. And that also can change the nature of the content itself. Hmm. Keep going on that thought. That's an interesting one. I, I completely agree. So, do you see certain trends in the way the format is affecting the Sure. It, I mean, the, the easiest one, the most obvious one is it's getting shorter. you know, I feel like when I was growing up, you know, the creme de la creme of content was like an hour long TV show or, or a segment, whether it was a news article or documentary or, or something longer like a movie. You know? Now I feel like the majority of the content I consume is 30 seconds or less, and it's just a massive, massive volume. Now I go back and forth with my parents about this because my parents think that it's because of the destruction of our minds and, you know, and maybe there's a little bit of that they can't keep up though too. They well, they can't keep up. And I also think that they don't have to keep up and that, that's actually what I talked to my parents about that millennials and even more so for Gen Z now. And I think probably orders of magnitude for Gen Alpha we are responsible for holding. Such an amount of information in order to actually just be functional citizens in our generation. Um, If I'm not following the latest trends in sports, in movies, in entertainment, in beauty, in fashion, and also in wokeness in political dialogue, in race relations. and then my professional ecosystems. You know, on a day-to-day basis, like on a single day I'm responsible for volumes and volumes of more information than my parents were responsible for when they were at my stage , in their career. And if I'm not up to it, I fall behind and I lose. And so because of that pressure, I think that exists. For millennials, and I think for Gen Z to be able to compete, then that means that we're constantly consuming information, not just because we're all highly distractable but partially because it, it's actually a means of professional survival.
maybe it's also a trade off of breadth versus depth. maybe, but I, I don't, I don't know. So part of it is you could say, oh no, it's an exchange of breath versus depth. I think that can sometimes be true, but I actually think that also because of the rate of analysis in computational ability, in just access to world information, in the fact that like I can access a large portion of all knowledge that's ever created by humanity just by asking my phone a question. You're actually not always exchanging breath for depth. You're actually responsible for both. Ooh. That's a lot But it also, I mean, I very legitimately just might be that the way society functions now is it's a requirement for our jobs and for our social lives that we have that amount at least of breath. yes. But it's, it's, it's funny too because it's not just that, like, I remember, you know, I came up as a spoken word artist and, and a a big part of my career was also doing writing workshops with, with youth. and I still, I still do that. when I can, and I was teaching a. A writing workshop to some youth. and, we were reading poems about identity. Yeah. And the, the students started asking me questions about intersectionality and about how intersectionality like should be thought of, you know, when, when looking at the intersection of race, gender, and queerness, when identifying poems about race and religion, and I'm looking at the 17 year old, like these are the right questions and also questions that I wasn't asking until I was in my late twenties. I didn't even know the word intersectionality until I was in college. I'm, I'm like, where did you learn these words? You know, they, they learn 'em on TikTok, . Yeah. They learn 'em on Instagram. Right. There's a proliferation of information that's actually operating at a pretty deep level about the intricacies of human nature in society. And so if that's what the expectation is at high school, I don't even know yet what the burdens are gonna be placed on students when they're in college, and then when they're in the workforce Yeah. And I, I think that there's something also incredible about the level of sophistication that is expected too. It just also comes with pressure. And I think we need to look at both the, the good and the difficult aspects of living in a world where you have such massive exposure to information and an expectation that that information is absorbed. Mm-hmm. . What are you teaching when you're teaching things? Like expressing identity? Yeah, I, I mean that you, you know, , I think that we, at least when I was growing up we didn't have a robust enough education about identity in and of itself. What does it mean to be yourself? what does it mean to embrace your culture? What does it mean to know where you come from and all the different ways that that can manifest? I remember the first time I was exposed to the concept of identity salience. I was, I don't even know what that is. Let's, let's break it down then. So, so identity salience. So salience effectively is a term That helps us navigate how top of mind an identity is to us at any given point in time. So you know, say I'm, surfing, right? You're a surfer, right? So like, say I'm, I'm on the water right now. My identity as a surfer might be pretty pronounced. , I'm currently experiencing my life as a surfer, um, but say I'm in, say I'm in Denver, Colorado and I'm on a mountain, , I might not feel like I'm a surfer right now. But it actually doesn't always work like that Sometimes you also have inverse relationships. Sometimes if you're in a room and you're the only surfer in the room. You actually feel more like a surfer because, because of the, the dissonance that you're experiencing with your environment and you're, and you're missing the thing that you have, right? So, you know, salience isn't always amplified or detracted from by the context, but it's usually influenced by the context somehow, right? So you look at the context that you're in and how that navigates identity Now, know, zoom out and realize we actually are all combinations of many, many, many, many identities, right? So at any given point in time, all of the identities that we hold are kind of modulating their different degrees of salience and how you express yourself in a given moment. is partly going to be a manifestation of how salient all of your identities are at any given point in time, in relationship to each other and in relationship to you. I remember when I learned, I learned that in college. And as a, as a mixed kid from a multi-faith multiracial family, it was incredibly helpful to just see how I was already experiencing the world but didn't really have a language for it. And I think that that's, that's what I try to help unlock with poetry But I feel like there's an aspect of being able to express the things I'm already feeling, but even just being able to observe or think about some of these things Well, and that's one of the reasons that, that these workshops are really great in groups because you're not just expressing your own identity, And so I agree sometimes the most moving moments we have are actually when we're observing somebody else, um, make a disclosure about their own identity. And that can then change the way that you seely Mm-hmm. I get nervous anytime talking about myself or just putting too much out there in the world, but that's the opposite of being a spoken word artist. Yeah. I mean, it is and it isn't, right, like writers are storytellers. . Um, and so part of the work is figuring out the story that you want to tell about yourself. I don't know that that's necessarily always the whole story either. You just get better at giving a, a version of a story that you want the world to hear, right? So I've, I've been talking about being black and Jewish my entire professional career, cuz I'm black and Jewish. I'm sure there's plenty of things that, that are new or that I, I don't yet know the story for, that I'm still working on. The nice thing about being a writer is I can, I can write those as drafts until I like, figure out the story and then I can, I can share that. But what I will say is I don't think it's ever easy to tell your story. But I think it's easier if you can tell your story first to yourself. And I think for me, that's one of the best tools of writing is it it helps you tell yourself who you are or who you want to be. And once you've done that work, I think it can get a little easier. to then tell that to the world. work, How do you think about your identity as a vc? It's an, it's a new one. Yeah, it's, and it's a, it's, it's almost comical to me, to be honest. You know, I grew, I grew up, I grew up in like relatively radical activist spaces. I think that 13 year old Aaron would be shocked that, that, that I'm a venture capital. Yeah. Yeah. Sh shocked about it. You know, but a. A counter narrative to that is I, if I look at every step along my career journey, I think it's actually pretty natural conclusion You know, I started as an artist because , as a young angsty teen that was learning about racism for the first time, I think it made me mad. And as a teenager you're like, why is the world like this? Why? Why did my parents' generation create such a terrible place? And then you learn that like they were mad about the same thing that you know, that their parents and their parents and then, you know, some of these things have been passed down systemically. But I think part of the anger also comes from an inability to do anything about it. And you feel so powerless as a teen. So you do what you can, you make art, you build protests, you build movements. And I think that the older I've gotten, The more I've observed the power that I do have to potentially make change
And Isaiah, as I've gotten older, I've become more aware of the ability to affect change through capital and through storytelling. or like the ability for someone to paint a vision of the future. So, do you have advice for people on how they can improve their storytelling? Absolutely, and it's, it's actually something that Brian and I talk pretty actively about with our founders and. Brian is a fantastic storyteller in his own right. he worked at a place called the Oral Communications Lab when he was at Stanford, and Oral Communications Lab effectively helped, helped train professors for being able to give better lectures.
Hmm. A lot of founders struggle with this especially founders that come from more technical backgrounds. It's not just about the numbers. In fact, it, rarely is. It's, it's about the story that you're telling and Oftentimes, you know, you know VCs, VCs are pretty smart. You know, they're pretty savvy. They can, they can see through if somebody's trying to tell 'em a lie too. So it's not about learning how to elaborate, it's actually about being able to talk about the real numbers, but the real implications of how they should be viewed together. and I think, yeah, I think a lot of times people need help, thinking through what the story is. What is the story that's going to resonate with not just VCs either with, with the customers, with with our users, with fellow founders, uh, how do we think through what we're doing? And that's, that's work that we do with, all of our, well, we offer it with all of our founders. Some, some take us up on it more than offered when you're thinking about resonance, like what are the, things that make things, is it an emotional connection or like what is it about the resonance you're trying to achieve? Yeah. um, another great writer and kind of as part of a writing workshop told me the best endings to a story are both surpris. Yet inevitable. And I feel very similarly to an excellent startup pitch. I think that it needs to be inevitable. Meaning you wanna look at this pitch and say, oh my God, this is happening, right? If this person doesn't create this technology or this company like somebody else will, like, the world is definitely moving in this way. and also, wow, this is, this is also new. This is innovative. Nobody's done this before. Right. It needs to be surprising and inevitable, and I think if you can create a pitch that leaves people with those two dual emotions at the end of it, it can really, really, really strike a chord in the heartstrings of, of the person who's listening. wow. Good answer. Good answer. I like that. There's still so many things we have to talk about. Brian, we haven't talked about Brian at all. Talk about, just talk about this long? We haven't really talked about Brian. We love Brian. Oh my God, Brian. Every time I see him, he has, you both have great energy. Tell me about Brian. Oh, Brian's fantastic energy. I mean, part of that is the fact that he's over six feet tall, you know, Brian and I ran in parallel for so long. you know, we're both mixed kids. You know, we both grew up. , with a perspective of what wealth could look like, but without access to it ourselves. You know, Brian grew as a caddy. So, you know, grew up on, golf courses caddying for, for rich white guys doing business deals, you know, listening, what's going on here as, as. You know, one of the few black people in the room, you know, Brian's observing. And, you know, when I was working at Bain and Company, Brian was at Goldman Sachs. When I was going to Stanford to get my mba, Brian was getting his B at Harvard. Uh, when I was building Blavity, Brian was building an ecosystem called Black VC Um, We met at the first Afro Tech conference that we host. In 2016 that was when Afro Tech was still a dream. You know, that year we only had a, a little less than a thousand people. And Afro Tech is under the Blavity. Blavity started Afro Tech. It's like Correct. hugest black in tech, Yeah, it's a Yeah. It's the largest black tech conference in the world. Um, So we had 25,000 people this past year in Austin. And so what is the state of black tech today? Like, has anything gotten better? Like, is it a tighter community? I don't know. I mean, I, I've never been, I've never been white in vc. But what I hear is that they're pretty tight too. Um, and that there's a lot of deals that are shared. You know, there's a lot of networks so tighter. So like, I don't, I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that like, black VC is tighter than white vc. you know, I don't know. I don't know what I don't know. Right? I do believe that there are rooms that things happen and that I'm not yet invited to. But what I can also say, of the communities that I am a part of that are really most of the underrepresented people in vc, black people in venture, women in venture Latin folks in venture queer folks. In venture, there's not a lot of, most of us. So yeah, we, we gotta look out. Yeah, we're going to improve the numbers across the board. Yeah. I mean, we could talk about. What I believe the truth is, we could also talk about what, what the numbers say. Uh, you know, the reality is the numbers have not been increasing for the number of black founders that are getting invested into, despite all of the media and all the attention that's being called to it. Right? Do I believe that there is a solid pipeline of incredible black founders? Absolutely. Of course. I oftentimes think that the pipeline problem is used as a scapegoat to not talk about some of the, some of the deeper issues. Yeah. Which is ultimately people are pattern matching. Yeah. You need to have huge success. Really. We need to have huge successes. No, it's, it's a big deal. Let's talk about you for a little bit. You moved to LA When did you move to la? I moved to LA in 2014. to la. Oh, okay. So long time here. Yeah, it's almost a decade. You know, la la is, LA is the place that I have the most community, um, of anywhere else. LA is, LA is is my new home. You know, my, my home, home will will always be Rhode Island. You know, like I, I am a Rhode Island and I, I gotta rep that, Few other things. Publishing books. You published a couple books. I've published a couple bucks. Yeah. Is Yeah. Uh, fun. Fun is not the perfect word for it. are say it's not fun Yeah. Yeah. I don't know if I'd say fun. Um, I think, I think for most people who write a book, you do it because you have to do it, you know, start a company, right. It's like starting a company. You, you gotta do it. Yeah. You know, my most recent book is a book called Yamaka and Fitted caps. It is a book of poetry and it is an exploration of masculinity, really set, set against the lens of, of two cultures that have very strong perspectives of what it means to be a man. And that's black culture and Jewish culture. And the yamaka and the fitted cap are both in many ways, like symbols of masculinity that I'm unpacking and and, and thinking through and challenging in the work. Dude, I read a, a fair amount of your poetry . Thank you. no, it was really powerful. I kept reading. Thank you. I, I appreciate you giving a look. Yeah, Yeah, for sure. Well, it, it kept me going. Your parents are both, Psychologist. Oh my God. they are. So like when people have like service level conversations, are you just like, no, we gotta get deeper and st it's really hard for me to have small talk. Me too. You know, it's just, I usually, cut into it. Um, and this is a trade that I definitely get from my parents. You know, they will, they will just dive right into the heart of the issue. I don't know. I think, I think sometimes that's a good thing. I think sometimes it's a bad thing. But, but, uh, you it's true to your identity. Like I just don't have pa I don't wanna have small talk. I don't wanna have small talk either. I wanna understand why people are, are thinking about the things that they're thinking about, what makes 'em tick. And I'm, I'm very uninterested in taking things as a given. I wanna understand why I want to challenge, and I, I think that that can sometimes make you a very annoying dinner party guest. But also I think it's a very fun way to travel through the world. Yeah, me too. You almost answered my, my last question, which is how do your friends describe you? Uh, do my friends describe me? Um, I don't know. I, I should put you in touch with some of my friends, Hmm. I think, well, I'll tell you how I, I would want them to describe me, . Um, uh, I'm like, will, will they describe me this way? I could, I could probably pay a friend to, to, to give you a quote. Um, but, um, I, I think that I'm. , I'm annoyingly consistent and I'm fiercely loyal, and sometimes to my detriment. Meaning if I make a commitment to do something 10 years ago and the thing is not done yet, I will find myself still living out this same commitment I made to myself a, a decade ago.
Well, Erin thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Congratulations. Like, congratulations on having this fund. I'm really thrilled you're part of this ecosystem and, uh, I hope we get to cross paths more. Look, I, I really appreciate you having me on this. It's, it's an honor. I feel like I've, I've now been crowned, you know, a proper member of the LA Venture community,
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