Not everyone has the unique opportunity to see things from the perspective of an entrepreneur and an investor. But Mandela Schumacher-Hodge has experience in both worlds, giving her a well-rounded vision of the world of start-ups, business and entrepreneurship in a super authentic way.
She’s currently the founding portfolio services director at Kapor Capital, a startup blogger, the founder of MandelaSH Videos, was featured in Forbes 30 Under 30, was in the Case Foundation Top 50 Inclusive Entrepreneurship Champions, is the author of three Top 20 Medium Posts, is a TEDx presenter, and has been a featured speaker on more than 55 stages (including events at Google, Facebook, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). Safe to say, she’s been there, done that. And she’s sharing some of her wisdom with us regarding transitioning into tech spaces, embedding diversity initiatives into the DNA of companies, the intersections of education with entrepreneurship and more.
Get to know Mandela further before she presents at AfroTech this November, and read our interview with her below:
Blavity: What were your career goals early in life? And how did you transition from a teacher to an entrepreneur in tech?
Mandela Schumacher-Hodge: Up until the age of 20, I was a full-time student-athlete. For the most part, I took general courses in school (with no speciality in any one area), and I spent the rest of my time perfecting my craft as an elite soccer player, at the time I was the co-captain of the NC State Women’s Soccer Team. It honestly wasn’t until I made the decision that I did not want to pursue a career as a professional soccer player that I really started to reflect more on what I did, in fact, want to spend my life doing. It was also during this time that my father unexpectedly passed away. That experience absolutely rocked my foundation and forever changed my perspective on life. More than ever, I recognized what a precious gift life is, and that it isn’t something to take for granted or waste. My father’s death broke my heart, but it also emboldened me to make the very most of my life, and to do it on my own terms.
Thinking back to that time in my life, I didn’t necessarily have a huge vision for my career, but I also didn’t let the opinions of others (“You’re crazy for walking away from a full scholarship” or “You should do this…or be that”) sway me. I was OK with not having everything all figured out and giving myself some time to find my way. One thing I did know for sure, though, was that I needed to be in a different place; an environment with more diversity of people and career opportunities. So I packed up all my stuff into one car and moved from North Carolina to Los Angeles (thanks mom for driving with me; I couldn’t have done it without you!). Once in LA, I took a semester off from college to work at a law firm. Then I transferred to Pepperdine University, and immediately studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was my first time traveling outside the United States. I ended up graduating from Pepperdine with a Bachelors in Intercultural Communication and a minor in Spanish.
It was a few years later and I was now 23. I still wasn’t positive what I wanted to do for a career yet, but I had gained some valuable experiences that made me more clear about which paths would suit my interests. One of those interests was educating others, particularly those who come from underserved and underprivileged backgrounds. I had grown up in a household with two civil rights lawyers for parents, who were extremely dedicated to uplifting and empowering historically marginalized peoples and communities. I wanted to contribute to this mission and en route to investigating options to join the Peace Corps, I stumbled upon a program called Teach for America. It felt like the right fit for me at the time, and that’s how I began my career as a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. I went on to get a Masters from Loyola Marymount University in Education Administration & Policy, and was then admitted into a top six PhD program at UCLA, and my concentration was Urban Schooling.
As you can see from my past, it was never my intention to pursue a career in tech. In fact, I had never taken a technical, business, or entrepreneurship course prior to launching my first startup in 2011. My introduction to this thing called a “startup” was via an event called Startup Weekend Education, and it was there that I bumped into this even bigger thing called “entrepreneurship.” And I’ll tell you this much: It was love at first sight! I felt like I had finally found my tribe — people who are “crazy” enough to challenge the status quo, courageous enough to propose alternatives to the way things are currently being done, and dedicated enough to put in the very hard work it takes to bring those ideas to life. Since that event, I have continued to identify problems that I’m passionate about solving, and I’ve stayed true to my passion to take action to bring about change versus just theorizing about what could happen.
And as I’ve learned more, my career has blossomed, and my network has grown, I feel like it’s my duty to bring others with me. Success in my eyes is not determined by my individual ascent; rather, it’s about all of us getting the opportunity to succeed.
B: What motivated you to focus on the intersections of education and entrepreneurship?
MS-H: Entrepreneurship is all about being brave. Being brave enough to push back on the way things are currently being done, being brave enough to pursue a vision most others can’t see, and being brave enough to believe that all your blood, sweat and tears will pay off.
Entrepreneurship is an incredibly inspiring act to me, and I want to teach more people how to be brave enough to pursue that route. To not just accept the world they were born into, but to question it, challenge it, and create solutions that make it better.
B: What do you love about startups and the startup environment?
MS-H: I love startups because I love making progress and making it quickly. Startups are all about building, testing and iterating. Over and over again in a startup you’re taking deliberate actions to see how different variables influence your ability to grow and make a profit. There are constant challenges (e.g. competition, new legislation, changing technology) you have to work with, so there’s never a dull moment, which is also something I appreciate. Operating in a startup keeps you on your toes and makes you uncomfortable. And being uncomfortable is the best way to grow.
B: Where do you turn for inspiration?
MS-H: My biggest inspiration is the calendar. Being reminded that I have a finite amount of time here, and that I can’t get out of this life alive; that’s honestly my biggest inspiration. Remembering that there’s an expiration date to my life helps me consistently be courageous and keep my own doubts and the opinions of others at bay. I recognize life’s too short to put off pursuing what I really want to do and who I really want to be.
B: What are your biggest motivators? What keeps you going through your busy days and your packed schedule?
MS-H: Aside from the calendar, other places I turn to for motivation and inspiration are other entrepreneurs and creatives. I am in awe of the way they think, the big vision they have, and how they’ve been able to bring their ideas to life. Seeing them succeed inspires me to succeed. And because one major pillar of how I define my success is linked to helping as many people as possible, I am willing to invest the hard work required to build an operation that scales.
B: What do you do to unwind? How do you make time for you — for self-care and mental health days — despite being so busy? Do you have any go-to activities, musical artists, movies, books, etc.
MS-H: My morning rituals are a must: Drink a glass of water, engage in at least 10 minutes of guided meditation (I use apps like Calm or Headspace), writing in my journal (what I’m grateful for and what my intention is for the day); running around Lake Merritt in Oakland (~3.5 miles), and drinking a homemade kale, spinach and fruit shake.
I’m engaged (yes ladies, he put a ring on it! lol), and having a great relationship with my partner is also a high priority item for me. In order to create the loving, adventurous relationship my fiancé and I want, we do a few things consistently: Greet each other every morning and night, engage in a daily conversation about each other’s day, have what we call a “Life Meeting” once a week (to make progress on our joint goals), take turns planning a weekly date night, taking a quarterly trip (even if it’s just hiking for a weekend), and attending pre-marital counseling (a good foundation must be deliberately built).
Also, I love documentaries and getting immersed in biographical films or movies that raise my awareness about topics that I’m interested in.
Maintaining my mental, physical, and social-emotional well-being are all non-negotiables for me. I’ve seen what life is like when I don’t prioritize my health and happiness, and I refuse to revert back to that place. Every day, I make deliberate choices to be healthy and happy.
B: What has it been like to work for Kapor Capital, considering they helped fund Tioki, where your tech/entrepreneur career took off?
MS-H: It’s been a great experience working at Kapor Capital because it’s given me the opportunity to see how “the other side” operates. I’ve been an entrepreneur, and will continue to be one, but I haven’t been an investor yet, so it’s been a very educational experience for me to see how investors make decisions, how their success is defined, and the various stakeholders they’re responsible for maintaining relationships with.
I’ve definitely built more empathy for the investor’s perspective and have been able to utilize that empathy to build bridges of understanding with the founders. I’ve also been able to help the investors gain more insights into the mindset and experiences of the founders, and more efficiently and effectively service their needs. I’ve pioneered new processes, programming and resources that are intended to scale the support we’re able to provide our portfolio of 118 tech startups of varying sectors and sizes. It’s definitely challenging work, but work I find incredibly worthwhile and exciting.
B: What do you find most rewarding about helping to develop the portfolios of early-stage tech startups? What do you find the most challenging about it?
MS-H: As I mentioned earlier, I’m absolutely in love with entrepreneurship and the people who pursue that route. Entrepreneurs are the special people who are on the ground doing the really hard work to create the things that the rest of us get to enjoy. Think about you reading this article right now. It’s only possible because of all the technology that entrepreneurs built — the internet, website, a computer, tablet or phone. Technology has advanced our lives, and it’s showing no signs of slowing up. So from my perspective, as the Portfolio Services Director at Kapor Capital, it’s a privilege for me to be able to be work alongside these innovators when they’re just starting their business and trying to figure out how to find product market fit and scale their solutions. Getting to lend my time and talents to the achievement of that end is incredibly rewarding.
Another cool perk of the job is being able to see the future before anyone else. Every time a founder pitches an idea or shares their three-year roadmap, I get a glimpse into what the the future may look like. I get to peer inside the minds of visionaries and it’s a spectacular sight to see!
It’s been exactly one year since I joined Kapor Capital as its inaugural Portfolio Services Director. It’s been an amazing ride already and as I look back and reflect on these first 365 days, I feel most proud of working with Kapor Capital Partner and diversity and inclusion (D&I) expert Dr. Freada Kapor Klein to launch the Founders’ Commitment, the first ever VC-backed diversity pledge. Never before has an investment firm required that their founders prioritize diversity and inclusion the same way they prioritize growth and revenue, and after nearly nine months of working with 82 tech startups on their Commitment, our team has taught countless founders and diversity advocates how to bake D&I into the DNA of their companies and has inspired a slew of other diversity initiatives to launch. By no means done (and by no means easy), I’m optimistic that a shift is underway for tech to finally become the inclusive industry we all know it can and should be.
B: Who can be a successful entrepreneur? Do you find there to be certain personality types or traits that are most successful? What strategies do you use to help people to hone in on their success?
MS-H: Anyone can be a successful entrepreneur. The problem, though, is not everyone’s given the opportunity to be a successful entrepreneur. My colleague, Mitch Kapor oftentimes says “genius is evenly distributed across zip codes, but opportunity is not.” I love this quote, because it drives home the point that everyone — no matter their place of birth, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. — is intelligent and capable of achieving success. However, the issue is with access; access to opportunities that allow everyone to not only survive in life, but thrive and contribute their talents to the advancement of society.
2% is a powerful statistic in tech. 2% of all employees at major tech companies are black. And when it comes to the employment creators, less than 2% of all VC-backed startups are led by black founders. (Blavity’s own founder, Morgan DeBaun, is a part of this very small percentage.) There’s a clear underrepresentation of blacks in tech when you compare that 2% to the total population of blacks in the U.S., which stands at 12.6%. Simply put, it’s not a level playing field, and that’s really important to acknowledge. Because until you’re willing to acknowledge it, you can’t fix it.
Another problem I think is vital to call out is that fact that entrepreneurship is really, really hard. I’ve seen many people — from all different backgrounds — be given the opportunity to build a company, but the fact of the matter is, not everyone’s cut out for it. It truly is one of the hardest things you could ever pursue. So my advice to folks is that before you leave your life jacket at shore and take the plunge into entrepreneurship, really take some time to learn what the life of an early-stage founder is really like. I refer to becoming a founder as entering “Sacrifice Central,” and in this video I pull back the curtain and let you see behind the scenes of entrepreneurship. It’s not always as glamorous as it may seem.
And if you do decide to become an entrepreneur, start yourself off on the right foot by watching “4 Qualities That Make a Great Entrepreneur.”
B: What can we expect next from you?
MS-H: Every week, I publish a new video and article where I give people insights and advice on how to accelerate their success in both business and life. I just filmed an interview with Blavity founder and CEO, Morgan DeBaun, and you can sign up here to find out when it gets published. You can definitely expect more of this kind of support from me for entrepreneurs and anyone interested in advancing their life or career.
B: Anything else we should know?
MS-H: My Instagram Stories are poppin’ with daily inspiration, tidbits of wisdom, and tons of fun adventures. Follow me @MandelaSH to keep yourself on your A-game.