After graduating from Morehouse College in 2014, Nate Jones only spent a couple of years working in the financial services industry before deciding to merge his passion for improving the socioeconomic status quo for low-income neighborhoods with his financial and analytical skillset. Nate went on to co-found the Village Microfund, a social impact fund empowering entrepreneurs in Metro Atlanta by providing access to capital, business education, and a “Village” of support. In 2020, Nate was named one of HBCUVC’s “31 under 31” emerging leaders in venture capital. On this episode, he talks candidly about his early career experiences and decisions, while inspiring us all to stay motivated and make the world a better place.
Check out the Highlights:
1:44- How Nate decided to pursue investment banking and finance
3:51- Nate talks about struggling in his first job out of college in Atlanta, but how it strengthened him in the end
5:38- Nate joins Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, and begins to flex his entrepreneurial muscles
8:41- Starting Village Microfund, and what that was like
10:16- Nate talks about his “why” and what drove him to start this fund
14:22 – Why Nate decided to go get his MBA
16:07- Nate reflects on what it’s like to be recognized for his work in venture capital
18:28 – Navigating the venture capital space while Black, and what that means to Nate
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Nate: I actually ended up sneaking into the Goldman Sachs dinner that was on Spelman’s campus that was adjacent to Morehouse’s campus and ended up hitting it off really well with one of the partners, and, I ended up getting two interviews, and, the first one I completely bombed because I didn’t even know what investment banking was…(laughs).
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Priscilla: On this episode, you get to hear from Nate Jones, who graduated from Morehouse College in 2014 and is co-founder of the Village Microfund out of Atlanta. In 2020, Nate was named one of HBCUVC’s 31 under 31 future leaders in venture capital. He talks about his first job challenges, what drove him to co-found the Village Microfund, and what it’s like to navigate the venture capital space as a Black man.
Priscilla: Well, hey Nate! Welcome to the show! I’m so excited to have you on today.
Nate: Yeah. Thanks for asking me on.
Priscilla: Of course. So let’s start with your Morehouse chapter. I know you were an econ sociology double major. Around that time, what were you thinking about in terms of career interests and then what did you end up doing after graduation?
Nate: I had a, I guess a mentor kind of family friend of sorts that used to be an investment banker, back in his day. And, I got a chance to spend two weeks with him or something. And, he had a really nice house and a really nice car. And I was like, I was like, yo, I was like, what do you do? And he was like, yeah, no, I used to be an investment banker. And I was like, all right, that’s what I want to do. Yeah, to be honest with you, I just, that’s the only thing I was shooting at when I was in, in undergrad. When I was, I dunno, freshman, sophomore year, I had decent grades, but not, 3.7+ by any means. And, didn’t really understand that, you needed to be like, top of the class and all the professors have to love you, and the career services office, like needs to vouch for you. When the banks came to campus, I didn’t really get the initial nod, one, because I was an econ and those things went to the finance majors, but, two, I just wasn’t super aware of what was happening, nor did I really understand much about finance at the time. I just knew they made a lot of money. But, so I actually ended up sneaking into the Goldman Sachs dinner that was on Spelman’s campus that was adjacent to Morehouse’s campus and ended up hitting it off really well with one of the partners, who actually got his PhD in educational economics. So the stuff that I was beginning to explore was stuff that he was really excited to talk about. And, I ended up getting two interviews, super days and like interview requests and, the first one I completely bombed because I didn’t even know what investment banking was…(laughs). And then I was super nervous and then the second one, I had a, a free trial if you will. And I did well on that one. And, so I ended up doing my two summers in undergrad at Goldman and, joined for a small bit after I graduated and then, ended up leaving and moving back to Atlanta to work on some entrepreneurial projects.
Priscilla: Very cool, which we’ll get to in a second, but tell us a little bit about that job that you had once you moved to Atlanta. I remember you told me it was a little challenging, what was challenging about it and what did you get out of it?
Nate: It was a cool role. I was on an investment team at a private credit fund in Atlanta. And, I was an analyst under an associate senior associate type of guy. And, really all we did all day was try to buy portfolios of debt. And, I was in Excel all day and trying to brush up on my analytical skills and understand what an analytical skill was. And, the experience was good because I learned how to illustrate a problem in Excel mathematically, but that was a really rough ride to get there. I didn’t know how to communicate with my boss. Didn’t really know how to communicate my work style. Like I didn’t know how to set boundaries, I just thought, if I work hard and do my thing, everything will work out. I stayed there for maybe, I don’t know, maybe 11 to 12 months at most. And, eventually left and joined a spot called Center for Civic Innovation, which was social entrepreneurship plus policy. And that was stuff that I was far more into. Those skills I learned there, it’s probably one of the most important and impactful experiences that I’ve, really ever had because it was just hardcore math, excel analytics. And, that was a skill set that, the folks that, that I was beginning to work with, didn’t really have. And, it was a blessing in disguise.
Priscilla: Definitely, yeah, I would say that there’s a season for everything. Even the work that can be really challenging can end up serving us so well in the future and it sounds like the quantitative skill set that you built really helped you in your next chapter at CCI in something that was a lot more exciting for you. So tell us about CCI. What did you do there?
Nate: Yeah, so CCI, stands for Center for Civic Innovation, is an organization that kind of spun out of the city of Atlanta. The city of Atlanta used to have an innovation office. And, my boss at the time, a guy named Rohit, he’s from Atlanta and convinced the city to let him take over this innovation office. And basically what he was trying to prove was that charity work should be viewed as economic development work, not as philanthropy. And, so we were looking to find, train and invest in entrepreneurs that were solving social problems in their neighborhoods. There was a barber, a guy named Latif, and he was doing kind of mental health training at his barbershop while he was cutting hair. And, In a perfect world, we should be able to tie some of those social improvements to things that mean dollars and cents. So I guess a quick tangent: there’s a thing called a social impact bond. And basically it’s like nonprofits and foundations that are investing in nonprofits, instead of giving them a grant, they might give them a loan or structural way that they can get their money back. And, the nonprofit will do work to cause some type of cost savings for a city. For example, if the police department spends $20 million in overtime fees to police officers to transport homeless folks to a facility or to a home, you should probably just invest in a nonprofit that does homeless work. And that could cause you know, this $20 million expense to maybe be $10 million in one year and then $5 million in the next year. There’s some value that can be created from typically what we consider charity work. So you know, the job was really to try to find those types of entrepreneurs and help them build better businesses.
Priscilla: Yeah, that sounds super exciting. What kind of boxes did that job check for you in terms of career fulfillment at the time?
Nate: Yeah, at first I wanted to get out of a computer all day…(laughs). So that was cool. I think I’m a pretty social person and I think I do my best work when I’m in community and able to talk to folks and try to solve problems and that role was really cool. It was a super cool office space, smart people that I was around. And, I was really into, trying to, understand more about, selfishly even my own interests. I had always been interested in things like finance and culture and Sociology stuff. And, this role was able to connect the dots on those two things. So it was a really fun experience there.
Priscilla: Yeah! And this whole time you started working on those entrepreneurial projects that you mentioned, namely Village Microfund. So tell us a little bit about what Village Microfund is because it’s still in existence, and what did that look like for you while you were working full-time?
Nate: Village is an impact fund that tries to train and invest in entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods. And, the way that we do that is through debt and equity based crowdfunding. So the first business that we invested in was a pizza shop. They had an oven that wasn’t putting out pizzas very fast. And they weren’t able to go to Bank of America or Chase to go get a small business loan. One because the loan size was very small, and two, because Chase and Bank of America just aren’t in low-income neighborhoods because it doesn’t make sense for their business model. You end up with this issue where you have entrepreneurs, customers, and citizens in neighborhoods that are engineered out of the capital market. So they’re not able to raise money to get their business going or anything like that. That was Village and, in those early days, it was crazy. I left New York to start that and it was just a lot of me putting 11 to 12:30 lunch meetings on my calendar and flying all across the city and trying to take meetings and trying to get back to work super quickly. And, that definitely got me in trouble a few times…(laughs). But, that’s kinda what it was. It was nights, weekends and crazy lunch meetings and breakfast meetings and stuff. So yeah. Labor of love.
Priscilla: What was really driving you when you were working on this, when you were running around town and trying to take these meetings and balancing your full-time job? I’m sure you had a strong “why”, so what was that “why” for you?
Nate: Yeah. I think the big driving factor was my experiences in DeSoto and Dallas. My folks live on the South side of Dallas in DeSoto, which is like a South suburb, maybe 10, 15 minutes south of the city. And my mom worked on the north side of the city and I would drive with her sometimes from the south side to the north side and, just see, like why is there a Chipotle on the north side? And we don’t have any restaurants on the south side? Like, why are the homes on the south side boarded up and the ones on the north side look super duper nice, or, I remember I was driving through this super nice neighborhood with my mom once. And, there were toys, in the middle of, the lawn, the front lawn. And I was like, okay, did they not think those are going to get stolen? Like, why are these out here like this? (laughs) And, very early experiences to understand that problems around economic development aren’t just, there’s no silver bullet for it. Public health issues impact health which impact your ability to get jobs and, funding for education and housing taxes and infrastructure and transportation to be able to get to your job. All of those issues are interconnected and, really, I started village with the thought to do something to try to solve that. Even at the very beginning, it was just like a passion project where we were just thinking through stuff, the ultimate goal is to try to create some type of infrastructure that can help neighborhoods across the country. So that’s kinda, what was the driving force behind it.
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Priscilla: Yeah. So you ended up deciding to go to business school to get your MBA. Tell me why you decided to get your MBA, like, what happened? Why didn’t you keep going with the Village Microfund?
Nate: Yeah. Two big things. One, this pizza shop that we’d invested in, and another restaurant, this lady named Miss D, she had a cafe that was next to the Westview Pizza Cafe. And, the neighborhood that we were working in, which was called Westview, which is West Atlanta. Basically, an investor came in and bought the building where those two entrepreneurs worked and eventually kicked both of them out. And, while we had trained a bunch of entrepreneurs, it was far more difficult then to try to raise capital to invest in them. And those two businesses were our shiny projects that we were able to fundraise around and get people excited around. And, over the course of a month or two, they just weren’t there anymore. And a few things we were starting to think about is like, how can we do bigger projects? How can we buy real estate? How can we really give people catalytic money instead of $15, $20,000 financing, like how can we do a hundred, 200, 300, a million dollars, and try to really make a real difference for them. And, I was like, okay, I probably need to go to school and get some other experiences to understand how to do this. So that was one and two, to be honest with you, I was just burnt out. Like I had, at that point, four or five years of running ragged and just being dirt broke and I was just like, I wanted to see some other cities outside of Atlanta and live in some new places and it ended up being a good break to go to school and get some other experiences and stuff.
Priscilla: And do you think that the MBA was worth it for you, especially thinking about all the success that you were having that summer before you went to business school? I know that you raised a tremendous amount of money. So, how do you now think about whether or not that MBA was worth it?
Nate: That was really a catalytic summer. That summer before we went to business school because we ended up raising like $400,000 and we’ve now gone to raise three or four times that, as the organization has gone forward. And, I don’t know. I think that experience in business school, like I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I learned so much and met so many people and really feel like…I feel like I have a power suit on now. Everything just makes more sense now. On the other side of that, I’ll always think about what would have happened if I would have stayed on as the executive director at Village and taken that capital and used it under my, my own leadership, my own discretion. And, my co-founder did a spectacular job and he’s a killer for real. You always think about the “what if’s” of the world. So I don’t know. I think all things happen for a reason and, that’s kinda where I stand on it, but, I dunno in the middle there on that question.
Priscilla: Yeah. So Nate, you’ve been really involved in the venture capital space during graduate school. And recently you were on HBCUVC’s, “31 under 31” list, which is a huge accomplishment. Congrats. What is it like to take a step back and see the success in this recognition happen for you?
Nate: I don’t know, it’s, I’m happy. Like I’m overjoyed that things worked out this way and it certainly hasn’t been very linear and, I took on a ton of risk to…I don’t know…get to where I am now. I have to give so much thanks to my folks for sending me like $200, $300 every now and then, and one of the entrepreneurs that we invested in had a second home that a relative of theirs gave to them in Atlanta and she let us stay there for almost a year rent free. And, it was basically just “continue doing your work.” And, if those two things wouldn’t have happened, like this just wouldn’t have happened, there was just no way that would’ve been possible. And, I don’t know, it’s definitely a strange place to navigate. Building an organization, building whatever, entrepreneur, like having ownership of a project and then being recognized for it, definitely gives you, or I guess like seeing the thing do well when you’re not there anymore, it’s definitely exciting. It’s fun. I don’t know, at least recently I’ve been thinking through, “how do you move forward?” It’s a strange experience, having a feeling and starting a business off of an idea that you had from, just being super excited and interested in something to go into a space where you’re not an entrepreneur anymore, I think I used to make all of my feelings from off of instinct and off of, how fast my heart would beat when someone would tell me about a problem that they were facing. And, I would just will my way to a solution and just be working through the night and trying to read things and just figure stuff out and, transitioning from that type of thinking to something that’s far more like process driven like venture capital and, in many instances, I feel like I’m relearning or, learning how that stuff works, every day.
Priscilla: Sure. And we know that there’s so little representation of black, Latinx, people of color investors working in the venture capital space. And you get to be one of those pioneering leaders. What is it like to navigate this space as a Black man in 2020? What are things that you have to keep in mind?
Nate: Navigating that, as a Black man, it’s strange, it’s hard to tell how you should move and how much do you know what you want to say? And what to post and what to be interested in? It certainly always feels there are eyes on you watching your movements and, in a lot of instances, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is that, all of this stuff, wouldn’t be possible, If I were my dad’s age, for example, right? Like there’s an entire, multiple generations, but, with respect to the question, this previous generation of people that you know, were born in like the late fifties and sixties that, really bore the brunt of, systemic racism…is still a thing and will for the foreseeable future be a thing. We’re in a place now where an organization like HBCUVC can exist and have programming and have a list of 30 Black people that are in venture capital and create pathways for young folks that are coming out of college to get introduced to venture capital and entrepreneurship. And those things just would have been completely not in the picture, even 10 years ago. It’s a strange place, but I’m taking it day by day and I think we’ve all had an understanding recently that the world changes every day and it’s the world changing in front of our eyes. I’m optimistic about where we’re going, but, you’ve just gotta be hypersensitive to how you move when you’re in the space and you’re Black, or you’re just a person of color, just any person except for, a white man, really. You just gotta be more sensitive to how you move. Yeah.
Priscilla: And that is on 100, I one hundred percent agree with that. So my last question for you is what would you tell younger Nate, maybe back when you were starting out your first job, like, what is a piece of advice that you would give your younger self, before going on this journey, or maybe just to someone who’s trying to make it in finance, VC, or investing?
Nate: Yup. Stay motivated, things aren’t always linear, stay really inquisitive and follow up with folks and show them that you’re passionate or, you’ve got energy around, what you want to get accomplished. And don’t feel like you have to check all the boxes before you feel qualified to submit an application or having to have a conversation with folks. I think one of the things that really helped me out super early, was probably sending emails to folks that I probably shouldn’t have been sending emails to. And then following up and saying, “Hey, just want to follow up on this, following up on this, following up on this.” And eventually they’re going to be like, damn, I wish this person would stop emailing me….(laughs) And, you might get a call or, or, be able to do a lunch or breakfast that really changes your viewpoint on stuff. And I know that was certainly the case for me, so yeah. Stay energetic, stay inquisitive, stay motivated. Life is not easy and a lot of stuff gets thrown at you and you just gotta take it on the chin, figure out a way to stay mentally healthy and motivated and don’t give up.
Priscilla: Yes, and that last part on keeping mentally healthy is so key so thanks for bringing that up and thank you so much for being with us today, Nate, it has been such a joy to be able to chat with you.
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