Lenore Champagne Beirne is Founder and Managing Partner at Bright Ventures, a groundbreaking space for transformation in people, companies, and industries with coaching, capital, and community.
Chad talks with Lenore about being at the intersection of all three of those services, providing support for diverse entrepreneurs, and staying intentional about the kind of company and culture they're creating.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Lenore Champagne Beirne, Founder and Managing Partner at Bright Ventures, a groundbreaking space for transformation in people, companies, and industries with coaching, capital, and community. Lenore, thank you so much for joining me.
LENORE: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Chad.
CHAD: Bright Ventures, I love the three things: coaching, capital, and community. Would you say at the core you are a venture capital firm? Or is it really the intersection of all three of those services?
LENORE: It is truly the intersection of all three of those services. In fact, I started Bright Ventures because of a gap that I saw in the capital markets. But the first thing that we came to market with was coaching. And we learned so much from coaching diverse entrepreneurs and investors, and operators that we saw ways to add value to those groups and ultimately built the accelerator and venture capital fund and a number of other programs.
CHAD: Like most companies, I think what you have is relatively unique. Most companies are a coaching company or a venture capital fund. Do you get pushback, or are there concerns about doing too much?
LENORE: We've heard that question, although I don't know that the same question would be posed, at least in the same way, to a man, especially if it were a White man. But that aside, the reason we get the question is because I personally have led the launch of each new phase of the company. And what has really given our investors and also our partners comfort is that as we've expanded, we've also massively expanded the leadership and the skill set of the Bright Ventures team.
So I would say at our heart, we are a transformation company. We make inclusive innovation possible. We define that as building a future that works for all of us together. We make that possible. And we know that because that's a huge, gnarly, complex, nuanced issue, you have to have a multipronged solution. And so, for us, the combination of individual and systems transformation through coaching, community where we can practice and learn, and capital that actually shifts how businesses can operate is the right set of interventions.
CHAD: So one of the things venture capitalists often give feedback to their clients about is either doing too much or mixing business models. So like, oh, you shouldn't do consulting because what you have is a product company. They are different revenue streams, and different ways of working, and different ways of generating money. How do you balance those different business models that are within your organization?
LENORE: Well, I think, as I mentioned, the business models that we have inside of Bright Ventures are intended to solve the same really big problem in different ways through different angles. So what we have found is that there are a lot of early-stage ventures that would benefit from the kind of coaching that we offer.
But coaching is typically a really high-dollar item, only available to kind of an exclusive few. And so, it became clear to us that building a community with more scalable programs could meet the need of the stakeholder that we're interested in. And that has driven, time and time again, the business models that drive and organize our work at Bright Ventures.
CHAD: Yeah, I realize part of what's on my mind is say you're working with a founder and you invest in that founder or a founding team and a founding company, do they no longer become a coaching client that's actually paying you money for coaching? Or do they get it for free?
LENORE: Mm-hmm. So founders in our venture portfolio have access to the full suite of our services. And obviously, it's in the Bright Ventures entities' best interest to see those companies win and to give them all the resources and support that they need. You're asking these questions about business models.
One thing I should clarify is that we don't have just a single business operating entity at Bright Ventures. The venture fund entity is a traditional GP LP structure that exists to invest in, yes, maybe some of the companies that we serve through our services business, but also a broad swath of companies across the U.S. at early stage.
There's then a pretty straightforward consulting firm that we have that also goes by the name Bright Ventures but is a different legal and operational entity. So there's no proprietary information shared across those lines that are different management teams. What unites the Bright Ventures entities is a commitment to inclusive innovation and a set of frameworks that we have seen now proven to drive inclusive outcomes as a competitive advantage in venture.
CHAD: Oh, that's awesome clarification. One of the things that we've struggled with a little bit at thoughtbot is we do a lot at thoughtbot. It's probably one of the reasons why I'm asking these questions about balancing. And sometimes, I do think, oh, it could benefit us if they were separate entities.
LENORE: How have you all thought about that so far?
CHAD: For the most part, what we do is we run separate P&Ls for the different business lines or the different offerings, but it's all actually one entity as long as it doesn't cross country boundaries. We have a different entity for Europe.
LENORE: Got it. I asked because I'm curious because, at some point in the next couple of years, we'll probably do one more entity. And we're talking internally now about the moment that that will be the right thing to do, not yet. But good to hear that you're thinking about that as well.
CHAD: Yeah. What was the part of your journey where...you mentioned you started to see this need. How did that need or seeing that need jump from that to I'm starting out; this is a real thing?
LENORE: It's blurry. The lines are blurry for me, particularly as the founder of Bright, because I have been working on effectively pulling the same threads as long as I can remember, even before Bright Ventures had a name and was an entity. And so, for as long as I can remember, I've been confounded, frustrated [laughs] by and working on the inequity of access to capital and to opportunity in entrepreneurship and in many other expressions of wealth creation.
I've also, for as long as I can remember, thought a lot about how people think, and how they relate to themselves, and how they relate to other people. And truly, I can remember experimenting with these ideas when I was really young, maybe even less than ten years old. I then remember experimenting with them in college and trying to create a major for myself because I was trying to understand the intersections of these questions.
Officially, it was in 2014 that I launched Bright Ventures as the strategic advisory firm that I mentioned we came to market with. And that was because I had just come off of a really important career experience. I was living and working in Haiti on a program funded by the U.S. government to invest in and then provide support for entrepreneur organizations so like small businesses, social enterprises in Haiti. And I loved that work. It was super challenging, really rewarding, really interesting.
But it also opened up in me this question about what entrepreneurs actually needed for support and how to support other investors and seeing potential where I saw it but that the markets might be missing it. And so, in 2014, I had enough of an idea about some of what was missing to get started. And to the point of the line or, like, okay, I'm going do this now, that's when that happened.
CHAD: I've had a whole bunch of guests on who talk about issues of inclusion, and particularly access or being excluded from funding and opportunity. And I'm curious, from your perspective, what kind of support do founders who are typically excluded or underrepresented most need, especially on day one?
LENORE: Well, one thing that I have found really fascinating about support for diverse entrepreneurs is that we often, as a whole, I'm speaking like we in a very big sense, tend to assume that there is a homogenous set of supports that are required. And this gets to that question about business models and how we make sure that we actually have at Bright Ventures a diversity of ways to help people.
What we've learned is that diverse entrepreneurs are not a particularly homogenous bunch. And there are a couple of things that seem to be consistent for certain groups that we have worked hard to build frameworks and models for. One of those things is mindset shift and personal leadership development. That was executive coaching for us. We developed a specialty in helping people who are systematically in out-of-power positions move into in-power positions, and that was through a series of coaching frameworks and leadership frameworks that we would deliver.
We also learned that in order to do that durably and sustainably, you also had to go and coach and train the people who might be excluding those entrepreneurs. So we started to develop expertise in working directly with investors and helping them see the brilliance and maybe overlooked opportunity in diverse entrepreneurs. Those were two.
We also have some skill-based programming where we help people inside large organizations and also brand new ones think about how to tactically build inclusion into the way that they run their day-to-day. And we finally, of course, have some capital programs where we invest directly in diverse entrepreneurs, which we know are vastly underrepresented in the capital markets.
CHAD: You use the word tactical, which I think is a really interesting one because a lot of times, especially on the show, we might talk about strategic things, which is different than tactical. So what does tactical inclusion mean to you?
LENORE: So it does start with the strategy. There has to be a business model that makes inclusion possible. Otherwise, we're kind of putting a Band-Aid on a really big open wound. But if there's a business model that makes it possible to take reasonable care of your employees and leave your customers better off than they were before they met you, then tactical inclusion is things like understanding how to delegate, how to give feedback, how to hold meetings in ways that actually bring out the best in your team, and how to collect product feedback that's truly representative of the full swath of people who not only use your product today but maybe are impacted by it throughout your value chain, or might use it tomorrow if you made some innovative choices in product design and development.
And so we say tactical, and we highlight that because what we have found is that much of the conversation about inclusion and certainly about diversity lives at this very theoretical level. It ends up being like an ideology, an aspiration, and we don't think that's sufficient. We think you have to actually make it how you behave. And so that tends to be where we focus both in our training and in our evaluation of inclusion in other companies.
CHAD: One of the problems that we sometimes see, and we see it in our clients, too, is not everybody responds to training in the same way, particularly if it's like, watch this video. Sometimes there will be not very much participation in that at all. Or even if you're just watching it, maybe you're not giving it your full attention. What does the training that you give actually look like?
LENORE: What you just said is exactly why we looked for other things to name what we do because training gets such a bad rap.
CHAD: [laughs] Yeah.
LENORE: But what we learned about training is, I mean, this seems so obvious, Chad, but it has to actually be a skill that the person will obviously benefit from implementing immediately. So the first thing is like, do you need to and want to and recognize the need to learn this? We only go in with training when we can see that there's general consensus that it'll provide real value, business value, personal value, cultural value in the company.
The second thing is that we recognize that people's attention spans are shorter on average. And so what we do with training is make it highly experiential. We'll introduce a concept and then show you a way to practice it right away, as in, within the same 20-minute span. We also then give folks an opportunity to practice live and get feedback. And we only apply training to real-life decisions that managers or leaders are thinking about right in that moment. So for us, again, you asked about this word tactical. It really comes down to how deeply we can tie the training to the person's motivation and their ability to apply it.
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CHAD: Another pressure I see in the startup world, in general, is this idea of we don't have time to stop. We've got to go. We've got to do this. We've got to do that. And taking the time to actually be really intentional about the kind of company and the kind of culture you're creating when you may be so focused on the business you're creating or the product you're creating sometimes goes by the wayside. Do you spend time trying to fix that problem? Or do you seek out people who are ready for what you have?
LENORE: We do an assessment in the beginning, at Bright Ventures, we called it culture audit, to determine the readiness of a culture for the depth of work that we can bring. And we have different ways of engaging depending on where the company is today. We also ask companies to self-identify. Like, how deep are you really interested in going? What kind of outcomes are important to you? And so there's a bit of we've built our frameworks in a modular way so that we can mix and match them to the environment, the strategy, the leadership, the goals of each of our clients.
CHAD: I'm curious, from an investor standpoint then, what makes pre-seed, seed companies potential when you have your investor hat on the right kind of companies for Bright Ventures?
LENORE: Yeah, we're really excited about companies that have an early signal of building inclusion into the fabric of the business model. And you can usually see that based on the way that the founder is building a team. It's not always...sometimes it's so few people that it's just not enough people to really assess diversity, as is sometimes the case. But you can tell how a founder thinks about divergent opinions, about different perspectives, and about the pipeline of people that they're seeking out to build a company with.
The other way that we look for inclusion in the pre-seed and seed stage is really in the business model. And again, the word tactical, like, is this product or service...who is it designed to serve? And how is it designed to leave them? Are the questions that we tend to ask. And what we have found is that if you invest for inclusion, 85% of the time, that is overlapped with investing in diverse founders, but it's not 100% of the time. And again, our lens on that is that inclusion is a behavior, not an identity.
And so we're looking for any founder who's building inside of the paradigms I mentioned earlier, irrespective of demographics. And we particularly get excited; in the next ten years, we think there's a lot to be built in digital health and in FinTech, in the broadest sense, Web3 and Web2 FinTech for I think a lot of inclusive business models to emerge there. Also really excited about future of work as a place where I think inclusion will be a massive competitive advantage.
CHAD: So many companies are starting remote or are fully remote. Is the training that you give or the advice you're providing in terms of tactical inclusion does it differ for in-person versus remote companies?
LENORE: There's a consistent framework or set of questions that you can answer those questions in lots of ways. So if I ask the question like, how does your team get to know one another? The answer to that could be very different if your company sits together every day and actually you unwind on Fridays together. Versus if you're a fully remote company in multiple time zones, sometimes even multiple languages, the answer can be different, but we still know that the team feeling cohesive is a key ingredient for inclusion.
And so we're looking for how your company does it and that your company does it, not that it does it in a certain way. So we try to help our clients see their companies as systems in the way that we do so that they can see how is the fact that your team feels cohesive related to the way your team generates new ideas or brings new products to market? And then, we trust management and leadership to design the right specific ways to have that expressed in that company.
CHAD: What advice...someone who is just getting started and is just getting started out maybe has an idea, maybe it's a founding team, a team of co-founders. They're very early stage. Are there some things that you would recommend that they either do or avoid doing in order to lay a good groundwork for an inclusive team and company?
LENORE: Yeah, absolutely. The building block, like the fundamental input for inclusion, is listening, and so we have done a ton of resources on how to practice listening, how to know if you are listening. But you can't build a system that dynamically includes other groups without really understanding those groups. Listening is really important. Another thing is I find that it helps people build more inclusively when they go through the exercise of seeking out opinions that really differ from their own. And beyond, I think what people typically mean when they say playing devil's advocate, really trying to understand like, why does that work?
So one of the things that founders who have built inclusively have really interrogated is who their target market is. And I have found that it's really useful to go through the exercise of making it incredibly narrow, like very exclusive, so you understand your assumptions around who your target market is. And then asking yourself, what does that group, that very narrowly defined group, have in common with other groups that I've crossed off the list? Looking through the lens of what unites diverse cohorts of people tends to net new insights about how to build an inclusive company.
CHAD: That's really interesting. Can you give an example?
LENORE: Let's say there's a haircare company, and the founder of a haircare company really wants to build and sell shampoo for people with blue hair. Exciting, great. This founder has quit their job to build this blue haircare shampoo company. When we meet that founder, we ask them to, again, narrowly define a target market, people with blue hair, and then go through the inclusion assumption exercise of saying, well, what is it about those people with blue hair that's going to make them come and buy your product time and time and time and time again? And what is so motivating about this problem that you are willing to quit your job to build this company?
What we have often found is that the founder gets to the place of saying, "Oh, it's actually not that it's blue hair. It's that the person is really proud of the color of their hair. It's a pride in hair color that has me buy this particular shampoo. And it is the sense of community and affinity with other people who have made non-traditional hair choices." Cool. That's a way bigger target market than just people with blue hair. How do we build that company?
And so that's the pivot from we want a narrowly defined target market because it shows you what you already know. And then challenge your assumptions by digging even deeper and seeing how actually people with blue hair and people with orange hair might have something really interesting in common that we may have overlooked historically and might have left a lot of value on the table.
CHAD: I think that's a great example. It's also an example for me of the kind of benefit that having someone external can bring to you, whether it be a coach or a mentor and even someone like yourself who will be brought in to explicitly do it. Sometimes, especially founders, have a hard time really thinking critically about what it is they're trying to build. And having an outside perspective, in my experience, can be really helpful.
LENORE: Yeah, I if I could give one gift to every founder, it would be to have a coach. I think so many founders are brilliant at their business. And it is so helpful to have an external perspective because we all have blind spots. And having a person looking for your blind spots, supporting you in seeing them, and then practicing living in them, so they're no longer blind spots is, I think, a really transformative experience personally and professionally.
CHAD: You've been growing Bright for several years now. As you look ahead into the future for yourself and for the company, what are some of the things that you're excited about?
LENORE: I am so incredibly proud of the team that has been building Bright with me. And we have some additions to that team coming that I'm over the moon about, so I'm really excited about that. And by extension, we're growing the Bright Ventures community. So we used to do almost exclusively in-person work in New York City, where I live. But like many groups, through the pandemic, we started to experiment with digital formats for delivering some of our frameworks, and programs, and insights. And we found some things that really resonate.
So we're now expanding the Bright Ventures community to allow many, many, many more people, even globally, to build an inclusive economy with us. The community has well-being events, which is a critical part of building inclusively. If we're not well, it's hard to include others. It also will have skill-based trainings like some of the ones we described.
And we think a huge opportunity is to help people build connections across networks that they wouldn't necessarily have access to otherwise, so that I'm really proud of, really looking forward to. And then finally, always excited to see the portfolio founders that we back grow and fully express their ideas and bring their, in some cases, finally first bring their companies to market publicly.
CHAD: Is that community something that people listening might be able to sign up for now?
LENORE: Absolutely. I would say if you're even inclusion curious, like, you just want to understand what inclusion actually means and why it's not a boring thing that you have to sit through a mandated training on, or why even if you're already in the streets marching you should get involved in understanding how inclusion shows up in tech, we would love to have you. And it's a low or even no commitment experience. Drop in, see what resonates, provide us some feedback. We'd love to have folks participate.
CHAD: Yeah, we'll link it in the show notes. But can you tell people where folks go to sign up?
LENORE: Yeah, we'll link a waitlist. We're inviting people in in segments to make sure that everyone has a really good experience. So we will provide that waitlist link. I actually don't know the URL.
CHAD: [laughs] That's fair enough. Fair enough. Well, on that note, if folks want to get in touch with you, or follow along, or find out more about Bright, where are all the different places that they can do that?
LENORE: The best place is LinkedIn. My name Lenore Champagne Beirne is really easy to find. I'm the only one. And I'd love to have you all connect there. You can also submit...if you have a startup idea or an existing company that you're interested in bringing into Bright Venture's view, please feel free to submit that on our website, which is www.brightventures.io. And you could technically find me on Twitter, but I won't really be there. [laughs] So I hesitate to suggest it as a place to communicate with me.
CHAD: We're going to link all of that in the show notes as well, along with a complete transcript for this episode. You can find all of that at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at email@example.com. And you can technically find me on Twitter as well at @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks so much for listening.
Lenore, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
LENORE: So great to be here. Thanks again, Chad, for the questions.
CHAD: And see you next time.
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