Creating a Diverse and Collaborative Entrepreneurship Community (Even Through COVID), with Capitol Broadcasting’s Adam Klein

Adam Klein is the Director of Strategy at Capitol Broadcasting and the Chief Strategist at American Underground coworking collaborative in Durham NC. Today Adam and DT talk about how to build diversity and community in entrepreneurship, and how COVID-19 has impacted the startups at American Underground.

Capitol Broadcasting American Underground Adam Klein Donald Thompson Podcast

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast.

Today, my guest is Adam Klein. He is the general manager for American Underground and director of strategy for Capital Broadcast systems. Adam, thanks for joining us.

Adam Klein: Thanks for having me on, great to be with you.

Donald Thompson: So Adam, you and I have been friends for a long time, but the years haven’t been friendly for us keeping up. We’re friends with each other on, on LinkedIn and liking each other’s stuff.

What I’d like you to do is introduce yourself a little bit and talk about your roles so that the audience just has a perspective on what you do and why, and then ease in just a little bit personal. Married, single, kids, no kids, and then we’ll dive into some, some items.

Adam Klein: Awesome. Sounds great. So, I’m Adam Klein.

I work for the American Underground, which is a startup space and an incubator for early stage companies in Durham. I also wear the other hat of director of strategy, as you said, for Capital Broadcasting Company, the NBC and Fox affiliate in our market, and also involved in a lot of other things. Real estate at American Tobacco, owns a Durham bulls baseball team.

Yeah, so have been in the, these sort of dual roles for a little bit of time, I was the first employee at AU back in 2012. So, one thing that listeners might be interested in is I’ve been in startup ecosystem in Durham and the Triangle for a little over a decade , I was at the Durham Chamber before that. Passionate about the way that entrepreneurship can influence the creation of wealth and a city, and also the role that entrepreneurs can play in a city in terms of its trajectory. So that’s sort of by day . In addition to that and, and definitely more importantly, I’m married to a woman I met in college, so we’ve been together for quite a while, we’re celebrating our 13th anniversary right now.

Donald Thompson: Congrats.

Adam Klein: Thanks, yeah. And have three young girls. So I’ve got a first grader, one who will go into kindergarten next year, and then I’ve got an almost two year old , so. And in terms of, sort of random fact relating to them, I delivered one of them, which was not designed.

Like, yeah. First daughter, my wife had a long labor. She’s amazing. She soldiered through it. When we had our second, like, you know, we’re going to, our doctor was like, just stay home , you know, when the labor pains start and come in when you’re, when you know, X number of minutes apart, like they tell everybody. And so, we did that. We were just starting to get the point where the contractions were getting close enough together, we were like, I was like, “OK, I’m going to go get the car, you know, let’s, you know, you, you like sort of get ready and we’ll, we’ll roll . ” And, she stood up and was like, “Nope. Nu-uh, this is starting.” And so, literally two minutes later, we’re holding our, our middle daughter, Vivian, in our bathroom at our house. So it was a wild and crazy like, transition. But if you told, if you asked my wife what you do it again, and she’d say, “Yeah, in a heartbeat,” because you’d get this crazy story that I’m now sharing with the world, and baby was healthy, mom was well, so all was good.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that is phenomenal, and thanks for sharing that. That is definitely, I was going to say, what, what don’t we know about you from LinkedIn and you answered it, right? That you’ve had a successful delivery experience. That’s awesome.

As we look at what’s going on in, and let’s then narrow it down to startups, talk a little bit about what you’re seeing from an AU perspective about some of the, how some of the, how some of the startups are dealing with, right, this new environment, right? Whether it be pandemic, whether it be the recession that we’re hitting, and some of the things that you’re seeing.

Adam Klein: I’ve seen, I’ve seen a mix of things from our teams. I’ve seen , I would say the vast majority hold their own. I think one of the things about our region is that few are reliant , heavily reliant, on venture capital. They had to have a real business model going into the pandemic. So, customers, paying customers, revenue . And seen maybe a bit of that diminish, but I’d say, on the whole, most are doing fine; some who were concerned in Q2 have had a great Q3. So I, you know, it’s not all rosy. I know some have had to let go of some staff, trim expenses, but I’d say generally, most are, are doing OK, and I think we’re fortunate to be a part of a region that I think has some economic diversity in terms of the industry. We’re not heavy hospitality or retail, for instance, that has been hit, more so than others. But I think, generally, the sentiment I’ve gotten from most of the teams is that they’re doing OK. You know, things aren’t great, they’re not terrible, but, but they’re OK going into 2021. The trick ahead of us is going to be, you know, how long are we in this sort of period, and, and what decisions do founders need to make when this becomes, you know, month 12, month 18, month 24? And so, you know, figuring out your cashflow, your burn rate, those kinds of things are really key and, and all of them are working on those things.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s phenomenal. I appreciate the perspective there.

I want to zoom out a little bit. And when we think about the startup ecosystem in North Carolina, and then we think about AU, what are some of the reasons that organizations get involved with American Underground and what are some of the reasons that they stay? Can you speak to that for a little bit?

Adam Klein: Yeah. That’s a great question. It’s interesting, Donald, ’cause on a call with a founder who just joined AU right before you and I got on. And, and I was talking to him a little bit about that, and what I hear pretty consistently is that ,that people both join and stay for the community. That, you know, a lot of people would call me and said, “Hey, how’s AU doing? Your y’all are in commercial real estate, people aren’t coming into the office as much. How are things looking?” And, you know, we have taken some lumps over the last four or five months, you know, I’ve caught up a bit about that, but we’ve also seen over the last few months, we’ve seen 15 new companies join the AU. And what I hear consistently is, many of them are saying, “Hey, I’ve heard about the community of entrepreneurs who are there, that they want to help each other.”

And that, I think, is a Testament to the founders. I think it’s a Testament to the, kind of the mentality in Durham. And you look across the history of the city, you’ve had a lot of successful businesses, you know, that are part of the city of Durham. And I think a great number of them have had this kind of mindset of like, “I want to build a successful company, I also want to build a successful city. ” You don’t see that everywhere, right? Like you spend time in the day just like I do. You don’t, you don’t necessarily get that conversation rolling when you’re a big, kind of a coworking space out there in the same way that you would here. And so I think, you know, when you look across the state, and you look into a place like Durham, that’s one of the consistent threads that I, that I hear. The other is, AU has had a long standing focus on diverse founders . Black, Latin X and female founders to be explicit about that. So, a lot of that has been driven by, actually the work of Jim Johnson over at Kenan Flagler, who was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school. Focused on, on leadership, and diverse leadership, within companies.

And so we’ve, we said in 2015, we wanted to build our country’s most diverse technology hub, which was an aspirational and bold goal, but it was a clear North Star. You’re a CEO, you know the power of that when you give that to a, a team and say, “how are we gonna do this?” It’s clear it’s, it’s a stretch, it’s something that’s going to force everybody to get an oar in the water and over the last five years, we’ve seen our teams grow to where 50% of them are now led by a female founder or founder of color, which is the highest in the country, and it’s something that we’re proud of. But, at the same time, I, you know, fully acknowledge like, we’ve got a long way to go, and just because you’ve got diverse leadership in some of these companies doesn’t mean that it’s all, it’s all rosy or that the work’s done. There’s a lot of work ahead of us, that we’re going to continue to, to work on. But I think that’s the other thing that stands out when people look, kind of, at the North Carolina ecosystem, and at AU maybe in particular, is that we’ve set a pretty clear objective and, and we’ve been unapologetic about that that’s who we are. And, and, for the listeners, I’m a, I’m a white guy. So, you know, it’s a little bit odd to perhaps have a white guy saying this, but I think until we’re honest about the history of this country and until white people in particular are honest about that and, and understand the power that entrepreneurship has to change systems and change wealth, we’re never really going to get all the way in on this. And so, that’s where I feel like AU has such a powerful opportunity ahead of it.

Donald Thompson: No, Adam, I appreciate the entire spectrum of your comment. And then you, you landed the plane on a pretty powerfully in terms of what we can do to move the needle, right? ‘Cause I talk to a lot of executives now with what we’re doing with The Diversity Movement and creating some tools for leaders to really lean into diversity, equity inclusion, people are not shying away from it as much anymore, as much as there’s like, how do I participate? Where can I give? How can I make a difference?

And the AU with that momentum that you guys developed starting five years ago.

Adam Klein: Right?

Donald Thompson: You now have some, I don’t want to say best practices, you have some perspectives of what has worked and what hasn’t worked. You’ve got some real use cases and some amazing success stories.

Adam Klein: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: Which is, which is super powerful.

And then investors can lean into that, that moment, right. Employees that would like to work at companies with diverse founders can seek you all out and lean into that moment, and I think that is something that’s important as we move a lot of these conversations forward that we can put our hand to plow in a proactive way.

Adam Klein: Right.

Donald Thompson: There’s a lot of discussion now, there’s a lot of folks that want to move those discussions to some type of systemic action, and you all are a way to do that.

Adam Klein: Well, I appreciate you saying that. And you’ve, you for those who are listening, have played a big role in that. So, we launched a program with Google called the Black Founders Exchange that brings 10 to 12 founders to Durham every week, every year for a week long intensive, it’s focused on fundraising.

It’s been an incredible program. You know, when I, am not at AU anymore, that’ll be a program that I’m just, you know, unendingly proud of and, and Donald, you played a key role in that as the strong mentor for a lot of these teams to be able to give them advice and counsel about, you know, anything and everything that CEOs deal with.

And I think that the learnings that we’ve gotten from that program and starting to think about like, what would it look like to scale that? To think about how we grow support for companies across the state, more companies in Durham, young people in Durham? I think is really interesting. I think you, you said, you know, this, this observation about sort of discussion to action. And I think one of the things that’s been interesting for me is to see, you know, we’re all on a continuum when we talk about race and systemic racism. You’re never really arriving at some sort of end point where you feel like you’ve, you’ve, you know, done, done the work and yeah, grasped at all and, and people are at different spots along, along the way. And I think what I’m seeing is, you know, some of our companies, some of our, the employees who are a part of a AU companies, who are starting early in that, right?

Like they’re taking the REI training, maybe for the first time, but they’re, they’re starting to lean in and they’re asking good questions and asking, what do I need to be doing right now? What are the things – where’s my privilege showing up in this that I maybe wasn’t aware of? Did I, did I even know that I was privileged? You know, those kinds of things , all the way up to founders who are, who have done some of that work and are saying, “Hey, in addition to what I’m already doing within my company, I want to be thinking about what I do outside the four walls of AU. How are we moving in the city? Where, where are our dollars going, who would be investing in, those kinds of things. That’s really neat to see that, that sort of like move afoot in and you’ve been a big part of that. So, appreciate having leaders like you in the city who say, “Hey, you know, I’m building a successful business and I want to make sure that what I’m doing with that business is impacting other CEOs and how they’re thinking about their work.”

Donald Thompson: Yeah. I appreciate that. One of the things I’ll extend on is you talked about the construct of privilege, and one of the things I lay in on a little bit as we, as we talk and examine that a little bit, when you say the term “white privilege,” that pulls people back, right? Typically our firm, and me in particular, we talk about privilege. I’m an African-American male, I have two amazing parents, grew up in a, kind of a lower socio-economic realm, but as I was moving into later elementary, high school and middle school, excuse me, and high school, my parents were more in the middle class.

I went to very, very good schools. And so, I’ve experienced privilege. I’ve experienced a little bit of both, right? In that economic standpoint. And so, when I share my perspective with people, and we just start talking about privilege not in a way to judge each other, what is our responsibility to use our privilege to now help others achieve?

Now we can have an equitable conversation about moving forward. I found when we lead with white privilege, you need to understand that, I don’t get it a lot. I don’t get as much buy-in, right? Like –

Adam Klein: The warm fuzzies aren’t there.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. The warm fuzzies are not there. And so, one of the things that Jacqueline Ferguson has done with The Diversity Movement, and I mentioned this for the AU and we really want to do this if you guys are open to it, right? That’s our gift to you guys, is we’ve been running privilege walks, and doing virtual privilege walks. And we did one for the North Carolina Chamber, we’ve had close to 300 people there.  The ratings were 4.92 out of five, they  enjoyed it because they got to experience the differentiation from their background and others real time, and it allowed it to break down some walls so we could have some more powerful conversations on race and equity and growing things together.

Adam Klein: Yeah. I – just two quick thoughts on that. One, we’ve started a book club at AU that is, around the book white fragility. And so we had our, we kicked that off this morning, and one of the, one of the questions we’re, we’re kind of wrestling with is sort of our emotional reaction when we’re reading the book. And something that one of the, participants in the, in the group said that I thought was really helpful was she said, “You know, one of the things I think we all need to do when we encounter discomfort is ask more questions, be curious in that moment. Like it’s easy. I think in that discomfort to sort of pull back, get your arms crossed, you know, withdrawal maybe in some cases, as opposed to like, how do I lean forward and ask a better question? How do I approach this with some more curiosity?” I think that’s – that to me this morning was such a powerful statement and, and thought tha t – I mentioned the continuum, right? Like she just dropped another thing in on my continuum where I’m like, “Wow, that’s a, that’s powerful. That’s helpful for me to grab and think about as I continue to move through and think about race and systems of race.”

Donald Thompson: I think, you know, the other thing is you talked about getting together and learning and digging into some reading together. One of the things that, for the first little bit of COVID and  stay at home and working from home, I have a little introvert nature to me, so it was cool. I guess it was, it was OK, right? Six months in, you realize how interconnected, how much energy we gain from other positive people sewn in our lives and we’ve got to figure out new and creative ways to deal with that. So what pivots me to the next kind of topic, talk to me a little bit about some of the organizations you’re working with, talking to, that are having to pivot their businesses for the long-term a little bit, and really think about how long is the new paradigm of work in office, at home, gonna last, and maybe what are some examples that you’re seeing that are doing it, right?

Adam Klein: Yeah. A couple of, couple of thoughts. I’ve seen, in terms of like how to do the, how do I balance the work from home, going into the office thing, what I’m seeing so many AU teams do is sort of an A-team, B-team.

So, you know, let’s say hypothetical, I’ve got a team of 10 people. I might find that I can break them in half, make sure I have redundancy, right? So somebody on my A team –  I can’t have, I can’t have two people coming in on the same day who do the same thing, ’cause if they both were to, you know, be exposed or something, then I’ve got a big problem.

So the A-team, B-team thing, I think has made a lot of sense and works well because of what you said, the energy lift of like being in the office, even with half your team psychologically is powerful. It’s powerful to be able to bounce ideas off of each other in real time. And so, I’m seeing some people taking advantage of like, creating some flexibility around that.

I think on the business model side, I’ve seen, you know, a couple of different things. One, some of our companies that are in kind of AR-VR are thinking differently about what the sales cycle looks like when it’s longer, right? It’s taking more time to get somebody all the way through, from initial pitch to signing the deal. But two, you know, how do they, how do they use this product when people are, are more, you know, more at home or, or less together, let’s say, to get it in their hands and just say, you know what? I’m going to mail this to you. You don’t owe me anything, I just want you to put the headset on, see what we can do, that allows people to like play with the product a little bit that isn’t getting on a plane and flying to make the sales pitch. It’s not me sitting in your conference room, you know, trying to bang on the table.

It’s just ways to kind of get, get stuff in people’s hands when, you know, they might have a little more downtime, or they’re at home and they’re willing to like, kind of play with something and have this sort of experience. That’s been an interesting thing to hear people, you know, sort of pivoting toward , and I’m going to be curious to see where that goes, you know, is that something that sticks post-COVID where people say, “Hey, the – our sales process is completely, re-engineered. The days of like going and giving the formal corporate pitch in the boardroom are done. We’re figuring out how do we get directly, into the decision makers hands, our product and see what she says? See how she reacts to it, right? Like what’s her – will she pick up the phone and call us after that, after we’ve emailed her a few times? But now she’s touched it, she’s put the headset on, she’s seen what we can do, and now all of a sudden we got a different conversation.

Donald Thompson: That’s powerful.  One of the things that I’m seeing in that same vein, you talked about sales process and I’ll lean into that and talk about the sales temperament, and one of the things that’s really difficult to do in a tough economy is have a hardcore “close” mentality as a sales person.

Adam Klein: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: Right? Because the, the emotional resistance to that kind of communication is really high.

Adam Klein: Right.

Donald Thompson: And one of the things that we’re seeing that’s working, whether it’s our digital firm Walk West or The Diversity Movement, is we’ve made a concerted effort to be teachers and share information and knowledge.

We are doing a lot of, on The Diversity Movement, a lot of free collateral, a lot of free webinars, a lot of information. If you’ve got a small business, low budget, small budget, but you want to lean into DEI, here’s some starter material that can get you started. Here’s a webinar that can get you there. And one of the things that’s helping that work is twofold. One, we’re getting to know more people at scale, even if they can’t turn the corner right now, right? We’re planting seed for the future. The second thing is we’re becoming better communicators in this moment now because we’re answering a lot more questions, so we’re actually getting smarter with what our market needs. Because it really is tough out there, from a business development standpoint, to define who that target customer is that can move now.

Adam Klein: Sure.

Donald Thompson: Because that’s not based on size, that’s not based on product-market-fit. There are so many different temperaments in a company now of whether they’re able to spend money, a little bit, zero, XYZ. And so anyway, that’s some of the things that we’re thinking about, we’re doing more in terms of thought leadership and things of that nature. And so, I would encourage, as you know, your startups are looking at how to pivot their business. The most simple thing that they can do is up the education, be a value driver for decision-makers for companies, and then for those clients that can spend money, they’re going to value what you gave, right, in time, and then you can rise above the crowd a little bit and tell them in realtime that, that we’re really working on.

Adam Klein: That’s super helpful. Thank you for sharing that. I think that’s, that is something I’ll take back to the teams and share.

We do a, every Thursday at 2 o’clock we do a Founders Stand-up so, everybody jumps on we’re all in Google meet, and those are such fun conversations ’cause they’re real, right? Like half the time it’s like, “Man, I had to let somebody go, or I’m having a hard time filling this role and I’m trying to hire for it or, or I’m just down.” Like, I mean, honestly, like I’m with you, I’m a little bit more I’m – the way I describe it as I’m an introvert who likes people. Like I enjoy people, but I need, I need a little like me-time.

Donald Thompson: I’m with you there.

Adam Klein: Yeah. Yeah.

You and I can, you and I will like have this great hour together and then we’re like, all right, I need to go sit on the couch for a couple of minutes.

So, where I was going with that is like, I think, you know, everybody’s sort of struggling at different, in different ways right now, and I think one of the things that we all need, you know, assuming we can’t be together in person is like, how do we still connect with the people that we’ve, who we’ve built relationship with?

And that I think is one of the key things about work from home that would be curious to watch, right? Like, can, can you continue to drive, new introductions, new business with people you’ve never spent time with when it’s entirely online. Like, one of my hypotheses with the work from home thing and why it went well in the early going.

Is that in addition to everybody being freaked out, moving home and being worried about their jobs, everybody’s like burning the candle at both ends to show their boss they could, they could do it.

Donald Thompson: Yes, sir.

Adam Klein:  What – the other thing that I think happened is we all had built all this social capital with each other, right?

Like I knew you, we had built relationship over years, so to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Donald, I’m thinking about this. I know you work in this space. Could you help me with it?” wasn’t too big a leap, right? But if I don’t know you, and we don’t have any sort of like background, what does that look like?

And so the longer this goes on, I’m going to be curious to watch it. Are we in a position where it’s, it’s actually gets harder for people the longer we’re out of the office, the longer we’re in our houses, to like open-up those new channels and new doors. And that’s that I think intersects with your point about.

You gotta be out there and being a thought leader, you’ve gotta be in front of people, building those relationships because people  just aren’t going to take the cold call.

Donald Thompson: That’s exactly right. And you know, I don’t, I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but you know, we’re amongst friends, you just mentioned that people aren’t taking the cold call, but they’ll still take a meeting from a powerful referral.

Adam Klein: Right.

Donald Thompson: It’s so, so back to your point, the referral aspect of your network, the partnership network of your, of your expertise, is going to be even more important when it is uncertain how people are going to take to building those new relationships. If you think about, you know, most companies, they at least have some kind of event strategy.

Right? Right. Like even if it’s one conference a year, right, some companies got it. There, there’s something that you go to that you’re going to the mixers, you’re going to the cocktail parties, and those things have dramatically been altered.

Adam Klein: Yeah,

Donald Thompson: In a, in a, in a big way. And so no, I agree with you in terms of the gap.

Adam Klein: Well, let me throw something out there that we’re experimenting with that has been interesting. So we – at the American Underground, so much of what, what I think has been part of our secret sauce has been building that community, and a lot of that has been driven by what you just said, the sort of like, you know, happy hour, the like 20 person event, you know, you come in and say, “Hey, I’m going to do a workshop. Let’s get 20 founders in the room,” that’s harder to do now. We can do it online, and we can do those kinds of things, but the community building aspect is a little trickier. And, and so what we launched about two months ago is a series called “The Tiny Happy Hour,” so this is kind of the – we’re riffing on the tiny desk thing.

But, we kept hearing from our CEO’s is, “Hey, I’m, you know, I’m hanging out in my backyard with a couple of friends already, right? We’re like getting a drink, sitting on the back porch, talking, you know, I miss that.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Well, I’m doing the same thing. What’s stopping me from saying, ‘Hey, Donald, let’s you and I sit out at the AU, we’ve got a rooftop patio, we’re in the open air. Let’s get three other CEOs from AU together and let’s just sit out, we’ll social distance, AU will provide a couple of drinks, and we’re just going to talk.'” And Donald, these things blew up. Like we piloted it with a small group, I sent them a note afterwards and I was like, “What do you think?” You know, and they were all like “One, loved being back in the space,” they worked from the office for the day, so they got a bunch of stuff done. And then, they get on the rooftop and it’s like, “Oh, like, I remember you. You know me. Like, you know, the struggles.” So like, they all just let the hair down, and it was like, here’s what’s going well, here’s what sucks, here’s where I need help, and you just can’t recreate that online. Like, there is an aspect of this, we’re just people, right? Like, we need to see each other. We need to like emote. We need to talk to each other. And when you do that, my hypothesis here is like, we’re going to unlock some, some things that I think will be beneficial for everybody.

So we’ve scaled those up, and I got 60 people participating in these, we’re rotating them, and it’s been a great way as we welcome, welcome new members into the AU, we can fold them into something pretty quickly.

Donald Thompson: That is, that’s powerful. And that’s, that’s back to what we were talking about earlier is what are ways that we pivot? What are the ways that we create innovation to get those things that, that we all need? And I want to cycle back to one of the things that you said earlier when we were talking about people, just being, having the space to say, “Hey things, aren’t going well, I’m having a tough time. And, that the mental health of, of leaders, of their teams, is being stretched like never before. Like, I, I am very blessed. I get to talk to a lot of really neat, successful people, and they’re struggling just like everybody else. I mean, it is it, and it’s, and it’s real and it’s, and it is really energizing, uplifting to be able to talk to folks in the no judgment zone, so I know that what you’re doing with those mini happy hours is going to go a long way, both from a business standpoint, but just from some people that would be able to just get some things out and have somebody just say, even if it’s a social distanced pat on the back, just so you know, I got you, right? I know what you’re feeling.

Adam Klein: Totally. Yeah. Yeah. I think the gift, if there’s been a gift of COVID, it’s been that people are honest, more honest I think, with each other. Like, you know, the, the masks are off, the gloves are down, you know, everybody’s struggling at different, in different ways and at different levels, it’s not all the same, but there is a common struggle, and I think that has let more people come into these conversations honestly. And, and I didn’t necessarily see that a few years ago, honestly, like, you know, we all are prone to walk into the conversation like “everything’s good.” You know, like I got my stuff together, you know, and, and, and we all know that’s bull, but it’s how we show up, and now people are showing up and it’s like, “Oh my gosh. ” You know, literally while I’m on this session with you, I’m muting here and there because I got a, almost two year old that my wife is juggling, who’s crying. And it’s like, you know, this is life.

Donald Thompson: This is life. I appreciate you and your family for giving us these moments, but that’s right.

Yeah. And I was, you know, one of the things that does make me smile, I do, I do enjoy when I’m talking to somebody business-wise, and their kids will just run through the screen, or their kids will just jump in the lap, right? It, it has also created just a realness of who we are more than the business facade because that home setting? Things are just going to run together.

Adam Klein: Totally.

Donald Thompson: Right? Like there, there’s, you know, there’s things that are going to run, run together. Let me ask this as we continue our time together, but start to crescendo. Let’s kind of look outside of business, outside of AU, let’s look at our country.

Right? And the discourse is not amazingly positive.

Adam Klein: Right.

Donald Thompson: Right? We’re in an environment where it’s us versus them, right, like on everything, right? What are you, what are you, how does that make you feel? What do you think we, as leaders, can do about that? And I’m not talking about a particular issue, but I’m talking about the way we treat each other in that public dialogue is not what we would teach our kids.

Adam Klein: Yeah. Wow. Yeah. That’s – I feel tired from it. Like I, I think the, the thing that’s hard in that, in the environment that we’re in right now is that we, it feels like every time something happens – I’m being super general here by design – it feels like everybody goes to their corners and yells and gripes about each other, and never the two shall meet. And so, we end up in this position where it’s, it’s what you said, where it’s us against them. And I think, it’s tiring to get the bad news over and over again, to see things that are, you know, on the spectrum from disappointing to like terrifying and incredibly sad.

And then on top of that, to then get this new layer of like discourse that is, at times, awful, that just wears you down. It feels like, how do I, the question have often in that is like, “Well, what do I, what can I do?” Like, what’s the sort of step to take here and, you know, to like call out a particular topic, I’m going to talk about policing in this country right now, obviously with Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, sadly many, many more names, what it’s caused me to do is, to the conversation we’re just having about being honest, I’ve just been talking with my team pretty continually like, trying to create space for like, how’s everybody doing? You know? How are you showing up today in light of what happened over the weekend, in light of what happened a month ago, two months ago, whatever it is.

And I’m seeing that same thing happen in some of the conversations I’m in with the AU community where we’re trying to encourage people to show up and just be honest about where we are, and what’s key in that is to create a space where people can just talk openly and not – we’ve got people on different sides of, of the issue, right?

Like it’s not, not everybody’s saying the same thing, but to create a sort of sacred space where people can at least be honest. And then from there, we can then start talking about how we treat each other, but at least like give space for people to just say, this is how I’m feeling. This is how I’m showing up.

And trying to prevent everybody from jumping straight from that into solution, or straight from that into “I know what – you’re saying that, but have you thought about this?” Like, just stop, just listen, just let, let somebody have their feeling, let them share their perspective and then somebody else will share their perspective, and we’re just going to sit with that. And I think as high-achieving people who are so much a part of the Triangle, that’s hard, right? Like, you want to jump straight into solution , and I think one of the most helpful things as a white person that I’ve been reflecting on is like, there’s a really important step before action, which is just listening and reflecting and just letting, letting myself reflect on and hear what a Black person is – what their experience has been with, around policing, what their experience is right now in this country, and just listening, you know, and starting there that, that formulates a different set of thoughts in my head about what action looks like when I’m listening.

Donald Thompson: That’s powerful, and I agree with you, right? It’s difficult to transition from that solution, problem-solver, fix the problem mindset to a more empathetic version of the leadership persona that you need And I, I, you know, I’ve gone through – I’m a certified diversity executive and been through my training and all that, I have to work on that all the time because some of these questions are not answerable, and some of them, if there are answers, they’re multi-generational.

Adam Klein: Right.

Donald Thompson: So we have a minute to slow down and listen, right? Cause, cause they’re, they’re, they’re not going to be solved. We’re not going to bring someone from one perspective to another,  right, in a 25-minute pep rally, right, no matter how good the speaker is.

Great point.

And so, I really, I appreciate the way that you’re thinking about it and the way that you share it. And from my perspective, you know, part of my responsibility with the things I’ve experienced, the things I’ve learned and the privilege that I’ve had is to take that time with leaders that I can be a very private conversation, they can say things about what they just don’t understand.

Adam Klein: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: That, that they can just speak openly honest and they, they know from our experience and my persona, I’m not an overly judgmental person. I just, I just like people that will meet me, not even halfway. As long as we can have a conversation, where you start and where I start, doesn’t make a big difference to me, right, and, and just, and just talk and create that, that space. And what I’ve found is that – what’s neat is that when working with people of impact, and they can move a little bit, right, you’re talking about someone that represents thousands and thousands of people, right? Or a startup leader will represent thousands of people in the future.

Adam Klein: Right.

Donald Thompson: Right? And so making that leadership impact I think is really, really important. So Adam, as we wind down our time together, what would you like to share that we haven’t covered, right? About what you’re doing, organizations you’re working with, something that’s going on with the AU. I want to just give you that space and freedom.

Adam Klein: Yeah. Thank you. Well, it’s been great to catch up there, there are a couple of things I was going to mention. One is, Tim Scales on our team really led the charge on this, but we created a program, right around April, May as we were starting to see layoffs from COVID for people who are laid off due to COVID to start their company.

Right? Like what, what does it look like if you’ve been a participant of program who ran, Morgan Imports, which is a beloved retailer in downtown Durham. You know, unfortunately, got let go, and he had an idea for some apparel . Cool idea, and so we created a simple application process, a free program for people to come through and participate in this, and we just graduated that cohort. It’s been really neat to see them bond. We just did a, you know, just like I talked about an outdoor coffee on the rooftop Wednesday morning to just say, you know, celebrate the accomplishments of these five new founders. One of the things that I love in difficult times is, you know, people pivot, they find new things.

They, you know, they mighta got got lost their job, but they say, you know what, I’m going to, I’m going to go start something, and that, that energy that I’m seeing from so many different people who are showing up saying, I’ve got an idea has, has given me some new life with AU. Like, I’m seeing people I’ve not met before, people who are time long-time Durham-ites, in some cases. A guy I just spent time with, he grew up in Durham. He played football at Riverside. He has this great career, and he came back and he’s like, “I wanted to build this company, I wanted to do it in Durham.” And I’m like, “Wow, come on, man. Like, let’s go.” And so, you know, seeing that kind of energy of people coming in, in the middle of a global pandemic who are just like, “I want to build this, I want to be a part of a community of people who are building, to me, is really special.

So that’s, that’s that’s one thing that I’m feeling a little bit more now than I would say maybe, two, three months ago is a sense of building. Like, “Well, let’s OK. We’re we’re in the pandemic, we’re settled into this as reality. What does it mean to start building now?”

And yeah, I appreciate the pieces you put together for TechWire, ’cause I think you’ve been saying that like, this is tough. This is hard. Take, take an assessment of what’s going on around you , but don’t be so paralyzed by that, that you forget to start thinking about what’s next, and I think that’s some of what we’re starting to feel and see, and, and seeing in the entrepreneurs around, around us, which is super cool.

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. My friend, I am glad that we reconnected.

Adam Klein: Likewise.

Donald Thompson: The conversation we had last week was just, it was fun. It was energizing. We found some new problems to work on.

Adam Klein: That’s right.

Donald Thompson: Love that, right? Back to our action orientation. And then, this conversation just reminded me of that quiet, thoughtful strength that you possess as a leader. And, and I’m really proud of you. And I just want to share like, person to person, I wish we were there. But, you know, I know there’s a lot of long nights and working with people and being their courage, being their strength as they’re pushing through and to do that without amazing attitude and the skills you have, Bravo.

Full Episode Transcript

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The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

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