DEI for Innovation 3: Leading with diversity, with Frank Pollock

A diverse team makes companies stronger and more productive. In this series, Kurt Merriweather, The Diversity Movement’s VP of Products and Innovation, talks with DEI leaders about how diversity, equity and inclusion can lead to incredible developments in your organization and beyond. In this episode, Kurt talks with Frank Pollock, chief marketing officer from Home Lending Pal, about the importance of DEI in the C-suite.

Transcript

Kurt Merriweather: Welcome to Winning with Diversity, a podcast to help you learn the strategies to transform your business through diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our focus is on DEI and innovation, where we discuss techniques and approaches to build high-performing teams that operate more effectively and unlock new opportunities for business growth.

I’m your host, Kurt Merriweather, VP of products and innovation at the Diversity Movement. And today we’ll be exploring how we can help companies transform themselves through technology, data-driven insight, and new approaches to DEI. I’m excited to be joined by Frank Polluck, Chief Marketing Officer from Home Lending Pal. Frank has held many marketing leadership roles with household names, such as General Mills and Colgate Palmolive and ABC Disney. He is an active advisor and mentor to startup teams and proud alumnus of UNC and the University of Texas at Austin McCombs school of business. Multi hyphenate there. Frank is. Welcome to the show, Frank. 

Frank Polluck: It’s a pleasure to be here. Always a great time shopping up with you, Kurt. So, looking forward to getting into it. 

Kurt Merriweather: Absolutely.  The question I’d like to start with, is to tell the audience something that they couldn’t find out about you by Googling you.

Frank Polluck: So, they couldn’t find out about me by Googling me. I actually played at six instruments as a child 

Kurt Merriweather:  Which six? 

Frank Polluck: So, the violin, the piano, percussion, the saxophone, the trumpet, and the trombone. 

Kurt Merriweather: Okay. So, I’ve got a few instruments of overlap. I play the piano and play the trumpet as well. So, I’ve only got two of the six. I didn’t quite hit the six, so that’s impressive. 

Frank Polluck: My mother was a music teacher. Her best friend was an operatic soprano and I was in elementary and middle school with Macio Parker’s son. So, we played the saxophone together in the band.

Kurt Merriweather: Okay. Excellent. And, I guess similarly in Dayton, Ohio, where I grew up, I had the pleasure of playing in the band with some folks from Roger Troutman’s family. 

Frank Polluck: Oh, okay. 

Kurt Merriweather:  A brush with some more kinds of things. So didn’t know we had that in common. So just learning more and more points of connection every time we talk.

And 

Frank Polluck: I didn’t realize that you were actually from Dayton, you know, they’re rebuilding the arcade. 

Kurt Merriweather:  Are they? 

Frank Polluck: Yes, they’re actually putting together an enormous commercial kitchen. It’s going to be open on next year. I just heard about that this morning.  I’ll tell you about that conversation in a second. So, but I don’t mean to interrupt you. 

Kurt Merriweather: You know, more about my hometown than I do, which is, which is great. But that says that you’re on top of key trends. And we’ll talk about that in a minute. So Frank, talk a little bit about your journey and how you got to the CMO chair. 

Frank Polluck: So, I actually started my marketing career a really long time ago. My first jobs were selling advertising at Mix 101.5 over in the Capitol broadcasting family, and then at WTVD I was in sales in the Raleigh office, which at that time was actually across the street from the Wake County courthouse, where is now part coworking space and also, you know, lots of restaurants there, but you know, so after doing that for a while, I called on the original McKinney and Silver, which we now know as McKinney, and the other agencies around Raleigh. I left and went to MBA school at UT.

And, you know, we had a great relationship with consumer products companies. So, I ended up working at Frito Lay’s headquarters. And it’s spent three and a half years there, a year or so at General Mills, and then another, you know, four years or so at Colgate, where I called on Target’s headquarters.

And I was there when, you know, Target started their entire multicultural marketing initiatives. They, you know, looked at the census and saw the population is changing dramatically. So, we, as a company that is based in Minneapolis, we need to be more culturally aware and start to impact our messaging, our merchandising, and our, even our store location so that we can be well-prepared for the demographic shifts that are coming.

I left corporate America started out on my own was very fortunate. My first client was actually the Gallo winery. One of my old coworkers at Colgate had left, so he needed some help. And so, we started there and then did some work for consumer products companies in Minneapolis as well as Charlotte.

That was just in time to hit the ’08-’09 recession. So was lucky to land in corporate, in higher education and ran the MBA program at North Carolina Central, and then rolled back out after a year and a half or so running that program and started consulting again and got actively involved in the startup ecosystem.

And since then, I’ve really focused on marketing technology, its deployment, its execution, and it growing businesses. So, my good friend and ironically mentee, Brian Young, had contacted me about a Home Lending Pal about two and a half years ago. And so, he initially had me on as an advisor and then, you know, we talked and I said, you know, we’re missing some opportunities on the pure marketing side. So, he asked me to take the CMO chair. And so, it’s interesting to work for your mentee, but, you know, it’s a great experience cause he’s a very, very capable marketer. 

Kurt Merriweather: Awesome story. And also says something about, advising someone to the point where you could work for them. So, that is, an interesting story about how that transpired, and so you talked a lot about how you’ve begun to really become one of the foremost experts around marketing technology. And you’ve curated the TechStars Marketing Technology newsletter for several years. And you’re a frequent contributor to newsletters, here around the triangle and quite frankly around the country.

And so, what key trends are you seeing as it relates to marketing technology as you work with clients and advise folks, and then ultimately in your role at Home Lending Pal?

Frank Polluck: Well, there are a few things that I’ve noticed. Number one is companies are further up what we call a marketing maturity curve.

And so, you know, when I started this journey, you think about technology. Technology installs have been going sideways since the days of Aniak. If you think about marketing in B2B, B2C, B2G, number of settings marketing has really struggled in order to establish that traction, and to have the impact that marketers want.

So, when you combine the two, you know, that’s a recipe for a much bigger challenge. So, that was the nascent stages. And so, you know, in those days it was, hey, can we actually, put in one of these marketing automation platform things, and now you have much more sophisticated instances of them and companies are much better at understanding what they can do, how they can do it, and if they’re getting their money’s worth. The last piece is where, you know, things fall out. You know, as companies’ kind of evolve and get better at that, I think generally speaking industries are further up that curve. 

The second thing is, you know, you and I had mentioned this before we went live. What apple is doing right now, a lot of people are struggling to figure out its impact because, you know, there’s the privacy guidelines that there are the privacy tools they’re putting into iOS 14, but they’re going even further. If you listen to the worldwide developers’ conference, talking about things with email.

And being able to track, you know, the parameters and initial, you know, locate her the source of traffic to the site. They’re talking about doing things with browsers, and so that type of privacy is driving marketers to go back to server-side tracking. Which, you know, that goes back to the early days, early days of the web.

And then, you know, the third thing is the ability for smaller companies to really deploy some of these technologies. You know, and then number four, Google with it, you know, announcements that the IO a couple of weeks ago, they’re integrating more carefully between both shopping ads and Shopify, along with, you know, so you’re seeing the major search engines and they’re really the core of the technology.

The first step in technologies really integrate better with, you know, the end points. So just a few things that are, you know, that have happened in the last few weeks. We’ll see how those things shake out, just because there are a lot of unknowns with consumer behavior, with the reception of them and longer term with Apple’s strategy.

Kurt Merriweather: Yeah. Thank you for the rundown of some of the key things that are happening, and so the thing I’m curious about as you start to talk about that is you know, what do you think some of the unintended consequences of that are for consumers, especially for folks that might be in diverse backgrounds, where you’ve got companies effectively, two companies, google and Apple, that are making these decisions about how we’re going to use the platforms that we use every day.

Frank Polluck: From a marketing standpoint, we were able to do extremely targeted ads based upon demographics, psychographics, and usage behavior on Facebook. I spend a decent amount of time talking to, you know, earliest stage companies, regardless of ethnic background or taking the diversity piece off the table for a sec. You know, the ability to do that, gave smaller businesses a chance to work on, to get their really good consumer feedback, to help understand product market fit for if you’re in the technology group.

 When you combine that with, you know, from a diversity lens, the challenge of funding for underrepresented founders is the way that you get the feedback that you need is more challenging. And then if you think about the physical geography that we live in, we don’t have a ton of pre-seed to seed investment, NC idea by talks about, and I love the folks at NC idea. They’re fantastic, particularly when it comes to DEI.

But it takes, according to Joe over at WRAL tech wire, was writing it takes a quarter million to build the technology start. So 50K of that can come from NC idea, where’s that other 200 K coming from, right? So, the way that you get that is you have to have some validation and investors bet on the entrepreneur and the idea.

So, you know, you have to figure out a way to work around these enormous technology tools, and in the middle of doing that, Apple and Google are changing the rules of the game. So, it’s just another thing that entrepreneurs have to deal with. 

Kurt Merriweather: Right. Some of the things you talked about are interesting because they cut both ways. So, there’s the removal of demographic targeting, for example, and so if you’re trying to reach a specific demographic, it’s hard to do that. So, if you’re trying to do the right thing from a DEI perspective, now, one of those tools off the table. 

The plus side of that is that you can’t do things as easily to target a group to do things that are not in their best interest. And some of, there is always, you know, work arounds, and so that’s what people are working, or figuring out is what do I do now that I couldn’t do this? And I don’t have access to cookie data, like I used to. So, you know, how, what do I do to, to move past that to address these groups, and so I think that’s a good segue into Home Lending Pal.

And, and I think, you know, as we’ve talked about the Home Lending Pal opportunity, you’ve talked about the thesis around that and targeting underrepresented groups more specifically. And so, we’ll talk a little bit about Home Lending Pal, what’s your focus is there, and then in some of the techniques that you’ve been using to, to explore the opportunity.

Frank Polluck: Yeah, so Home Lending Pal is a consumer centric platform for research and education for mortgage applicants. So, we like to break it down this way. We start out by giving someone who’s looking for a mortgage, a potential borrower, we provide them with access to the same data that an underwriter would use.

So, we give them a FICO credit score, not the vantage credit score, and there’s that that’s a whole different thing. But, also verifiable income and assets from platforms like plate. So, then the next phase is we prepare potential borrowers for the underwriting process using artificial intelligence tool.

We have an algorithm that will forecast interest rates, help select the right loan type, and project the time to close. And then we have a chat bot that will answer questions about the underwriting process. Now, when you feel prepared, then and only then you can ask the platform to pair you with a lender and that pairing takes place based upon your financial situation and the mortgage guidelines of a lender.

So, a couple of important things to understand. One is there are some platforms in the market that as soon as you put your information in, you’re going to get 12 calls from excited loan officers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re built for people who would rather do their own research so that they’re comfortable and confident going into the conversation.

Now our primary target for this has been millennials who are first-time home buyers. When we were preparing to do this, we started working with Flagstar mortgage. They’re the sixth largest mortgage lender. They had accelerated, we participated there. They talked to us a lot about the opportunity to impact 3 million black potential homeowners who have the income, the assets, and the credit scores to buy their first home, but they’re not in the Process

They also showed us demographic information, there would be similar number of Latin X community members who would be in the same type of situation by mid-decade, and then they told us about, millennials who have the income and assets, but they have thin credit files because they haven’t necessarily spent the time to develop their credit scores.

And, you know, we looked at those as opportunities to have a broader social impact. As well as, you know, have a commercial impact. So, we can really, you know, use technology to truly make the same better process. While we’re doing this with Flagstar the other thing they said was, hey guys, you told us about an idea for a blockchain network. And tell us more about that. 

So, what we want to do is create a blockchain platform that smooths out the underwriting approval, and approval and closing process that automates it, that provides some additional transparency, but also provides protection and security for user data.

Because if you know anything about blockchain, there’s, you know, the public key and the private key, we would have a key that you, the borrower, would have to give me, the lender, in order to access your information. And if you don’t give that key, I can’t resell it. I can’t share it. It’s not just miraculously going to go around.

So, you know, think of it in simplest terms, we want home lending pal, the platform to be, you know, like an iPhone. And we want, the blockchain network to be like iTunes.

Kurt Merriweather: Got it. So, this is powerful because there’s some things that you’re talking about here that are at the heart of what we talk about when we think about the overlap or the intersection of DEI and innovation.

So, first thing you talked about was opening new market opportunities. So, there is a group of borrowers or potential borrowers that’s not being served like they could be, and then Flagstar saw that opportunity and obviously saw your platform as a way to create a bridge between that group and a group of mortgage brokers.

And so that’s powerful. The other thing is enabling through education the group. So, again, bridging the education gap as well, because that’s an important piece of what we’re seeing with trying to provide products and services for another group, like an underrepresented folks, whether they’re black or Latin X or millennials, and then providing some measure of control.

And so that’s, the blockchain piece is powerful. So that’s where now I can decide who sees my data versus what we were talking about with cookies. I can’t really control who sees that because more often than not, people don’t even know they’re being tracked. And so, giving them the opportunity, you’re giving potential borrowers the power so that they can control how their data is being shared, then creates a whole nother level of power.

So now you’ve empowered this group of consumers that’s being overlooked, and so there’s a win-win so that hopefully the potential borrowers are going to get a more favorable outcome, and now you’ve connected them with other people who would not have seen them before through your technology.

So that this kind of strikes at the heart of a lot of things that I talk about, which is that connection between those among all those different things. 

Frank Polluck: Well, Kurt, you know, taking it a level beyond that with how we’ve built the company. You know, we, diversity was important to us. So, you know, if you think about ethnic diversity, you know, we’ve got black and Latin founders, but we also have, you know, we run the entire spectrum. Southeast Asian. We had, you know, a couple of our team members who, were fasting during Ramadan and, you know, had their observance for eat. So. You know, one of those things where, hey guys, if you want to come in, you’d let us know what you want to do tomorrow.

If not, cool. We’ll see you the day after. I mean, we have, you know, when it comes to age, you know, we range from, you know, my intern is 20. All the way up to, you know, a couple of folks who have AARP cards, you know. So, we really have an incredibly diverse team, and part of that is ideas get kicked around all the time and, you know, so.

When you go back to this whole idea of diversity and inclusion, and then the next step of that, you know, how it impacts the business, how you win with this, you know, 10 years ago, when design thinking was, you know, the hot term. I’d done a project that IDEO was involved with when I was in corporate America.

So, I got to meet a couple of those, you know, the IDEO folks and their model was to frame a question and I’m, I’m certainly, I’m, I’m, I’m paraphrasing and in shortening it here, but, you know, frame a question. And then the second piece of that was to create an incredibly diverse team. To start working on the answer, right?

So, you know, by building this diverse team with personalities and ideas and skills and, and the makeup of it, you know, we get what we think are incredible ideas. And, you know, we have a bias for action to operationalize those ideas as quickly as possible. Big companies just can’t move that fast. Right? So, you know, you have to have this energy and this electricity that comes, that’s really fueled by the diversity.

And then, you know, you can’t keep it in the bottle. I mean, we may have a slack exchange, you know, Friday at 11:00 PM. I’m not a huge fan of those, but you know, that is what it is and stuff will, you know, stuff will be done by Monday morning.

Kurt Merriweather: Yeah, that that is old adage, speed kills. And so that’s why no small focused startups are able to win in markets that haven’t been Innovated in for quite some time. And so, the strength of the teams that we’re putting together, that you just described, where you have a mission. So, you spend the time on Saturday and Sunday, so that by Monday there’s something, that’s going to be on the other end, because the mission itself is the thing that drives the activity, in addition to some of the practices.

But one of the things I want to talk about are, you know, as you think about the team you just described within Home Lending Pal, what are some of the practices that you’re using to create that kind of sense of urgency and speed from an inclusive practice point of view?

Frank Polluck: I don’t know how you’ve necessarily discussed inclusivity on the, in the podcast, but for me it means that you’re making room for everybody within the organization. And so, I have a dear friend who’s been a vegetarian for 25 years. You know, we get together for lunch or dinner a few times a year. And I always choose a restaurant that has an expansive vegetarian menu.

I’m not going to buy, go to a steakhouse. It’s that simple. You know, we have all types of personalities on the team, you know, our data science group, you know, one of them is a PhD holder who’s worked in, higher ed and who’s worked in, you know, the defense industry, to our chief knowledge officer, you know, Joey has been, a president’s club level, mortgage broker for five or six years and been in the business 20 years. 

 We make room for, you know, everybody because we have different styles and beginning, you know, when the four of us came together to really work on this project, I told everybody that there are three core reasons that organizations tend to fail.

One of them is you build a product that there isn’t sufficient demand for. There isn’t a deep enough pain or frequent enough pain that people are what the consumers are willing to pay for. Number two is this idea of, you know, customer acquisition. So, you know, while you were building the company, you didn’t find out the process to acquire consumers and it is not replicable and scalable.

Number three though, was the team. And so, you know, I mean, we’ve had heated discussions, but I’ve always been the voice of the room and says guys, remember the team can’t fall apart. And so, we’re at a point where we aren’t necessarily scaling people rapidly, we’re scaling the business rapidly.

 When I talked to Brian, one-on-one outside of just our business conversations, is saying. One of the things I emphasize to him is teamwork and the team and the culture and the vibe that we’re creating that not only attracts people, but it makes them feel part of the conversation.

And, it’s how we get the best out of them, because this is something that, that people have to be committed to. You don’t go into a startup at this stage because of, you know, the riches, you believe in the idea, and you’re passionate about it, and that’s what has to carry you through. 

Kurt Merriweather: That’s exactly right.  Why else would you do it? Because the front end, yeah it is challenging but with the rewards of, you know, what could be pretty significant the event at the end of it, but also, the process of the chase and trying to put together a team that can go after an idea that was just an idea, but now you see people using it and hopefully it’s fundamentally changing their lives in some meaningful way. So that’s, that’s powerful as a concept to organize and align everyone around. 

So, you do quite a bit of advising and mentoring across a lot of different fronts, you know, whether it’s for early-stage consumer products, companies, or companies that are led by veterans. And so, what things are you seeing as far as key trends there and then, you know, what advice do you give to people more often than not around, you know, how they should put a company together or put a team together? And how does diversity fit into that? 

Frank Polluck:  Looking first at the challenge of putting a company together. So, when you put together a technology company, the costs and the barriers to doing that have dropped dramatically over the years, the no code low code movement has enabled us.

You know, apps used to be 10 grand just to walk in the room with a dev, and then you didn’t know what you were getting.  Now, you know, with the no-code and low-code tools, you can actually build a pretty functionable, functional product, and do it reasonably quickly, do it pretty inexpensively, so you can get out and get that feedback.

And I think it’s crucial that you do, you take that route and get that feedback early because the, you know, the building and iterating that takes place no matter how well I think I know the problem, unless, you know, Unless I’m exactly the consumer. And then I have inherent biases. So that’s step one, get that feedback.

Number two is, you know, depending upon what stage you’re in. So, if you’re, you know, at really the idea stage, and you’re exploring, you want to get, you know, three advisors, you want to get one that knows the industry, and want to get one that knows the technology and one that knows how to build a company. And if you can walk away from, you know, early-stage kind of mentoring conversations with those three you’re in really good shape.  

The next thing up is around funding. So, you know, funding at that stage really comes from friends, family, and fools. Yeah, one of the older sayings and sorry, you know, but what you want to do is, you know, you want them to understand how much you value the investment and the risk of their taking on. 

But going to diversity, I would say get gray haired people on your team for a couple reasons. One is they’ve seen a bunch of stuff, but two is they have relationships that you’re not going to have. Right? So, our first couple of investors, one of them, I went to college with other, I played high school basketball against. So, you know, now I couldn’t forecast that these guys would be in the positions that they are during high school basketball, but.

 Fortunately, we’ve stayed in touch over the years and you know, our second investor is a retired investment banker from London and is one of the more sophisticated investors in the world. You know, so we have to come on board we were really excited. But you know, younger people just aren’t going to have, you know, those kinds of relationships where, you know, you can text somebody and get that kind of meeting.

 I would also say from a, from a DEI perspective, open yourself up to different sources to finding the talent and partnerships that you need. There are some people that aren’t in your normal social circle, your normal sphere of influence that you need to step out a level away or two levels away.

That could, accelerate your growth extremely rapidly. But you know, you have to be willing and open to have those conversations.

Kurt Merriweather: Right. So, in order to do something, you haven’t done before, you got to talk to people you haven’t talked to before. 

Frank Polluck: Yeah, I mean, certainly that, and then the right circles. So, you mentioned veterans, so I’m moderate, a peer mentoring group, or, you know, some people call it a mastermind group for veterans who have started consumer products, companies.

They’re all pretty early stage distributed throughout the US. And so, you know, the coming together and having a circle of folks who are in the same situation that you are, who faced the same challenges and who have overcome them, it’s a great opportunity. And these are folks with serious leadership experience.

We got, you know, two folks who were special operators, and we’ve got some folks who were, you know, pretty high ranking. I mean, there’s significant leadership skills here already, and there’s no shortage of, you know, I can go get it done. You need some executed, I’m going to get it done. But in the sense that, you know, they’re still looking to make sure am I doing this right? I’ve never done anything like this before somebody, you know, getting eight of them together and listening to the conversations and, you know, to some extent I guide them, but it’s really the strength of the group that I’m there to foster. and you know, I mean. 

The CPG world early states has changed a bunch. So, you know, it’s a lot easier to start up one of these companies and, you know, pure food beverage, that kind of stuff. Grocers are looking is part of their diverse supplier diversity strategy. They’re looking for veteran owned businesses, and so, these folks are taking that and running with it. I mean, some of them are scaling businesses extremely rapidly. 

Kurt Merriweather: That’s awesome. the thing about doing most of what we do is while technology is a key piece of it, it’s the relationships that helps to drive most of what we do, and being able to spend time with people who are trying to accomplish the same things and have accomplished those things already, but can give back is a key piece of building great teams, building great companies.

 I think we’ll leave it there. So Frank, thank you so much for taking sometime today to share your wisdom and knowledge around all the things that you’ve done. I’m excited about what you’re doing with Home Lending Pal, and the potential to create a really significant business, and at the same time the mission of connecting underserved folks with opportunities to own a home is amazing. So, thanks again for coming on the show. We will be seeing each other soon, hopefully, in person, so looking forward to spend some time off the air with you. 

Frank Polluck: Yeah Kurt, you know, love to come back on and talk about one of my other companies, blue recruits. Hopefully one day we can get that scheduled, but absolutely looking forward to getting out and about and circulating so best to you and your family.

Full Episode Transcript

Winning with Diversity is brought to you by The Diversity Movement, hosted by VP of Products and Innovation Kurt Merriweather, and is a production of Earfluence.

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