Photo: Rashaun Williams

Rashaun Williams is a recovering investment banker and current venture capitalist. He worked at Goldman Sachs and other firms for 13 years before moving to the West Coast to get into the tech world. He is a general partner at Manhattan Venture Partners’ All-Star Fund, a late-stage tech company focused on investing in unicorns like Spotify and Airbnb.

But he also has a knack for passing on what he’s learned to those who can use it best. He works with athletes and entertainers, helping them invest in tech; he teaches 12-year-olds how to invest in public stocks and actively invest in startups, specifically those with black founders, to help them grow.

While his friends would say he does nothing because they see him on Instagram living his best life, he’s largely very busy in three particular areas: 1) vetting deals for athletes and entertainers who want to invest in tech; 2) investing in tech companies with his own capital; and 3) being a general partner of the All-Star Fund at Manhattan Venture Partners.

I met Rashaun Williams at Morehouse College back in the late ’90s. We were both economics majors and taking all of our classes together. Even back then, it was easy to tell that he’d be a successful businessman, though he also spoke passionately about wanting to give back to the community. It turns out he’s been able to do that many times over. I asked him to come share a little bit about his life and how he’s managed to chart his path in the financial world, and he gladly obliged. And just like in the Morehouse days, he was more than happy to share what he learned with everybody else.

Very Smart Brothas: Rashaun! It’s been a while! Welcome to the party and thanks for coming to share the game with the masses.

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Rashaun Williams: Panama! Feels like yesterday you had me deep in the woods in Atlanta studying for econ tests at Morehouse!

VSB: Ah, the good ol’ days. So, you do a little bit of everything in the financial world. I really want to talk about how you got involved with athletes, and I know you worked with Nas, but let’s start at the beginning. This question is going to seem nebulous, but what led you down this path? Tell us a bit about your background and how it influenced your life trajectory.

RW: There is a saying that pain fuels your passions. Well, growing up on the South Side of Chicago without a lot of financial resources or literacy really inspired me to dig deeper in the financial world and try to empower myself first, then my community. I got into finance because I was tired of being broke and money being an excuse for everything we couldn’t have. I felt locked out from the American dream in my neighborhood.

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I went to Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago and always knew I wanted to go to Morehouse. In fact, Morehouse was the only school I applied to. I drove my ’82 Mustang 714 miles from Chicago to Atlanta on the first day they were accepting applications when I was a senior. Andre Patillo, the dean of admissions at the time, accepted me on the spot after he heard my story.

While at Morehouse, I majored in a few things but eventually settled in economics and learned about Wall Street through internship opportunities and info sessions. I was hooked ever since. I saw it as a way out of my past and [to] the resources I needed to empower my future. The problem I had was I really wanted to be a teacher and an entrepreneur in addition to working on Wall Street.

I read Jim Collins’ book where he talked about the “magnificence of the ‘and,’” so I decided to do all three! I started my nonprofit, the Kemet Institute, where I teach financial literacy for free; I started my own company, Value Investment Group, where I helped small companies in Chicago grow; and I started at Goldman Sachs in Chicago instead of NYC so I could go back to my community.

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VSB: Let’s switch gears a bit into venture capitalism. For many of us, it’s a mysterious world. How exactly does one become a venture capitalist? Do you just need money? Access to people? What’s your “becoming a venture capitalist” story?

RW: If I had to boil down the major keys to becoming a VC, I would say three things: 1) access to great companies that need money that others don’t have access to; 2) a strategy of investing that has made money in the past or looks positioned to make money taking advantage of something in the market; and 3) experience investing your own money, experience on Wall Street learning about finance and investing, or experience building companies as an entrepreneur, which gives you firsthand knowledge on how companies grow.

I transitioned from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, which is fairly common. I was tired of making millions for my Wall Street clients, so I decided to move to L.A. and start investing in companies with my own money. I was already doing it on the side while on Wall Street. I started Value Investment Group with one of our Morehouse classmates back in the early 2000s and we were investing in companies. Once people saw the deals I was investing in and the returns I was making, they wanted to invest with me.

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My first official venture capital firm was with hip-hop artist Nas. I raised 100 percent of the money and ran the firm; I really enjoyed it because he is an icon and it was history in the making.

VSB: I would imagine, though I have no real proof here, that there aren’t many black people in the VC space. And of those that are, I imagine they are largely athletes and entertainers with a lot of disposable income looking to find new and innovative ways to invest their money. Is that an accurate reading? And if so, what is it like being one of a few black VCs?

RW: Actually, not true at all! Less than 1 percent of all black VCs are athletes or entertainers. There are over 100 black VCs and investors working at various firms or who have their own firms. I learned that during “Culture Shifting Weekend” at a talk given by Andrea Hoffman and Denmark West. But here is the thing: I didn’t know this until the event when we were all in one place! People like Erik Moore from Base Ventures, Charles Hudson from Precursor, Arlan Hamilton at Backstage and Lindsay Lee at Authentic Ventures. I posted a pic of 20 of us on my IG a few months ago.

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VSB: How did you develop your investment strategy?

RW: My investment strategy has been developed over a 16-year period of personal investing, working on Wall Street and co-investing with Ben Horowitz while running Queensbridge Venture Partners. I break things down into three main areas: technical analysis, fundamental analysis and grit. I’ve invested in over 100 companies, so I have lots of experience. I actually learned more from investing in companies in Liberia in 2006 than I did on Wall Street. Anything that could go wrong typically went wrong there.

VSB: What do you think it is about you personally that has enabled you to create opportunities for personal success and then excel in them? You said pain fuels your passion, but at some point, the pain has to subside, right? What keeps you focused and moving forward?

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RW: You ever go to a party and see someone who looks like they aren’t supposed to be there having the best time? That’s me. After seeing three of my six closest friends die or get murdered in my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, I realized the odds were against my survival. Every day was like a gift; I feel like I am not supposed to be here.

After I learned how prayer, meditation, consciousness, focus and the power of my thoughts helped create a way out of no way, I continued to use those tools to drive opportunities and my career forward. It didn’t stop “once I made it out of the hood.” Then it was like, how do I transition from Wall Street to venture capital? How do I go from a $10 million fund with Nas to a $100 million fund with Manhattan Venture Partners? How do I take everything I learned and give it away for free? The pain never goes away; you learn to manage and channel it.

VSB: That’s a very interesting perspective. Useful, too. So there’s a lot of power of positive thinking and self-actualization techniques you use?

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RW: Yes, all the time. Society has become very efficient in devaluing people of color; you have to be proactive in re-establishing your consciousness and purpose.

VSB: Tell me more about the nonprofit you founded, the Kemet Institute.

RW: Kemet Institute is a nonprofit I founded in 2001 to teach financial literacy to underserved communities. That community included high school, college, churches and athletes/entertainers. None of them are taught financial literacy and all of them need help! So I took everything I learned on Wall Street and created a free curriculum that I teach and give away to schools and groups.

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It’s impactful because I come from these communities and these lessons helped me make it from the South Side of Chicago to Bel Air! I actually live downtown, but Bel Air sounds dope. I teach all across the country, at schools like Morehouse, Fisk, Duke and Villanova to churches in Chicago and L.A. I have funded it 100 percent since 2001 and teach 90 percent of the classes myself.

VSB: What do you think is the most important advice you can give to entrepreneurs or anybody looking to do ... something? Be somebody? Make it in America? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and the best advice you have to give?

RW: Man, the best advice I’ve ever been given is to match my prayers/desires with my focus. In other words, asking myself what I am focused on daily, weekly, monthly, and making sure that my mind is equal to my prayers/desires. If not, they will cancel each other out. You must think as big as you pray.

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You can follow Rashaun Williams on Instagram.