In every business, there are people who are known as the go-to person who knows a sure thing when he sees one. If there’s someone in the technology field whose vision and eye are worth trusting, it’s Troy Carter.
A native Philadelphian, Carter, 42, started out as under the wing of James Lassiter, former manager of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and later co-founder of Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. In the late 90s he managed the career of then-upstart Philly rapper Eve and went on to manage artists like John Legend and Lady Gaga.
But he set his sights on the tech game, allowing him to lay hands on such successful start-ups like Über, Spotify, Warby Parker, Dropbox and others. Carter, who also debuted on ABC’s “Shark Tank” last week and is also heading up a startup accelarator lab called SMASHD, has taken ideas from the music business and made them work in the tech industry, and is looking to increase the number of African-Americans in the technology industry in the process.
EBONY.com sat with Carter following his acceptance ceremony of the Hennessy Privilege Award speaking on his thoughts on Blacks in tech, the importance of mentorship, and his plans in working with the House of Hennessy to open doors for the next big entrepreneur.
EBONY: So you spoke about being from Philadelphia when you were given the Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège Award last week. How has being from the city impacted you and made you who you are?
Troy Carter: Being from Philly, you have a natural hustle, as well as a developed “Spidey-Sense” for bull-sh*t. But most people I meet from Philly are natural people-persons. Our neighborhoods consist of mostly row-homes, and you’re instilled a sense of what “community” means to you and those around you. In my neighborhood, there was people that were doing what I wanted to do. James Lassiter was someone who took me under his wing early, and to see him take his Philly hustle, his entrepreneurial spirit working with Will and Jeff, refine it, and then aim it in the direction of things that he wanted was a huge inspiration to me, and there’s no way that happens without the city of Philadelphia.
Ebony: With the idea of tech being something that has grown over the last 20 years, what made you go from managing some of the biggest acts in music such as Eve, John Legend and Lady Gaga to trying your hand in the Technology industry?
Carter: I like to compare the attitude and energy of an emerging start-up to that of the early Hip-Hop era. From working at labels like Bad Boy and Ruff Ryders, walking into the Def Jam offices, A Touch of Jazz and things like that, the vibe is that off making something out of nothing and making things work, and that’s what I love about start-ups. We didn’t use the label of “start-up” back then, but the way we looked at was very “us versus them.” If you look at a company like Über, a company that so anti-establishment that cab companies are trying to find ways to shut it down, one could compare that to how Public Enemy and NWA went after then-modern society in Hip Hop. It’s the same spirit in those offices, and I was attracted to that.
Ebony: How does it feel to have had your hands on applications that went from your everyday start-up to being on millions of users’ phones right now?
Carter: It’s validating to know that you helped support someone and it worked. I take zero credit in the success of those apps, because I bet on great entrepreneurs and their ideas. It isn’t that every company is going to be successful. The law of averages shows that 80% of companies are going to fail. We have 80 companies right now in our portfolio, but for every one Spotify or every one Über, there’s five companies that didn’t make it. For every champion, there’s some dogs that we want to bury.
Ebony: What’s it been like working with Hennessy, and WeWork to present one entrepreneur with the chance of a lifetime?
Carter: Before I even agreed to work with Hennessy and the Privilege Awards, I wanted to do some research on it, look up past winners and find out more about it. So when you think about the commitment they’re making in the spirit of entrepreneurship, and the past award winners that also embody that entrepreneurial spirit, you think of a Spike Lee, a man who’s been so influential in our culture with his interpretations in race relations and gender relations, it was a honor to be mentioned in the same breath as him. And as far as our partnership with WeWork, it’s an amazing opportunity for someone to not just be able to have free workspace, but to be in an environment to work with some of the best entrepreneurs in New York.
Ebony: You mentioned in your acceptance speech the importance of mentorship, especially in the African-American community. How has having a mentor as well as being a mentor been an attribute to your success?
Carter: To me, mentorships and internships are two big pillars in business development. I believe in having multiple mentors. I believe in outgrowing a mentor and getting a new one, and I think that you can never be too old to be schooled by your mentor. Being schooled is the same thing as learning, and you can never be too old to have your coattail pulled when you’re wrong about something. These are people that don’t want or need something from you; they just ultimately want to see you win.
Ebony: What are some ways that you can see growth in the Tech field as a Black man, for other Black men and women?
Carter: You know the Jay-Z saying, “men lie, women lie, numbers don’t (laughs)?” This is a key point of that. Numbers show that there are not that many brothers and sisters in this field, and it takes the brothers and sister that are in already to help open those doors. We need to have that real, honest conversation on why the numbers are so low.
I can say I’ve never felt overtly discriminated against in tech, or that I’ve walked from a meeting saying that someone was undeniably racist. But when you have companies like Twitter where 25% or more of your users are African American, but your employee base is in the very low single digits, that speaks volumes of your hiring practices and your thoughts on our community.
I don’t think it’s said that ‘we aren’t hiring Blacks,’ but people are known to hire in their networks. So if you didn’t go to Harvard, or weren’t in this social club, or aren’t a member of this fraternity or sorority, you won’t have the same access as someone who shares the same exact resume as you do. We just have to get plugged into the networks. I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful African-American founders in my time. (Y Combinator Founder) Michael Seiber was someone I’ve invested three years ago, and he returned our investment 5x’s in 6 months and sold his company for $90million to Amazon. So it isn’t that we’re lacking in talent at all, we just have to find those future CEOs and cultivate them through mentorship and opportunities.
Ebony: What would you tell that young brother or sister out there that is looking to veer from the status quo and to tell them that there’s room at the technology table for them?
Carter: Be different. Be a certain type of delusional. The most successful people in the world are the ones who thought of that idea that was “too crazy to work.”
Being creative can have you going from sleeping on your parents’ couch to being one of the biggest entrepreneurs in the world takes being somewhat delusional. Take someone like Elon Musk, who decided to create the electronic car when all other electronic car companies have failed, he’s a sense of delusional. Think of Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb. When he told people his idea, they thought he was crazy, that people would never let strangers sleep in their beds and stay in their house. This past summer, AirBnb did one million rooms a night worldwide. He’s already doing more business than Hyatt and Hilton combined. Über is a $51Million business over seven years.
For those kids that have those crazy ideas, keep trying. If it fails, keep throwing it out there and something is going to stick.
Cory Townes was born and raised in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. A devout Philly sports fan, Townes is the Social Media Manager for EBONY.com. When he’s not enjoying HBCU homecomings nationwide or cheering on his Philadelphia Eagles, you can reach him on Twitter @CoryTownes