The following is a conversation between Linda Rottenberg, founder and CEO of Endeavor Global and author of Crazy is a Compliment, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: How would you like to take on this challenge? Go out and create an ecosystem for entrepreneurs to raise money, be mentored, hire talent, and start a business in emerging countries? And this at a time when there wasn’t even a word for entrepreneur in many of those nations. Sounds like a fool’s errand, doesn’t it? Something a person has to be a little crazy to tackle. But that is exactly what my next guest did. She is Linda Rottenberg, the founder and CEO of Endeavor Global and the author of Crazy is a Compliment. Good evening, Linda, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Linda: Great to be here.
Denver: Having had a hand in helping launch so many enterprises over 20 years or so, you’re probably familiar with a lot of origin stories about many of them. But what is the founding story of yours, Endeavor Global?
Linda: That would go back to the mid-90s when I was a refugee from the law. I graduated from Law School and had no interest in practicing, and found my way to Latin America, and was living in Buenos Aires. This was the mid-1990s. In Argentina, every young person I was meeting said they wanted a government job. I thought, Really? You want to work for the government? Meanwhile, back at home in the US, it was the era of Netscape and Yahoo and Steve Jobs coming back to Apple. Exciting times, and I kept telling people: Why don’t you want to be an entrepreneur? They’d say, “What?”.
My Ah Ha! moment came in a taxi ride when I learned my driver had an Engineering degree, and I thought, okay this guy… When I talked to him, he said, “No, I’m driving a taxi because government won’t hire me.” I was like, Government again! “Why aren’t you becoming…” and I couldn’t think of the word “entrepreneur” in Spanish. We went back and forth, and it turns out there wasn’t one because empresario meant a big business leader with government connections and Swiss bank accounts, and I thought, “Wow!” No wonder no one was becoming an entrepreneur. They don’t even have a word to tell their mom what they’re going to be.
It turned out that you could get a $100 microcredit loan at that time or a $100 million dollar investment if you were one of the top wealthiest families, but if you were just a person with some idea but no real connections, there was nowhere to turn for help. So, that was my Ah Ha! moment, and I went back to the US to tell my parents. The story is: I kept being put in touch with this other crazy kid named Peter Kellner, and the two of us met in my parents’ kitchen to devise the business plan for what would become Endeavor. Yes, as you surmised, my parents were not thrilled.
Denver: No. Absolutely not. Not after all that schooling.
Denver: That was your crazy moment.
Linda: That was. When my parents thought I was going to go to Goldman Sachs if not practice Law, that seemed crazy; and when I started this business plan literally on a napkin– as cliché as it might be– it’s really true — with Peter to devise a support network for the would-be entrepreneurs and talent in emerging countries. They did not think this was a way to get a paycheck. My mother was particularly worried that I was going to go on all these planes and never produce grandchildren for her. This is before egg freezing, I guess.
I call this “my kitchen table moment” because I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs go through this — when they have to make a decision: Do I take the safe and known path? Or do I veer to the unexpected and unknown? I kind of believe that entrepreneurs in their gut know that they have to pursue this idea. No matter how crazy it may sound to other people, they believe they have to be, and that’s what happened to me.
Denver: That’s fantastic.
And you literally began this on the back of a napkin. You mentioned a moment ago Steve Jobs and Marc Andreessen of Netscape, I guess Bill Gates; none of them really relate though to Central and South America. Did you have to find yourself a person, a role model down there to really create the belief that this could be done?
Linda: I did. You’re exactly right. That was our first objective. We said we have to create an accessible role model because people have been telling me, I was in Brazil, and: Tell the story of Steve Jobs and Apple Computer and the start. He said, “Linda, how does this relate to my life? I don’t even have a garage.” So I thought, Okay, the Silicon Valley story is in the garage; you’re not going to be applicable.
And so one of the first people we met was a sheep farmer from Patagonia named Wences Casares, and Wences, was 24 years old, had already started a series of businesses. We met him when he had the idea for what he was calling the E-Trade of Latin America, patagon.com. No one understood what E-Trade was. No one understood why he wanted to take on the financial system in his country. We just saw a kid with passion and fire in his eyes and the ability to execute because he’d done it several times before though he was only 24.
We put him through the Endeavor screening process. He becomes an Endeavor entrepreneur. We help him raise capital from Fred Wilson, who now runs Union Square Mentors, and a woman named Susan Segal who was at Chase Capital. So helped him raise capital, helped him find him a COO. Wences ended up marrying my assistant, Belle. So, he got the full-service Endeavor. Eighteen months later, he sells patagon.com… which 34 local investors had turned him down because they thought this idea would never work. He sells it to Bank of Santander for $750 million.
A few things happened. One is all 34 investors call me up and say, “Linda, you got another?” What a crazy idea! I’m interested now. All these young people and to this day, 20 years later, say: if Wences can do it, I can too. Because here is a kid who grew up literally on a sheep farm, did not come from the wealthy background with a last name that meant he had all the connections, and yet here he was pursuing his idea and able to succeed.
What’s wonderful is today, Wences actually now runs a company called Xapo. It’s one of the major bitcoin platforms in the world. I think 5% of the world’s bitcoin goes through Xapo’s vaults. He’s still at it, and he’s also mentoring, angel investing, telling his story. What we’ve seen through Wences, is really how an ecosystem builds; and if you can find a few examples who give people encouragement and who also pay it forward into the ecosystem, that’s really how things change.
Denver: That’s really part of your model.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about Endeavor Global and how you go about your business. Number one, how do you choose what countries to operate in?
Linda: We had a very simple idea going in, which was that, we were going to be pulled into countries by the local private sector rather than push our ideas onto countries. One of my problems with the way global philanthropy is done is: oftentimes, people in the United States land in a country and say, “Hello, we are here to solve your problems that you didn’t know exist.” I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be a partnership. Endeavor is about entrepreneurship. It’s about markets. It’s about demand. So, we said, Let’s go where the private sector pulls us in and says, “We need entrepreneurs in our country. Can you help us together as a partner?” That’s what we’ve done. We’re now in 30 countries around the world, and that’s how our model still operates today.
There’s a very rigorous process… it’s Shark Tank meets the movie Twelve Angry Men…
Denver: How do you identify these high-impact entrepreneurs? Is there a method or a process that you put them through to choose them?
Linda: There’s a very rigorous process. We form a board in every local country. We hire a management team. Endeavor Today has 550 full-time staff around the world. So, our local boards and management team start scouring the local ecosystems for people who have not just a kernel of an idea, but actually started something and are at an inflection point where they want to scale.
Endeavor, which I’m sure we’ll get into, is all about the scale up rather than the start-up. So, we’re agnostic in terms of the industry. We have people tackling health-tech and ed-tech, and fin-tech, traditional manufacturing, and food & beverage– all scaleable, for-profit models, and we put them through a local screening.
Now, eight times a year, we have the World Cup of entrepreneurship where entrepreneurs come from all over the world. We just held one in Dubai. We’re about to hold one in the Philippines, and then in Louisville, Kentucky– where experts in venture capital and entrepreneurship come and judge the final candidates. They have to unanimously select the Endeavor entrepreneurs. I always say it’s Shark Tank meets the movie Twelve Angry Men, where one juror can hold out, or woman. Everyone who passes through that process and becomes an Endeavor entrepreneur, really comes with that seal of approval.
…it’s scary oftentimes to be alone in your ecosystem… You can’t tell your parents you’re about to go bankrupt. You can’t tell your employees that you’re having challenges … So, who do you go to? Endeavor really becomes that support system.
Denver: What if I pass through that process? What does Endeavor do for me? How do you support these entrepreneurs?
Linda: We now give people access to advisory boards and mentors from around the world. We have industry clusters now. So, we just had all of those health tech and healthcare entrepreneurs meet with experts in their field. We held another for food & beverage companies, another for the software service companies. So, you get to meet experts in your field and a peer network. We find now, what’s so interesting is entrepreneurs are learning so much from one another, and it’s scary oftentimes to be alone in your ecosystem. You can’t tell your parents you’re about to go bankrupt. You can’t tell your employees that you’re having challenges. You don’t want to tell your venture capitalists if you’ve raised capital. So, who do you go to? Endeavor really becomes that support system. We also now have a co-investment fund where we’ll help our entrepreneurs not only raise the capital, but participate in their funding rounds.
Denver: That’s fantastic. Your funding rounds I think was Endeavor II Catalyst Fund. Who are your investors?
Linda: We have individuals from all the around the world. We have great entrepreneurs from Michael Dell and Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn to some of our own successful entrepreneurs like Wences, whom we just mentioned… Paying it forward. It’s $115 million two co- investment funds. We’ve made now over 75 co-investments in our entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who get selected by Endeavor know that anytime they raise a round of financing, Endeavor will come in at 10% of their rounds.
Denver: Let’s get to the scale and scope of this. You mentioned 30 countries, but how many entrepreneurs have you supported? How many jobs has that created? What are the annual revenues?
Linda: We started in Latin America but now our latest country was just Endeavor Nigeria. We operate throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and now, the United States as well, which I’m sure we will get into. We have screened over 55,000 entrepreneurs and selected just under 1,700 entrepreneurs from about 1,000 companies. Today, those entrepreneurs are generating $15 billion annually, and they’ve created over 1.5 million jobs.
…when you’re starting out, if you’re not called “crazy,” it means you’re not thinking big enough.
Denver: That is incredibly impressive.
Let me take a step back, Linda. That word we mentioned a moment ago, ”entrepreneur.” That word has been bandied about so much in the last few years, that I don’t think that people even know what it means. What does it mean to you?
Linda: To me, an entrepreneur is someone who spots a pain point or an opportunity and feels like they have a solution to solve that problem, and then relentlessly goes after that and gives themselves permission to pursue what everyone else thinks is a crazy idea. Because my motto is not only that “crazy is a compliment,” but if when you’re starting out, you’re not called “crazy,” it means you’re not thinking big enough.
Denver: You’re exactly right. I think it was Reid who said that if you prototype a product in Silicon Valley, and you introduce that product, and people don’t laugh at you, you’ve waited too long.
Linda: Exactly. But I think for me, the pain point is important because I think one of the things working with entrepreneurs outside the United States I’ve seen, they’re solving real problems. They’re solving the problem of: people are dying in emergency rooms because there are no computerized records. How do you solve that problem? How do you solve the problem that millions of kids aren’t getting access to education? What can technology do to solve that problem? How do you solve the problem that people don’t have access to bank accounts? There are very few credit cards outside the United States; how do you bank the unbanked? Doing these through these scalable models, but they’re actually trying to improve real people’s lives, and I love that versus trying to reverse engineer the next app.
So what if the person turns you down? You never know who actually will say,” I’d love to learn more.”
Denver: You have identified a number of strategies that you believe help any budding entrepreneur, and I want you to share several with us, starting with maybe my favorite: Be A Stalker. What do you mean by that?
Linda: Everyone says, How did you get your first funding, Linda? I was known as chica loca, the crazy girl. Here I am, assuming that there are these entrepreneurs with ideas that can go to scale in places like Argentina and Brazil, and later in Turkey and Indonesia. No one thought this was possible. So, how did I even get my funding? Well, I stalked people. I saw them on airplanes. Can’t really escape an airplane, or at the gym on treadmills, and I would very nicely go up and explain my idea, but usually in a confined space where they couldn’t get away. And I do it with a smile, but I joke that stalking is an underrated start-up strategy because the idea is that so many people are afraid to go up and share their ideas. So many people… even at conferences… I see particularly women are afraid to give that business card. They don’t want to seem pushy. What I say obviously, I’m joking, you should be a very cautious stalker. But the point is, share your passion. Share your idea. So what if the person turns you down? You never know who actually will say, “I’d love to learn more.”
Denver: Only takes one sometimes. They have such gatekeepers very often to get to them; sometimes, it’s your only opportunity.
Linda: Exactly. My best technique is when you go to a conference, don’t run up to someone after their speech when a hundred other people do. Wait for them to go to the bathroom. You know, wait outside, not inside, but outside.
I see entrepreneurs as risk minimizers, not risk maximizers. They don’t think what they’re doing is risky. Everybody else may. To me, the biggest risk today is taking no risk at all.
Denver: That’s a good idea. Take down the “Do No Loiter” sign and just wait there.
How do entrepreneurs think about risk?
Linda: I think it’s a myth that entrepreneurs are these swashbuckling, risk takers who go for broke. I see entrepreneurs as risk minimizers, not risk maximizers. They don’t think what they’re doing is risky. Everybody else may. To me, the biggest risk today is taking no risk at all. I think our jobs are no longer safe. Our corporations are no longer safe. So, if we just keep doing our same jobs and put our head down in the sand, we’re going to risk being disintermediated, for lack of a better word. I think taking some amount of risk, but then being very cautious…and getting information about whether things are working… and testing things; to me that’s not risky at all, but it’s perceived as risk.
Denver: Most entrepreneurs, when we think about them, we’re thinking about that proverbial garage or that dorm room. In your book and among other places, you really talk about the all-important scale-up phase.
What are some of the keys to successfully growing a business?
Linda: I think people do equate entrepreneurship with start-ups, and I love start-ups. But the reality is that people focus so much on the business plans. Most entrepreneurs I work with never even had a business plan. They just get going. I’m like: Stop planning; start doing. The challenge actually for many of them, after they give themselves permission; to me, giving yourself permission to launch your crazy idea is the hardest thing. After that, testing things in the marketplace today with things like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, you don’t really need a lot of outside capital. You can put something online and see if it gets traction.
To me, the scale-up phase is where the interesting things start to happen. A lot of this has to do with people’s growth as leaders, and it’s one thing when you’re convincing a few people to go with you on this journey. But what happens when people have paychecks? Now, you have to feed a number of mouths; you’re growing. You have to change as a leader. You suddenly need some rules. If you’re like me, you don’t like rules. But other people really want to know their vacation dates, really want to make sure they’re being paid every month. You may not care, but suddenly you have employees who do.
A lot of times, people start with partners. They’re like, “Oh this is great. It’s my best friend. It’s my spouse, it’s my brother.” The problem is: that’s great when everything is going well. What happens when one person wants a lifestyle business, and one wants to make it really big? Or one is done or really doesn’t have the skills to get to the next phase? I always say that one of my lessons for entrepreneurs that are starting with partners is to get a start-up prenup. It sounds crazy, but if you spell everything out when everyone’s getting along, then when the trouble hits, you have a plan already on how to deal with it.
Denver: You mentioned earlier that you have helped start 1,700 entrepreneurs.
Linda: We helped scale them, but they started on their own.
Denver: Have the profiles of those individuals changed since you started 21 years ago?
Linda: Yes, and I would say, three things have happened. First of all, the number of women has grown, which I think is fantastic. Now, about 20% to 25% of the companies we’re seeing are led by women; contrast that with 8% of venture-backed companies here in the United States are started by women. Actually, the number of women is greatest in the Middle East in terms of entrepreneurs, and they’re amazing. One of the largest E-commerce companies, Mumzworld, is headed by this incredible entrepreneur named Mona Ataya.
Over $150 million hair care company in Brazil, Leila Velez. The number of women has increased. The other thing is it used to be a lot of family businesses, and now we’re actually seeing the promise of technology to change industries from scratch. So, we’re seeing a lot more young people starting out without any family business, which is helpful because they have just their ideas to start out with. The other thing is we used to see a divide between technology companies and traditional manufacturing companies, and that’s really gone away as health tech and ag tech, and ed tech and food tech; what people are doing is solving basic problems, but using technology as an enabler. So, technology isn’t the be-all and end-all. It’s not just a software product or a hardware product. But they’re using technology to save lives and change lives.
…all you need is an idea and the ability to move forward with it.
Denver: I had Andrew Yang, the CEO for Venture for America, on the show a while ago. Much to my surprise, he said: although we talk a lot about entrepreneurship in a free-agent nation, that the number of new businesses being started in America is actually quite low. Entrepreneurship is at an historic low. It is so good to hear that Endeavor Global is now operating in the United States– something I suspect you would have never imagined when you started. Tell us where you’re at and what you’ve been doing.
Linda: I was skeptical initially. I thought: United States. Who needs us? We have role models. People said, No. But if you’re outside the coasts, you don’t have examples of companies that have started and scaled. They’ve been told if they want to scale, they’ve got to move to Silicon Valley or New York. We don’t want the brain drain. We want people to scale here, and we’d love your help.
So, we started in Miami five years ago. Now Endeavor’s operating also in Detroit, Louisville, Atlanta. We just started in Puerto Rico, and we’re starting in Northwest Arkansas which is where Walmart is.
We’re very excited about the ability of companies to not only start in these cities but to actually stay local, keep jobs, keep their families there and still have access to capital and mentorship and role models. That is what we’re doing. The one thing I would say about your earlier point that you don’t see: Andrew Yang was saying he sees less examples of entrepreneurs. I actually think that the definition of entrepreneur has sort of changed, or at least not the definition, but the profile.
I think we think of the young Steve Jobs in the garage or the Google guys, just fresh out of school, or Mark Zuckerberg in Harvard. Now, you have a lot of baby boomers that are starting new careers as entrepreneurs. People, a lot of women who decided to stay at home and raise their kids, and now they’re actually going back to work, doing their own thing. I actually think that one of the encouraging things is when I was starting out, the reason I wrote Crazy is a Compliment is people said: I don’t look like an entrepreneur. No one’s going to trust me, and if I don’t have an Engineering degree and wear a black turtleneck, I can’t be this great thing. And I said, No! All you need is an idea and the ability to move forward with it. I actually see a lot more entrepreneurship. I just think it’s in unexpected places and by people we don’t necessarily associate with the word.
Denver: It’s interesting what you talked about before– the pull in these cities in the United States; people want you there, don’t they?
Linda: Yeah, they want us there. You’re seeing Steve Case with his Rise of the Rest talking about it. I think that we’re going to see an explosion of entrepreneurship around cities that you haven’t heard of in the next 5 to 10 years. It’s happening already. I think the media is going to become aware of it.
Denver: Endeavor Global is a nonprofit organization, and you, of course, are very familiar with the sector.
Do you believe that nonprofits, generally speaking, are being entrepreneurial as they need to be to thrive in the 21st century and really tackle the problems they’re charged with addressing?
Linda: I come at this somewhat differently. I don’t think the divide between nonprofit and for-profit makes any sense anymore. First of all, I always hated the term nonprofit. It’s negative. We need rebranding. I talked a lot early on about: we didn’t have financial equity tools, but we have psychic equity tools to attract people. Even that’s changed because if you’re a business today, and you don’t have the psychic equity, and you’re not pursuing some sort of social good, and you can’t show the impact on your stakeholders beyond your shareholders, guess what? You’re not attracting millennials to your company, and you’re not attracting consumers.
They’ve had no choice in the private sector but to move towards the Warby Parker– the people who have a mission embedded in their work. Similarly, the traditional 501(c)3 nonprofit– it’s not enough to say you have a mission; you can do good because now you’re competing with that private sector. You have to offer people job growth. You have to offer stimulation. You have to offer impact, and you have to offer financial rewards. I actually see these hybrid models like Endeavor. We have the traditional nonprofit with the mentorship model, and then we have these co-investment funds, blended models really taking root. And in fact, I freaked out my board when I started calling us this hybrid. What do you mean hybrid? We don’t like that word. You need another word. So, I went back, and I came back to the next board meeting, and I said. Guys, I’ve got it. Facebook today has 71 gender options. 71! We’re beyond binary here, people. Just like there’s no male, female, binary anymore; there’s no for-profit, nonprofit binary anymore.
We’re progressive, we’re forward-looking, we are a trans-profit… We think hybrid works after all. I think to your broader point, I think that if traditional nonprofits aren’t moving forward, aren’t taking risks, aren’t disrupting themselves, and aren’t giving young people the opportunity to move ahead and to have incentive plans, they’re not going to be able to attract the workers of the future.
Denver: Let me pick up from that, Endeavor Global is a great place to work. Your Glassdoor scores are off the charts. And I know these healthy corporate cultures don’t happen by accident. They’re quite intentional. Tell us about some of the things you’ve done to create a positive and empowering workplace culture at Endeavor.
Linda: One of the best things I did was to recruit Fernando Fabre to be our global president. He had been one of our top managing directors, and he came nine years ago to become president. That was really important because I was the entrepreneur. I always wanted to empower people. But I thought my style, which was: when people ask “When’s our vacation?” I would answer, whenever you want it to be. I thought that was fantastic. Apparently, they were frustrated. They wanted to know exactly what vacation days they had between Christmas and New Year’s. I didn’t even understand the question.
Fernando is very complementary to me. He, I call him Mr. KPI which he doesn’t like so much sometimes… He has really established what are people’s goals. And they’re going to get feedback, and they’re going to know their vacation days, know what’s expected of them. He fills that side of the equation where they know what they’re judged on, and they know how they can move forward. For me, I have the spirit of: Ideas can come from anywhere; you can challenge me; you can challenge anyone. What we hear is that combination. I think sometimes if you only have the rules, or if you only have the chaotic free-for-all, that doesn’t work so well. So, I would say to people: Find your complement, and then build from there.
Denver: You’re a trans-management team.
Linda: Hermaphroditic, maybe.
I believe the best entrepreneurial ideas don’t die in the marketplace or in the laboratory. They die in the shower… You have to give yourself permission to go forward with your crazy idea, and then own the fact that other people are going to call you crazy.
Denver: Let me close with this Linda. There are a number of people who have this entrepreneurial spirit somewhere inside of them but somehow can never really tap it and let it out. What are the things that hold people back? And is there something they can do about it?
Linda: That’s an excellent question. I said that I believe the best entrepreneurial ideas don’t die in the marketplace or in the laboratory. They die in the shower. I think even if you’re inside a corporation, I believe in the power of” intrapreneurs.” It’s not a great word, but I believe that so many people have ideas and they, first of all, are afraid to give themselves permission. I think that’s the Number one thing. You have to give yourself permission to go forward with your crazy idea, and then own the fact that other people are going to call you crazy.
I wear chica loca with a badge of honor. The second thing is, if you are in a workplace, you don’t go to your boss first. Don’t try to go and get the budget and get the approval first. Get the proof points. Don’t do a Powerpoint. Don’t do a business plan. Get the proof points. Start testing your idea. I think a little bit goes a long way. And if you start getting traction, and if other people think your idea– what you’ve been thinking of– is also necessary or is working, then little by little, that’ll give you the courage to share it with the next person, and so on. The last thing is: Do not tell your family first. We have the “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Friends don’t let best friends test drive their ideas because they’re bound to tell you: “This is terrible, and you’ll bankrupt your family.” Just don’t listen to them. Go to the Facebook friend, maybe, before your actual best friend.
Denver: Right. Do your napkin at Starbucks, not on your kitchen table.
Linda: Exactly. Good. I like that.
Denver: Linda Rottenberg, the Founder and CEO of Endeavor Global and Author of Crazy is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags, thanks so much for being here this evening.
Tell us about your website and the information that visitors will find there.
Linda: You can go to www.endeavor.org and learn all about how to become an Endeavor entrepreneur or take Endeavor to your city or country. Lindarottenberg.com is where I have my own website, and you can follow me on Twitter as well.
Denver: Thanks so much, Linda. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Linda: Great to be here.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.