The following is a conversation between Aaron Walker, the Founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Camelback Ventures works to identify, develop, and promote underrepresented entrepreneurs working in social impact. It provides them with the coaching, capital, and connections they need to be successful. And here to discuss how they do it and the impact they’ve had is Aaron Walker, the founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Aaron!
Aaron: Thank you for having me, Denver. It’s great to be here.
Denver: So, you started this back in 2015. What was the impetus for launching this organization, Aaron?
Aaron: The impetus for launching Camelback Ventures was really two things. So, one was Camelback is the third company that I’ve started, and thinking back to my first two companies, and I think how challenging it is to be an entrepreneur; but then I think on top of that, being an entrepreneur of color and thinking about just lack of access to capital, to coaching, and to connections. And I’m someone who went to elite schools and know fancy people and had some access, but I think you realize that there are different levels to this.
And so, thinking about my first two startups, I thought to myself– what I really want to create is a place and a platform that could help entrepreneurs like myself, but also other people that I was meeting who were telling the same story and saying like, “Hey, I’ve got this idea. I’m trying to raise money. I can’t raise money. I need a connection to this person, to this company.”
And what would it look like if we could unlock the genius and the potential in entrepreneurs of color, and in women in particular for entrepreneurship? And particularly social entrepreneurship, where oftentimes, a lot of ideas are pointed towards communities of color. They’re pointed towards low-income communities; they’re pointed towards rural communities. But not often enough do we see entrepreneurs with those backgrounds getting to start and create the solutions.
One of the things that we focus on at Camelback Ventures is growing the company, but also growing the person who’s growing the company.
Denver: Before you went to that elite law school you went to, you worked for Teach for America. How did that inform the way you launched and structured Camelback?
Aaron: I think my Teach for America experience influenced how I thought about Camelback because I realized that one of the most important things about being a teacher, and therefore also being an entrepreneur, is really about leadership.
And so, one of the things that we focus on at Camelback Ventures is growing the company, but also growing the person who’s growing the company. And oftentimes in the beginning, the company is the person. And so, in those ways, it is one of those things where: as goes the person, goes the company. So we actually spend a lot of time just talking about how to write your marketing plan and do a pitch and all those things, but we also spend time helping entrepreneurs work through their own leadership because it’s their growth that’s going to actually grow the company.
And then I think, number two is: my first craft after college was as a teacher, and in many ways, what we do at Camelback is we’re teachers, but the content is just not… it’s not ninth-grade English anymore. It is a set of skills and knowledge sets that are around entrepreneurship. And so, how can I take the best practices that I learned as a teacher and apply them to what we do, essentially as teachers, for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Denver: And I think the point you just made also underscores the fragility of starting up a new venture. Because you just said, and I agree with you, the person is the company. And then when the company fails as sometimes happens, how do you insulate the person to say, “No, you’re not the company.” But there is so much… I guess self-worth that can get wrapped up into that, correct?
Aaron: Yes, definitely. I remember in my first two companies… it’s one of those things where it’s easy to look back now and say, “Oh, it’s those experiences that set me up for this thing like Camelback, and Camelback to get successful.” But if you were to take a snapshot in 2013, 2014, when I was going through those, you would have thought that the world had ended.
But I was lucky I had people in my life, and my wife, in particular, who was like, “Pick yourself up off the ground.” And I think oftentimes, it’s just all you need… is just someone to dust you off and say, “That thing didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t work.”
Denver: Yes. Somebody to believe in you. I have to ask you this, Aaron, where did the name “Camelback” come from?
Aaron: So Camelback came from a type of house that is popular in the American South, in New Orleans, which is where we’re based. And a Camelback home is a shotgun house, which if you remember the shotgun home, it’s a one-story house. You take a shotgun, you shoot a bullet through the front door, and it doesn’t touch anything. It goes through the back door. Well, eventually, as they were trying to create more space in homes, they wouldn’t put the second floor in the front. They would start it in the back, so it looked like the house had like a camel’s hump located at the back, and that’s how the name came about.
And so we just sort of adopted that name as a nod to New Orleans, as a nod to communities of color in particular.
Denver: You know, new business depends obviously on access to capital. How much of venture capital investment right now is going to Black and Latinx entrepreneurs? And how much of it is directed towards women?
Aaron: So, the amount of money that’s going to Black and Latinx entrepreneurs and women — the short answer is: not enough. The numbers are always, always changing, but it’s somewhere between 2% and 5%, depending on what data set you’re looking at. And when you begin to disaggregate some of that data, even then the numbers get smaller. So you look at the percentage that are going to Black women entrepreneurs, and you’re talking like 0.02% to 0.06%, which is ridiculous when you think about just even on a proportional basis, the proportion that these populations are making up in our country.
And so, one of the things that we say at Camelback– and others have adopted this as well– is “Genius is equally distributed, but access is not.” And so, if you say that, and you say you really believe that statement, then what it has to mean, what it has to mean is that you would see some proportionality in investment… because to not have that assumes that all the good ideas are only in white men.
And look, they got some good ideas. I’m not debating that. But I’m just saying that’s not proportioned to the ideas that other folks have. If we really believe that genius is equally distributed, we should see 50% of venture capital going to women. We should see 13% to 15% going to African-Americans. We should see 29% going to the Latinx community, and so on and so forth.
Denver: And just being in New Orleans has an additional challenge, because what is it? About 80% of the venture capital goes to California, New York, and Massachusetts. So it’s not even evenly distributed geographically, much less what you just said.
For us, it was just important if we’re going to take up people’s time, then we have to be adding value to them…I think one of the things that we pride ourselves on is, when people ask about Camelback, like “What’s the Fellowship like?” or how it might be different from other programs, it’s that they actually learn some stuff about how to grow their company and grow themselves. And that’s what we really spend our time on.
Denver: Take us inside of one of your accelerator programs. I guess I can call it that. It’s the Camelback Fellowship. How do you get selected to be part of a cohort, and how long does it go on, and what goes on there? What do you do?
Aaron: What goes on at Camelback stays at Camelback.
Denver: Or back to Las Vegas now.
Aaron: No, I’m just joking. So I think a few things happen. So one is we do an All Call. So, actually we just opened our application on March 1, and it’s going to be open into April. So, anyone who is interested right now can actually apply to be a Camelback Fellow. And we want ideas from all over the country. And so, that’s the first step.
And there’s a written application. You make it through that gauntlet, then there’s a few more questions; but then we start to have some conversations with entrepreneurs at this point. Anywhere between 400 and 500 people apply every year. We’d been taking 12 to 14 entrepreneurs, so we say no, unfortunately, way more than we say yes. But we’re working on changing that actually. And by next year, we will actually double the number of entrepreneurs that we support through the program, which in some ways is, I think, only a first step. But for us to go from 12 to 25 or 30 is going to be a big step for us. That’s one.
Two, in terms of when you get in the program, what we were just talking about before in terms of leadership, we have a curriculum and it’s centered on five things. And those five things include: learning how to pitch; learning how to hire because I think any great CEO doesn’t do it by him- or her- or themselves… the team that you build around you. And so we really try to teach them: What does it mean to hire really well, and what does it mean to manage a team? We go through some other modules around finance and around building relationships with stakeholders, and so on and so forth.
But the idea is that you leave with a set of skills. I think for us, it was just important if we’re going to take up people’s time, then we have to be adding value to them. And I think one of the things that we pride ourselves on is, when people ask about Camelback, like “What’s the Fellowship like?” or how it might be different from other programs, it’s that they actually learn some stuff about how to grow their company and grow themselves. And that’s what we really spend our time on.
Denver: How many entrepreneurs have been through Camelback? And let me ask you another part of that question as well, and that is: How are those founders doing? And I ask that in the context of COVID-19. Because these are early-stage organizations, and I know that’s when you’re just figuring out how to generate revenue, and then this pandemic comes along. How are they faring?
Aaron: So the number of entrepreneurs who have gone through Camelback right now is about 80 over the last six years. In terms of how they’re doing, we have over a 90% survival rate at Camelback. So, this is pre-pandemic. It’ll be interesting to see what happens a year, 18 months from now as companies try to make it through the pandemic, but that was definitely the case before COVID-19.
And one of the decisions we made last year in June was, when we finished our last cohort or class of entrepreneurs that we were working with, the schedule said that we should have gotten started working on investing in a new set of entrepreneurs, but the decision that we made actually was to put our program on pause for 12 months. So, in June, we stopped and we repositioned our whole program team to actually just focus on working with the entrepreneurs that were already in our portfolio for the reason that you just said, which was we know that when you’re first getting started, and even if you’re a couple years in, that’s still really early in the game… and COVID happens.
We were looking at the data sets early on. They were saying 20% of businesses were going to close because of COVID. What you were seeing in the Black community and other communities was that it’s 40%. And we looked at our work, and we said, “Well, statistically speaking, if we sat around and did nothing, the statistics say that 40% of our portfolio might not make it through COVID.”
So we raised a bunch of money. We repositioned our whole team. We made emergency grants to over 30 of our companies. We gave our team to be advisors and mentors and help them reposition their company. And we gave over a half-million dollars to our portfolio to help them ride this COVID piece through. And a lot of them have sustained, if not gotten stronger in this period. And so, we hope that they can keep that up, and we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Denver: We hope so.
Aaron: So I guess I’m feeling optimistic today. But yes, it’s hard, right? It’s hard. And we see the data out there around business, small business, of which in many ways, a startup still is a small business, and just how devastating it has been, and we didn’t want all of our work to go in vain, and we knew how important it was.
These are the times, like to me, where you make your reputation as an investor. It’s like in these times where I think your mettle is tested around: What does support look like for you as an investor when you’re working with companies?
The Guardian Summit is a way for us to build community with and for folks who believe what we believe around the importance of entrepreneurship, around the importance of supporting entrepreneurs of color, and the importance of leveraging our collective wisdom and power to create a better world.
Denver: That was a very nice pivot, I have to say, because often it’s hard for leaders to prioritize and focus and leave something at the door that they love so much, which is your next cohort, to make sure that what you have stays in place. And that’s easier said than done. So, kudos!
Let me ask you about a couple of your initiatives, starting with The Guardian Summit. What’s that?
Aaron: So The Guardian Summit is essentially a conference. It had a different name several years ago. We had run it as a conference under a different name. We repositioned it to call it The Guardian Summit.
And part of the reason that we did that was that we were really trying to change the tenor of what we’re trying to communicate in the audience that we wanted to build through having a conference. And for us, it was like, yes, there are a lot of conferences out there. We could have one, too, but what we really wanted to do was begin to create an identity for the people who are coming to our conference. And we wanted that identity to be around guardianship, around what was it going to mean for those people who are coming to be a part of our community, to help our entrepreneurs to advance a set of, I think, policy issues that surround social entrepreneurship; and how are they going to be the protectors of a better future?
And so, really The Guardian Summit is a way for us to build community with and for folks who believe what we believe around the importance of entrepreneurship, around the importance of supporting entrepreneurs of color, and the importance of leveraging our collective wisdom and power to create a better world.
Denver: And for Black History Month, Aaron, you launched an interactive next-in-line social media campaign. What was the objective? What is the objective of that?
Aaron: Definitely. So, in many ways, it was an extension of something we had started at the Guardian Summit in March of 2020. So, we were very lucky. We had this conference, the first Guardian Summit, days before the country really shut down. But at that conference, the theme was around this idea of a generational inheritance. And for us, what we were trying to say is that: We can talk about money. And money is often the thing that we think about when we think about inheritance, but there are so many other things that we pass down that mute, I think, the impact of money. And for us, one of the things that we are focused on is what happens when we just continue to pass down reinvented racism and reinvented other-isms that begin to mute the impact of money that’s being passed down to future generations.
And so, we were using Black History Month as a way to continue that conversation that we had started last year at the Guardian Summit to say: Yes, money is important, but oftentimes, particularly in communities of color where wealth often isn’t there to be passed down for a whole set of reasons that we can get into, also being able to acknowledge that we are still wealthy; and there are things that we get from our parents and our mentors and people that we look up to that they passed down to us. And how can we think about– particularly during Black History Month, and we’ve continued to campaign into Women’s History Month– about what we want to pass down to the younger generation?
Because you can pass down money, but I think for most of us, there’s a set of values and principles and policies that we want to pass down; and we want people to take Black History Month as an opportunity to really think about that.
Denver: Wonderful initiative. But I do want to get back to money for a minute because you were one of the beneficiaries of a very, very generous donation from MacKenzie Scott, of course, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos. First off, tell me how you reacted when you found that out. And then secondly, what’s it doing for the organization, and how are you using it?
Aaron: She is now a new wife, so–
Denver: New wife, right. A Seattle school teacher.
Aaron: She can have a new association, although she is her own person as well.
So when I… it was like manna from heaven. In a year where, in 2020, where there were just so many ups and downs, it was one of those things where we went into the pandemic scenario planning: What will happen if our funders cut their money? Or if they say, “Well, we have to pull back on our funding because the market isn’t doing so well,” which ironically happened.
But we spent those March, April, May really concerned about that, like “How can we stretch this money out? We don’t know what’s going to happen… How long this pandemic is going to last…” to meeting MacKenzie’s team and having that conversation and realizing that in a day, we got a near eight-figure gift — more money in one day that we had raised in the last two, three years. And it was like a whole new level of scenario planning. It was like, “Let’s scenario plan for our biggest and wildest ambitions of what we want to do as an organization!”
And we’re starting to do some of those things. So I had mentioned that earlier about us doubling the number of fellows. A big part is because of Mackenzie and her belief in what we’re doing around that work.
Denver: It is amazing. No matter how bold a leader is, we all have our own limiting beliefs that kind of keep us in place. And when those limiting beliefs begin to go away and expand, that is an absolutely great feeling, and it just runs through the organization, the adrenaline.
You’re a nonprofit organization. So you’re really familiar with philanthropic institutions. What are some of the changes you would advocate these institutions, foundations, and other givers make to help foster greater inclusion and greater equity, both in the sector itself and in society at large?
Aaron: So some of the things that I would advise foundations and other philanthropic institutions, or even people to do if they want to be more inclusive, is: one, track the data. Do you even know who you’re talking to? Do you know who you’re giving to? It’s hard to be more inclusive. It’s hard to even be able to evaluate your behavior if you aren’t even tracking that. And in a world where we track a lot of data, and foundations…as entrepreneurs and nonprofits track data, I think that’s one really simple data point to be able to track.
And that’s one of the things we talk about with philanthropists. We have a program called the Capital Collaborative, where we work with funders and philanthropists on this. And that’s one of the first things that we do, is we ask them to show us your numbers. They’re always asking grantees to do the same. And it’s one of those humbling moments I think for many people because you can have a vision of who you are and what you’re doing, but the data is right there. So I think that’s number one.
Number two is– we begin to see this more and more in the last year, which makes you realize that it’s possible and that rules can be changed — but to give more general operation dollars. So much is tied to projects and tracking budgets, and I just think to myself, the amount of money and extra work it takes for our team to track these budgets on a line-by-line basis, that could be money spent on actually doing the work. And then you play like this Tetris trying to figure out how to match all these dollars together.
Denver: It sounds like you’re twisted like a pretzel by the time you’re finished.
Aaron: And so I think that’s another thing. We’ve begun to see foundations do that, which is just like, “We’re going to give gen ops funding because we trust the entrepreneurs. We trust the grantees that we’re giving the money to, and they know best. They know what they need to use it for. They may think they need to use it for X, but the situation changes, and they need to use it for Y. Let’s focus more on the outcomes and be aligned on the outcomes and say “Where are we trying to go?” And then, “how can I use my resources to help you get there?”
And I think oftentimes, money is used as a form of control as opposed to a form of collaboration.
Denver: Yes. I think you’re right.
Aaron: I think that what we want to see is like: How can we use money as a form of collaboration as opposed to control?
Denver: Also, I think with project funding, too, there’s almost an assumption you have a crystal ball and that you know how something is going to work out. And by its very definition, it means you’re not going to learn anything since you submitted the proposal. So, therefore, there’s no adapting, there’s no changing, or whatever. You have to adhere to the contract more or less, and nobody operates that way, you know? Not in our lives, not in business, or anything else.
Aaron: That’s right.
Denver: You’ve done some really innovative things with the workplace culture at Camelback. Share a few of your favorites.
Aaron: Speaking of experimentation, we’ve experimented with all kinds of workplace practices, from having five-hour Wednesdays where you just come in for five hours on a Wednesday. And part of it was just that we– at least in my mind, “hump day” was never said with a positive tone to it. And so, we just felt like, “What would it look like if on Wednesdays we just did five hours together?” And it would kind of quasi-feel like a half day. It would give you energy for the second half of the week.
And also, I think it’s one of those things when you really look at it, how much time do we really spend — and this is pre-pandemic when people are going into the offices and stuff like that — how much time do you really spend at work? And then, so, in some ways, I think limiting the amount of time became a forcing mechanism to really force us to ask ourselves: What matters? What do I need to get done? Do I really need five trips to the water fountain today just because I’m not really sure what I want to do? Or I’m just procrastinating? And so, there was a season where we implemented that.
We’ve done other things. We believe in like unlimited vacation time. We feel like we’re here to get results and to work towards outcomes and not necessarily to be focused on “see time.” I’m not counting how many vacation days anybody on my team has. If you’re getting your work done, you’re getting no questions from me.
Denver: Well, it’s very consistent with what you just said a moment ago. If a foundation gives you unrestricted funding, it’s because they trust you. And very much along the same lines, when you give people unlimited vacation, it’s because you trust them. And that goes a long way, and it’s always reciprocal.
What have you learned about leading an organization through a crisis? About your own leadership during this past year? And what do you think you’re going to take away from it that’s going to inform your leadership in the future?
Aaron: I’ve learned a lot in these last 12 months. I haven’t been on a plane since March 10 of 2020, and that’s the longest I’ve gone since, I don’t know, sometime in 2014. And so, I’ve spent the last year at home with my wife, and I have two kids who are seven and eight, and this is the most time that we’ve spent together ever.
And so, I think one of the things that I’m taking away from this year is: you’ve got to spend time with your family. Time is not guaranteed, and we always think that there’s tomorrow and next month and next year. And that’s not to be morbid or anything like that. It’s just to suggest that at the end of the day, those are the people who were there for you.
And so, how can you as a leader, I think, make time for yourself to do those things, which I don’t think I was doing? And I think that has repercussions on my own energy level and my own happiness, and panned out like the circumstance I created, I think created a level of stress that sometimes made it not so ideal. But I have enjoyed every minute of being with my kids and my family. And I think that’s changed my own leadership.
I think the second thing I would say that I’ve learned in this last year is just like how we need to call on each other. We sort of intellectually maybe understand, maybe, the importance of community and what it means to lean on each other. But I think in this pandemic, we’ve really been forced to ask ourselves what kind of community we’re building, with each other, with your colleagues, and being able to empathize with each other, and pick each other up, and work through things.
And I know at Camelback that we… I think we’re awesome and doing great things, and then we’re also going through our own growing pains. And I think for me, it’s just like, “How can I show up as a leader every day, modeling the best that I can, but also trying to, I think, demonstrate a level of vulnerability for folks that allows them to step into the unknown?” And this whole year has been a series of unknowns. And so, I think sometimes there’s a sense that you as a leader have to like — and I think this is true anywhere — have all the answers. But there was no way that anyone can have all the answers. If your boss was looking at you telling you that they knew what was happening, I say you should not believe them.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, as you say it, you’ve learned how to deal with ambiguity because you’ve had to lead with no idea what was going to come next, but you still have to lead.
Aaron: Right. And I think you should ask my team on this, but I think what most people are looking for is, like, yes, a steady hand, but also just people leveling with them and saying “Here’s what I know. Here’s what I don’t know. And as soon as I know more, I’ll let you know. And if you know something I don’t know, tell me.”
Denver: Aaron, share with us something about the fabric of New Orleans that you would not fully appreciate or know unless you live there.
Aaron: Well, I’ve lived here for seven years, and most of my conception of Mardi Gras was based on MTV. And what I have come to know and learn and love is that Mardi Gras is really actually very family-friendly. It’s really for kids. There are some places that are not for children, but the vast, vast majority of them are family-friendly. And it’s about people in New Orleans and around the country and even around the world coming together to have fun and to celebrate.
And I think that’s something that if you haven’t been to New Orleans or you have a conception of what Mardi Gras is based on MTV or stuff like that, that you wouldn’t appreciate what I have appreciated about the city.
Denver: That’s very true. When I think of Mardi Gras, I don’t think about taking my 7-year-old or 8-year-old to it, but now I know I would be wrong.
Your baseball hero is Jackie Robinson, and he’s an inspirational figure to us all. But what particularly about him and his life resonates most deeply within you?
Aaron: So two things about Jackie Robinson really resonated with me. So the first is… well, three things. One is my favorite sport growing up was baseball. And so I think just the figure that he was in history in terms of breaking the color barrier just meant something to me as a little black boy growing up, loving the game of baseball. So that’s one.
Two is, most people know Jackie for breaking the color barrier in baseball. But one of the things I learned about him that is really inspiring to me is that he also, and this was, I’m probably going to get the year wrong, but in the ’40s before Rosa Parks, got court-martialed because he refused to give up his seat on the bus. And it was one of those things where it just made me realize what a principled individual he was. And oftentimes, we don’t necessarily know those parts of people, and I aspire to be as principled as he was.
And then I think the third is there’s a quote — and you know, I’m a suffering Mets fan.
Denver: By the way, I just want to interrupt — that ends this year. Just so you know. OK? I love their pick-up at shortstop, their pitching staff. This has got to be the year.
Aaron: Let’s hope. We’ve at least managed the playoffs and gotten some World Series, so it’s not like they’ve been terrible. But the last time they won the World Series, I was five.
So, if you go to Citi Field and in the portico at the entrance to the stadium, they have etched into the stone a quote from Jackie Robinson that says something to the effect of “A life is important to the extent that it has impact on others.” And I think I’ve just always kind of walked the world with that as my mantra, whether I was teaching, at law school, or doing what I’m doing now, which is how can I use this time that I have to have an impact on others and just use that as a North Star.
Denver: That’s great because that quote is so simple, but it provides clarity, and that’s what we all need, and it sure does.
Finally, Aaron, what’s next on the horizon for Camelback Ventures?
Aaron: Definitely. So, I mentioned some of them. We are going to grow the Fellowship so that we can support… double the number of entrepreneurs starting in 2022.
We have this program called the Capital Collaborative where we’re working with funders and philanthropists who are raising their hand and saying, “Hey, I want to be a better philanthropist. I know that issues of equity are important, but I don’t know what to do.” And so, we’ll be saying, “Well, let’s put you into a cohort-based experience with us, and we’ll show you. We’ll show you how we think about this at Camelback, what we’ve learned, what we’re still working on, and hopefully get more people who are invested in being equitable around their philanthropy, so that we can go from 4% on average of philanthropy going to entrepreneurs of color, to 40%.
And then the third thing that we’re working on is: we’re actually launching a fund, a for-profit early-stage venture capital fund. And part of that is just us looking at our portfolio and saying that there are a lot of great entrepreneurs who are receiving some funding, but not enough. And we think that there are actually great business opportunities in that. And so as opposed to sitting around, begging other folks to do it, we’re actually going to launch a fund ourselves. So we’re going to be launching a $30 million pre-seed fund, and we’re in the process of doing that right now.
Denver: That’s just a great addition. For those interested in learning more about Camelback, tell us a little bit about your website, the kind of information listeners will find there, and maybe how they can help if they should be so inclined to do so.
Aaron: Definitely. So, you can go to our website. It’s https://www.camelbackventures.org. And there you can, if you want to apply to the Fellowship, you can apply right now. The application is open. You can also learn more about our programs, whether it’s the Fellowship, or it’s the Capital Collaborative or it’s the Guardian Summit, and the work that we’re doing with that.
And there’s also a link there. One of the things you mentioned in the bio around Camelback that we provide coaching, capital, and connections. And I think the thing about this experience is that we are the problem that we’re trying to solve. Camelback as an organization started and led by a person of color, and the majority of the team is people of color and women in the social impact space. So all the things that we’re trying to do for our fellows, we’re trying to do for ourselves. And we live that every day, where we stay very connected to the problem because we also know that we need to solve it for ourselves before we can solve it for other entrepreneurs.
So anyone who is interested in investing in us with money or their time or their talent, we would love to work with them.
Denver: Well, trying to solve a problem for yourself first is what makes a great teacher because you can’t teach it otherwise unless you know it. I want to thank you, Aaron, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Aaron: Thank you, Denver. I appreciate it.
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