Why Atlanta’s Talent Pool Makes the City a Powerful Startup Hub – Burunda Prince, COO of RCIE

We are continuing to explore the angel investing scene here in Atlanta, and where it is headed. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Burunda Prince, Chief Operating Officer at the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who shared her insight on angel investing here in the city.

Transcription:

Jim Fitzpatrick:
So, for those people that are watching right now that say Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship sounds like a big organization out there. Tell us what you provide to small business owners and entrepreneurs here are in Atlanta.

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely. Well, first of all, if you’re from Atlanta, the Russell name holds a lot of panache, holds a lot of cloud. You know the Russell family from investments in construction, real estate concessions, and so on. And literally, the way that the Russell Center came about is because the Russell family children wanted to honor the legacy of their father.

Burunda Prince:
And their father started as a plaster 70 years ago. And if you fast forward to 2021, you can see the conglomerate that he’s built, that his children are carrying on.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Ain’t that fantastic?

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely. So, it really embodies the story of what entrepreneurship is all about, and the transformation that can occur. So. The Russell Center, there we support roughly 130 black entrepreneurs. And you can be anywhere from having a concept, or an idea, or curious about how do I take that concept really from the back of a napkin and just thinking about it all the way to having a bricks and mortar, or an actual business? All the way to, I’ve been in since for five or 10 years. Maybe I’m making two or three million dollar right now.

Burunda Prince:
But I’m plateaued, or I don’t know how to make it more profitable. So, we’re really helping entrepreneurs wherever they are in their entrepreneurial journey. We have a team that is just amazing backgrounds and experiences. We’ve been doing this roughly for about two and a half years now. And we’re so excited to be able to help, not only black economic mobility in Atlanta, but the broader Atlanta community.

Burunda Prince:
And frankly, eventually we want to actually be able to be the place for black entrepreneurs in terms of thought leadership, whether it’s here in Atlanta, or Georgia, or across the country.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That is fantastic. Congratulations on all your success. To have 130 is just incredible right now.

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I know that means a lot to every one of those 130 to have a resource like the Russell Center, right?

Burunda Prince:
Yeah.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Because it means so much, especially in those early stages when you just don’t know what your next step is going to be, and if you’re making the right one.

Burunda Prince:
Exactly. And especially during COVID when things are uncertain anyway general.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Burunda Prince:
So, having a place where you can not only learn how to become an entrepreneur or perfect being an entrepreneur, but have a community of entrepreneurs along the way to support really makes a big difference.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, no question about it. So, we want to talk to you about angel investing. What are some of the supporting organizations that have been key in addition to the Russell Center to the establishment of Atlanta’s tech scene that you see out there? Because tech is, there’s people that are listening to you right now saying I’ve got the next great app, and I’m going to call Brenda right now and say, “Hey, I got to get over there.” But, what are some of the institutions that you identify out there?

Burunda Prince:
Well, you’d have to start with Georgia Tech, first of all. Because without Georgia Tech, there really would not be a tech scene here in Atlanta. So, if you fast forward, or if you look back historically, the impetus in terms of Georgia Tech with ATDC as an organization to really have the vision to say that Atlanta has all of the ingredients to be a successful tech hub was really the foundation.

Burunda Prince:
And then you look at people like Sig Mosley who really is called the grandfather, not because of his age, but because of his experience and expertise but of technology. Because he was one of the early investors that had that vision.

Burunda Prince:
And then if you couple that with other academic institutions, everything from Emory right now, which is certainly in healthcare industry, FinTech, if you go to Clark Atlanta University, or any of the HBCUs there as well. So, Atlanta has had a really rich and fertile opportunity to grow our technology innovation scene.

Burunda Prince:
And we’ve done it in a way that’s been very, very collaborative, which I think makes us different from some of the other tech hubs across the country.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. You’ve got these organizations like Atlanta Tech Village that just keeps cranking out so many great products and founders and such and helping them along the way, and there’s others. That’s just a partial list, right?

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That we went over. It is incredible how Atlanta has become that tech hub. I think there’s people … Certainly we’ve talked about this before, people in Northern California that are saying, “Well, how did that happen? How did we lose some momentum to Atlanta?”

Burunda Prince:
Yeah. Well, once again, because Atlanta is home to 11 colleges and universities, we have the largest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters here. We have a temperate climate. If you look at cost of living, your runway as an entrepreneur is going to last longer than it would say in Silicon Valley, or maybe in Boston, where’s it’s much more expensive.

Burunda Prince:
And then if you look at the talent pool, you look at the opportunity for customers in terms of corporations, it really has all of the mixture. And then I say our last bit of secret sauce and ingredient that none of the other ecosystems have is really our diversity. Diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, diversity of experience, and certainly diversity of people. And that’s something that you can’t find really at any other of the tech hubs across the United States.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, there’s no question about it. I completely agree. And the diversity is what makes us, I think, so special.

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
There’s no question about it. Investments being made in Atlanta tech companies have grown from a trickle into a nice river, right?

Burunda Prince:
Yes.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I mean, overflowing river nevertheless. How do you keep that flow going?

Burunda Prince:
Well, success beget success. So, when people hear about the success that someone is having in Atlanta, that automatically attracts people. It’s like you go to a restaurant and you see a long line of people out there, you kind of go like, “What’s going on in there? I want to go there …”

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Even—

Burunda Prince:
“… I want to be part of it.” Absolutely. You’d be willing to wait in that line just to see what’s there. So, Atlanta has started to have those kinds of success stories, everything from Ben Lee to Mailchimp. You can name big corporations that are having big impact across the country that really started out here.

Burunda Prince:
So, we’re having our own set of unicorns that are attracting other people. And then frankly, the other thing that we do so well, is we are open to lots of different possibilities. We have more verticals, I think, than most other places.

Burunda Prince:
So, again, FinTech, health tech, sports tech is really big here. We are a city of sports. We have more sports team, I think we have every sports here except for maybe one. I don’t think it’s [Batman 00:07:31], but it may be close except for one.

Burunda Prince:
And so, we are a city in a place where culture competition, curiosity, learning is really part of who we are. And the more we attract people from outside of Atlanta and welcome them in with their own ideas, and curiosity and their talents, the more that we stir that pot, and bring out the best in all of us.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I agree. There’s other cities, the mayor recently of Miami mentioned that he wants to be like Silicon Valley and also Atlanta. So, there’s other-

Burunda Prince:
We made it.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. There’s other people that are talking now about Atlanta as this incredible hub. But, we’re seeing more funds dedicated to companies led by diverse founders. How does this also benefit the Atlanta tech scene overall?

Burunda Prince:
Immensely. It gives us another point of differentiation, first of all. And then secondly, if you look at startup companies, it’s been proven that if you are a diverse company, or a diverse founders, you are financially 35% more successful than not.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Wow. That’s fantastic.

Burunda Prince:
And if you look at women, it’s 50% greater. So, there is a financial incentive for having a diverse company as well. And then you get the diversity of ideas, experience and all of those things where you’re looking at your perspective, and you’re also representing a broader customer base. So, you can bring all of that learning and expertise to making your company not only be better, but also more profitable.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, for sure. There’s no question. What are some of the diverse focused funds or programs that are making a big impact?

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely. So, Zane is one of the ones that comes immediately to mind. Not only is the fund from a diverse founder, a black woman, Shila Burney Nieves, but she also supports and invest in underrepresented groups of women, minorities, and so on, veterans. That would be one.

Burunda Prince:
Another one would be, if you look at even The Farm is one of the ones that is now with Comcast, NBC Universal, that is also focusing on underrepresented groups. If you look at their businesses across in terms of Startup Runway, which is here based in Atlanta.

Burunda Prince:
So, Atlanta has taken its point of differentiation and its sweet spot and really made it an advantage. And we have funds from other places coming in. Morgan Stanley has the multicultural innovation lab that is based in New York, but guess where they recruit a lot of their companies?

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right here.

Burunda Prince:
Right here from Atlanta. So, even in other places, Atlanta is making its name known. And you’re probably familiar with that phrase that Atlanta influences everything. And it is so, so true. Everything from music, to sports to technology, to politics. Atlanta really is one of those foundational, I will say, leaders of the world.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. It’s about time we’re here, right?

Burunda Prince:
Isn’t it?

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I mean, all of the things you just mentioned have been around a long time, but it seems like only in the last 10 or 15 years, have people begin around the country to take notice of that right?

Burunda Prince:
Yeah. Everything takes time.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I know.

Burunda Prince:
I think it started back in ’96 with the Olympics where we had to-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Good point. That’s right.

Burunda Prince:
… get the infrastructure, and now-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s a good point.

Burunda Prince:
… with the airport. And so, we needed some other ingredients. We had great ingredients in terms of people, places and things, but we needed some other things, and it just took time to get that. But now we’ve come into our own. It’s like a child finally growing up and realizing, “Wow, I’m an adult. And all the things that I can do.”

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Burunda Prince:
And so, Atlanta is not that regional Southern city anymore. Atlanta is on the global stage. And people flock here from all over for all of the reasons that we just mentioned.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. And it’s funny how we’ll bring people in from out of town to be on the show here and to contribute. And they’ll say, “Oh, Atlanta, that’s an easy airport. I got it, it’s an easy flight. From anywhere in the country-

Burunda Prince:
It is.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
… Atlanta is like an easy flight.

Burunda Prince:
It is. And another reason why businesses come here because you can fly in and out from Atlanta to get to anywhere thanks to Delta.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Burunda Prince:
Other places, but Delta-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
And if you go any place else, you got to go through Atlanta. One comedian recently said, “I think when you die, you’re going to go through Atlanta.” It’s so true, right?

Burunda Prince:
I agree. And when I … Every time I go there and I see our parking lot there, I’m like, “Yeah, there is a lot of people flying through Atlanta.”

Jim Fitzpatrick:
No question about it.

Burunda Prince:
I think it’s the busiest airport-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
It is.

Burunda Prince:
… if not in the world, certainly in the US.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. It’s incredible. So, why is Atlanta the best place to start a business and get funded? And that’s the key, right?

Burunda Prince:
Yeah. Because A, the spotlight is on Atlanta right now. There’s never been a better time. The spotlight is on us for so, so many different reasons. B we now have the experience and the expertise of, how do you grow successful entrepreneurs? We didn’t have that in the same way before, but now we know how to do it. Not that it’s a blueprint, but certainly we have the guidelines and the guide rails. And we have people who have done it successfully that can model and mentor and lead it.

Burunda Prince:
So, and then of course, again, in terms of having now successful entrepreneurs that can reinvest their own money into other businesses. You look at sports and entertainers, they’re not investing in real estate, they’re investing in entrepreneurship, and then in businesses.

Burunda Prince:
So, all of that right here in Atlanta just, I won’t say for the taking, but certainly it’s such a fertile ground for you to really access all of those resources that you don’t have other places.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
There’s no question of about it. It really is. And it’s so exciting to see. Well, when you see some of these unicorns, you already know that these founders that have come out of Atlanta, they worked in Atlanta, they built their companies in Atlanta, they’re going to reinvest back into Atlanta startups and entrepreneurs. And they know that it worked for them, and plus they’ve got a billion dollars.

Burunda Prince:
It’s their home.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Burunda Prince:
In fact, we just had the president or co-founder of Airbnb to visit the Russell Center yesterday.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Oh, wow.

Burunda Prince:
A native Atlanta—

Jim Fitzpatrick:
No kidding. Didn’t know that.

Burunda Prince:
—greater Atlanta area, from Gwinnett area.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I didn’t know that.

Burunda Prince:
And he was back, and now he’s looking at Atlanta, his hometown, he wants to support our community like everybody else in Atlanta does. We want to make our community stronger, bigger, and better. And the way that we do it is frankly, all together working.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. Did he stay in an Airbnb the night before, or-

Burunda Prince:
I Know. I think he flew in and out that same day, so-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
There you go. No Airbnb?

Burunda Prince:
No Airbnb.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
So, what do you see as the role educational institutions play in the ecosystem? How have educational institutions changed since the early days?

Burunda Prince:
So, the role of educational institutions is frankly critical, because it’s all about talent and pipeline. Without educational institutions … And if you look at any tech ecosystem across the country, the foundation there is definitely the talent pool. It has to have major colleges and universities there. And that’s why we’re so proud to have HBCUs, and have Georgia Tech in Georgia State, and Emory and Kennesaw State, and just Clayton State.

Burunda Prince:
There’s so many here for that talent pool that you have right there, literally in your background. So, whether you are a corporation looking for talent, or you are a startup founder that’s looking for a coder or a stack developer, you have that access to this right here. So, without the colleges and universities, we would not be the Atlanta that we are today.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I agree. No problem.

Burunda Prince:
And it’s changed. Now, again, success beget success. Because Georgia Tech was a regional player 25, 30 years ago when I went to college to become an engineer. But now Georgia Tech is also one of those global players attracting students from all over the country. Likewise, with some of the other colleges and university. So, again, the bigger and better we get the bigger and better we get.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. Now you’ve got students too that are choosing the institutions here in Atlanta because of life after college.

Burunda Prince:
Yes.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
And they’re saying, “Wow, I could spend four years at Georgia Tech, or Georgia State or whatever, any of these other great colleges and live there as well.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
So, many people, so many of their friends are down here just to-

Burunda Prince:
And they stay.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Burunda Prince:
Once they graduate, they stay. They get jobs, either summer jobs, so they get experience and exposure with working with corporations, or working in entrepreneurial environments. And they like it, and they like living here, and they absolutely, they graduate and they stay, which is a good thing for Atlanta.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. So, what do you think Atlanta could do to go from a mid-tier ecosystem to a top tier ecosystem?

Burunda Prince:
We’ve got to continue to be open. We’ve got to continue to be open and embrace our strengths. Atlanta can only be the best Atlanta. We can’t be Silicone Valley, let’s not even try to do that. We can’t be Boston, we can’t be Austin.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Who wants to be them anyway.

Burunda Prince:
Anyway, exactly. So, lean into who we, and what our strengths are, build on that. Be open to what the possibilities are in terms of creation, and look for those points of intersection. So, I think the greatest disruption in ideas come when you apply the experience of one, and you see if something else and the contexts changes.

Burunda Prince:
I mean, case in point with COVID, there’s so many companies that have been able to really soar during this time. Everybody from Amazon to any kind of Postmates or Target, those companies have been able to seize that moment. And certainly it was not something that any of us wanted, but let’s take those lemons and make lemonade out of it. And that’s exactly what these companies are doing likewise, with a lot of entrepreneurs.

Burunda Prince:
A lot of our entrepreneurs at the Russell Center have actually not only grown during this time, but they’ve actually really accelerated their growth during this time. So, it’s all about preparation, it’s all about persistence, knowing what your strengths are, and Atlanta can lean into that in a way that really no one else can.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. And during-

Burunda Prince:
Do I sound like a proud Atlantan?

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, you certainly do. You should run from mayor.

Burunda Prince:
That’s right. A native Atlanta from Southwest Atlanta.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That job seems to be open right now.

Burunda Prince:
Oh, no, I think-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
You would make a perfect academy.

Burunda Prince:
… that feel is plenty, like, it’s strong. I think it’s that’s they don’t need another one.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. And there are some things that Atlanta’s got to figure out, but I trust that they will.

Burunda Prince:
Absolutely.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
No different than any other major metropolitan city.

Burunda Prince:
Exactly. And, challenge makes us all better. No one gets better by being complacent, by having nothing to strive for. But, we have all the ingredients, and best of all, we have people who love our city, who want to make our city better than what it is, and who want to bring all of our talents and resources to make that happen.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Like Sig Mosley, right?

Burunda Prince:
Like Sig Mosley. Absolutely.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
We couldn’t have done it without him.

Burunda Prince:
Could not have, and wouldn’t want to.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. Well, Burunda Prince, Chief Operating Officer, Russell Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Thank you so much for joining us.

Burunda Prince:
Thank you so much. I have enjoyed talking to you.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Likewise. And hopefully we can have you back to do a follow up.

Burunda Prince:
I’d love to. And maybe I can bring a couple of my entrepreneurs with—

Jim Fitzpatrick:
You should actually have your own show on our network, but we’ll talk about that later. So, thank you so much.

Burunda Prince:
Thank you so much. Thank you.


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