How are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Lenny Saizan: Fortunately, we’re doing well. Thus far, we’ve managed to avoid contracting the virus. Like everyone else, we’re learning to adjust our lives and do our best to stay positive and mentally strong. The most difficult thing for me is seeing everything that has been taken away from my kids and other young people, especially those at critical milestones in their lives, like high school or freshmen year of college. Those are the years that you will never get a chance to relive.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Urban Capital Network.
Lenny Saizan: I started my career as an automation and controls systems engineer after graduating from LSU with a degree in Electrical Engineering. I was involved in all phases of projects, including writing code, hardware and systems integration, and testing. After 7 years of intense work schedules and demanding travel schedules, I transitioned to become an e-commerce engineer during the tech boom and eventually launched my own consulting and technology business in my hometown of New Orleans. But Hurricane Katrina hit, which put all my clients and prospects out of business, so I evacuated to Houston and worked in a financial capacity within the Oil & Gas industry. I eventually moved into designing, implementing and testing financial controls which later led financial and operational internal audits. That transition was over a period of 10 years. About halfway through, I got an MBA from Tulane University with a focus on Finance. It was during that time that I developed an interest in Mergers & Acquisitions. I thought about pursuing a corporate M&A role, but instead opted for the entrepreneurial path and purchased a business brokerage franchise working with professionals who wanted to buy and/or sell a business.
I meet a lot of financial buyers who are looking for great investments but don’t necessarily want to run a business, and sellers who are looking to invest some of the proceeds from the sale of their business. It wasn’t long after starting my business brokerage firm that I also got involved in angel investing. I partnered with a life-long friend who was investing and advising several start-up companies and had access to consistent deal flow. I thought those deals could be an alternative investment opportunity for some of the clients I was already serving. It also seemed that my education and work experience was a good fit for evaluating early-stage companies. Our investment opportunities continued to expand, and eventually, we partnered with two other investors to form Urban Capital Network (“UCN”).
How does Urban Capital Network innovate?
Lenny Saizan: Our innovation and creativity are focused on making premium venture investments accessible and affordable to a more diverse group of people, with the ultimate goal of creating wealth and jobs in urban communities. We look for opportunities to partner with venture capital firms who see value in diversifying their limited investor pool and want to support economic and social impact. These firms reserve a portion of their fund and follow-on investment opportunities for UCN members.
UCN does all the heavy lifting to organize and raise a syndicated fund, and we write one check to the VC or portfolio company. We also commit a portion of our management fees to invest in underserved entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs typically don’t have access to family and friends who have money to invest their idea, and they never make it to the point where a VC would invest in them. With our model, the VCs are supporting social impact, diversity and inclusion without changing anything about their investment strategy. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Lenny Saizan: Just a month ago, I would have said it hadn’t affected us at all. From a pure business perspective, we’re still doing great. However, I’ve noticed that our productivity and efficiency has taken hit. The impact of not networking and meeting in-person is starting to manifest. Many opportunities and relationships develop from informal and happenstance encounters which we no longer have. We also meet less internally, which has had an impact on how we communicate and interact. But we’re starting to incorporate the use of more management and tracking tools which is helping us stay focused and on track.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Lenny Saizan: I made a difficult decision to step away from Corporate America and start my own business, yet it was more difficult to make the decision not to go back. Being an entrepreneur is not easy and mentally challenges you every day. There are times when you think about giving up or think that you can’t keep doing it, especially when you have a family and financial responsibilities. It is so hard to keep struggling to try to gain traction when you know that you have the option to look for a job. The one thing that keeps me going is knowing that I have control over my career, no matter what. That is something that I never had when working for someone else. I also learned that having a job does not equal stability. I was laid off several times in my career, and those times were more stressful than many of my days as an entrepreneur. Although there are struggles, I will never lay myself off. Looking back, I wish I had committed to entrepreneurship much earlier. When I was younger, I had more energy to sustain the hard times, and I was in position to take more risks because I had fewer responsibilities. This is something I preach to my kids. I want them to constantly look for entrepreneurial opportunities and try them early. If you try early, you fail early, and you learn early. You will eventually have success.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Urban Capital Network in the future?
Lenny Saizan: My stress reliever is exercising and working out. I do it daily before getting my day started. I work out at home these days due to Covid-19. My gym workouts were more intense and effective in relieving stress, so I’m hoping to get back in there soon.
I am excited about the future of UCN. I think we’re building a strong portfolio of investments and relationships that will have a wide and far-reaching impact on many people for generations to come. I think that we are building a self-sustaining model that will have a direct impact on diversity and inclusion in the early-stage and venture capital ecosystem.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Lenny Saizan: Essentially, anyone who is raising capital is a competitor. However, with regards to our mission, there are no competitors. I see anyone who has the same or similar mission as UCN as a partner or potential partner. The ultimate goal is to close the racial income, wealth and job gaps in the United States. We realize that we can’t do it alone. It will take participation, innovation and collaboration from everyone. If we can continue to foster strong relationships and create value for all stakeholders, there’s no reason that we won’t be around for many years to come.
Any final thoughts?
Lenny Saizan: Now, more than ever, is a time for innovation that will serve the greater good. The only way to do that is to include diversity in your creative teams. I encourage all innovators to partner with or seek input from people outside of their network who don’t share the same gender, race, religion or live in the same region. You might be surprised to find that their perspective, alone, adds value to your ideas and makes it much more inclusive.