Nicola Corzine (Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center)
Nicola Corzine, the executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, has been leading the Center’s activities since its inception in 2015. She is leading the Center’s strong focus on equitable entrepreneurship and shares in this conversation what can be done with research, teaching programs, and community to create improvements on both sides of the Atlantic.
Interviewed February 2021
Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center’s Priorities for Equitable Entrepreneurship
Erika Brodnock (EB): As the director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, could you tell us when and why it was established? What exactly do you do there?
Nicola Corzine (NC): I was brought on as the founding co-executive director in 2015, to lay the strategy for an independent non-profit supported and funded by Nasdaq. It truly changed the landscape of access to education and resources in the field of entrepreneurship.
Over the years, the Nasdaq Foundation has been making intentional investments in business plan competitions and mentorship programs across the US. At every single inflection point, Nasdaq always felt there was so much more that could be done because of the network and because of who they stood for in the world, but they did not want to run it directly themselves. For all the right reasons, they felt it should really exist as a standalone mission.
I was fortunate to be able to come in, figure out that strategy, build the operation, articulate what we stood for, and look at the entire landscape. I have an amazing team that makes this all easy, day in and day out. I work beside funders and foundations to really make a change in access and equity through this field.
Johannes Lenhard (JL): How has that research that you have undertaken shaped and influenced the position that Nasdaq has, specifically when it comes to listing companies going forward?
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NC: Entrepreneurship has been fairly well-studied in academic settings, but not so much at the practitioner layer. In many ways, entrepreneurship is one of the least patient industries, so the ability to slow down and look at the science to inform the art has not been the typical outcome. Case in point, if you think of the investor euphemism, “Within the first few minutes, I knew whether or not I was going to make an investment.” What was actually driving that consideration? If we are talking about “gut” being the gateway to acceptance, then what is actually happening behind the scenes? What is that gut? How do we scientifically explain what gut facilitates and what it does not, and perhaps more importantly, who is getting lost in that process?
To maximize inclusive innovation economies, sometimes the lessons to be learned come from not so obvious places. Take for example the public markets, where in recent years you’ve seen public sentiment drive greater responsibility and outcomes at an ESG [environmental, social, and governance] level of public companies. There is a recognition that all companies must drive towards greater social impact for their sustainability and the world.
Just to be clear though, we are learning from public markets, but maintain separation of church and state: we are not Nasdaq the entity, but the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, a public non-profit. We’re incredibly fortunate to have Nasdaq as a foundational donor and one of our greatest sponsors and champions. We were very pleased and proud of their moment earlier in 2021 when they facilitated intentionality around tracking board diversity with a lens towards really showcasing an index of great companies that were born with diversity in mind. Nasdaq also has the first female CEO of a financial institution of its kind. Adena Friedman is someone who is passionate about DEI; she is passionate about it being the driving force of the future of work, of economic opportunity and prosperity for all, and really pulling forward all communities in that conversation.
What we need to do from a research lens moving forward for the Center is create an environment where change is more than a moment, but generational. That’s the kind of longitudinal commitment that a non-profit such as ours is not only tasked with in its mission, but ultimately uniquely capable of driving a coalition of support towards achieving.
So, let’s take the lack of funding that flows to Black and Brown founders, as an example: less than 1%. We get super clear as to what are the barriers that persist around that systemic ecological challenge, and then we take a step back and say, “What else is getting lost in that construct?” While the conversation is often critical about venture, that’s not the only environment where minority entrepreneurs are left behind in the capital allocators arena.
A great example of that in some regards could be found with the stimulus funding of the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] program in the US, which did not flow at a diverse layer to all of the businesses that it aimed to serve. Was that bias that lived at the financial institution layer of banks? Perhaps in part. Probably more likely, in part, there was a lack of understanding or actionable research that could inform policy on how banking relationships and selection differ with different constituents and stakeholders in communities. The end result: the capital did not flow to the businesses that the government aimed to support.
In some ways it’s understandable: entrepreneurship by its nature of being wants to do, wants to build, wants to fix. But this triggers a very myopic approach that focuses on one specific issue area, and ultimately does little to fix the root cause of the problem. So, by not being patient in really understanding all the stakeholders involved in the problem, we end up contributing to the problem, because we just want to get in and either throw money at it, or make it better and get back to work. Only by slowing down to speed up can we really address a systemic, intentional, longitudinal change in an environment that continues to hit these kinds of barriers and obstacles along the way.
The Importance of Prioritizing the Individual
EB: In that vein of slowing down before you speed up, what are some of the key evidence-based programs and initiatives you have developed at the Center? Which of those are you most proud of? Have you been seeing any results that you would like to showcase?
NC: Contrary to popular belief, we are less focused on businesses and much more at the individual, human, flourishing layer of entrepreneurship. When we look at the detrimental outcomes, like the recent passing of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, entrepreneurs are really dealing with the fact that there is perhaps no lonelier journey than the journey they’re on. If in fact, our job is to protect and value the system surrounding the entrepreneur’s journey, then we need to make sure that we are standing up a whole system of support around the individual. Businesses will go and flux, ideas will come and go, but the individual is probably going to go do this more than one time. How do we really build up strong, intentional entrepreneurs that can continue to go down this path and realize their maximum potential to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs?
We have framed more of a responsive support system, amplified by near peers. We do not focus on any one industry, geography, or environment, we actually find that there is greater trust and greater confidence that comes by being in a room of learners from different industries. Their ability to lean in and see new opportunities in front of them from different perspectives is infinitely more likely. That is amplified because of the diversity that the Center has had at its get-go. With 51% women and 70% minorities, there is not a class or a workshop or a learning environment where diversity and diverse thoughts, perspectives, backgrounds, and ideas are not always surfacing.
Since everything that the Center does is free, we are building up a pay-it-forward mechanism where even inside of the environment, they have to commit to supporting one another. That is perhaps the ultimate “aha” we’ve learned along the way. Great mentors, advisors, and industry experts are amazing to inspire and guide, but nothing can beat near-peer amplification. We found, for better or worse, that the best way to facilitate learning can come by being inspired by front-of-the-class learning. Yet, the most intentional outcomes happen when you are learning from someone who has just gone through a problem ahead of you. That builds up trust, and it builds up confidence in really intentional and transformative ways.
We believe entrepreneurs need to define their own paths of success. It is not for industry to define it; it is for themselves. Most of the time, it is not just financially driven. With our 35,000 entrepreneurs that we have now worked beside, seven out of ten times there is deeper motivation going on, there is an intention of wanting to better a community, wanting to provide societal outcomes that are our driving factor as well. If we can find these motivations, we can get them the tactical and practical help that they need at a subject matter layer of expertise, but also make sure that they have got someone betting on them as a leader, and an individual.
It is ironic in some ways that in the industry, we celebrate only the successful having access to business coaches. Yet the ways in which it can make the biggest difference is early on in the trajectory of an entrepreneur. We have chosen to give that earlier on in the journey, and what we are seeing are much greater outcomes, again, at that self-efficacy level, and certainly at that confidence marker.
Confidence of a founder can drive the best outcomes; one of the KPIs that we care about is whether we are building more confident founders who can drive towards figuring things out, because they are the ones that have to do it. They have to believe in themselves above all else, if they are going to make it.
Lack of Transparency Holds the Industry Back
JL: What lessons have you learned over the years as an investor, what has changed, and do you feel we need to see more progress urgently?
NC: When I first started, the Angel Capital Association (the equivalent of the National Venture Capital Association) was not even imagined. Angel investing was almost a dirty word of sorts among VCs. Now accelerate to where we are: we know the volume of dollars flowing into seed stage deals at an angel versus venture level are typically three to one—some reports show even higher. The number of businesses that are supported by angels far outweigh the number of deals that will ever get funded by venture because of the nature and the way in which the deals look at exit and liquidity.
Band of Angels is the oldest angel investment group in the United States, celebrating a tremendous history and record. I was very fortunate to have the first year working beside an individual who is recognized as largely being the original angel investor in American history, Hans Severiens. Hans was always one to say to me, “We invest in people that we want to be invested in, and the friendships and relationships of what they stand for far outweigh any returns we are going to get.” What I did not appreciate was how in tune one had to be to connect with individuals, and the questions that matter versus the ones that don’t.
Hans and every other investor that was part of Band were senior operating individuals, founders of the most notable companies in Silicon Valley: Hewlett Packard, Symantec, the list goes on and on. I had them as my mentors and my guides, helping me understand what talent looked like and what innate qualities must always be present. I learned why credibility was the number one reason that founders got funded, and why if you showed for a moment that you did not have that credibility within you, we were going to turn away from that deal in a heartbeat.
But that’s not the narrative that entrepreneurs are told—if anything, quite the contrary! On the one hand they’re told, “put up a chart, claim you are a billion-dollar unicorn company,” that is all that is needed. Obviously, when you start to try to get an understanding as to what that number means, it all crumbles away like a pie, and the entrepreneurs are left shaking in their boots. The investors walk away going, “We are not going to fund you, you do not know what you are talking about.” The truth is, the industry largely has told entrepreneurs “you need to play this game,” but then we don’t share the rules. So how can they really be set for success?
Inspiring Opportunity through Capital
When I come back to the untapped talent that is not yet being funded, with our Black and Brown founders in this country and across the world, what I realized is, nobody ever said, “There is this game, here are the rules. This is how you do and do not play it if you want to succeed.” We are starting to get better within the industry. We are starting to realize the unfairness of the game, or perhaps the cheating that goes on behind the game.
There still remains some uncertainty that lives behind the magic of the industry, and this uncertainty is, “What is that gut?” If I go back to that earlier comment, of knowing if you are going to fund a founder within two minutes. Why are we making that determination? Is it purely pattern matching? If it is, shame on us.
Another thing I definitively say about the industry is we are celebrated in some regards, and yet we get it right one out of ten times: everywhere else, you would have been fired decades ago, if you ever got it right one in ten times.
To a certain degree, our job within venture is to inspire more opportunities for future entrepreneurs to lean in, because we are not always going to get it right. If you can find entrepreneurs who are going to build great legacy and build more entrepreneurs of the future, then you are investing with a healthy return. There are two axes that matter: the right time to exit, and the amount that is returned to you upon exit.
Angel investing is perhaps a more honorable field to a certain degree, because it is one’s own money rather than other people’s money. You get a better sense of truth when it comes to what drivers matter. More often, we would see entrepreneurs that we would love to fund when we know they would be making a 3X return in a five-year period. The jobs that were being created, the opportunities and innovation that were being born, and the inspiration for future innovation to come from those types of moments was highly valued. The time span of these returns was both justified and good. I would not mind getting a 3X return in that kind of time period every day of the week.
Improving Access to Capital
EB: If you were president for a day, what would you mandate? What is the one thing the whole ecosystem could do to improve access to those who are currently being overlooked?
NC: We always said the one market you can never change as an entrepreneur is how many hours there are in a day and what you can do in one day. Prioritizing your time and knowing where to lay your efforts is one of the entrepreneur’s greatest challenges. I wish there was an environment from which we could all agree on what could and should be tracked when it comes to fair performance for our entrepreneurs.
It is a declining environment for entrepreneurs because we have changed the goalposts a thousand times in the field. Once upon a time, the American Dream stood for something radically different than what it does today. As the daughter of an immigrant entrepreneur, and having started three companies in the US and abroad, I know like many what the opportunity to dream means. I believe, like many, that all ideas should be valued, that the opportunity to be a part of the entrepreneurial economy should be within reach of all, and that we all suffer when that doesn’t occur.
Eight out of ten times when I meet an entrepreneur, they say to me, first and foremost, I am not a “real” entrepreneur. When I lean in to ask them why, they say because I do not look like—and I do not mean to pick on Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or any of them—but they say because I am not like that. My ideas aren’t that big. I’ve always felt the term “incremental innovation” has limited our potential to recognize the exponential growth afforded by community entrepreneurs. I’d like to re-imagine that scale and appreciation of impact made possible through all entrepreneurs.
I realized that we have let the narrative of entrepreneurship be shaped and shifted by media more than we have by policy, and we celebrate only those that produce a certain kind of result, as mandated by a market cap or some other experience, above and beyond what entrepreneurship actually stands for. If I was president for a day, I would come in and create a fair standard that prioritized the true meaning of entrepreneurship, and had us all take a step back and realize entrepreneurs are amongst all of us. They are all equal. All ideas are valuable in the world, and innovation is a currency that we all must contribute to.