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🎙Podcast: Backing Bold Ideas with Maya Ajmera and Felecia Hatcher

“I have never been in a convention center where you see more diversity, more different hues of skin color. Half of them being young women innovators. That is what the future looks like in my opinion.” – Maya Ajmera

Maya Ajmera is the President and CEO of the Society for Science, which works to promote the understanding and appreciation of science, and the vital role it plays in human advancement. Felecia Hatcher is the CEO of Pharrell William’s Black Ambition Opportunity Fund, a set of prizes to fund bold ideas and companies led by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs.

Tune in to this episode to hear Maya and Felecia connect their vast experiences building inclusive opportunities for communities of color, discuss tips for navigating the transition between ventures, and share advice for emerging leaders seeking to raise capital and build networks.

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Episode Transcript

MAYA:
Felecia. It is so wonderful to have this conversation with you today. Can you tell me just who you are and the titles that you think best describe who you are?

FELECIA:
Yeah. Ooh. Well, one, I’m honored to be in conversation with you today. You know, being a mom of two is the title that I hold highest, right, and closest to my heart. My professional title is the CEO of Black Ambition which is an amazing organization founded by Pharrell Williams to fund Black and Latinx and HBCU start-up founders and really give them kind of unprecedented access to dollars and resources and people to accelerate their companies, wherever they are in the United States. And so we do that through a prize competition.

MAYA:
I just remember meeting you and just being in awe because you were this— One of the things I remember is that you had founded several other organizations, like you were just on a rampage. I just remember telling you about the organization that I run, The Society for Science and being the publisher of science news and the importance of making sure that every young person in this country can become a scientist or engineer or innovator, if that’s what they want to be when they grow up. And making sure that those opportunities are there. So I felt like you are a kindred spirit in what you do.

You know, when you say, what titles do you think best describe yourself? I think of those titles as well as being the mom of a nine year-old—she’s going to be nine next Tuesday. But I think of being a mom first, wife and family member, as they say, second, and then third, the organization I run today.

I want to go into the organization you run today, and you told us about the mission, but can you go a little bit deeper into what the organization does and how you are finding this extraordinary talent and innovators throughout the country?

FELECIA:
At its core, we’re funding brilliant ideas that have been overlooked through a national prize. And a lot of partners and people help us identify those founders that have been overlooked that are building really brilliant companies that have culture as an asset in what they’re building and how they’re building it. They’re building teams, they’re building community, but they’re building the innovation of tomorrow as well. Right.

And for so many of our entrepreneurs that are either tapping into programs or resources, we’re finding that a lot of them are over mentored and underfunded. And so both of those things need to happen simultaneously. Right? They need the respectable level of funding and not just kind of like a charity check for a for-profit, right? Like they need the right amount of funding so that they can scale, so that they can actualize their ideas, so that they can hire, so that they can buy.
And then they also need high-level mentoring. And so not just someone that can say yes, this idea is a good idea or a bad idea, but like, I can make the right introduction for you so you’re sitting at the right tables and not wasting your time. Right. I can give you a glide path into the back door to how these things really work. That has been some of the strengths of our program at its core.

Right. And then really kind of giving them permission to think more expansive about what they’re building, why they’re building, and who they’re building it for. And so, you know, one of the questions that we ask all of our entrepreneurs in the very beginning is, you know, “What does the world look like 50 years from now as a result of the work that you’re doing today?” As a result of the companies that you’re building. Like, we want you to be thinking, not just to the next round of funding, but like, how does the work that you’re doing actually have an impact on the world when you may not be here anymore to see it, which is very much like the Martin Luther King’s, the Gandhi’s right?

Like they were doing this work. They were waking up every single day and they were not alive to— Right at the time may not have been alive to see the fruits of their labor pay off, but they still woke up every single day anyways. And that for us is like the embodiment of our entrepreneurs. Like you’re building something so much bigger than yourselves and how will the world benefit as a result of that?

MAYA:
That’s wonderful. You know the work that you’re doing now and also your previous organization speak so boldly to the work that, you know, I’ve been doing over the last 30 years. But you know, today The Society for Science really looks for the next generation of innovators—STEM innovators throughout the world.
And we’ve been doing this for 80 years. And so when we look at the individuals that have come through our competitions, the Science Talent Search now sponsored by Regeneron, the International Science and Engineering fair. You know, we have 13 Nobel prize winners to boot. We have oodles and oodles of individuals that have founded companies from Biogen to Amgen, to Regeneron, to Toast, to Editas Medicine, to Modern Fertility. And what we have to do is provide more access for young people to have the opportunity to dream and dream big, frankly. And to solve the world’s most intractable problems, Felecia. I mean, you know, that’s sort of, you know, this marriage of sort of the, as you said, the social entrepreneurship with capital markets and trying to open those doors.

**

FELECIA:
What keeps you excited about this work? Right. So like, I understand the innovative nature of it but tell me what else about Maya the person that keeps you excited to wake up in the morning and like tackle the problems and create the opportunities that you do.

MAYA:
I think one is people. I mean, I am very attracted to people. It’s an incredible gift to be able to meet young people and all people that are really thinking outside the box and taking enormous risk and want to do good for the world.

You know, you and I both have built something from scratch in our previous journeys. And we understand the sweat equity it takes, right. It’s sweat equity. It’s sweat and tears and there’s also enormous joy. And so I feel like it’s about paying it forward to a certain degree, but I also think it’s a lot of fun.

FELECIA:
It is, you know, like I remember having this kind of like a just like a rough patch a few weeks ago. And I sat down and I like calmed down. And then I was just like, you get to do this. Like you get to do this. Right. And not everyone is afforded the opportunity to have an idea– have the resources or enough of the resources at arm’s length, to be able to put things together, ideas together, people together, structure, processes, funding to build a thing that ultimately is helping other people. Right. But like that process of like, you get to do this, and then when you say Maya, like, and it’s fun, right? Cause there’s that, oh, the other side of it too. Like you can get so in the weeds of all the things that you have to do or build or get frustrated with but then like there’s still a sense of joy in the work that you do.

It’s so refreshing to hear that because you have such a, just a dope career, first of all. Like there’s another way to say it, like, but like such a long career of impact and getting people into this space and building upon it. Day by day and person by person that you guys reach and touch and support and hearing that you still find time to carve out joy for yourself and your team is something I would just love you to talk about a little bit more. Like, what does that look like for you?

MAYA:
So we work with middle schoolers to high school seniors, right? And they are some of the best and brightest coming from rural Mississippi to urban Chicago, from India to Ghana, to Zimbabwe. And seeing them present their project and to communicate that with such passion and energy, it’s a high, it’s just such a high.

And then to see– The International Science and Engineering fair is the largest pre-collegiate STEM competition in the world. We have 2,000 kids compete for $5 million in prizes from 80 countries, regions, and territories. It’s a kumbaya moment for me. I have never been in a convention center where you see more diversity, more different hues of skin color. Half of them being young women innovators. That is what the future looks like in my opinion.

And so you know, that’s sort of the similarity right? Of, you know, the work that you’re doing in terms of, you know, these competitions, right? And seeing individuals that have worked very hard, really hard to be on that stage and to making sure that they’re heard and that they’re valued and getting them the capital that they need to be able either to go to college or to continue their innovation or whatever the case is.

FELECIA:
Absolutely. Yeah. And you know, that, that resource magnetism of just like, let me show you some steps so that you can become a magnet for everything that you need and that it starts coming to you, right. It starts coming to your community and you don’t have to leave your neighborhood in order to feel smart or access tools and resources and dollars.

**

FELECIA:
So, another Echoing Green Fellow, Kathryn Finney, I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to meet her, but you built something that was your baby, right? I think most of us call like our first business, nonprofit, like our baby. And then at some point you’re just, you get to a point where like, okay, I’m ready to do something else or I’m ready to like build something else.

And I was at that point really two years ago when it started circulating, but made the transition last year. You know, you did that as well. And I bring up Kathryn because she wrote this article on LinkedIn and what she said at the beginning of it, it was like, “I have built things and I will build again.” And like, I kept reading that, like, I don’t know, I probably read that live at least a hundred times because, you know, when you pick up something that it just, the moment that you needed to read it, you needed to read it. Right?

Tell me a little bit about when you knew it was time to leave The Global Fund and do something else. Tell me a little bit about like what you were feeling.

MAYA:
So I always had this important thing in my mind going through is that I didn’t believe founders should stay with their organizations forever. I don’t know if it’s a value or just something I felt very strongly about. I felt that if the organization is truly going to be a global institution and survive and be around in a hundred years, it’s got to be run without its founder. Okay. And I think at the 14th year mark, I started thinking about that very seriously. and it was hard, Felecia. It was not easy.

There were several other things I was going to be turning 40 soon. I had just gotten married. We wanted to have children. My doctor said, “You need to take some time off.” I hadn’t had a sabbatical. I had been running at this speed for 17 years and you know… You need to rejuvenate. So I went on sabbatical and I was at the Paul Nitze School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, I wrote a book, started teaching. I had a baby.

And I won’t mince words to say that Global Fund for Children went through its ups and downs after I left. But I will say this now, in the last four years there’s nothing better than a founder to revel in the wondrous growth and and beauty of the organization they’ve built. Like I just have a huge smile on my face. Like, wow, I built that. That’s so cool!

How about you, Felecia? You’ve started these organizations. How did you come to that realization? That it was time to move on. And how did that feel and how do you feel today?

FELECIA:
Ooh. I, to a certain extent, I feel like I’m still in the middle of it, right. Because it’s not been a full year. But you know, after I had my son, I, well, right before I had my son, I had just went through a really bad bout of like burnout. And like, I had to ask some really big questions of myself. Right. You know, I think externally I was winning, but internally I was not, right. My body just was like, “Girl, you need to like chill out. You need to sit down.” And then I’d finally made the decision, you know, it’s time for me to transition. I felt that I had done all that I could do and the way that I best know how to do it for my organization. And I felt the most responsible thing that I could do was you know, start planning on to leave.

But I think one of them, if we can talk about mistakes. In the early days of branding, when you don’t have a team, you don’t have any resources, you don’t really have any contacts. It’s like, well, let me build this thing or build the brand to be respected. So I get the phone calls answered so we can get the resources, build it around me. And then that’s good to a certain extent, but you got to transition from that as soon as possible so that people respect the organization. Right. And so, you know, when I was starting to pull back, that was really hard because when I would send my team to meetings without me, it was always, “Well where’s Felecia? We don’t want to make this decision without Felecia.” And so that became really hard to like… Well, how am I ever going to transition from this If no one is respecting anyone else on my team but me? And so the first thing that I felt, I was like, well, I have to set a date, like at the end of this year. And the next year I am going to transition because if I keep kind of hanging on the sidelines, I won’t be able to ensure a healthy transition.

And then from there it was like talking to quite a few people who had also done it. Right. And asking their opinions on, like, “How did you do this? How did you do it in a smart way? How did you get over the fear that everything was going to crumble when you did decide to make a decision that was ultimately in the best interest of the organization?”

And then it was having my son and then being in the hospital for an extended period of time after having my son, that was just like, you have to make the decision. And I would say the last part of that mentally just as an individual was, who am I without this title and who am I without this work? And am I okay not being this thing anymore? To be honest, it took a full year of like, kind of removing myself or kind of shedding aspects of that identity… But I think the biggest, hard conversation was having that conversation with myself was saying now is the time. And so that’s why when I read that article from Kathryn at that time, and I had had a conversation with Kathryn, actually reading it at that moment where she was just like, I’ve built things and I can build again. I think that’s the other part of like, you know, you said you spent what, 17 years building something. And then there has to be that feeling in the back of your mind was just like, well, can I do this again at the way that I did it?

MAYA:
Felecia, I didn’t think anyone would ever hire me. I literally thought, okay, I built this thing, but who would ever hire me? What skills do I have? It was like a complete imposter syndrome. So Felecia, I totally get where you’re coming from. This is hard stuff and we don’t talk about it as women either… That there are other things—like you just said you had a baby, you know, and was in the hospital for a while. You know, I had a child as well. Being a mom, I mean, all of those things provide an added sort of layer of complexity to this work.

**

MAYA:
I want to go back to one thing we haven’t talked about, Felecia. And that’s really about how it all started for you, you know, the moment of obligation. What was that, that got that spark that led you on the journey that you’re on?

FELECIA:
I mean, there were a few things. One was being a C student in high school. And like my guidance counselor telling me I’d never make it to a college or a university and then setting out to prove her wrong. I won like $130,000 in scholarships as a C student. I think when I graduated high school, my GPA was like a 2.7. But I learned like there’s more than one pathway to success and that had followed me throughout my career.

And so when Derek and I were, we were running a food company in Miami at the time. We would get invited to all the entrepreneurship things. And we would be the only ones that look like us in the room. And we were like, we just know so many really brilliant people that have their head to down they’re building companies, but they’re not understanding the way networks work and relationships work. And we need to be able to do something about that. And so we started to build the community. And then coupled with the fact that we also realized that, you know, both of us having technology backgrounds that we wanted to train, at the time our employees. We knew that they weren’t going to be in the food business with us forever. We weren’t going to be in the food business forever. And they were all high school students from like the Overtown and Liberty City area of Miami. And we wanted to train them in the most marketable skills possible.

And so we were like, we’re going to host like a coding bootcamp, just a day. We’ll teach you how to code, like in just a short bootcamp. We’ll bring all of our friends that are in tech and they’re going to talk to you, we’ll buy pizza. We only expected like our employees and like bring some of your friends. We expected to have like 20 people but like over 80 people show up that day. And we’re like, “Oh my gosh, like, what is this?” But no one was investing in the Black community and making sure that they were learning how to code, that they were a part of like an active participant or a financial beneficiary of like Miami’s tech and innovation community when it was just starting to sprout up.

For me, that was the moment of obligation, right? Where you kind of, you look out and you see a problem much bigger than yourself. And you ask yourself, if not me then whom, and when you cannot answer the whom part… That’s your moment of obligation and say, “I’m either going to be okay with seeing this problem continue to fester and I can do something about it, or I’m going to do something about it.” And that was for us how it first started. What about you?

MAYA:
So my moment of obligation was I received a fellowship out of college that allowed me to travel from South and Southeast Asia. So I traveled from Thailand to Pakistan for a year. And I was in India, and my parents are originally from India, but I was on a train station in northeast India. The town called

Bhubaneshwar and I got off—It was a hot dusty day and train stations in India are really chaotic places. But on this train station platform, among the chaos I saw 50 kids sitting in a circle learning how to read and write.

And there was a teacher in the middle teaching them with flashcards and these children were obviously destitute and they had siblings, baby siblings in tow. And I asked the teacher— I spoke Hindi. My friend spoke the native language Oriya— but we were able to ask the teacher, “What’s going on here?” And the teacher said, “These children live on and around the train platforms. They work, they play, they beg, they sleep, but they don’t go to school.” And a teacher was walking by every day and said, “How do we get these kids to school?” And so she decided, the social entrepreneur Inderjit Khurana, that she was going to bring the school to the train platform. So she brought a basket of magic with, you know, some chalk and slates and puppets. And she had one kid come, then two, then four, then eight. And that became a train platform school.

And I asked this teacher, I said, well, what does it cost to run one of these schools? And she said—at that time in 1990, it was $500 a year with two teachers and a hot meal every day. And I said, “Are there more train platform schools all over India?” She goes, “No, there are a few around in the city at the different trains but no.” And it’s there that I had that moment. One, how do I help? And two, how come I don’t see more train platform schools? In my more sophisticated social entrepreneurship language, how do you get capital into the hands of really innovative grassroots organizations? And how do they become scalable and sustainable in their work?

I went with that moment and went to the School of Public Policy at Duke University. I started getting my master’s and I read about all the things I needed to learn, and then just decided to found the organization. And I founded before we made our first grant, which was to the train platform school. I actually said we were going to start a social enterprise, which was our children’s book publishing venture. And I wanted to do that because growing up in eastern North Carolina, books were my friends, but I never found anything that spoke to me. I never saw the images of me in books. So I wanted to create children’s books that showed kids that they were part of a global village.

So, the first book I remember, we got our first royalty check and we decided to give it to the train platform school. And then over time, the organization has invested over $50 million in 900 innovative community-based organizations over its 25 plus year period.

**

MAYA:
I want to go back to this, this idea of the networks, right, that you’ve built over time. And, and when you go and build these networks and you’re trying to make investments in these extraordinary innovators through your work, what has helped you navigate the world of philanthropy and donors and fundraising? I’m very curious about that because it’s hard work putting out your tin cup over and over again. What tips or tricks have you picked up that have helped you navigate this world?

FELECIA:
I don’t know if I’ve gotten it down to a science because I had to learn some really hard lessons about the proximity to power and wealth and what that means in philanthropy. And I stumbled a lot along the way. And I think it’s also growing up and not fully understanding the power of money. You know, I work with startup founders all the time that are in front of, you know, investors, in front of people that don’t look like them. And the power dynamics that ensue when they’re needing the funding from someone that may not necessarily understand the depth of what is required in order to do the work.

And I say that because a lot of those entrepreneurs and even myself had a toxic relationship with money, you know, just did not fully understand the way that it works. How to ask for it, the power of relationships, doing the work, explaining the work, keeping and maintaining and being asset framed and how you talk about your community. But then also realizing that a lot of philanthropy is deficit framed in how we describe the same exact people. Echoing
Green definitely helped. It definitely helped just kind of understanding how to talk about the work, how to talk about ourselves, how to talk about the power, the strength, the understanding, the empathy that we bring to this work.

But I raise a lot of money and I feel like I’ve gotten good at it, but I still struggle. I’ve learned a lot. So I share a lot with founders and entrepreneurs and other social entrepreneurs about making sure that you’re asking for the right amount of money. This is not a place where you overpromise at all. I’m still learning lessons about proximity to power, even right now as we fundraise, as we successfully fundraise but just realizing that…. Money is just a really interesting thing. It just really is, especially in this space. What about you?

MAYA:
So I’ve been, you know, raising capital for a long time and it’s still as hard as it was when I started out. I would like to say that things have changed, but it hasn’t. How many pitches do you make? You make 10 pitches and possibly you get two that are interested in and hopefully one gets funded. And that can be exhausting over time, right?

**

MAYA:
So, then let me ask you this, you know, where we are today and the work that you’re doing… Can you think about a specific trend or innovation in the field of Black tech or STEM that excites you but also is worrying you?

FELECIA:
The access more than ever before, right? More than ever before, the access. Enough of, you know, the Black and Brown community understanding the context of the moment that we’re in so that they can do something with it and about it. That excites me more than anything. I think we’re much farther along than when my husband and I entered this space eight years ago. We’re farther along in people understanding how to unlock the opportunity and, then more than anything, how to be financial beneficiaries of that. And so that we can start to see economic changes in our community. You know, when we first started the work, there was like, “Hey, let’s figure out the tech thing and the STEM thing,” but then it wasn’t connected to economic development and economic impact in communities. And we’re starting to see that much more.

MAYA:
You know, I think you’re absolutely on target with what you’re saying. You know with our outreach and equity work that we do at the Society for Science. You know, we reach millions of students. We’re starting to see the fruits of that of, you know, kids of color that are winning at these competitions. The question for me that keeps me up at night, are the dollars going to continue? And, you know, the disconnect for me to be honest with you has always been the companies that say, “We need great talent. We need diverse talent.” Well, if you need diverse talent, you need to start very quickly and you need to start soon. And you need to start in your public education system. That goes all the way up to college, frankly. And that is where I’m not seeing the dollars. They speak a good, a good game, but they’re not actually investing the way they need to be.

FELECIA:
No, I agree with you on that. That’s the question that I’ve been asking. Like, and so since I don’t know about a year now, right. Miami has been thrown into the thrust of like all tech communities and ever since our city mayor tweeted, like, how can I help? Right. And my question has been to everyone with this tech boom, with everyone moving to Miami and all these tech companies. You know, how will the community be better as a result of this tech boom? You know, will we see increased investments in our K through 12? Will we see our lowest-performing schools start to perform or outperform some of our other schools? Like these are the things that should happen as a result of this tech boom coming to our community.

**

MAYA:
I want to ask you as we’re starting to, you know, finish this conversation. When your work is done and your mission has been achieved, what will the world look like?

FELECIA:
You know, the quick answer is the world would not need any of the organizations that I founded. If my mission is done and achieved, it would not need that. There would be true equity, true respect. Our communities would be competitive and thriving and it wouldn’t need the interventions that we’re currently creating. That’s big audacious pie in the sky. Not even pie in the sky, like I feel that we can reach that at some point, but to me that’s what it would be… Like ideas, no matter who you are, where you are, are valued. They can be actualized, they can be resourced and then they can be economically viable. That would be like job well done, mission achieved for us. What about you?

MAYA:
So couple of things. For Global Fund for Children, we’re in the business of going out of business. So there is no global poverty anywhere, so there’s no need for investments. I think for The Society for Science, the work will be done if every young person has that opportunity to become a scientist or engineer, if that’s what they want to be. And that means strong public school systems. It means great after-school programs. It means parents that have the resources to be able to provide those opportunities.

I will say that I want the Science Talent Search and the International Science and Engineering Fair and the Black Ambition Competition to continue. So they can continue to put out all of these extraordinary innovators in the world to create new technologies and new ways of thinking about making the world a better place. Those are important, frankly.

**

MAYA:
For those listening out there, Felecia, how can they learn more about what you’re doing?

FELECIA:
Yeah. The easiest way that they can learn is visiting our website: www.blackambitionprize.com and then being able to follow us on social. We put out a lot of content. We have a really brilliant “Decode the Uncoded” video series as well. It’s so inspirational and so amazing entrepreneurial stories. And so, those are the places. And then to be able to learn about the 34 companies that we founded are also on our website, under our founder stories.

MAYA:
I can’t tell you, they are so much fun to go through, really inspiring. You know, I can’t wait to see, you know, the next cohort.

If folks want to learn about The Society for Science, it’s just www.societyforscience.org or our wonderful magazine www.sciencenews.org. And then the organization I founded beforehand is www.globalfundforchildren.org.

Felecia what an honor it’s been to learn from you, to engage, and to be just inspired. And I know our listeners are going to just say, “I want to be Felecia!” So thank you!

FELECIA:
I want to be Maya! So thank you for this conversation as well. Your work has been absolutely brilliant. And I think for all of us to stand on the shoulders of a giant like you, is an absolute honor for us to be able to carry that torch. And so thank you for the work that you’ve done and for sharing your story with me, and for living life uninterrupted.

MAYA:
I think we both do. Thank you.

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