Marshall: Would you mind reflecting a little bit on your personal background?
Ross: I’ve always liked to start stuff. I remember in elementary school—I would get a kick out of creatively finding ways to bend the rules of the classroom activities. I have always been interested in big, large, important problems—my first job out of college was working for a college access organization that a professor of mine had started—and unusual ways to solve them.
Now, I run a group called Village Capital, which invests in entrepreneurs solving major global challenges (education, health, energy, financial inclusion, agriculture) through a peer-selected model we invented. We’re trying to change the way resources go to people with ideas.
On Village Capital
M: How about your business background?
R: While I currently run an investment organization, I never had a formal business background outside of starting my own ventures—or working for other start-ups. I feel like I have always been a big question-asker, and perfectly willing to admit what I don’t know—so I’ve gotten some terrific advice and guidance from mentors, investors, and customers along the way.
M: So, what are the elements of your business?
R: Village Capital has a nonprofit that recruits entrepreneurs from across the world to programs focused on specific challenges—for example, last year, we operated a program in Louisville, Kentucky, focusing on entrepreneurs who were reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of the agricultural supply chain (sample entrepreneurs included water management entrepreneurs from California and insect tracking entrepreneurs from Indiana that reduced the use of pesticides). We work with ventures to discover real demand from real customers—which is hard work.
At the end of each program, we invest in two companies from each cohort through a somewhat unusual model—investments are selected by the entrepreneurs themselves. We feel that this liberates the entrepreneurs from the constant “pitch” or “hustle” of fundraising—trying to figure out what the people with money want to fund, and building it—and frees them up to find real, authentic demand from customers.
On Global Citizenship
M: I gather that your business is global in scope. How does this reflect your opinions on global citizenship and the like?
R: I’m seeing a divergence. To me, I think that all businesses in the 21st century have to have a global element. A polluting rickshaw in China makes the earth more unsustainable in Peru, and an under-educated low-income workforce in the U.S. has major implications for Europe. There’s another school of thought, from which we are seeing a resurgence: hyper-local (the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—super-small, corner-store businesses. I have lived in the U.K. and India as well as the U.S., and I personally can’t tie my work life—and what motivates me—to any one specific location because I have seen over and over again how interconnected we all are.
M: What do you feel are the essentials of motivation?
R: Constant feedback loops that validate what I am trying to accomplish—or motivate me to change course. For me, the work I am doing is reflective of the change I want to see in the world, and I see enough small results day to day that it motivates me to stay focused on a long-term objective. We invest in companies that may have decades to show, for example, how they are contributing to renewable energy—but I teach in our Village Capital incubator programs, as well as students at the University of Virginia, and when I see a student or an entrepreneur make massive improvement due to seeing a small concept in a new way—that keeps me going.
M: What do you feel motivates the people that you encounter and work with?
R: I heard a saying once—“I’ve never met an unhappy successful entrepreneur.” It’s true. I’ve met some unhappy successful bankers and lawyers, but not an unhappy successful entrepreneur—because an entrepreneur has a vision for the world, that is different from the current state of affairs, and success means change in that vision has happened. I think everyone has a vision of how they want the world to be—and wants to be free to pursue that vision. I know, for example, that many very successful people I work with (some of them very financially successful) feel trapped by the success and wealth they have created—because they reach a certain point where wealth is not what they actually want. I feel lucky to work in a place where my employees feel that the problem we are trying to solve—the change we are trying to create—is worth throwing their lives into. We work very hard, long hours, for not a lot of pay, but we are motivated because we believe in what we are trying to do. Work is an expression of who you are as a person—and if what you do is not aligned with who you want to be, long-term motivation is tough.
M: If I understand your business correctly, you often work with other entrepreneurs and leaders. What do you look for in a strong leader? What do you consider strong business leadership?
R: To me, the best leaders focus—first of all—on the quality of the people they work with (they are always recruiting and looking to bring great people on board)—and second of all—empowering the best people to carry out a focused vision (which sometimes means saying no—actually, a lot of times mean saying no). Great leaders can convince people to get behind a vision—and can run interference on things unrelated to that vision. Oh, and have the self-awareness to change course if that vision is consistently not aligning with reality.
On Facing Challenges as a Leader
M: How do you deal with the challenges that you face as a leader? To be more specific, I find myself sometimes doubting my work or the possible success of my projects. Do you encounter these bumps as well? If so, how do you deal with them?
R: I think that peer groups are incredibly important. When I am having a tough time, it’s difficult to be vulnerable to my staff/team, and it’s also difficult to be vulnerable to my board/investors. Both of those relationships are more complicated than that. So I try and find other people who run organizations or companies and bounce my thoughts off them. Short answer—people face the same challenges everywhere, so finding someone who knows what it’s like is critical for mental health (and work success).
On the Future
M: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? How about your current business or project?
R: I want Village Capital to change the way we do business in the world. I want a job where your work aligns with your values to be the norm, versus the exception. And I want anyone who has an idea for a better world to have a shot at making it successful—with a smart, curated, effective way of getting them on the right track. And I want to be in the middle of it somewhere.
M: How do you view the future in general as it pertains to your goals, plans or overall philosophy?
R: I think we can’t predict the future, so saying anything with too much certainty is pretty risky. I do believe in the dreams of the future over the complaints and musings of the past, though—always.