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Alum Discussion

Hub & Spoke: Mike Guggenheimer

The following is an interview with Mike Guggenheimer, Davidson class of ‘96. Mike joined the Blumenthal family of businesses in 2008 and currently serves as President and CEO of Blumenthal Holdings. Mike initiated the company’s move into industrial biotechnology with a 2012 investment in Terresolve Technologies, an innovative green tech company. Prior to joining Blumenthal Holdings, Mike was an operating partner for Blackstreet Capital Management, a private equity group that focused on control buyouts of under-performing corporate orphans. Mike has an M.B.A. from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Watch the recording of our interview.

Liz: I would love for you to just set the stage for us a little bit and give some more color to your journey from Davidson to running Blumenthal Holdings today.

Mike: In high school, I had a lot of hands on jobs like construction, landscaping, and delivering pizzas. I did a little bit of everything which gave me a flavor and interest in business. I came to Davidson, obviously appreciative of the liberal arts approach, but I also didn’t know what I wanted at the time. At Davidson, I really kind of found a home in Davidson for the application of that thought with io psychology.

The io psychology focus as well as some of the relationships I gleaned really set the stage for me. Dr. Kello helped me get this internship at Spencer’s. It was kind of an HR internship but I really traveled around the business. I rode a truck, I went to the plant, learned a lot about the company. I started getting a feeling for manufacturing and industrial hands on opportunity.

When Milliken came to Davidson to recruit, I interviewed with them and got excited about the company. I waited around, but I got an opportunity to work for Milliken. It was perfect – I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I had about 25 people reporting to me only a year or two out of college. [I] learned a ton about myself and skills as a manager. I went to business school, thinking I probably wouldn’t come back to Milliken. 

Coming out of business school, I was looking at management consulting and general management of big companies. I really saw this opportunity to come back to Milligan and craft my own role. They didn’t know what to do with me coming back, so I said why don’t you let me help you figure out how to grow. We created a ventures group, and I was on a number of corporate strategy projects. I was able to have a nice impact and create a little business that’s still around today.

Another mentor of mine introduced me to Blackstreet Capital and the private equity world. It seemed to be the perfect next step for me because I wanted to run a business. While I learned a ton, when I got there I realized it wasn’t exactly what I envisioned my kind of approach to running a business would be. 

It wasn’t very long after when I got the opportunity to talk to the Blumenthal family here. I made the switch to come join the family and have been here about 13 year. Over the past few years it’s been about structuring the business for the next few decades. 

Liz: Can you speak more specifically about how Davidson provided you that foundation and the io program with Dr. Kello?

Mike: Davidson prepares you to learn how to learn. I came into Milliken with everyone being engineers and I was a psychology major. But I realized the engineers don’t know any more about this robot than I do.

[At Davidson], you’re thinking about things from different models; you look at things from very different perspectives and angles.

From io psychology specifically, what really resonated with me was beginning to learn about teamwork and how a group of individuals can actually produce results that are greater than the sum of their parts. 

You learn how to work with others, through others, developing teams, thinking about relationships, thinking about conflict…right now my role is more than 50% people things. Understanding io psychology and understanding personalities and people in teamwork is super powerful now. 

The other thing about Davidson and something I’m proud of is that it’s not shy about being a tough place; it’s hard work. But it’s a place where you have to learn how to blend work and play. The earlier you learn how to work hard when you need to and then play when you can the better. Davidson does a really good job of balancing those things. 

Liz: For the students in the audience who might be considering going to business school, could you talk a bit about that shift and that blend [regarding group work & individual work]?

Mike: With the schools we’re talking about, you’re immediately thrown into a situation where you might choose your team or maybe your team is chosen for you. You have to figure out how to navigate that which is really important. Seeking out those opportunities may be something you do early on. The notion that the collaboration and power of multiple perspectives is going to be really important. 

At the start I didn’t think I could create a business or start it from scratch. My thought was that maybe there was an opportunity in other ways. I appreciate creativity in a lot of other ways that I didn’t back then. In my view, lots of different things are entrepreneurial in nature. I came really close to buying a little plastic recycling company. A lot of the themes about entrepreneurship are similar, you can just put them in different contexts. 

[Thinking about] do you have a problem and for whom, and putting your mind to who you are solving for. Is it big enough to be interesting, can it scale, and can you sustain it? I found myself at different times of my career looking through that lens. It’s unfair to look at entrepreneurship as only starting a business from scratch in your garage. 

Liz: Can you break down for us your work in control buyouts for underperforming corporate orphans?

Mike: Private equity is a really broad umbrella of investing and existing businesses. Blackstreet’s focus was on looking for things that had been neglected so to speak. It wasn’t quite a turnaround, but there was an aspect of that. It was underperforming in the sense that it hadn’t been given the resources or attention that it needed. 

I’ve always enjoyed thinking about how to fix things. I liked the idea of working with Blackstreet. Private equity is a great place to find entrepreneurial opportunities because it can mean a lot of different things. For me, that experience was an important pivot point in two ways. One, I had been with this large private company for many years – well resourced, a lot of investment decisions were about “what’s the payback”. Going into private equity, I was immediately faced with cash flow and balance sheets. It gave me an appreciation that I didn’t have before in terms of running a business. 

I realized in that role that I was looking for something that was an autonomy or freedom type approach. At that point in my career I realized that I didn’t just want to run a business so to speak, but I wanted to be able to have an impact with the freedom to create. In that scenario, there were a lot of different players like investors and the CEO who were reporting to me. It was kind of messy at that point. I’m really blessed to have had that point in my career, but I also appreciate what I have now which is an intimate relationship with the owners I work with. It was about following your passion, what gets you excited and really feeling like you have some energy behind it. 

Liz: Where have been some of your bigger successes and failures you’ve faced?

Mike: I’ve learned much from the mistakes I’ve made, and that’s where some of my greatest leaps forwards are from. We’ve dealt with a lot of interesting challenges over the last couple years. We really made a decision that we can’t be everything, and we needed to focus on building brands, research and development, and innovation. We made the decision to exit manufacturing  and exit to contract packagers and warehouses. It was very complex; we did a lot of things at once. We knew there was some uncertainty and potential roadblocks on the way.

We hit a big one in that the outside warehouses we had lined up could not do what we were doing before. It was a really big challenge. The first reaction was thinking “oh man, we made a big mistake here”. [You’ve] got to live in the present, in the here and now. This is where the team comes into play: we went into this knowing it wasn’t going to be easy, and now we have to adjust.

We brought the warehouse back here in Charlotte in about a third of the time of any other warehouse. It was a real lesson in a team rallying around a challenge and putting that mistake behind us and say, “We can’t worry about that now, we have to deal with what’s in front of us.”

The other thing that came up for me was the humane aspect of running a business. Having to close the plant the first time was a very difficult decision, but the right decision strategically. I will never forget the day I had to stand in front of all those people and say why we were doing it. We had dealt with everything so transparently and honestly, and that day everyone came up to me thanking me and thanking the Blumenthal Family. It was a real eye-opener about how important it is to treat people a certain way and be transparent about why you’re doing things. 

Tying it back to Davidson a bit – there’s a really close knit aspect to Davidson. I can call a Davidson grad tomorrow that doesn’t know who I am, and they’ll take my call and offer to help. The idea of being honest and treating people with respect is essential to building and leading teams. 

Liz: I think you mentioned when moving warehousing back to Charlotte some of the first people you called to bring back were the ones you let go. That’s something that’s not always highlighted, how challenging that is. It shows how important clarifying your role as a leader is and how you want to present yourself. How has Davidson help set you up for that type of empathy and empathetic leadership?

Mike: The other thing that comes to mind is the long view versus the short view. I’ve been fortunate to be in private companies, and some of that long view is natural for those businesses. If you take the long view, a lot of times you sacrifice something in the short term. A big lesson for me is having that fortitude to keep that long view in mind in how you deal with people, your partners, and the business. 

Liz: How do you think someone coming out of a liberal arts educational experience can redefine what it means to be an entrepreneur or an innovator?

Mike: Refusing to accept the conventional definition of entrepreneurship is important. For a Davidson student or for anyone, I think of it as solving a problem. It’s innovation in a very hands on self-built way. The liberal arts program, Davidson particularly, there’s an innate curiosity and exploration that comes out of it. Entrepreneurship can be about the curiosity to solve a problem and create something. 

The other thing I think is interesting about entrepreneurship is that you can get yourself in a tunnel of looking at things. The openness to accept things that you might not be expecting can be really powerful. That’s a way to redefine entrepreneurship – it isn’t necessarily this linear walk. 

We respond to customers asking for cleaners, disinfectants, asking us what to use to clean. We started rallying around that, and now two steps down the road we’ve developed our own electrostatics spray for these technologies. It was never in our mind to begin with, it came from figuring out how we can help. The curiosity, the openness, not necessarily assuming there’s a prescription of how to do it is crucial. 

Liz: I was speaking with a student a few days ago in my office hours, and we talked about her ability to put seemingly disparate things together in a new configuration. She felt very well prepared and said that it was even one of her unique differentiators in job interviews.

Mike: That’s the whole multiple mental models idea – looking at things from a 360 view. If you’ve been trained in a lot of different areas, you’ll have an ability to put together pieces really quickly. That’s super powerful in entrepreneurship. You’ve got all these functions to deal with, but if you’re not tied to one lens you’ll be able to see how the pieces fit together. 

Question from Audience: Can you talk some more about the importance of networking, working with mentors, and staying connected to people that can help you?

Mike: I’m going to give Dr. Kello my gratitude. He was one of my first significant mentors. He’s been a partner for me over the years in different ways. At Davidson he played an important role getting the Spencer’s internship and Milligan. There’s a lot of advocacy for students at Davidson, and my relationship with Dr. Kello carries on. 

I think that identifying people at different stages of my life, whether it’s something I can offer or someone who can push me, it’s really important. One of the big lessons for me is self-reflection. If you’re an entrepreneur or running sometimes, there’s not always a lot of people to talk to. I think it’s essential to identify people who will challenge you and be good sounding boards. 

Question from Audience: What do you do to build and sustain the culture at Blumenthal?

Mike: I look at it less of culture, but rather what the operating principles we’re going to hold dear are. I use that not only to think about the team we want to have and build, but also about making sense of what we’re doing. We have these operating values that we think about, but rather than something you just post on a board, it’s how we differentiate. 

It also becomes really powerful in terms of talent acquisition. I still interview everyone that we hire. We just hired a bunch of people in the marine business, and our VP of talent and I were the ones who screened everybody. Of all the things I do, I feel that it’s important as anything. Getting the right talent and getting them excited about what we’re doing is really important. 

The notion of fit is important. A lot of times when I interview people, I’ll tell them the bad stuff. We want to develop people and have them feel like it’s what they really signed up for. 

Liz: A lesson I had to learn is as an employee having agency to make the choice to join an organization. There’s an analysis, a self-reflection about what I really value and if it’s a match with the organization. 

Mike: That is a great point, it’s really an active choice of “Is this a fit for me?” It doesn’t have to be a fit forever, it’s about being able to learn and grow. 

Question from Audience: How you define innovation in your organization today, and how are you building that muscle within your respective teams?

Mike: As a small business, innovation has to be embedded in everything we do. We try to embed innovative thinking into everything, and have everyone be empowered. Innovation doesn’t always have to be an amazing huge idea that saves the world. It can be little innovations that add up.

Over time, we’ve had to think about how we talk about objectives and goals. If you’re constantly punishing failures, people will be risk-averse and not try things. You have to find the balance of understanding risk, but also celebrating things that didn’t work. 

For our businesses, it’s about defining where we want to play and how we think we’re going to win. If you have a clear understanding of what you can do differently, it’s a little easier to think about if an idea fits with your goals. 

Liz: Can you speak more about how you’re communicating your strategy to everyone and ensuring that people clearly understand so feel empowered to take action without explicitly being told to do so?

Mike: There’s not an easy answer to that, I’m constantly trying to do that. Dr. Kello would say you can’t possibly over communicate on these types of issues. It starts with defining an aspiration for what we’re trying to do as a business. We define it as a “who”, who we’re trying to solve a problem for. It’s about the industry or the people that it’s for. 

We have a one page document that shows people and ourselves what our true north is. I try to reiterate the big picture of what we’re trying to be and why. It’s important to keep talking about it. The pandemic has created new ways for me to talk to people. It’s morphed into small team zoom meetings. I had a meeting this morning that was “ask me anything” with our IT group. The more I do that, the more people will ask why we’re doing things, which is when the storytelling comes out.

Question from Audience: How important has the history or legacy of the companies been, and how do you look back to move forwards?

Mike: As you were reading that question, a thought came to my mind about my past experiences. Some of my past businesses are not the most glamorous, so turning that history or legacy into pride is crucial. Whether it’s Milligan or Blumenthal, there’s such a strong reputation of doing business the right way. We’ve morphed that story into the acceptance and respect of the great history, but also understanding we can’t be the same company we were 90 years ago today. We don’t look like we did 20-30 years ago, and I’m willing to bet we’ll look different 20-30 years ago today.

Liz: For students interested in going to a startup or smaller company, how would you advise them on evaluating the strength of the company, the background, and whether or not it’ll be a good fit?

Mike: For me, it’s about getting to the fundamentals and really understanding the business. IF the people you’re talking to can articulate that very well, that’s very important. As you ask questions about your passion and goals, you’ll be able to see what they’re doing. I tend to shy away from opportunities that I can’t understand at a foundational level. 

Liz: What’s an ask and challenge you have of this community as we’re trying to build it out?

Mike: Don’t be afraid to go down a path that isn’t the predictable or expected path. Don’t feel the pull to follow the herd. Follow your curiosity and follow your interests. Emphasize places where you can feel like you can learn and grow and that’ll pay off. There are so many people in the Davidson network eager to help out anyone in Davidson. Don’t be afraid to ask or engage with the alumni base. I was excited about this simply for the aspect of giving back. I’ve had a lot of help on the way, and it’s important to pay it forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for it![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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Hub & Spoke: Mbye Njie

The following is an interview with Mbye Njie, Davidson class of ‘04. Mbye Njie was an Anthropology Major at Davidson. Since he graduated in 2004, he’s been an activist and founder of Legal Equalizer, a mobile app that allows users to capture police encounters after being pulled over, automatically notify loved ones in real-time, provide information on legal rights involving that encounter, and receive legal advice at the scene. Mbye launched the first version of the app in 2015 after seeing the fallout from the Michael Brown case, and pulling from his own personal experiences with law enforcement.

Watch the recording of our interview.

Liz: Give us a little context of your Davidson experience up until the point you founded Legal Equalizer. 

Mbye: Davidson was great, enlightening, and also prepared me for life and what I do today. Our class was the first large class of African-American public school students. A lot of aspects of my app came from my experiences from Davidson. If we went off campus 10 times, probably 4 or 5 times we’d get pulled over. We printed out a ton of laws of North Carolina, so the next time we got pulled over we showed them the documents. When I built the app, I wanted people to have a sense of laws from within the app.

I had a job working at Morgan State and at John Hopkins doing research on health disparities. I absolutely despised it, because if you know me, 90% of that job was behind a computer, not interacting and talking with people. I left that job after a year and moved back to Charlotte. I took a job doing door to door sales cold calling. That job is part of what led me to Legal Equalizer. I did that job in North and South Carolina in small towns and remote places. When I tell people I’ve been pulled over 80-100 times I’m not exaggerating. 

I left that job and moved back into sales for a while. I was in sales up until when I decided to quit and focus on Legal Equalizer.

Liz: Can you talk to us a bit more about the decisions and feelings when you decided you had to start your app?

Mbye: When I first read the Ferguson story, I didn’t believe it. My whole question during Ferguson was why did no one have a recording? A lot of my white friends at Davidson had never had to deal with this and didn’t understand it. It was the first time a lot of them had heard of police brutality. My black friends said “oh no, here’s what probably happened”. I kept looking for apps that would record and let people know when you got pulled over. That December is when I got pulled over 3 times. When I got handcuffed and put in the back of the car, I realized it wasn’t about my arrest. That was the first time in my life that I felt the need to make an actual police complaint. If I get pulled over, I don’t want people to guess what happened. That December of 2014 is when I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I told myself that if there was nothing on the app store by January I’d do something. 

My Gofundme was up, and I had an article written in Huffington Post which caused it to skyrocket. Fast forward a little later, we had the death of Sandra Bland. That’s the one that put me over the edge. It was a little after that when I decided to focus on the app full time. 

Liz: How did you initially make the decision of a funding path and forecast out how much runway you had?

Mbye: Honestly, I didn’t know anything about funding. My godbrother was the first person who wanted to invest, so he matched the money we raised on Gofundme. I didn’t even have a runway or know what a runway was. The first big piece of funding we got was $75,000 from a Davidson alum. In 6 years we’ve raised about $360,000, $400,000 if you include my own contributions. 

For us, we haven’t made revenue because the app was about saving lives. I had to pivot because people needed a return on their investment, so we started to think about how revenue could be made. That’s how I got the idea of bringing on attorneys to the app. The argument I used to make with people was how other tech companies got the chance to start without making revenue, but we were held to a different standard. We’re still in the process of raising money now. We’re in the process of building out the app where the attorneys can make extra money but also help people in real time who need it.

Liz: I saw in an interview you mention the book The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He has a line, “the team that got you here isn’t the team that gets you there”. Can you talk a little about how you selected your first team?

Mbye: When I read that book, that was one of those things that let me know I needed to get rid of my first team. For me, there was a point I didn’t expect everyone to be as passionate about the business as me. I found out that my coder sat for a year and made about one update, and I knew I could find someone else. If my team wasn’t focused, we had to separate, no hard feelings. I love when my coder calls me and says they disagree with something because it shows they put thought and time into the business. That’s the biggest way we’ve grown and gotten better. 

Liz: Your point about mutual respect and pushback is really important. It’s meant to push things further and make things better. You can’t operate with someone who agrees with you and just says yes all the time. 

Question from Audience: Can you say more about how your circular experience in anthropology and co-curricular experience as a student activist has helped you in your entrepreneurial life?

Mbye: I loved anthropology because it gave me a different way of looking at things. When I went to Davidson, I thought I knew I was going to be a political science or history major. Dr. Fairly is the one who sat me down and explained that anthropology isn’t all about fossils and ruins. She explained the cultural and people aspect of it. I’ve appreciated in my whole life that I can pick up some ideas because of anthropology. It’s the ability to relate to others that’s my greatest love of anthropology. 

It’s the ability to have an open mind, the willingness to learn, and the willingness to go out and explore other cultures. Anthropology for me is what made me want to have the perspective of police officers when I made the app. If I wasn’t a Davidson student, I wouldn’t have been as curious to go out and learn from that other side. I appreciate all those lessons I learned from that.

Question from Audience: How much time are you spending on fundraising versus managing? Do you spend any time working on the product yourself?

Mbye: I don’t know how to code, so I don’t work on the actual product but I manage all our social media and anything else with the company. I haven’t had too much time to spend with fundraising, but there are things coming down the pipeline that I’m excited about. Getting affirmation that I have something is great to hear. When you’re spending money on so many things, it’s basically bootstrapping. I’m excited to get the opportunity to raise a legitimate amount of funds where we can put a team together. 

Question from Audience: How many users do you have now? How are you using marketing?

Mbye: Right now our downloads are about 200,000. We have about 60,00 registered users. I have a PR team that’s been helping me out. Anytime there’s a shooting or altercation, they’ll send out advertisements to that market. We also have some things down the line regarding partnerships. We have a partnership with Rough Riders and I’m talking next week with Wu Tang. 

Question from Audience: What advice would you give to more entrepreneurial minded students today?

Mbye: I would tell them to take the risk and don’t be afraid to fail. I believe that it’s going to be successful, I don’t know if it will be, but I’m not afraid to fail. I at least want the opportunity to build out my idea and give it a full try. Once my full platform is out, I believe it’s going to skyrocket. For me, that was the biggest thing that held me back for about 6 months. I thought about the app idea for 6 months before I finally made a move. We stop ourselves a lot of time from doing things based on our fear of failure or fear of not knowing how to do something. 

If you have an idea and you’re a student, believe in yourself.  Most students are intelligent individuals who can look at the resources around them. Don’t be afraid, everyone has failed at some point. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get your ideas out there and don’t be afraid.

Question from Audience: Can you talk a little more about privacy and how you intend to protect user privacy?

Mbye: Privacy was one of our number one worries when we first created the app. As far as user privacy goes, all of it is incredibly secure. We have multiple servers, the video is held by the user as well, not by us. We haven’t had any cases yet with law enforcement subpoenas yet. We wanted to make sure the app was essentially hack proof. The app is encrypted as well, and it was very important to us that the users held the data. 

People think I’m crazy because I’m helping some people build out an app very similar to ours right now. My example is that when I go to Kroger, I can pick Essentia water, or I can pick Smartwater. We don’t complain about that. Why is it when it comes to saving lives, there can only be one? Anytime someone has an app that’s similar to ours, we get a spike as well. I don’t mind helping out other people or having competitors; I think it’s healthy. 

Question from Audience: Does the company partner with police departments in any way?

Mbye: My first endorsement was from my hometown police chief. He wrote a letter and signed it, because we approached based on  accountability. Most police departments are excited about partnering up, because if their officers are doing the right things there’s nothing wrong with them being recorded. I’ve worked with them, and I want to continue working with them in the future.

Question from Audience: I view your app as a “stash it and hope I never have to use it” type of app. Any thoughts for advancing the app to have a more active engagement component?

Mbye: Yes, we’re definitely working on that. I want to have more push notifications for laws, and more information when laws change. We’re currently discussing within the app having people be able to have conversations about their local communities. Policing is a local community issue, so that’s one of the next steps in our roadmap.  

Liz: Any parting words?

Mbye: I appreciate you for having me here, be sure to download the app and check out our website. If you have any questions feel free to email me at mbye@legalequalizer.com . If you’re a current student, make sure to get in touch with Liz since hopefully we’ll start hiring soon. I’d love to have you all help us out with your skills and talent. I’m looking forward to working with the students and with Davidson College.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]