“Lift as you climb” is not only a well-known proverb, it’s a way of life. The guidance of a dedicated mentor can provide the mental and emotional support one needs to gain experience and begin their own journey to success in any given field. As part of the AT&T Dream In Black platform extension, “Rising Future Makers,” we sat down with top entrepreneurs to discuss what played a central role in shaping their lives and how they are giving back to the community in the form of mentorship and advocacy, to build upon that legacy. We also share their mentees’ aspirations, and how they’re using this invaluable guidance to set goals, develop networks, and identify resources.
Rodney Williams is an HBCU alumnus and Founder of LISNR, a leading ultrasonic data platform that enables secure and seamless communication through sound. Having received more than $30M in funding, LISNR is Rodney’s most talked about venture – but it’s certainly not his first nor only (and undoubtedly, will not be his last). It is, however, what got on Chad’s radar in 2016, when he applied to work at the company. While the job didn’t work out – the interview process introduced Rodney to a humble and hungry future mentee.
But the relationship between the pair is much more emblematic of brothers than how we often think about mentorship with a casual acquaintance or colleague. In many ways, Chad has followed in the footsteps of Rodney. He is the Founder and CEO of Remodelmate, an online marketplace that streamlines bathroom renovations. The company has already started to build a loyal following and raised $525K in its first round of funding.
Understanding the rarity of Black men in the startup space, Rodney has worked to offer support and guidance to Chad along the way. Rodney may not always have an answer to every question Chad asks, but he can discuss how to approach the solution; he can share his experiences; and he can offer him real talk.
We sat down with both men to talk about what mentorship means to them, the power of attending an HBCU, the importance of collaboration in the Black community, and the legacy they hope to leave.
Rodney, you began your career as an analyst at Lockheed Martin before working as a brand manager at a Fortune 100 company. What moved and motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
Rodney: I kind of get obsessed with problems and then I fixate on them – and then I try to fix them. Doing this made me successful at P&G and made me successful as an analyst. And as I started to think bigger, I started to approach bigger problems and problems I was passionate about. That collided with the fact that I really wanted to drive wealth. And driving wealth for me meant figuring out: How many people can I help gain the largest salary possible? How can I change a community? How can I get jobs for my friends? The only way I ultimately could get there was to turn into a person that builds companies. Once I got that insight, I got really comfortable with building and making companies.
How did the two of you meet?
Chad: Our story starts in 2016. I was in San Francisco and I was looking to work at LISNR. The role was a little above my weight class but I said “I don’t really care about that stuff. I’m just going to work twice as hard as the guy that may be twice as good as I am.” I got all the way up the chain but they decided to go with someone else. But from then, I latched on to Rodney’s coattails and he couldn’t shake me. I started my company in 2018 and since then Rodney has been there to help me work through challenges. It could be 11:30 at night or he could be at an airport – and he’ll answer.
It sounds like you were super intentional about connecting to Rodney for mentorship.
Chad: The best way to get a mentor is to steal one (laughs). You don’t really ask. I think the thing Rodney noticed is that I was willing to work hard and was humble enough to ask for help. That’s the part that’s missing with mentees. They think people should want to help them and that’s not how it works. Kobe met Michael Jordan to figure out the crossover – it wasn’t the other way around.
Rodney: Like Chad mentioned, you shouldn’t ask me to be your mentor. But if you want to build something or you want to go after something or if you want to help me go after something, and you’re going to be relentless – I have no choice but to support you.
Rodney, how did your experience attending an HBCU help bring you to where you are today?
Rodney: [It was] an incredible and extremely important factor in my development. In my perspective, higher education institutions are becoming increasingly comparable with key differences in their post-education network and professional resources. This is an area where HBCU’s shine in comparison as the network continues to be supportive personally and professionally till this day.
Did attending an HBCU help foster your commitment to helping uplift your community? Did anyone in particular inspire that for you?
Rodney: All Facts. I didn’t experience a personal commitment from my administration or fellow students at other institutions like the personal commitment I felt from my HBCU during my graduate education. I can name a large number of leaders at Howard that were committed to my success, including the deans of the Business School and Graduate Business School – Dean Harvey and Ms. Supel.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who could benefit from your mentorship. What does mentorship mean and look like to you?
Rodney: It’s really about collaboration; sharing the knowledge that you have and bringing everyone up. One of my favorite mentors at P&G said, “Your job is to do my job. When you start to do my job, 1 – my life gets easier. And 2 – I’m getting promoted and you’re getting promoted.”
Chad: I’m very much aligned with Rodney in that rising tides should lift all boats. The principle I like to follow is Sankofa, which translates into “lift as you climb.” I’m also turned around by the idea of competition. I don’t look at it like, “man Rodney just helped me and the way I’m going to get back at him is to be more successful than him.” (laughs). When I look at the word competition, I look at it more like the relationship between Jay and Kanye. On [Big Brother], he says, “I did a song with Coldplay, next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay.” If you want to be great, you should hang around other people who are great. That’s my philosophy on it. If you’re trying to compete against someone who looks like you; talks like you; understands the same struggles; knows how hard it is to raise; knows how hard it is to articulate your vision — you’ve already lost.
Rodney: I want people to win. Mentorship is not about being a mentor or mentee. I think mentorship is about making sure that when that tide rises – we let [all boats] rise.
What is your hope for the next generation of Rising Future Makers?
I hope this model extends past the doors of my network and become a rule of thumb amongst our families, our neighborhoods and shared community groups. This is the task for the next generation of Rising Future Makers. We rise together.
If someone is reading this right now and they don’t know you – and may not ever meet you – but are inspired by your story. What would you want them to know?
Rodney: Stop reading and start something. I don’t know much and I don’t think I know anything outside of the fact that I failed earlier than most and started earlier than most. That’s it, but that’s not a competitive advantage by any means. But YOU should start something. You should go for it. You should stop reading. The best learning environment you’re going to ultimately experience is going to be the real one – so you should go for it.
Please leave a comment if these AT&T Dream in Black stories inspired you, and share your experiences with mentorship and advocacy below!
And if you are a current HBCU student making a difference in your community and campus, apply today to be a part of the inaugural AT&T Dream in Black Rising Future Makers class. The entry period closes on October 31st, so don’t miss your chance to win access to celebrity advocates, $5,000, and more to power your possibilities. AT&T Dream in Black Rising Future Makers is a new extension, for HBCU students, of AT&T’s ongoing commitment to support diverse communities through uplifting programs, support and storytelling. Learn more at att.com/dreaminblack.