A Substantial Interview with NC IDEA President & CEO Thom Ruhe
The NC IDEA Foundation is on a mission to strengthen the economy of North Carolina through a strategic combination of grants and programs deployed directly and through a network of partners. The vision is clear and that’s to help people achieve their entrepreneurial potential.
At the helm of this independent private foundation is Thom Ruhe, an entrepreneur, investor, mentor and thought leader. Thom works with entrepreneurs, governments, universities and NGOs around the world to embrace the entrepreneurial mindset needed to grow vibrant economies.
Thom has served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Entrepreneurship, addressed the United Nations Assembly on Entrepreneurship, lectured at conferences around the world and serves on multiple boards including Innovation Fund America and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.
Substantial had the opportunity to sit down with Thom to talk about the importance of diversity in entrepreneurship.
SM: Thom tell our audience a little bit about who you are. What’s the Thom Ruhe origin story?
TR: Let me start by saying, I have the good fortune to work with an incredible team of very committed people at NC IDEA.
As for an origin story, I put myself through college with an Air Force ROTC scholarship. When I graduated in the late 80s, instead of going in and serving, the then president, Ronald Reagan, did a very large reduction in force. So they cut substantial parts of the military. And one of the ways that they cut was all these newly commissioned officers after going through four years of college. So we were all kind of set free if we wanted to get out. Seeing as I had a degree in computer science, it wasn’t that hard for me to find a job, so I was like, “Yes, please, I’ll take that option.”
I spent the next 20 years kind of bouncing around entrepreneurship and I just dumb luck stumbled into a startup. Very early in my career, I watched a man by his own admission, he would describe himself, you know, having barely graduated from high school. I watched him. In the three years that I worked for him, I made him a millionaire
The man had this dirty little company that sold this obscure technology. He said, “hey, I’ve heard that the US government buys this stuff. You just got out of the Air Force, you know what all that stuff means? Go figure this out.” And I’m 22/23 years old, naive enough of the world to say, “sure, I’ll go figure it out.” So I figured out how to do government contracting. And, basically, the company before I joined was only doing about 500,000 a year in revenue. And at the end of my first year, we had cracked our first three and a half million dollar government contract.
I saw firsthand, the impact of entrepreneurship. Granted it’s not all about getting rich and wealth creation. I saw what it meant for hiring in the company. Expansion of the markets we were going after, the economic impacts of entrepreneurship.
I understood what entrepreneurship did for my own family, me and my wife of 30 years, we didn’t have kids yet, but for the first time we were starting to talk about it, because, I was making some nice income. I was making well beyond what I would have made if I had just stayed on some kind of tech path. So it clicked with me; entrepreneurships has this empowerment property. It’s like a superpower.
SM: NC IDEA created the North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council back in August of 2020. Tell us a little more about the council and how it came to be.
TR: It’s all a part of NC IDEA, the culture here, thanks to an incredible board of directors who supports our sometimes over ambitious goals. They also have really pushed our collective values that the staff have reflected for several years now. And that is that, if everything we’re doing isn’t based on equity, then why are we doing it? That was a condition of me taking the job in the first place.
NC IDEA is going to go statewide, and we’re going to look to help underserved populations, not to lower a standard, not to say, we’re going to change the fundamental model, right? We’re just working off the thesis that everybody has equal potential. What isn’t equal is access to capital, access to training, access to mentors and networking. That’s what we have to address. And if we do, our theory is that, you know, whether it’s communities of color, or female founders or rural communities, they’re going to perform just as well.
They’re going to have high growth opportunities, wealth creation, job creation, events, just as much as any, you know, white founder from the affluent triangle, for example. Not that, we want to not support those folks. We just want to give him more competition.
So we’ve been doing this and it’s been evolving through our programs. But last year, like everybody else that at least has a soul and a brain we were looking at world events, we were looking at the George Floyd case, even before George Floyd, Tamir Rice and we saw how these events amplified the inequity in society.
As I said early I believe that entrepreneurship is a great equalizer. Entrepreneurial success doesn’t care if you’re Black, or Korean, or trans, or from the sticks or from the downtown metro area. Everybody has a chance to do something great. And so for me, that was kind of the epiphany, we have to do something even more than we already are.
I’ll share I had a really bad idea at first, and my incredible staff pushed back on me and said “that’s a really bad idea.” We have to be careful about the curse of good intentions. What I mean by that is even with my experience, there are limits based upon my skin color and my background and my socio economic status. So good intentions are not enough. And that’s a hard truth that people that mean well in the white community need to remember every once in a while. So we had to step back and say okay, how do we plan to attack this problem.
Collectively, we said, we should let this be led by the community, the very people we serve and we seek to serve. And that’s what gave birth to this notion of, we shouldn’t try to in our own vacuum chamber decide what kind of program or activity we should do to serve the black entrepreneurial community in the state of North Carolina, we should pull together this group that represents that ambition, and then know what our role is, namely, to fund it. Basically we need to support it, we don’t need to lead it, we need to trust.
“We’re just working off the thesis that everybody has equal potential. What isn’t equal is access to capital, access to training, access to mentors and networking.”Thom Ruhe, President & CEO, NC IDEA
Listen for foundations and organizations that deploy capital and resources that not an easy think to do. However I again thank and give credit to our board because I went to them and said “I want to put some money under the control and auspice of these 25 people that aren’t, connected to us.
They’re not employees, they’re not contractors they’re not board members,” and they said yes. In fact I’m happy to say that we approved our new budget for next year that we put a million dollars into the Black Entrepreneurship Council (BEC). And the BEC is going to decide what programs are going to be priorities, who’s going to get funded, how we’re going to go about that funding, etc.
Because the simple goal of doing that, and this aspiration I have for it, this fever dream about it is that we as a team just want to make North Carolina the best state in the country for black folks to start and grow great companies full stop. It’s not complicated, it’s not easy, but again it’s not complicated.
Let’s make North Carolina the best state in the country. For black, indigenous, and other people of color to start and grow businesses, to have wealth creating events, job creating events, and strengthen their community. Because that’s going to be good for everybody. Everybody benefits from that.
SM: Knowing there’s no magic formular or one size fits all approach, however what’s some early advice you would give to an entrepreneur and what’s the ideal business or idea in your opinion that you yourself would invest in.
TR: So I’m always happy to share, in fact I’m working on a book. The book, ironically, is named the gospel of entrepreneurship, where I have kind of like the 10 commandments of entrepreneurship. So I’ll start with the first commandment, that is “to thine own self be true.” I did steal that one from “The Bard” Mr. Shakespeare himself. But what I mean with that is, if there’s a recurring mistake, challenge, problem, obstacle, whatever word you want to use that I encounter with first time entrepreneurs, it’s that they’re not honest with themselves.
Another thing I like to share is you need to understand the power of choice. Time is your most valuable asset. How do you choose to spend your time, your valuable asset? Time is more valuable than money. Again you need to understand the power of choice, how do you choose to spend your time?
I’m going to apologize in advance if I disappoint with the answer to the second part of this question because I get it frequently. I think there’s an expectation that I should say “biotech or IoT, or AI, or crypto or whatever.” I’m actually super agnostic, when it comes to that, what people in my position value and when I say people in my position, I mean, organizations that might fund activities, or startups in this regard is, it’s all around market potential. Is the idea is the, the it something that has the potential to have impact.
There are a lot of people that will chase a decent enough idea, but it just has such small economic impact potential that you find yourself in these unfortunate situations where you’re sympathetic to their plight and to their passion, however it’s just not the right fit. I find myself saying if you are in your wildest vision of success, if you achieve it, at most, you’ve created a job for yourself, and maybe one or two others.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that there isn’t, it’s just not where we get enough leverage for our limited resources. So we’re often times looking for ideas, companies, it can be a service, although they’re usually not as competitive as a product type company, but anything that’s got the potential of becoming a multimillion dollar business, because you can’t build a multimillion dollar business without hiring typically, you can’t do that without hiring a lot of people and having other economic impact in the community, tax revenue base and everything that cascades from that.
Honestly thought if you look at our portfolio we’ve funded all types of companies from SAS solutions to consumer goods, 3D printed metals, and vegan cheese. Again it all boils down to the market potential.
SM: Listen, we are in no way disappointed in that answer, having ourselves been funded through NC IDEA as a Micro grant recipient we’re grateful to you and the organization for seeing our marketing potential. What’s coming up with NC IDEA?
TR: Our Fall 2021 Grant Info Sessions kick off soon and our Fall 2021 MICRO and SEED grant opportunities will be opening soon as well. MICRO is $10K for entrepreneurs who are testing a big, new business idea and SEED is $50K for entrepreneurs who need to advance their startup, gain customers or attract future investment.