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MLT Rising Leader Spotlight: Marlon Nichols – A Trailblazer in Venture Capital

Marlon Nichols is a 2007 MBA Prep alum and 2011 MBA of Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.  He is a Founding Partner at Cross Culture Ventures, in addition to his role as Investment Director at Intel Capital. Named one of the 40 Under 40 Top Diverse Talents in Silicon Valley, Marlon shared insights into his experience as one of the few African-American venture professionals.

What led to your current role as Investment Director at Intel and Founding Partner at Cross Culture Ventures?

After undergrad I worked at an enterprise software company for a number of years. It was great being in a startup, but I realized at the end of that journey that I wanted more variety in my work. So I transitioned into consulting. Consulting was fun for awhile, but it ultimately felt empty because we’d come up with strategies and walk away not knowing whether or not those strategies were implemented.

Those experiences helped me understand what I liked and what I didn’t like and figure out where I wanted to take my career. Venture capital felt like a great fit. I looked at it as a way to meet super smart people and be around technology and cutting-edge solutions in companies. I also looked at it as a way to participate in the overall strategies of companies, at least from a board level or an investor level. So that felt much more rich than my time in consulting.

What inspired you to start your VC firm?

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial nature. Intel’s a huge company and I’ve really enjoyed my time learning venture and doing venture there, but ultimately, my goal when I first set sights on venture capital was to launch my own fund. And so that’s what I’m working towards. I like the impact as well. When you’re setting the priority with your small partnership, you can have a lot more focused impact.

When you think back to your MLT experience, what stands out as helping you achieve your success?

The people. Marc Jones, who chairs MLT’s board, has been super helpful as I started thinking through this fund. But also the folks that I went through MLT with and who I’ve stayed in touch with have become sounding boards and motivators because they’re also high-achieving. You feel pressure to make sure you stay on top of your game and be a high achiever as well.

The coaching was also great in helping you understand what drives you and what is pushing you to pursue the thing that you’re pursuing. I think it’s a critical life skill for a lot of decisions you’re going to make in your professional life.

How has your MBA helped propel your career?

I chose Cornell for many reasons, one being that it had a student run venture fund – a real venture fund where decisions were truly being made by the MBA students. I ultimately had the opportunity to run that fund for a couple of years while I was there. I led seven other fund managers and about 61 associates. It allowed me to make connections throughout the venture capital industry as a peer, not as a student trying to learn the business. That experience set me up to jump into the role that I ultimately got into at Intel Capital.

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What are you passionate about in your work? How do you bring that passion to the company?

At Cross Culture, our ethos is that culture drives brands and brands define the world that we live in. And in particular, diverse cultures have an outside impact on popular culture. What really drives not only me but also my co-founders Troy Carter and Trevor Thomas (who’s also MLT), is that we get to empower entrepreneurs who look like us, who  are solving problems that are meaningful to us. So, we are solving challenges for the neighborhoods that we grew up in or that are similar to them, as opposed to the typical types of investments that happen every day in Silicon Valley and in venture capital. I mean, sure, we’ll do some of those, too, but we have the opportunity to really have an impact on this industry, and frankly, on the world. That’s the key motivator for us.

Can you share briefly your experience so far in Silicon Valley – including some of the challenges you’ve faced and the things you’ve learned?

Being one of very few African-American venture professionals is a challenge. It’s not easy to walk into a room and realize that you’re the only one who looks like you. It’s just different networks, and I’ve had to find ways to not necessarily blend in, but to be accepted for who I am. I’ve walked into meetings with companies or other investors, and the assumption is made that I’m not the lead investor. That can be annoying. But you know, you just kind of brush it off and get down to it. And through conversations, folks realize that you are smart and you have something to offer. And over time, you build a brand and a reputation and it gets better. But then, there’s always going to be some of that, I think.

How do you feel about winning the 40 Under 40 award?

It was great to be on stage with folks that I respect immensely [as well as] folks who are my peers – it was very cool. To see a crowd in Silicon Valley, that really resembles you, I felt like I was in Mount Vernon or the Bronx. It was just so brown in the room, it was kind of cool.

With so much in the news lately about the need for greater diversity in tech. what advice do you have for someone who might be interested but unsure about pursuing a career in Silicon Valley?

If you’re interested in technology, it’s going to be difficult to find a better place to pursue that career, so just do it. There’s a good number of us brown people out here and there’s a super supportive network so just come out. And I think given the timing, with all the talk about diversity and folks like the CBC and others keeping it in the spotlight, it couldn’t be a better time to come out and be a part of the change while pursuing your dream. You have to go where the opportunity is and pursue your passion.

Is there anything that differentiates career paths in this sector from other more “familiar” ones – like finance or consumer packaged goods?

Being a software engineer at a really large company is very different from being a software engineer at a start-up or at a mobile company or an internet company. It’s about learning to understand the culture of those types of companies as well as picking up the nuanced technical skills that you need at those types of companies.

It’s not a huge stretch, technology-wise, to move from an old school type of programming to the new ways. But what could be a bit unsettling or different is how fast-paced things move at a start-up; how quickly direction shifts; how rapid iteration needs to happen. And it’s usually not a situation like, “Oh, I come to work, do my stuff and then bounce and come back the next day.” Usually, you’re there for a long time and you are really getting to know the people who are sitting next to you.

What’s next for you?

I’m having fun right now, kind of wearing two hats. I have a great opportunity to make a dent in this diversity challenge from the Intel Capital Diversity Fund side. And then even more exciting is having launched Cross Culture with Troy and Trevor and seeing where we can take that –  how great that vehicle can be and how many lives we can impact directly and indirectly. We’ve got a huge mission and I’m excited to see if we can pull it off.