When Alexis Ohanian met Jewel Burks a few years back while filming a show called Small Empires, he was pretty clear about how formidable he thought the young entrepreneur was. “I would not bet against Jewel,” he said. Indeed. In 2016, Amazon acquired her company, which uses machine vision to identify the weird widget you’re holding in your hand so you can order another one. Now she is Amazon’s team lead for visual search, and she spends a lot of her time investing and advocating for diversity in the tech industry.
Ohanian, the founder of Reddit and an active investor through his seed-stage venture firm Initialized Capital, nominated her to WIRED’s list of 25 people who will shape the next 25 years, and the two sat down at our anniversary festival in October to talk about where technologists should be investing, where startups should locate themselves, and yes, Olympia. —Arielle Pardes
Arielle Pardes: Jewel, your story challenges the traditional entrepreneurship narrative. You didn’t come from a tech background. You studied marketing. You had this idea for a computer vision startup but had no knowledge of computer vision. You were in Atlanta. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jewel Burks: I was working at a big industrial distribution company, a parts company, and I was managing the call center, so I was the person who got all the frustrated callers whom we’d sent the wrong parts out to. And I got yelled at every day all day and I was tired of that. And at the same time my grandfather, who has a farm, called me saying his tractor had broken down in the middle of harvest and he needed help finding a part.
That really struck me. My customers and my grandfather had a problem: They couldn’t find what they were looking for. So I had a light bulb moment. Because oftentimes people have what they’re looking for. They just don’t know what it’s called. They don’t have a part number. Why can’t they just take a picture of it?
I had no idea how to actually build that, but I thought I could figure it out. And so I started doing a lot of research. Georgia Tech has one of the best digital signal processing programs in the country, and I just happen to be five minutes away.
Alexis Ohanian: We talk about computer vision now because it’s gotten popular in the last couple of years. But this was many years before anyone was talking about computer vision—you saw the potential.
AP: Alexis when you’re looking at early-stage companies, to what extent are you betting on the idea and to what extent are you betting on the person behind the idea?
AO: So it’s largely the person. The product, the market, those are boxes you have to check to make sure the idea is reasonable. But at the earliest stage it’s really mostly about the people.
But that suffers from pipeline and funnel problems. I’m only in San Francisco for maybe 100 days out of the year, and I actually think it’s a huge asset, because I find myself in so many other cities meeting with founders and trying to have a better perspective and a broader network.
AP: Jewel, you’re based in Atlanta. To what extent do you feel like that’s an advantage or a disadvantage?
JB: When I was fund-raising for Partpic, a lot of people told me that I would have to move my company to San Francisco to be successful. But I was pretty hardheaded: I lived here before when I worked at Google, and I knew that it wasn’t where I wanted to be. For what I was building, for the companies that would be my customers, for the talent that I wanted to attract out of Georgia Tech … everything was telling me that Atlanta was the place to build the business.
It was the right decision, because we were able to go way further with a small amount of capital. I’m able to get engineering talent for so much cheaper.
Now that I am doing more on the angel investing, I feel like it’s a competitive advantage to be in markets where costs are lower and there’s more access to talent, more access to Fortune 500 companies who could be customers. Fifteen Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Atlanta.
AP: [To Ohanian] You angel invest—your full-time job now is investing. How do you find people and companies who are outside of those small networks here in San Francisco. How can people who are outside of those networks find you?
AO: I just find myself spending the majority of my time elsewhere. The reality is that more and more founders are realizing they don’t need to be here to start their business. That’s the known hubs of tech like LA or New York or Seattle or Austin. But then you’ve got this other whole swath now—Atlanta, Nashville, Portland—where we’re making the rounds and networking with people who are embedded in the community there.
I try to spend as little time as possible talking to other VCs. I just don’t enjoy them. I get far more utility out of talking to entrepreneurs or newly minted angel investors who are entrepreneurs who’ve had success. It’s like “game recognize game.” They’re the ones who I want to talk to who are going to help me know who I should be meeting in these communities.
Every meeting I have is logged in the tool that runs the fund that all the partners have access to. It’s 24/7, searchable, viewable. So there’s a constant kind of hive mind. And there are latent benefits to knowing like, “Oh yes, I met her at a Meetup in Memphis six months ago; so-and-so just met with her. I need to reach out.” Then we can really start to identify what our blind spots are and how we can be better.
AP: Are there particular areas that you think are worth paying attention to right now in the entrepreneur space?
JB: There is a huge difference from when I was starting out in 2013 trying to build a machine learning system and now. People can get more specific about the applications. The baseline is there and they can build on top of it.
For me, I’m always interested in old industries that technology hasn’t yet conquered. One startup that I’m invested in is called Gooder, and they’re taking excess food from large restaurants, convention centers, and sports arenas and delivering it to homeless and hungry communities in Atlanta.
That’s a perfect application of technology and supply chain logistics. There’s a lot of big societal issues that we really haven’t cracked the code on; we really should focus on these big issues.
AO: I’m intrigued with elder tech right now. You have this generation who are not the early adopters, but they now have smartphones. And technology is now at a place where, you know, they’re at least checking up on the photos of their grandkids using Instagram or Facebook.
There’s more technological fluency and all these problems to be solved for a massive population that we’ve basically ignored. We are seeing companies like a banking services company we backed called True Link Financial. It’s for the kids of the elderly, and it uses some pretty straightforward machine learning to make sure that their spending is controlled and they’re not getting defrauded. Or they can flag suspicious checks or suspicious purchases that some jerk on the phone is tricking them into.
Loneliness is another significant health crisis. One company we recently backed wants to be, don’t laugh, but grandkids on demand. Culturally we’re not equipped to be having multigenerational families live together in America. And so we have these retirement communities where huge numbers of elderly people are. And historically volunteer groups have spent time in nursing homes. But now there is starting to be an actual financial model where insurers are realizing “Hey, there is there is real monetary value to having people spend time with the elderly. It makes them live longer, makes them happier.” And because of smartphone technology it’s pretty easy to coordinate college students who are looking to make extra money and want to spend time with the elderly doing something that’s a lot more satisfying than driving an Uber.
Incidentally, it’s also something a robot’s not going to be able to do.
AP: You say that now.
AO: The day that a robot can hold a conversation with my grandparent and play checkers with them and ask them stories and have a wonderful time is the day the robot’s going to just overthrow us. In the meantime, on the one hand, part of my heart breaks, because it has to be a capitalist solution. But on the other, here is something that will not get automated—that still requires a human connection and a human relationship.
And I’m impressed because so many of these ideas come from outside of California. That startup is based in Florida, which is not a surprise given the retirement communities in Florida.
AP: I feel like this year in technology has been very much a year of unintended consequences, where people who thought they were just creating a little startup in their dorm room now run some of the most powerful companies in the world. And we’ve heard from a lot of CEOs that they didn’t anticipate what was going to happen with their companies. To what extent do you think entrepreneurs who are at the very early stage right now need to be able to anticipate the future and have that sewn into their ideas from the get-go?
JB: Part of the job of the entrepreneur is to always be thinking about what’s going to happen next year, three years from now, five years from now, and what’s gonna be my place in those different steps. It’s a balance of looking forward and understanding what’s the reality of today.
AO: There is definitely a different attitude among the founders today. The founders of today are a lot more deliberate, a lot more self-aware. Maybe more long-term focused because they see and are probably learning from a lot of the things we got wrong.
I’ve heard from founders who are walking out of investors’ offices because they went to an all-partner meeting and didn’t see a woman. You could say they are more woke than we were 13 years ago.
AP: 2018, the year of the woke founder. Ok, let’s kick it to the audience.
Audience: How do we connect entrepreneurs like Jewel with the amazing science that our universities are already investing in?
JB: We were part of a program at Georgia Tech called the Advanced Technology Development Center. And and someone helped us write a grant, because there’s all this money out there for startups that they don’t know about. If they’re doing hard technology, there is money available. So for us that was the connection point.
So my answer to your question is I think that identifying the great institutions that are putting out amazing research and have folks that are there interested in startups and then having programs around that, so that those connections can be made between the entrepreneurs like me who have a great idea, the technologists, and the engineers at these universities, and then the folks who are actually actively working to connect these together.
Audience: I work for a social media company, but I’m very passionate about creating spaces for entrepreneurs to be heard and get together. So what do you see as the role of social media playing and getting these two sides together?
AO: One of the big trends that we’re just starting to see is that we’ve reached peak one-to-many social platforms. So with a company like Instagram, a room full of people all follow one individual and consume their content.
But places like the Wing and Girl Boss have both been creating physical and offline or online communities for women entrepreneurs in one form or another. And that’s a trend I’m pretty long on. We’re going to see a new kind of social media platform emerge that are really community focused, and they’re doing it very deliberately.
JB: In Atlanta, we’re part of an organization called Goodie Nation. Actually I’m on the board of it and we do this thing called Founders Therapy, which is so critical because oftentimes founders are pretty stressed out, pretty lonely, and going through all these different things. And so we create spaces for, you know, 10 to 15 founders to get together and just let it out and have a chance to just really talk. And that has been really great for creating community in Atlanta.
Audience: Thank you so much Jewel for sharing your story. I was in tears and totally inspired, totally humbled. Alexis, obviously I love Serena.
AO: We all know why you’re all here.
Audience: That’s the only reason I’m here! I follow Olympia on Instagram! I have a startup, and I’m working on a prototype for like futuristic purses that wirelessly charge your phone while your phone’s in them. So my question is, as a female founder who’s working on physical products that are not completely tech: How do I not get belittled?
JB: So what you describe to me sounds like tech. But I think the biggest thing is for me was shifting my mind-set. A lot of times, I’d think “These people are going to say no to me because I’m a woman or because they don’t believe that I can do this.” And in many cases, that was true. But I had to change the way I was thinking about going into conversations and meetings, and focus on “I know that what I’m doing is solving a big problem for a lot of people. And I can’t control how the person on the other side of the table is going to receive me or think about it. They either want to be a part of the solution, or they don’t.”
Either way it’s fine. I can’t take it personally. So I think that’s something I would just say to you is don’t think too much about “Oh, I’m a woman.” Look, I am always trying to find a charger. You’re solving a big problem. And just think about it as that and not so much about what the opposition will be on the other side of the table.
AO: The direct-to-consumer trend has really gotten popular of late. It’s a huge asset because you now have more investors who have more of an appetite for physical goods. The barriers to getting an initial preorder campaign going are lower. Because it is hardware, you are still going to need to get some initial capital, maybe from friends and family, but you can have traction at the end of the day—those dollars are going to speak volumes.
And there is a real economic lever that marginalized people in this country can use and have used historically. Because you know you’re talking about. Yes, on the one hand, it’s like “Oh, this is a thing only women would use.” But that’s is half the population. And it’s also the half the population that controls so much household expenditure and that right now is really energized and really motivated.
If I could just invest in an index fund of businesses targeting basically anyone who doesn’t look like me I would, because the next 10, 15, 20 years is very much in that direction. Forerunner Ventures has built a model around “direct to consumer” and “founded by women” with this understanding, that there is a huge untapped market. I think you’re ahead. You’re still in an early part of it, but you’re at the right part where there’s a tsunami behind you. It’s a good time to be building this.