Martin Hunt – Venture Investor and CEO
What does it take to become a successful CEO? Martin Hunt is a venture capital and private equity investor, published author, and the CEO of Swanlaab USA Ventures. In this episode, he shares his journey into entrepreneurship. Martin has had a rich and colorful career in tech and business with some valuable lessons from his experiences that he shares in his chat with host J.R. Lowry. He tells all about his upbringing, getting into Harvard Business School, his different career paths, and the steps he took to get to where he is today. There’s much to learn from Martin’s journey about being a leader, carving your career path, and managing a business. Tune in to gain wisdom you can use and apply in your career growth journey.
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Martin Hunt – Venture Investor and CEO
On Fulfilling A Childhood Dream To Go To Harvard Business School, Become A CEO, And More
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My guest is Martin Hunt, who I met years ago in business school. Martin is a venture capitalist and is currently raising a fund to invest in B2B technology businesses. Martin started his career in the financial services sector in the management development program at Prudential. He then went to business school at Harvard during which time he worked as a research assistant for the renowned strategist, Michael Porter.
Following business school, Martin did stints as a consultant at AMS and in the energy sector for a Chicago-based firm that was ultimately acquired by Exelon. He went back to financial services in his home state of Delaware working for MBNA, which was later acquired by Bank of America. Since he left MBNA, he has been in private equity and venture capital. He started a search fund and ultimately used it to invest in a low-voltage and fiber optic cabling company in Florida that he ran for a number of years. He is raising another fund now.
Along the way, Martin has served as a member of the HBS Alumni Club of Philadelphia and also volunteered for Harvard more broadly. He’s involved in helping select scholarship recipients at his undergraduate alma mater Swarthmore as well. Martin earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics from Swarthmore and his MBA from Harvard. He and his wife live in Philadelphia, and have a son and a daughter.
Martin, welcome. It’s good to have you on the show.
It’s a pleasure to be here.
Start at the beginning. Some of this I don’t know about you. Where did you grow up? What was your first paid job?
I was born in 1968. I was named after Martin Luther King. I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania but raised in New Castle, Delaware. I’m living in Delaware. I’ve been around the circle for a long period. I lived around the country and in different parts of Chester and Delaware.
What was your first paid job?
My first paid job was cutting grass and snow shoveling. I was always daddy’s helper. Naturally, that came into cutting grass for my neighbors and in the neighborhood. It was the same thing for shoveling snow. The first real job that I considered a job was my freshman year. It was a volunteer job at the University of Delaware working with a Puma 5000 robotic arm. That was my first job with outside people that were supervising and everything like that.
How did you decide to go to Swarthmore? Why Economics?
Swarthmore was a dream of mine. I applied to five schools and got in, but they all had a common thing of Liberal Arts. In tenth grade, I knew I wanted to go to Harvard Business School. At that point, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. I went to a liberal arts school. I wanted to make sure I went to a liberal arts school. I majored in Engineering for two years. I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was close enough to entrepreneurship and the things that I wanted to do long term.
I was like, “I have to change.” I went to summer school at Harvard. I knew that I wanted to go there so I did odd jobs. I took one course in Economics, doubled up, and graduated in Economics. That was a negotiated major because I thought it was halfway between Humanities and Engineering. You made models to make sense of the world and things of that sort. That appealed to me based on what I wanted to do further on.
I’m amazed that you even knew about Harvard Business School in tenth grade.
My grandfather would read the Harvard Business Review all the time. Every time I went [to see him], it would sit there. Every time I would hear a story of an entrepreneur, it was these Harvard guys. It was a Harvard case study. I would read these case studies. I was like, “I want to be an inventor, invent things, and do things like that with technology.” It made sense that it’s where I wanted to go, knowing that I wanted to be well-rounded in Liberal Arts and all that. I said, “To finish off, I’ll go there because that’s where the stories are made.” That’s where I’d meet people like you. It was a dream come true. I could have gone to other places. I would have if I didn’t get the opportunity [to go to Harvard], but I got the opportunity. It was a good choice.
I can remember distinctly when I first heard about Harvard Business School. I was a freshman at Duke. It was probably a month into the school year. They were looking for volunteers to do one of these phone-athon things where you call out to alumni, and you’re asking for money. The woman sitting next to me was talking to somebody that she knew. She’s like, “So-and-so got into Harvard for his MBA.”
After she got off the phone, I’m like, “What’s that?” I had no idea. That was the first place where I even understood that there was such a thing as a business school. I was pretty naive coming into it.
You decided you didn’t want to do the Engineering route. You ended up in Economics. What did you envision yourself doing when you were still an undergraduate? What was your perceived professional path?
Long term, I thought I would be an entrepreneur or run a Fortune 500 company as a lot of the Harvard MBAs did. It was one of those two. In my thought process, it was building all the skills and doing all the jobs such that it gave you a good point of view on how to run a business well and how to be a leader. You’d know which way your path will take you, the Fortune 500 route or to start a business, and go do something like that. I did a little bit of both. I’ll tell you about the winds in the roads.
We all have them. How did you end up at Prudential?
They had a management development training program. A lot of folks from Swarthmore College went there. It was a natural way that I thought I would learn some basic skills from a Fortune 500 company at that time. It’s a big company with 100,000 people. Prudential was big. The program was a rotational program. I thought I would get a general view of business and all that.
You were in a rotational program. What do you feel like you got out of that relative to what you think you might have gotten from a normal job?
It was amazing. First, you get a class that comes in with you, with these superstars from all over. We had a class of 10 to 15 people. You got a chance to meet them. That was a great thing. They had a training program for 6 to 9 weeks, and then you all went off and did your different assignments. That first part I thought was helpful for me. To meet people from all different schools was very nice for me. I got a chance to do some stellar assignments. Those assignments gave me the mettle of the person I am in terms of how things work.
The first rotational program was with Prudential Printing Press. The executive VP came to me and said, “This will either be the hardest assignment you ever do, or you can tell me you don’t want to do it because it’s at a printing press.” The goal was to go in and help put in an activity-based costing system such that they could sell through the press. I did that. They had three unions. I had to deal with the unions.
It was a 24-hour shift so I had to stay there at different times and things. I had to learn to deal with all different types of people. It was successful. We put in the costing system. Things went well. They were able to sell the Prudential Printing Press, which at that time was the largest on the East Coast. For me, it had a little bit of engineering, a little bit of the social liberal arts, and a little bit of the future M&A that I wanted to do. It was a great assignment. I got that from there.
I can imagine. That’s a lot to throw a 22 or 23-year-old person into, having to deal with different unions for 24 hours a day.
Dealing with the unions was fun for me because my dad was the president of the teacher’s association. I was familiar with negotiations, dealing with unions, and things of that sort. It was a blast to be there and work with them around providing, in my view, security for them. They knew that they were going to be sold. My role was to help them make the best of that situation. When people’s jobs are on the line, that’s where I thought business was fun.
When I first got to Prudential, the first thing they did in the first month or something was fire 10,000 people. With Mother Pru, Mother IBM, and all these folks back then, you’d go work for a company and you’d work there forever. This was the first wake-up call that was like, “The world has changed. Mother Pru is no longer Mother Pru.” I had to think about that as people would say to me, “This is important for me. Don’t go home. I need you to do this. I want you to do this. I need to know that you’re doing your very best.”
It helps solidify the stakes for you.
It’s also that it was real people. At that point, both of my parents were teachers. They had a fairly stable road to it. When Prudential fired 10,000 people, a lot of people started to pull people out of college. That was the first time when I was like, “There’s a correlation between what your parents do, what they can pay for, and going to college.” I became aware of that. I learned a lot.There's a correlation between what your parents do, what they can pay for and your ability to go to college. Click To Tweet
You mentioned that you had a few interesting rotations. What other things did you do?
In my second one, I was chief of staff for consulting services. What they did was they made smaller microcomputer systems that were on the front end and not on the legacy side. Prudential had these football fields of mainframes built on COBOL and all that. The first generation of GUI interfaces and quick production of things that worked was this group.
I got a chance to program, learn what that was, design, and see this new move from mainframes to these LANs. People were starting to use AS/400s and stuff, putting software on the front end of what people could do, and not just having to do this long legacy thing. For me, because I was a techie for a long time, that was right up my alley. That’s why what I’m doing now is fun.
Early on, when I was 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9, we were on a VIC-20 and a TRS-80. We were building computers with two RAMs. The guy that I learned from in high school took us back to punch cards. You understand punch cards, mainframes, where we are now and where we’re going to go in terms of the internet, blockchain, and all these other things that are nice and cool. It’s another look at that progression.
I’m happy to say that I never used a punch card in my coding days. I was probably just after that in the scheme of things. Certainly, a lot of people who were my contemporaries talk about using punch cards at school. At the time, for better or worse, we were using PCs. The PC revolution had already hit by the time I was in school.
You were at the rich school.
Says the man who dreamed of going to Harvard Business School in tenth grade. You went to HBS. You were working for Michael Porter, who is well known for his Five Forces Framework. What was it like working with such a renowned guy? He was the star of HBS at that point.
It was awesome in every way. I feel honored and blessed to have worked for him and all that. I learned a lot from him. I still learn a lot from him in terms of the way I approach business, the value chain, and all that stuff. It’s the way I look at, deconstruct, and build back a business to get things done. Here’s a funny story. I wanted the job to work for Professor Porter to work on an initiative for a competitive inner city. I had done some work prior to that at Swarthmore College during my junior year in the summer. I thought I knew a lot. I was competent but HBS is a competitive place.
I had a meeting or an interview with him. We got into our different frameworks. He asked me about my framework. We went back and forth. We didn’t agree. I felt like, “I’m getting into this conversation with this genius. I disagree. I’m telling him that I disagree.” In the end, I thought to myself, “I am never getting that job. I am so far away from that job.” I am so embarrassed that we went down that path where I threw my cards and told him, “This is what I believe. This is why I believe it. You may be a little bit wrong with your framework and stuff but let me explain it again.”
Professor Porter hired me. That tells you the type of person that he is and the type of people that he wanted on his team to push forward his theory of the competitive advantage of cities, in this case, to apply his work to inner cities. It was fun. It was a great group. It still exists. I’ve checked back at different points in time. It was a blast. He was amazing.
He asked me a question. He said, “Tell me about women’s businesses. Tell me about Black businesses.” I said, “Everyone knows about Black businesses. Let me tell you about this. I’ll do a little bit of research.” I did some research. We did that. That was good for the time being. I turned that research into a book that’s called The History of Black Business. After I graduated, I said, “This study is so good. Everyone should know this. We can write a book. What do you think about that?”
He wrote me a check. He was like, “Go and let me know what you need.” I was working at that time. I didn’t get the book done so I sent the check back. I said, “I am going to write the book but I’m sending the check back now.” Two years later, I wrote the book. The book came out. I’m glad that I wrote it because it is a summary of the history of Black businesses in America up until that time, which was 1998.
That’s Michael Porter to me. He’s inspirational and rigorous. He’s a real person. We were lucky to be at HBS at that time because we had Clay Christensen in the first year, a legend. We had Howard Stevenson and Bill Solomon. All these guys are legends. Over the course of then until now, they have come out with theories and have changed HBS for the better. I got a chance to be around a lot of great professors. I got my money’s worth.
There were some big names there. I did not get into Solomon’s class. That was very hard to get into. I ended up taking that class with a different professor who had come out of the cell phone industry if I remember right. You went to CGI after HBS. How did that fit into the Martin Hunt master plan?
A guy named Charles Rossotti, who was a World War II Whiz Kid who graduated from HBS, came back to HBS. He was pitching this firm, American Management Systems. CGI bought American Management Systems. I bought into that. He was talking about how technology and computers would change the world. American Management Systems was all about getting technology into the business, and all the work around that to help businesses be more effective.
I was coming off working for Professor Porter, which was about strategy. I thought I was pretty good at strategy. I was like, “Strategy and technology are two of the hallmarks of what I believe helps make a nice, disruptive, and value-creating business. I would love to work for him.” I thought Charles Rossotti was a special guy at that time. He later on went to become the head of the IRS. It [AMS] was a great firm. It was one of those startups that grew by 25% for twenty years before they were acquired. It was one of those tech firms that were part of the Whiz Kids World War II wave that helped add technology to American businesses.
How did you then end up at Exelon?
After a while, I was like, “I want to do something bigger. I want to be part of the change in the world. What could I possibly do?” I was restless. The life of a consultant weighs high. It was hard. I was like, “Honey, I want to have a child. I want to start a family.” My wife was like, “We’re not starting a family until you’re not doing consulting.” I started to look around. A mentor of mine, a family friend, heard that I was looking.
I heard that they were going through taking this company through deregulation in electricity in Chicago. I was like, “If they’re going through deregulation, that means a lot to me. That means that the industry is going to change. I’m going to like that. I would be part of this strategy group. I’m going to like that.” All of those things made me want that job. I interviewed for the job and talked to the senior management. They were able to bring me on board. It was great in Chicago.
When I got there, the person that brought me there, who was a mentor and a hero, Leo Mullin, left to become the CEO of Delta. He hired Jim as a CFO. He was like, “If you want to come down to Atlanta, you can.” I did. I flew down and talked to Jim for a little bit, but decided to stay in Chicago because we were already committed there. We had friends there. We knew that was going to happen. We took Unicom, which was the parent company of ComEd, through deregulation. It was amazing.
How did you get yourself up to speed in the energy sector? That was new for you.
The good thing about our class is that you have [access to] a bunch of experts. The good thing about HBS is you always felt you could call people. You always felt that you can break down a business. What’s the value chain of an energy company? Strategically, what are we talking about? How is this industry going to change? I said, “You have generation, transmission, distribution, and a services company.”
If you understand that value chain, you can start to break that down, and then you understand the dynamics of what was happening through deregulation, and the thesis for the change that was going to happen to the company. That was enough to qualify me to have enough tools, but also to learn on the job. We got there. We had outstanding people.
It was the largest nuclear fleet in the country. They had stranded costs. We sold off their fossil fuel-based generation for $4 billion and then did a merger for $16 billion. It was an amazing time. I got a chance to pick and choose what I wanted to do. The very first thing was cost-cutting $200 million in a short period. It’s that process of a large organization, understanding the value chain, and being able to work with an outside consultant, Booz Allen in this case.
We were the strategy group that cut $200 million from the budget. It was amazing to learn that we cut $100 million because people already wanted to pre-spend the other $100 million. I was like, “A strong CEO can make $100 million by saying no. We’re not going to carry a budget over. We’re going to cut the budget and move forward.”
I learned a lot about how to manage a large business, how budgets work, how they can be abused, and how to bring an organization back in compliance with what you’re trying to do, and then also to help them move to a competitive environment. You have a nuclear fleet. As far away from competition as you can get would probably have been that nuclear fleet. We’re bringing them to a competitive energy market. We did that. We sold off the fossil generation. We had the base load. We did a merger with the other largest nuclear power producer, PECO, in Philadelphia to form Exelon.
I got a chance to do that. It was amazing because of everything that was going on in the country. Bill Clinton was president. He had some issues. Rahm Emanuel left to go to Wasserstein Perella. His big deal was this deal. He was on the deal team. I’m sitting there across from Rahm. He’s telling his stories. You’re thinking that you’re doing something great in a great industry, which is power. Everyone needs power. Major cities need to have consistent power, not have rolling blackouts and things. I got a chance to see a lot.
You ended up over at Bank of America for something completely different.
It was completely different from the standpoint of it’s another value chain. How do you manage that? What are you thinking? I already had been in the strategy group [at Exelon] and in the strategy work with Porter, I was helping start a strategy group there, at MBNA. MBNA grew up in Delaware. It started in Maryland but it grew up in Delaware. It was like an internet startup. It started from almost nothing. Mr. Lerner put $150 million down. It started to grow.
Affinity marketing was born with MBNA. I had seen this because a lot of people from my high school went to work there. All of a sudden, they’re making $1 million a year because they stayed at the same company. I’m coming back with a Harvard MBA. They’re like, “You’re the outside guy.” I did know strategies. I heard about a job from a friend. I said, “It’s in my hometown. If it’s in my hometown, I should know about it. It’s not DuPont but let me fly in and see.”
I flew in and said, “I can do a lot of good here. I know a lot about strategy. If you give me this job, I’ll take it.” They gave it to me and that was it. I was almost there. It took me 30 days to convince my wife. We drove around Delaware. She was like, “We’re going to have to find a city.” I was like, “It’s like a suburb of Philadelphia.” We drove around and looked at lots of places, the Main Line [outside of Philadelphia] and things. We finally found a place in Delaware that was acceptable from an international population and all that stuff.
Where is she from?
She’s from Chile. She’s half-Chilean and half-Dutch. I met her at HBS in the first year. You probably met her. She knows five different languages.
I’ve met her. I just didn’t know where she was from.
She’s a pretty woman.
It’s good to hear you say that about your wife.
We’re happily married. We have two grown kids.
When did you decide that you were going to make this jump into the venture capital and private equity world?
I didn’t view it as that. I view it as me, after spending a lot of time and resources paying back my school debt, and buying a house and the car I wanted. Everything was working perfectly. I said, “Is this what you came here to do? Do you want to be an entrepreneur? When are you going to be an entrepreneur? Can you add value there?” While I was at HBS and even afterward, I would watch year after year 80 to 100 search fund guys or private SPACs buy a company and run it.
I said, “I could probably do that.” I called them up and talked to them. I was like, “I could do that.” I put together a program office. It’s the same thing that I had done in mergers and acquisitions for a Fortune 500 company and then again at MBNA. That’s two Fortune 500 companies. I was going to do it for myself and find an appropriate spinoff or company that I thought I could make a difference in the world with.
I asked my wife, left my job with her full backing, and started HWI Partners, where I was a consultant at first. I consulted on one hand. I started my search fund and self-funded a lot of it. That gave me better economics and things. I had HWI Search Fund, HWI Partners, and HWI Technologies. That finally did the deal. Three years later, we purchased a company.
That was the company in Florida.
We purchased Custom Cable Industries with HWI Technologies. It was a spinoff from Steelcase, a large furniture manufacturer. They were spinning it off. It could have been an auction type of situation but I knew how Fortune 500 companies strategically thought. I was like, “Let me tell you what Martin Hunt can do by buying this company. You’ll have no headaches. I’m going to pay this amount.” I knew the amount that was on their books. I priced it not high and not low but just right. I was like, “Here’s my plan for the company. We’re going to grow and do this. That’s what you’ll get.” I got a chance to talk to the CEO and the management team. I got buy-in there. We were the buyer of choice.It could have been an auction type of situation, but I knew how Fortune 500 companies strategically thought. Click To Tweet
This was back in the era, if I’m remembering my timetables, where there was that whole period where all the manufacturing companies wanted to go into services. You had a company that makes office desks and other equipment. They wanted to go into the cabling piece because that was a value-added service. They probably got into it and realized, “We don’t like this.” Along came Martin Hunt who said, “I’ll take it off your hands.”
There you go, “This is hard to do. Why don’t we get into this strategically? What are we doing?” I understood that. It was a good thing. It was a manufacturing company. It was structured cables. It would assemble cables on a customized basis, and then also do the installation. It would wire up a whole building and things of that sort, but it would also make customized wiring, both copper and optical fiber for telecoms.
A telecom has these regional offices that have hundreds of miles of wires in them. They have to be exactly the right size going to the pieces of equipment. We were able to do that very well. We put that on the internet so they can do it on the internet. We had a whole catalog of engineered things that they could buy. That made it easy for them. It was a good business.
You dreamed of being a CEO from early on. Now, you’re a CEO. You’ve bought this company. What was it like in the day-to-day?
I had always seen myself as a CEO. At HBS with 800 cases, you’re the protagonist. What are you going to do? Grass cutting. I was a CEO. When I wrote my book, I self-published it. I started a company, Knowledge-Express. I was the CEO of that. Before I bought this company, we had HWI Partners. I was running a consulting firm, and then HWI Search Fund. This was just another step.
Let me tell you a good story of the first real day, and then you’ll get a sense of it. I have all these frameworks. I go through all these issues. We have the strategy. Everything is perfect. I’m going in for a first real meeting on Monday morning where I’m the CEO that is new. They know that I’m coming. I’ve been there before. I’d had some town halls. I’d answered questions, but this was the first time. I fly in on a Saturday and go to this place. It has 250 employees.
Where in Florida is this?
Tampa. I walk into this beautiful place. I walk outside first. I’m like, “There’s some trash in the dumpster. Some things are coming out.” I go inside through the security and all that. I go to the employee cafe. The coffee looks old. It wasn’t as clean and nice as you would expect it needs to be for a top-flight place. On that Saturday night and that Sunday, I cleaned it alone. I went to the store and bought coffee grounds and the whole thing. I bought very nice stuff and put it all around. I was super tired. I went outside, threw stuff in a dumpster, and cleaned up everything.
I thought it was the way tight ships would run. On that Monday morning, I come in. I’m tired. I pulled the team in. They’d heard me before talking about strategies. They knew that. I said, “Let me tell you a story.” I told them a story of me making the coffee that morning, buying the coffee grounds and all that, and picking up the trash. They were surprised. I was like, “I did that because I knew I rarely would ever have to do that again. I have a management team that understands that we model the behaviors and the standards that we want our manufacturing folks to have. Are there any questions?”
From that day on, the esprit de corps went up in that group. They made sure everything was always clean and that things were done correctly and right. They understood when I asked a question what I was asking for and why I was. The workers responded immediately with greater productivity. That was my experience at Custom Cable. There were 250 hardworking and great people in America doing manufacturing for Verizon, AT&T, and the Department of Defense. That’s the way America should work.
What ended up happening with that company?
It got sold. We won a very large contract. I turned it from being a majority contract to a diverse contractor. My shareholders didn’t think it needed to be diverse any longer. We fought for six years and came to a conclusion. That’s how it exited.
When I was doing work for the telecom companies, they were always looking for diverse suppliers, and the government is always looking for diverse suppliers. That feels like an error in judgment.
Money is money. An $80 million contract does things to people. You’re dealing with lots of forces.
This was back when you sold the company.
In 2016, I finally exited. We got out of the actual company in 2010, 2011 or 2012, whenever the first lawsuit went over. It went into 2016.
That’s a long time.
If you’re good at litigation, you push it out. That’s what they did. I did things in the meantime. It was a long haul.
Fast-forward to now, help us understand what the last few years have been like.
In 2016, I joined an investment bank that my family owned a part of. I did that for three years. I had an assignment there that was going to help Temple University start a commercialization program. I asked to do that. I said, “I’ll do this and consult you but I want to go and do this thing for Temple because this is an early-stage company,” which is what the firm did. It’s investment banking. Temple is doing that but they’re trying to roll out.
I joined up with an international accelerator, Smartinvest. We joined Temple and ran their program for two years. From that program, there were a lot of firms that got funded. One of them went public in 2021. I thought to myself, “We did a wonderful job here. We have skills at building teams in that stage of companies. I’m back where I came from.” All the skills that I’ve had culminate in that.
I said, “I want to start a venture capital firm. I did a private equity firm already. Let’s try a venture capital firm.” Swanlaab is an international venture capital firm that started as Giza Ventures in 1992. They had a whole bunch of funds but in 2016, they branched out to a Spanish fund. Some of the investors called them Swanlaab Giza. The investors that I know knew them well.
I was like, “I’m starting an African-American fund in the United States. I love what Swanlaab has done. We have investors in common. Wouldn’t it be great if we took that same framework from Israel that you took to Spain? Why don’t we bring it to America and make this a premier African-American-owned venture capital firm?” They said yes. We’re working on our first fund. It’s a $100 million fund in B2B tech. It’s the same playbook.
Are there certain industries you’re targeting or just B2B tech in general?
B2B tech. We like to focus on IT for healthcare, the internet, impact investment and IT. Those are four broad things that we like to do, but there are seven different verticals that we look at. It’s all the new technologies, whether it be fiber, blockchain or what I call reality tech. We can get into that on a different day. The reality is the future will always have data attached to it, whether that be ever-present or whatever. All that is there.The reality is the future will always have data attached to it. Click To Tweet
The way we look at companies that we look at is we look at the value chain and say, “How are you disrupting something? Is that something that we think will scale quickly and do well?” Swanlaab has done that well globally. We’re using the same playbook here. We’re adding a few things to it from the HBS playbook but you get the gist. I believe that there’s a wonderful opportunity for folks that can see multidimensional talent.
If you can see the talent that’s gender different, racially different, and all these things, and you bring that together for a Series A financing, that’s something that America has had a very hard time doing. Our firm hopefully has a sustainable competitive advantage around that, as well as simple B2B tech, which we will continue to do and choose the best but inclusive of all of that.
Are you still in fundraising mode then?
Are you actively looking for investments yet? Are you still purely in fundraising mode?
We’re doing both at the same time because we don’t have the luxury to wait. We went through two kinds of waves. We’ve had groups that we wanted to invest in. We couldn’t because we didn’t have the fund but we recommended out. Some people invested in them. Those have done extremely well. We think we’re pretty good at it. We’re coming up on a second wave where we think it would be a nice time to close. We’re shooting for the end of 2022.
Of all the people that I’ve talked to, you’re number 31 in my show journal. Your description of what you have gone through sounds more purposeful and intentional than anybody else I’ve spoken to. Does it feel that way to you? I usually ask this question, “Was your journey more intentional or more opportunistic?” Everybody says, “It has been opportunistic.”
It feels like both. When I talk to people, my son or my daughter, I tell them, “Make your best plan. Focus on people and skills, and allow for an opportunity to be in the right place at the right time.” The luckiest people are those that work the hardest. The most blessed people are those folks that are putting in the hard work. I don’t think it has been purposeful from that standpoint.
There’s no way I could have envisioned when the different changes were going to happen. There’s no way I could have seen that I was going to work for Michael Porter. There’s no way I could have foreseen that I would be working in the deregulation of nuclear power. There’s no way that I would have foreseen that I would be back in my home state working for a Fortune 500 company that grew up when I was leaving for college.
There probably was a way for me to know that I was going to run a business, but there was no way for me to know that in 2021, venture capital is at a crossroads of trying to close a gap. America is trying to close a gap. The way we put it is we don’t play 1950s basketball. We play in 2022. We’re not worried about what color our team is or what sex they are. We go with the best team.
There’s a strategic opportunity for America to act in a way that it hasn’t been able to in the past. There was no way to foresee that. I don’t know if I would have been able to say three years ago, “Now would be a good time to start a $100 million first fund that we think we’ll be able to deploy quickly.” Our problem is how we do that in a way that is consistent with good portfolio construction over time. There are great opportunities out there. I don’t think there’s any way that I could have foreseen that. I always tell people, “Be the best that you could possibly be. At the same time, be open to what you love and opportunities because disruption happens at times that you’re not going to be able to predict.”
Across all the things that you’ve done, are there a few strengths that you look at and say, “I’ve been able to leverage these consistently in these very different situations?”
It’s parenting and being a good husband. It’s to have a relationship, which is easier than having kids, where you have kids and manage your kids in a way where you instill all the values that you want to be and want to do. They hold you to it. It’s understanding the stakes there. When I grew up, both of my parents were teachers. They were always teaching, There was always a teachable moment. They were always giving. I felt rich all the time. Whenever I needed help, they were there.
Being able to do that for my kids taught me a lot about how to manage a business, which is why that day one at Custom Cable was so important because it was about setting a tone, following through with values, and trying to be the best that I can, knowing that it’s never perfect. There are going to be strengths and weaknesses. You’re going to work on them as you go to create strong humans.
My kids have taught me and are teaching me. That’s my secret weapon because it creates a link to a different generation. It creates a link to the way things are done from their point of view. I can create a link between all that I know over my lifetime with what they’re telling me now. You can see trends and anticipate. It gives you judgment and everything. It’s a little bit weird but being able to set the tone for organizations to follow through and be true to that is easier said than done.
What have you worked on developing?
Everything. I’m always developing. If you were to go through my career back in 2003, I went back to HBS for Entrepreneur’s Toolkit before I jumped off. In 2018, I went back for the first fundamentals in venture capital and private equity before I jumped off. This thing that I’m on with Gisele at the Olin Business School at WashU is closing the funding gap and working on that.
It all needs new things. It all needs that strategic look, “How do we make changes in a system that’s pretty good but can be a lot better?” I learned from Professor Porter how to get that done. As president of the Harvard Business School of Philadelphia, in dealing with nonprofits and running a nonprofit, you learn a lot about the community. I’m bringing all that together.
What do you look for in people that you seek to surround yourself with professionally?
It’s trust and skill, probably in that order.
Hard skills or soft skills?
All different types of skills. I believe in education. I’m always wanting to get better every day. I’m always willing to take in new information. That’s part of a skill. There’s a certain level of, if they have done that for 20 years, 10 years or something, you will see expertise coming through competitive advantages. I love to hire folks that bring competitive advantages to the table and build a team. No one is perfect but you’re building people in a way that gives the group a good chance at success.
That’s what I look for. It’s trust, which there are lots of ways to test, and then the skillset of understanding that they can learn. When I talk to people, I ask them a lot of times, “How much stuff do you know?” They say, “I know a lot. I’m pretty smart. I did this and that.” I say, “Tell me what you don’t know. Is that bigger? Tell me what you don’t even know that you don’t even know and how you plan on addressing that in this role.” It’s keeping an open mind, being able to apply yourself, being able to put in the work, and being able to trust that the intent is always correct.
If you were going to go back and give your tenth-grade I-want-to-go-to-HBS self advice, what advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?
Do what you think is right and leave it at that. Don’t look back. Don’t worry too much. They probably have better information than I do. This is what I tell my son and my daughter. They probably know it better than I do. Assume that your judgment is pretty good. It will get better. If you have questions, ask, or if you want a perspective, ask. Then you have to choose and be happy with it. I wouldn’t tell them much except for, “Decide what you want, make that happen and go for it.”
More generally, what advice would you want to leave our audience with?
The one thing that stays with me is to always get better every day. Anything the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve. Remember that. Always at our age look back ten years and say, “What would I have thought then if someone told me that?” That’s the level of optimism you should have for the next ten years. Always challenge people around that vision. Always have that vision because, in my view, things will always improve, be innovative, and things of that sort. We live in a wonderful country that has the opportunity to do more good in the future than in the past. It’s hard work. If we put in the hard work, we’re the folks that can make things better. We can own our future.If we put in the hard work, we're the folks that can make things better so we can own our futures. Click To Tweet
That’s good enough. We will stop there. Martin, you and I have known each other for 30 years. I learned more about you now than I’ve learned in the prior 30 years. We have clearly done a terrible job of keeping up over the years. We probably weren’t even spending much time together when we were in school together. Thank you for doing this.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Have a good rest of your day.
Thank you very much. Have a great day.
I’d like to thank Martin for joining me and sharing his accomplished career journey and learnings. If you’re ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks. Have a great day.
- Martin Hunt
- The History of Black Business
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About Martin Hunt
Martin Hunt is a venture capitalist, currently running Swanlaab USA. Martin started his career in financial services, in the management development program at Prudential Financial. He then went to business school at Harvard, during which time he worked as a research assistant for renowned strategist Michael Porter.
Following business school, Martin went to work as a consultant at AMS, which was ultimately acquired by CGI. He then spent time in the energy sector, working for Unicom, later acquired by Exelon, and went back to financial services, working for MBNA, later acquired by Bank of America. Since that time, in 2005, Martin has been in private equity and venture capital. In the course of his private equity work, he ran a low voltage and fiber optic cabling company in Florida that was acquired by the PE firm with whom he was working.
Along the way, Martin served as a member of the HBS Alumni Club of Philadelphia and also volunteered for Harvard more broadly. He is also involved in helping select scholarship recipients at his undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore College. Martin earned his Bachelors’ degree in Economics from Swarthmore and his MBA from Harvard. He and his wife live in the Philadelphia area and have two children.