Morgan DeBaun: Your Startup Survival Kit, from VC Funding to Leadership | E263

Morgan DeBaun: Your Startup Survival Kit, from VC Funding to Leadership | E263

Morgan DeBaun: Your Startup Survival Kit, from VC Funding to Leadership | E263

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in his home state of Missouri in 2014, Morgan DeBaun was working at a technology company in Silicon Valley. Unhappy with her job and dismayed about the media coverage of the story, she decided to change course. She co-founded Blavity, which became a leading digital media company for Black culture and millennials. Morgan has succeeded despite steep odds to forge an incredibly successful portfolio of companies. In today’s episode, she is going to share with us how she built an influential media empire and give us some pointers on how to navigate some of the most challenging parts of founding a company.


Morgan DeBaun is a serial entrepreneur, executive, and corporate advisor. She is the founder, CEO, and Chairman of Blavity Inc., a leading digital media company for Black culture and millennials. Morgan also acts as an advisor to influential global brands and companies including PepsiCo., American Airlines, CES, and other businesses.


In this episode, Hala and Morgan will discuss:

– Why hard work is not enough

– Being an outsider in Silicon Valley

– How to pitch a VC firm

– How to enlist your donors for help

– The right amount of equity to give away in a startup

– Talent acquisition and diversity in the tech space

– Advising Pepsi and American Airlines

– The virtues of anonymous employee surveys

– Balancing entrepreneurship with personal relationships

– And other topics…


Morgan DeBaun is a serial entrepreneur, executive, and corporate advisor. She is the founder, CEO and Chairman of Blavity Inc., a leading digital media company for Black culture and millennials. Through her work at Blavity, Morgan has grown the company into a market leader for Black media, reaching millions of readers through a growing brand portfolio that includes: Blavity News, 21Ninety, AfroTech, Travel Noire, Shadow & Act, and Blavity TV. Morgan also acts as an advisor to influential global brands and companies including PepsiCo., American Airlines, CES, and other businesses. She also hosts The Journey podcast, a weekly podcast that delves into the captivating stories of purpose-driven achievers on their quest to live their best lives and has her own newsletter, The Journey Newsletter, which gives advice on building a sustainable and scalable career and life.


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Morgan’s Company, Blavity:


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[00:00:00] Hala Taha: Young and Profiters, welcome back to the show. And today we have a true unicorn in the tech industry with us, a black female co founder and CEO of a digital media startup who succeeded despite steep odds to forge an incredibly successful portfolio of companies.

Morgan Devon is the founder, CEO, and chairman of Blavity Incorporated, a leading digital media company for black culture and millennials. 

Morgan has been recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 and America's Top 50 Women in Tech. And she also acts as an advisor to influential global companies like Pepsi and American Airlines. Morgan is going to share with us how she built an influential media empire, and she's going to give us some pointers on how to navigate some of the most challenging parts of founding a company, like VC funding and leadership.

Morgan, welcome to Young Profiting Podcast. Thanks 

[00:01:51] Morgan DeBaun: for having me. Excited to be here. 

[00:01:53] Hala Taha: I'm so happy to have you on the show today. I think we're going to garner a lot of life lessons from your journey and you've accomplished so much at such a young age And it seems like a lot of your success really comes from being able to effectively straddle so many different environments and communities from Silicon Valley to St.

Louis, where you grew up. So let's start here. How did your childhood in St. Louis impact your outlook on life today?

[00:02:17] Morgan DeBaun: Yeah, I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, you know, middle of America, very like American values. I think that one thing about being in the Midwest is people work hard, but also maybe don't make it to where they want to go.

So this kind of idea of hard work pays off, and if you just buckle up by your bootstraps. is what you're taught, right? Like living in America and like that's what they say, but in reality, it's not just hard work, right? And I saw that and I think I observed that time and time again. And when I eventually moved to Silicon Valley straight after graduation, I went to Wash U for undergrad and moved out to the Bay Area.

I was like, Oh, this is not about hard work at all. This is about access, opportunity. Yes, you need discipline. Yes, you need to be focused. You know, there's all these different things you need, but it is not just about brute force. And I think that's one of the things that I really encourage people to reconsider as they're building towards their financial freedom and their wealth journey or their business, because this hustle culture I think has messed up our perception of what's possible.

[00:03:29] Hala Taha: I love that. And I know that in your work, you often talk about code switching throughout your childhood. How you always had to sort of like be a certain person in one place and then switch off in a different place depending on your environment. And I think a lot of people who are listening to this podcast, they might not even know what that means.

They might not understand that people have to do that. So talk to 

[00:03:49] Morgan DeBaun: us about that. Yeah, you know, I am a Black woman and I grew up in a diverse set of different sets of schooling. You know, I went to a Catholic all girls school. I'm not Catholic. I'm Christian, but, you know, that's a very different type of Christian.

I then went to a primarily white institution, Wash U, where the Black population was four to six percent, depending on the year. And I always view the ability to be one of the underrepresented groups. as an opportunity to one, learn how other people think other cultures work. And then two, also re establish a really clear grounding of who I am, not just what society has propelled me to be.

And I think learning that skill at a young age, whether I wanted to be the other or not, caused me to have this resiliency, but then also have this ability to be flexible. So when I moved into the workspace, I moved into different professional spaces. I was able to say, okay, I know how these white boys in Silicon Valley move.

I know how the corporate industry moves. I know how to have a conversation with someone who I don't necessarily agree with their religious beliefs, but we're still able to have a connection and not necessarily be intimidated by. moving in and out of these different groups. Mm. 

[00:05:09] Hala Taha: Yeah, that makes sense. So I'm Palestinian American, a really crazy time to be a Palestinian American in America.

And I grew up in a way where I feel like I had more privilege than maybe other Arab Americans had in America. My dad was a doctor, he worked really hard. And then I felt like I have this extreme responsibility to be very successful and sort of help other people along the way. Because I just feel like I started off at a different place from other people.

Do you feel this same similar, because I hear that like you went to private school and like probably a very different experience from other African American people from that region, especially. 

[00:05:48] Morgan DeBaun: Yeah, you're right. And I actually, my dad's a doctor as well. So with not surprising, we kind of both wound up in similar, similar, but different.

But yeah, I do feel like because I was able to see the access of opportunity that I had compared to Other folks, black folks who lived in St. Louis, specifically, I went to a public school for all the way through middle school and then private for high school, and so I was able to see all my friends from middle school who didn't make it, who didn't graduate from high school, who had children really, really young, who are still in St.

Louis right now and didn't necessarily make it out of the city, not that there's anything wrong with staying where you're from, but if they had had a choice, I think they would have chosen a different life for themselves. And I think that the internet and being able to have access to Silicon Valley has given me the chance to say, okay, how do I build a platform to bring other people along and speed up the likelihood and reduce that gap between people?

Thank you. If I had the opportunity and the access, I would be more successful. I would have more wealth, more savings, more freedom, more control over who I want to be and how I spend my time. So definitely, I think that was a huge part of how I wound up doing this. 

[00:07:04] Hala Taha: Totally. And so you ended up graduating at the top of your class at Washington University in St.

Louis, and that's not exactly like a feeder school for Silicon Valley. So how did you end up transitioning and going to Silicon Valley? It 

[00:07:19] Morgan DeBaun: is not a feeder school for Silicon Valley at all. People thought I was a little bit nuts. This was, again, what, 12, 13 years ago? I mean, Silicon Valley was not really in vogue like it is now, our startup life.

And so I worked at a tech company in St. Louis, like one of the very few, as an intern my junior, senior year. And I took the time to understand, okay, how did this guy get all this money, like the founder, it was like, which is very confusing to me because it's just so not normal in the day to day life of what I was seeing from like entrepreneurs and business folks.

And he told me, I said, well, where should I go when I graduate? Where should I be applying? And he said, you should apply to Singapore. You should go and look for companies in Singapore and try to get to Singapore post graduation. And I was like, look, this black girl is not going to stay with you. That's a stretch.

What's my number two option? Okay. What is my number two option? And he said, okay, you can go to Silicon Valley, but there's a lot of the dot com wealth gain has already been done, but there's still a lot of room for growth. So I started looking at companies whose products I used. And at the time I was filing my taxes for the first time because I had my little internship.

And I was making some money, and then I was using Mint. com to manage that money, and so I wound up applying to a company called Intuit, which has grown tremendously since then, and moved out to the Bay Area to work there. So, it was definitely not the pathway that was traditional for the cohort of people that I was around, and yet, the beautiful thing about going outside your pathway is that once you get there, you actually find a whole new tribe of people that did exactly the same thing.

Mm. I love that. So when I got there, it was certainly a culture shock from a vocabulary perspective. You know, I didn't go to Stanford, so I didn't like know all of the things that people were talking about, but the energy was my energy. You know, it was people who wanted to do big things, who wanted to build for millions and billions of people, who wanted to make an impact at an early age, didn't want to wait till they were 60 to have a say.

And that was really energizing 

[00:09:32] Hala Taha: for me. Yeah, and it sounds like you did find a community, but were there any points in this experience in Silicon Valley where you were treated like an outsider, or felt 

[00:09:42] Morgan DeBaun: like an outsider? Yeah, so I think I found a community of people who were like minded, but not necessarily who I think had the social awareness that I had grown up with.

So because it's a very homogenous community of mostly white and Asian men, we can talk the talk about venture funding and tech. But when it comes to, hey, why don't we potentially like put the product in Spanish? It's like, why would we do that? You know, or like, when we do our user testing, why are the only people we user test?

Just stay at home moms in Palo Alto. Maybe we should get some more diversity in our, like, UIUX research study groups. So, I found myself having friction on the how to get things done and feeling like I was explaining myself and educating. Them, these people who make TEDx and what I make, who are the big bosses in the room, and I made a decision at that point after a few years of like learning the game, oh, this could be the rest of my life.

I could stay in corporate and be the girl who's like explaining all the things, but is that really, is that going to be the fastest way, one, for change because I would only be at that company if I was doing it, and two, is that how I want to spend my time, is that the impact that I want to make, and That was the friction between loving my work, loving the ecosystem, identifying, you know what, we're not quite there yet, and then trying to figure out, well, what is my role in this space?

[00:11:15] Hala Taha: Yeah. And then I know around that time, you started to really see like an opportunity in the marketplace, especially when it came to brown and black people. What was it that you saw? What gaps 

[00:11:25] Morgan DeBaun: did you see? Yeah. So about two and a half, three years in. Michael Brown was killed in St. Louis. So I was having a moment where I would go into my cubicle in downtown San Francisco and I would be heartbroken, just screaming internally.

At the computer, on my phone, and meanwhile, the world's just like operating like nothing is wrong. You know how it feels. I know how it feels. 

[00:11:51] Hala Taha: I'm going through it right now. 

[00:11:53] Morgan DeBaun: You know, everybody's just bumping along and you're like, hello, what is going on? You know, and how can I be helpful? How can I leverage my platform?

How can I use my skills, my unique set of skills to make an impact? And I didn't have a platform at the time, right? I mean, I'm 24 years old, right? But I did have skills. And I did have the ability to say, you know what? I now have some network. Let me figure out how I can create a unique brand and company is an advocate for a group of people that's often overlooked and more importantly, doesn't have the information distribution systems.

That we needed to get information from place to place in an accurate way. It's crazy that I'm saying this right now because it's like the exact same problem that's happening in a lot of different communities. And it's terrible. It's a terrible problem when you are the underrepresented group trying to get information to one another that is accurate, that is in real time, and that you're trying to get resources to the people on the ground.

Which in our case was back in St. Louis. Like bail bonds, you know, people were going to jail, we needed to get them out of jail. People were then driving to different cities where all these uprisings were happening. We need to get them money. It's an entire cluster. And without media and information, sharing and platforms, you wind up just perpetuating the cycle over and over again.

So that was the problem. And that's when I said, I'm going to take this leap and really commit to over the next three to four months figuring out how to quit my job and be full time working on Blavity. Wow. 

[00:13:38] Hala Taha: So I didn't realize that Blavity first started off basically to help a human rights movement within America.

That's basically why it started, right? And then it's evolved and we'll talk about the evolution. So it really started off with you creating an email newsletter, right? Why did you start it that way? 

[00:13:56] Morgan DeBaun: Cheap. Free. I was broke. You know, I think email newsletters are smart because you can just get to people fast.

You don't have the dependency on social network algorithms. Much like SMS, you're right in people's fingertips. It's really hard for people not to open emails or at least scan the subject line. So, that was the, my lowest barrier to entry to be able to get to the masses of people that we wanted to connect with.

And how 

[00:14:22] Hala Taha: did you first collect emails? 

[00:14:24] Morgan DeBaun: Well, what I did probably wasn't legal. but I scraped emails from when people wouldn't BCC. list within our little community. I'm like, I'll immediately adding you to my email list. I do not recommend this to anybody.

But 10 years 

[00:14:39] Hala Taha: ago, that was like all, that was normal 10 years ago. To your point, it's different times now. Different times. And I love email newsletters, guys. I just really started getting into email like the last year and it's been awesome. People really click those things, they really open it up. And to your point, especially when it's like sensitive topics, you don't have the algorithm and social media networks like shadow banning you or you could just get the word out.

So how did you figure out the kind of content that your audience really wanted to read? What was the ways that you got your content ideas for this email newsletter? 

[00:15:11] Morgan DeBaun: Yeah. So there's two things. On one end, we were able to track all the information in the newsletter, right? You're able to track what people are watching, what people are clicking on, if they're sharing the newsletter, if your newsletter is growing organically, what I called and what the world calls is a viral coefficient, right?

So for every two or three people who sign up for the newsletter, do you get another one to three people? If so, you've got a good machine going on. That's very organic, and that's going to allow you to grow quickly and cheaply. And that's what you're looking from a Silicon Valley perspective as a product manager.

That's what I was looking for was is this sticky enough that people are going to share it on their own so that I don't have to try to build a huge marketing engine, the product and the value should be so good that they want to share and we learned a lot of different things really quickly. I mean, the good thing about a daily newsletter is that you have a daily data set every day.

And what we found was a few different things. One, um, What people say they want to read or watch is different than what they click, and as a curator of information as a platform, you have to decide and have really strong values, or else you could go to a place where people are just clicking without any sort of value to that person, if that makes sense.

Um, if I just went by clicks, I would just write about Kim Kardashian all day, but that's not really what we needed. called PWI, this might have been your experience as well, but like, you know, you go to lunch.

Everybody sits with who they identify with at lunch. And so you couldn't tell the Black people anything. As far as I'm concerned, I went to an HBCU. Because it was like, Black, Black, Black, all the time. Especially at lunch and parties and things like that. And anytime we would all discover each other, have critical conversations, people would be doing homework, people would be talking about dating, like whatever was going on.

It was just this really beautiful moment in the day where you felt seen and heard and felt like you were part of a community, even though When you walked out that lunchroom, it's back to you and you and two other people in your econ one on one class. 

 So, I know that you started Blavity as a side hustle while you were at Intuit.

[00:17:32] Hala Taha: Talk to us about what that experience was like. How are you spending? How are you spending your time? 

[00:17:37] Morgan DeBaun: I woke up really early. You know, we're on the West Coast, so I would wake up, do East Coast meetings, go to work, walk to work. I was saving every penny I had, so, you know, I was eating boiled eggs and oatmeal and avocados are cheap in Cali.

I would even bring Tupperware to work because we had a lot of free food, just like shameless, you know, I was just saving every penny that I had. And after work, I would head to like happy hours or founder meetups, just trying to immerse myself in the community and get to know who's who and the players and how the tech industry worked.

And then from there in 2014. In January of 2014, I was starting on Blabity. We launched our first version of the product in the spring, the first version of the website in July of 2014. Mike Brown was killed in August. And if he hadn't been murdered, I wouldn't have, I think, felt the urgency to quit. Like, I think I would have stayed on the side hustle, main hustle dance for another year.

But at that point I said, okay, I have to figure out my finances. To be able to quit. So by October, I was fully out of the business, um, at Intuit. And I took on more side hustles actually, once I quit, because I still had a downtown apartment in downtown San Francisco and I was financing, I was bootstrapping the company.

So I was paying for the engineers, the bloggers, the site maintenance and everything. So I took on a consulting job. I arbitraged an apartment so that I could, you know, I rented out an apartment and then rented it. Out to somebody else for a higher price. I mean, I was literally just hustling, trying to make ends meet so that as much of my discretionary income as possible could go into the business.

So I 

[00:19:27] Hala Taha: have no experience with fundraising. I started my company's totally bootstraps. I think a lot of people don't have the experience that I had. It was like a slow, organic experience and then I got really huge retainers as soon as I started my companies. So let's talk about fundraising because you have a lot of experience with it.

Talk to us about the steps that we have to take to get VC money. What are the things we need to prepare? Things we need to create? How do we go out and find people to pitch to? Just walk us through that whole 

[00:19:57] Morgan DeBaun: process. You know, if I could have stayed bootstrapping, I would have. I think it's the better option for most people.

And in my scenario, the reason why I ultimately decided to fundraise is because I couldn't, we were growing so fast, I couldn't self finance the growth, and we were leaving a lot of money on the table. And I also felt a responsibility to convert people who were working as contractors or bloggers into a more sustainable, like, living baseline wage.

I mean, it was still startup wages, but something is better than nothing. So it was about the summer after Blavity launched 2015, when I went out to try to fundraise. Now again, Black girl, San Francisco, 2014. Not really in vogue. There's a lot of. New conversations around equity and VC and I love that. It's beautiful.

There's funds dedicated to minorities raising money, but that none of that existed when I was out there. So the first thing is identifying why you're fundraising and making a decision on if your business is venture backable or not. And at the time, there was a lot of media companies that were raising money.

You had advice, you had BuzzFeed, you had Upworthy. attention. So many media companies, Mike, for example, some of them exist now. Some of them don't. But I had enough data that showed yes, this is a category that people will spend and invest in. Then the second thing is, do you want to be a venture backed founder?

Because there's another set of responsibilities that comes from taking outside money. You dilute yourself and give away a piece of your company. And therefore you're giving power away and the more money you raise, the less power you have and the more people who become your bosses, right? The irony of entrepreneurship.

And then the last thing is, if I take this money, am I going to be able to give it back at a really high return at the speed at which this industry requires me to do so? So typically in the venture capital world. They're looking for a 5 to 7 year return timeframe, which means within 5 to 7 years you need to sell your company or you need to have an IPO, which is a public sale.

So am I, as the founder, willing to commit to a 5 to 7 year timeframe? At the time, I was. So all of those things were true for me. I went out to raise money. And I was really militant and really strict at the time. And so what did I do? I said, I want all black investors. I want an all black board and this is a black media company.

So the people who own this need to be a reflection of our community. Well, all the black people said no, so that was a strike and they were friendly about it. And I know all these people now and I love them now, but it hurt me that I was like on the floor crying. I mean, it was terrible. I felt like if they don't get me, then how could somebody else?

And like, if they don't want to put the money behind this problem that impacts them and their children and their children's children and all the things, then why would Jenny from around the block do it? So I had to sit for a couple of weeks and lick my wounds and then, you know, I was talking to some people in my network and they said, well, have you considered social impact investors?

And I had never heard of social impact investors. I was like, I don't even know what you, what are you talking about? And a social impact investor is someone or a fund who wants to make investments in venture backable startups and enterprise investments. Not investing in non profits, but they do have a strong fiduciary responsibility to invest in companies that are going to do good.

So their set of criteria, while they still want money back, they're not looking for as much money back. While they want it fast, if it takes a little longer, and you're doing good, it's okay. So, their set of criteria was a bit different. And so my first set of investors actually wound up being social impact investors.

People who cared deeply about diversity in media and democracy. People who cared deeply about there being examples of companies run by women of color at scale that are profitable. That aren't charities, you know. And that is how I raised my first round of funding, which is around 500, 000, which to me was everything.

[00:24:23] Hala Taha: And for a lot of people, that's a lot of money to get started with. So talk to us about the behind the scenes of that. How did you find these social impact investors? how did you pitch them? Like, what was that like? What did you prepare? What was the meeting like? Because I think a lot of people don't hear this little like nitty gritty information in terms of 

[00:24:40] Morgan DeBaun: fundraising.

Yeah, so I had my deck that was a failure from the first round, and so I then I knew that I shouldn't use the same materials because I needed to tell a different story, right, because they're evaluating impacts, so they're going to want to know how do you help people? How do you measure impact? So I needed to think, put myself in the mindset of these folks and understand what their criteria was.

And I just did research. I mean, it wasn't glamorous. It's literally just brute force reading forums. Reading things on Reddit, like just research because I didn't know anyone. And the second thing was I applied for a program that would give me a certain amount of financing. It was like a hundred K and they were all group of social impact investors that were financing the program.

And as a part of that process, they gave you all of these templates to fill out like a financial template, all this questions to answer. And so I signed up for that program. It was called a new media ventures. They still exist today and still run this program and through that process I was able to put together my three year projections, financial projections, which again felt insane to me.

I'm like, I'm just making shit up. Like, I don't know what's going to happen in three years. How are you guys going to know? Do you know something I don't know? So I updated my pitch deck, which was pretty straightforward.

Like I said, I just updated some of the slides in terms of impact. I told the vision of Blavity, Inc. and where I wanted to go differently. So, I talked about hiring and financing the next generation of journalists. I talked about how the more that you see images in advertising that's a reflection of you, the more it changes your perception about what's possible.

talked more about the soft stuff, and then I won that first 100K, and then what I did next, and this is what I would recommend for anybody who's fundraising, I then asked the people who gave me money to help me finish raising the rest of my round. I tried to make it their responsibility now that they've said yes to me, to make me successful.

And I don't think enough people put the burden on others. To help them be successful when actually it is their job and they want to, right? You say thank you for the money and you move on. And it's like, no, no, no, no, no. Thank you for the money. We're now married forever. How else can you help me? And I said, introduce me to people.

I was introduced to people on their board. I was introduced to their financers. And that's how I filled out the rest of my round was actually all of the really, really wealthy people that were giving them money. And that kind of created this cover for our initial set of business because. I had a really strong network of angel investors and funds made this commitment to, you know what, we want to see Morgan and we want to see Blavity grow.

And how 

[00:27:36] Hala Taha: did you decide how much equity you wanted to give away? 

[00:27:39] Morgan DeBaun: I hated how much equity I had to give away in the early stages. I was shocked and shook at how much these VCs want to give away. So every round, they typically want 10 to 20 percent of your business. Every time you raise. And I was like, no, I don't want to do that.

So actually, that's one of the reasons I stopped fundraising. So I've raised 13 million in the last, you know, over the last six plus years. And I have not raised since 2018 because I do not want to continue to dilute my own ownership and the ownership of my employees and our existing investors. Because every time you do that, you go down 10 to 20%.

[00:28:23] Hala Taha: Yeah, I only have given out equity to my executives, basically, who've been on my team because they're putting in sweat equity. They're deciding not to start their own companies to work on this company and so on. So you've given equity to some of your employees and 

[00:28:38] Morgan DeBaun: team members? Yeah, every employee at Blavity gets equity.

Oh, wow. Mm Yes, I know I'm a crazy lady, but it was important to me. Talk to us about why. When you become an owner of something, you treat it differently. You treat it differently, and you make decisions differently. I believe that. I also believe it's core to our mission. We, although we're not a social impact company only, I mean, we're a for profit enterprise.

I do believe that it is my responsibility as a CEO to build a more progressive version of what companies should look like. 

[00:29:11] Hala Taha: Yeah. I mean, I'm curious just to understand what does that look like? If somebody signs on, at what point do they get equities? Do they get distributions? Like, how does that 

[00:29:20] Morgan DeBaun: work? We have salary bands based off of levels.

And so our salary bands that are based off of levels also include a set of stock options. And those stock options are fair market value of the company. We have a third party that prices the company one to two times a year, and they can buy those stock options if they so choose, which is a heavily discounted.

[00:29:45] Hala Taha: Yeah. And it's a private company. 

[00:29:47] Morgan DeBaun: It's a private company. So it's not like you can sell it. We can buy it back from you, but you cannot sell it on the open market. So, based off of your level, you get a certain amount of shares, and you can buy those shares while you're here, or if you ever quit and or get fired, you have a window in which you could buy those shares.

So, if things don't work out, fine. The standard for our company is a four year cycle of vesting, with a one year cliff, meaning you have to be with us for at least a year. to get your first 25 percent of that allocation of shares. Got 

[00:30:18] Hala Taha: it. And so this also is good for you because it helps you retain your employees.

Is that right? 

[00:30:25] Morgan DeBaun: Absolutely. I definitely know when people start exercising their shares, I'm always like, hold up. Are you happy? Are you about to leave? Are you okay? Of what's going on? But generally. We see people exercise their shares, you know, if they've transitioned, we see that take place after the fact.

People don't generally exercise during the time that they're at the company because there's really no reason to. But in the event that we sell the company, that means that everybody who has shares gets a check. Even if you were part of our vision and mission. Four years ago. And I think that's beautiful.

[00:30:57] Hala Taha: That is awesome. I want to look into that. It sounds really cool. So talk to us about how Blavity has evolved over the years. Cause it started as a newsletter and I went on your website and I was like, wow, this is like, there's a lot going on here. So what are the types of things that you do today? What's your business 

[00:31:11] Morgan DeBaun: model?

Yeah. So Blavity today, we have about 200 employees. We're fully remote all over the country. We have two divisions, so really two separate groups of leaders. One is our Blavity Media Group. Blavity Media Group is the original mission of Blavity. We create brands and media brands that speak to our communities, and then we work with advertisers who want to authentically reach those communities.

We have big clients, Walmart, MasterCard, Toyota, et cetera, that advertise with us. And we have online content and all the good things. We also have a publisher network where we work with multicultural publishers. That are independent or smaller than us, who don't have the same sales team or ad infrastructure, who want to work with the McDonald's or Toyota or other really incredible partners and run their ad operations and monetization for them.

[00:32:07] Hala Taha: Amazing. Sounds like we're doing really some similar 

[00:32:09] Morgan DeBaun: stuff. We are. And then our second business, which is called Afrotech and Talent Infusion is really focused on talent acquisition and diversity in the tech space. And it's separate from media because ultimately what we're trying to do is increase the speed in which people of color are able to get jobs and increase the pipeline of talent that stays in tech and stays at these big companies.

And so we have a huge conference called Afro Tech, typically in November, and we have memberships and communities as well as a SaaS product behind the scenes is for corporations to get access to those talent pools. So let's stick on 

[00:32:53] Hala Taha: this topic of diversity. You say diversity must be a true company value.

How do you make sure that you have a diverse workplace? What are some of the things that you do? 

[00:33:03] Morgan DeBaun: Couple of things. One is first you have to have higher people that are diverse. And when I say diverse, I don't just mean black people. I mean truly a diverse set of people across interest groups, religions.

political interests, particularly if you're building a product that is for a diverse set of consumers. The reason for this, and there's a million studies on it, but basically diverse groups come up with better answers, and diverse groups come up with better profits, and that's we're in business, that's where we are business people, we want profits.

So once you hire people, then you have to retain them, which is really, really hard for a lot of companies. They spend all this money to get you, and then when you get there, you're like, I don't want to work here, this is not what you sold me, because. There's no diversity at the top, and so decisions that are passed through are inconsistent with what they talked about versus how it's actually applied through the workforce, whether that's pay equity, whether that's access to opportunities and mentorship, whether that's even feedback.

It recently just read a research study that showed that. If you're a woman or a person of color, the type of feedback, the vocabulary of feedback that you get is very generic versus if you're a male or a white or Asian male, you get very specific feedback, which allows you to get better. So we're just widening the gaps.

So diversity has to, and inclusion and equity have to be looked at at every single part of your company along the way. And then ultimately, I do think it's important that at the top of these companies. Your board, your investors, the people who are really making the big decisions need to have inclusion and diversity as a part of their own values because it does make a difference.

I mean, I'm in these boardrooms, I advise big companies, I advise PepsiCo, I advise American Airlines. These decisions are made in the boardrooms, so you gotta have that. And 

[00:35:00] Hala Taha: I know that to attract better talent, you say that you celebrate success and this is a great way for you to attract diverse talent.

Can you tell us what 

[00:35:08] Morgan DeBaun: you mean by that? Yeah, so at our own company, we really try to showcase the incredible success of our employees. So if you look at our corporate branding, you look at our corporate social media profiles, you're not going to see a picture of me every five seconds. It's not called Morgan to Bond Company.

It is a corporation and I want to make sure that the work of the people who are working at this company are acknowledged. That's another piece of data that we see often is that women and people of color in the workplace feel underappreciated. And underappreciated, certainly financially, of course, but also just generally, they feel like they do a lot of invisible labor that's not acknowledged.

And so we try to encourage companies, and even within our own company, create programs like quarterly programs where we acknowledge employees who are doing really good work. We have peer recognition programs so that you can acknowledge, you know, someone you enjoyed working on a project with, and they really solved a great thing that happened with a client, and they were quick, and they were awesome, and they had a great attitude.

Thank you. You know, so we try to create all these different moments for verbal and financial affirmations of people's success. And I think companies have started to do that. You start to hear about employee engagement, you start to see these teams, you know, chief culture officers. I mean, there's all these different titles in the tech world, but ultimately it's about engagement.

How engaged is your diverse workforce? 

[00:36:33] Hala Taha: Mm hmm. And I know you're also a proponent of anonymous employee surveys. Yes. 

[00:36:40] Morgan DeBaun: Blue Child, yes, because, and I wasn't, used to be not, like, terrified of them. I used to be terrified of anonymous surveys. I was like, I don't know if I want to know what they have to say about us.

But what I've learned is anonymous surveys, frequent anonymous surveys, and I think that's key. If you do one once a year, you're going to get a bunch of stuff. But if you do these often, and it becomes a part of your culture, then people start to feel psychologically safe to share things, and things that maybe would be difficult for them to tell their direct manager or boss, or they don't know how to talk about it.

And you can identify trends much easier and in larger corporations, I think creating safe pathways for communication for everyone is really important. And I say everyone because the other thing that we've noticed is that when you create systems and tools and cultures that benefit people of color, benefit women, the rest of the group also gets unintended benefits as well.

It's just like maternity leave. Right? When you have maternity leave, that was great, but parental leave is better because it actually benefits the whole family unit and the birthing person or closed captions. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I'm like, I don't know what these people are saying. Let me turn on closed captions.

Well, closed captions used to only be for people who could not hear, but now we all benefit from closed captions, right? So this idea that we got to go out of, out of our way for diversity and all this stuff, I'm like, yeah, but it's going to make it better. That's such a 

[00:38:10] Hala Taha: good point. I love that. Okay, so let's talk about this corporate mission that you have, which is to advance black happiness.

How do you define black happiness and what do you feel like you've achieved already on that front? 

[00:38:24] Morgan DeBaun: Yeah, we spend a lot of time on this mission. It's one that's really ambitious, which is important. When you think about happiness, it's hard to be happy when you don't have some fundamentals in place, access to safe work environment, access to housing, access to information and quality of treatment, access to and safety in your community, right?

There's all these different things that are barrier to even being happy. And we wanted to start with the top and our work our way there. I think that you can find moments of joy and happiness in everything that you do. And we wanted to make sure that the work that we are doing every single day at our company is striving towards that.

So when we're evaluating articles or social media posts, I ask the team, Is this going to do harm? Is this going to be neutral? Or is this going to be a positive impact on happiness? And they have to think about that question. And sometimes the answer is like, I think it's just neutral. Then we don't really need to do it.

You know, if it's gonna be, have no impact, why are we wasting our time? I really encourage companies and entrepreneurs as they're building their missions and their values to be ambitious enough that as you get larger, as you become bigger than you ever thought you could be and you've got all these people working for you, can they use and leverage your mission and values in their work every single day?

As just a gut check. 

 So you grew this company, you've got over 200 employees, which is super impressive. And as a diverse minority woman, you probably didn't have many leadership experiences before you started your company. Same thing with me. Like, it's like every leadership position that I've ever had was like, I put myself in that.

[00:40:15] Hala Taha: Nobody ever put me in a leadership position. It was like an organization I started or whatever, right? So talk to us about some of the challenges you had as a leader over the years, just trying to. Be a good leader to this company without really much experience leading. 

[00:40:31] Morgan DeBaun: Yeah, I mean, I made a bajillion mistakes.

I'm sure I make mistakes every day now. I think what I've learned to accept and embrace is that I am on a journey where all I can do is control my ability to take input, feedback, and then address it. And, uh, address it head on, right? There were times in my life as the leader of this company where I was avoided.

That's Where I didn't address it head on, I made all these different excuses. This is sexist, these are expectations that they wouldn't have for a male CEO. My employees would never say this stuff to a male CEO. This would never happen to a white man media company that had the same statistics that I have.

These advertisers would never give us these prices, right? I mean, I made all these different excuses and all these different things. But at the end of the day, I'm still who I am. Whether those things are true or not true. So it's not really, I learned, it's not really productive for me to spend Any energy there and to very quickly move myself towards a place of where it's in my control, what's in my power, and how can I make an impact or improve the things that are in my control, my power.

So I took classes, I hired executive coaches and read a lot of books. I read tons of books. I listened to podcasts. I'm on a million and one newsletters. I mean, I've just made learning and learning how to be a better leader a part of my engine every single day. And I have really close advisors who can give me feedback and call me out and say, Mm mm, I don't care if you're black, green, tall, short, Morgan, that was a bad decision.

That was a bad decision. And this is how you need to fix it. And just really having a tribe of people who I can go to and trust that are invested enough in me and invested enough in the company. And that's my board. Those are my co founders. Typically, they're not strangers I meet off the street. I mean, it's like people who have really.

been with me a long time and understand the true vision of what I'm trying to accomplish. And that would be my advice to anyone is like, sometimes when people are looking for mentors or advisors, they make this list that's all the way up here. You know, I would love to have Sheryl Sandberg. As my advisor, or I would love to have Elon Musk as my advisor, and I'm like, really?

Like, you know, that's not really realistic. So. Get real. Let's get real. But who has been rocking with you for a long time, who is successful, maybe in a different industry, who you can have quarterly meetings with, or quarterly lunches or dinners with? And that's how I've, I've been able to accelerate, I think, my growth, my personal development.

And also pay it forward to other people through my own advisership or my own podcast so that along the way, I can be that for other people. 

[00:43:25] Hala Taha: Well, I have to ask you, I don't have a board. I always think about starting a board and then I just get too busy and I never start a board, right? I have like some people with their toes in, right?

But don't have a formal board. If you have a formal board, how is it 

[00:43:39] Morgan DeBaun: structured? I do have a formal board. Um, when you take venture capital after a certain stage, you have to have a formal board because they take 10 to 20 percent of their company and they want to watch you. They have the rights to information.

I have a board meeting coming up soon. 

[00:43:55] Hala Taha: So it's the people who invested who are on the board? That's 

[00:43:58] Morgan DeBaun: right. Okay. So it's the biggest investors take the seats and it's typically an odd number. So my board is small. It's three people. Some boards are seven, some boards are nine. I mean, some boards are huge.

And we vote on the most important thing. So if I want to do an acquisition, I have to get board approval. They set my salary, right? I mean, I work for the board. I am the chairperson of the board. I'm also CEO, which are really two separate roles. So, you know, there may be a time where we hire a CEO, the CEO reports to the board, right?

And the chairperson is the head of the board. So I have double roles, but at some point probably won't see me as CEO and, and I'll still control the board, but that will be. A different phase of life for me, but basically that's how it's set up and I recommend that people consider even if it's an informal board, you don't have to have one with voting rights and all these different things because learning to organize your information on a quarterly basis and key performance indicators for your company makes you a better leader and it also helps your leaders become better leaders.

So the people reporting into you know that you need to go and justify these decisions or these hires or these budgets every 90 days. And that has made us a better company. It has made us a better workplace. It has made us a more equitable workplace because everything is clear and written down. There's none of this like, just cause she wants to.

Like, no. Yeah. And I think that has been really helpful as to why we've been able to grow and mature so quickly. My last question 

[00:45:37] Hala Taha: for you on entrepreneurship, I know from me starting my own company as a side hustle and then it growing so fast, you had a very similar experience. My relationships really took a toll, especially like the first four years of all of this.

Talk to us about that. How much did you have to sacrifice personally? And then now that you've got your feet on the ground, how do you prioritize your life with entrepreneurship? 

[00:46:03] Morgan DeBaun: I mean, you know, like I really do feel like we were, we were living parallel universes. It's brutal. I was single for a long time or I had terrible situationships and just, I wasn't a great partner.

There's no way. I mean, I'm working 12, 16 hour days. I don't have capacity for your stuff. I barely have capacity for my stuff. And then the type of people that I was dating or in relationship with, then you wind up dating people who also have a bunch of stuff going on because that's the only way that you feel okay.

Yeah. Right? So I had a lot of tragic situations, but I think eventually I had to make a decision on do you ever want to have a partner in life? Do you ever want to be healthy? And not have to meditate for an hour to work because you've got so much going on. I used to wake up in the middle of the night with my laptop and just turn over and just, just type, type, type.

So that was not sustainable for me. That was not the life that I wanted when I looked into the future. And it took a lot of hard work and intentionality and behavior shifts to get me to the place where I am now. I have physically left L. A. I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Because part of it was the physical environment was one that was really hard for me to say no to all the things that were coming my way.

I wanted to be closer with my family. You know, I wanted to have Sunday dinners with my parents. I wanted to be slightly more normal. Yep. And I wanted to put myself potentially in a position to find a partner. And if I wanted a family at some point to be able to have a community and a culture in which that family was going to wind up not with my 12 year old doing drugs.

In LA, but somebody who'd be like, Oh, yes, I don't even know what cannabis is. I mean, I don't think that's really the reality for these kids these days, but like, just a little bit more innocent. Yeah, yeah. Than the things going on in New York and LA. Yeah. Um, you see a lot in these spaces and it wasn't easy.

People thought I was nuts when I left LA. I mean, it's like, how can you be so successful and have all these things and all these employees and stuff, but you live in like, Tennessee? It doesn't make any sense, but it does make sense to me. And it's worked out. 

[00:48:22] Hala Taha: Yeah. And nowadays, as an entrepreneur, you can be just online crushing it.

You don't need to be in physical spaces at least all the time anymore. So you have a book coming out. Tell us about this book. What is it called? What is it going to be about? When does it come out? 

[00:48:36] Morgan DeBaun: Yeah. So I'm finishing writing it now. The book comes out next year, next fall. And it's all about helping other ambitious people define life and their success for themselves.

And even if you're good, if you're like, I'm good, but I'm not great, I want to get to the point where I'm living every week in my purpose, and that might mean I'm a stay at home mom, and I'm doing pick up and drop off, and I'm investing in my hobbies, and I'm living a beautiful life. That's great. It could mean I'm starting a media company, and I'm growing this thing, and I'm trying to figure out how to navigate all these choices I need to make.

But the real person that it is for is somebody who aspires to have a vision of the life that they want to live. And then, they're willing to make some tough, temporary choices. Like you and I have to get there and basically showing them how well 

[00:49:29] Hala Taha: awesome. I can't wait to have you back on to talk about that book.

So we'll have you back on in six months or so when you're done and the book is coming out. Thank you so much. I end my show with two questions that I ask everyone. So the first one What is one actionable thing our young and profiters can do today to become more profitable tomorrow? 

[00:49:48] Morgan DeBaun: Invest in yourself, whether that's books, Audible, whether that is investing in the stock market so you have some safety net, whatever it may be, invest in yourself.

You're going to get paid so much more dividends if you invest in yourself before material things. 

[00:50:07] Hala Taha: I totally agree. Getting as many skills as possible is so key. Especially in 2023 and beyond. And what is your secret to profiting in life? And this can go beyond business, beyond financial, beyond the topic of today's episode.

[00:50:21] Morgan DeBaun: The key to profiting in life is, ooh, so many things. I think that my core key to profiting in life is to be happy and joyful and in peace. In my every day to be totally fully like I love today, not always wishing and wanting for more. Yes, putting in the work during the day to get to my more, but being totally satisfied if I ran this day back every day, I'm good.

[00:50:54] Hala Taha: Yeah, it's so true. Satisfaction is so important to happiness. And then we're just like always chasing something else and never being happy. So I really like that you said that Morgan, where can everybody learn more about you and everything that you 

[00:51:05] Morgan DeBaun: do? You can listen to my podcast, The Journey Podcast, where I talk about all the things, all my challenges, all the things I fuck up on all the time.

And then all my fun friends along the way. You can follow me on TikTok if you want the crazy weird me, and you can follow me on Instagram, of course, if you want the more curated version, such as Instagram is these days. 

[00:51:29] Hala Taha: Awesome. Well, I'll stick all those links in the show notes. I'll make sure that everybody follows you.

Morgan, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. 

[00:51:35] Morgan DeBaun: Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:51:37] Hala Taha: I was so inspired by today's conversation with Morgan. So many of us watch current events on the news or as they unfold online, but so few of us stop what we're doing and change the course of our lives and careers so we can help do something about it. Starting her business and eventual media empire from scratch meant that Morgan had to learn some things the hard way.

But by doing that, she has a wealth of wisdom to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs. Here are some of Morgan's insights that I really appreciated. First, she said that as an entrepreneur, you need discipline. Yes, you need to be focused. You need to work hard, sure. But it's not just about brute force, as she puts it.

You can't just hustle your way to success. It's about access and opportunities and finding the networks and other people who can help you get ahead. And sometimes those opportunities will not be available in places like Silicon Valley. And you have to be creative and find a new way forward. I also liked how honest Morgan was about the downside of taking venture capital.

and other outside funds. She said it was one of the great ironies of entrepreneurship. The more money you raise as a founder, the less power you really have, and also the more responsibilities you have to your investors and backers, those who become your bosses in some ways. But there's other ways to navigate this power dynamic.

Morgan likes to ask her donors for more help, to introduce her to their boards, to other investors, to other people who might want to hear her message as well as want to help her out. And by helping her out, they also increase the likelihood that their investment will bear fruit. That's all for today, thank you for listening to this episode of Young and Profiting Podcast.

And speaking of bearing fruit, if you enjoyed this episode with Morgan DeBond and you love this podcast, then why don't you help us out and invest in us? To do this, you don't need to give us a million dollars or introduce me to your board, rather just share this episode with your friends and family.

Text them a link to this episode right now and tell them they might enjoy the show. Or why not drop us a five star review on Apple Podcast. Rating and reviewing is a great way to invest in our success and ensure that we can help you with yours. You can find me on Instagram at Yap with Hala or on LinkedIn by searching my name.

It's Hala Taha. Before we close, I did want to give a big shout out to my incredible Yap production team. You guys are awesome. Thank you for all that you do behind the scenes. This is your host Hala Taha, AKA the podcast princess signing off. 

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