Podcast Transcript – Series One, Episode 11
cherae robinson tastemakers Africa APR 2020
[00:00:00] Cherae: [00:00:00] my work is to actually uncover and help unlock this massive continent and make it tangible, cool and real to people like me
[00:00:12] But I looked at my son and I would be doing a disservice to him if I didn’t go after this thing, let alone a disservice to myself.
[00:00:18]yeah, I want to chase this other thing, and I don’t even know what this other thing is yet and that’s literally how it started.
[00:00:24]We put it together in 72 hours. We had 1,405 people show up,
[00:00:29]I remember having to tell our CTO like, no, we’re not going to just keep marching on. Building our product the way we thought we would.
[00:00:35]Dan: [00:00:35] Hey, what’s up Unfound Nation? Dan Kihany here, your host for Founders Unfound. Thanks so much for listening in. You just heard Cherae Robinson, a former public health advocate and change maker who has created what she calls the sexy dope way to experience Africa. Cherae is the founder and CEO of Tastemakers Africa, a company that connects black millennials to cultural forward experiences.
[00:00:58] Our episode is sponsored by Sherrell Dorsey’s The Plug. I want to give a shout out again to all those out there on the front lines, hospital workers, first responders, delivery folks, grocery and pharmacy personnel, as well as all those who keep the supply chain going for all our essentials. Thank you. Thank you.
[00:01:14] Thank you. And as always, you can find our podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, and YouTube. And you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram @foundersunfound. Feel free to drop us a review on Apple or Podchaser. Please follow, like and share to help us grow now on with the episode.
[00:01:31] Stay safe and enjoy. Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound spotlighting the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented backgrounds. This is episode 11 in our series on founders of African descent. I’m your host Dan Kihanya let’s get on it. Today, we have Cherae Robinson, founder and CEO of Tastemakers Africa, a company that connects black millennials culture-forward experiences.
[00:02:11] Welcome to the show, Cherae, and thank you for making the time.
[00:02:14] Cherae: [00:02:14] Thanks for having me.
[00:02:15] Dan: [00:02:15] Yeah, so some incredible times here,
[00:02:18] Cherae: [00:02:18] huh?
[00:02:18] Incredible. Is one word for it.
[00:02:21] Dan: [00:02:21] Let’s start with, how are you doing? How’s your family and your community?
[00:02:25] Cherae: [00:02:25] We are safe. My company’s based in New York city, but fortunately actually live in upstate New York, so outside of the thick of things, but, we’re all managing well.
[00:02:34] Dan: [00:02:34] That’s really good to hear. So let’s start off. Help the listeners understand exactly what tastemakers Africa is all about.
[00:02:40] Cherae: [00:02:40] So tastemakers is really built out of desire to reconnect Africa and its diaspora and to do so through experiences. When we started, we were doing a small group trips and the business evolved eventually to a marketplace that actually allows.
[00:02:57] People to book authentic culture forward, things to do. Imagine going to Accra, Ghana and learning about music and nightlife with a DJ or learning traditional Fulani cooking in Senegal is all about these really close knit experiences hosted by sort of our hand selected crew of local insiders. So it’s disrupting the narrative on Africa while actually bringing communities together.
[00:03:23] Dan: [00:03:23] Awesome. And so the, the focus obviously on the name is around Africa and, experiences in different countries, different cities there.
[00:03:32] Cherae: [00:03:32] Yeah, absolutely.
[00:03:34] Dan: [00:03:34] So it’s a cool company and I spent some time looking into it, so we’re going to dig into that in a little bit. but let’s start with what’s your journey?
[00:03:41] Where did you come from? What kind of background do you have? We’ll start with your, your story.
[00:03:45] Cherae: [00:03:45] Awesome. so my background, I’m actually a biologist by training. So I went to school at Morgan state university. I studied biology. I was a premed major. Thought I would become a medical doctor, did an internship and quickly realized that practicing medicine wasn’t for me.
[00:04:05] I’ve always been curious about the world and history and travel. And so I wanted to sort of meld my love of science and experimentation with my desire to not only travel the world, but more specifically to travel within Africa. And so after I graduated, I went into international development. And so…
[00:04:28] Dan: [00:04:28] Sorry, How did you pick Morgan state to begin with?
[00:04:31] Cherae: [00:04:31] It’s a funny story. So I, went to high school in upstate New York. I was a pretty good student. didn’t have a lot of guidance on where I should go to college, but had this idea that I wanted to get out of New York and I went to, Maryland, for like some church trips. And so I was like, I want to go to school in Maryland.
[00:04:51] So that was kind of how I arrived. But I wasn’t even going to go to Morgan. I was going to go to university of Maryland. I had applied to university of Maryland. I got into university of Maryland, but university of Maryland only gave me a partial scholarship, and I didn’t have any money to pay for school.
[00:05:07] But the black student advisor at university of Maryland was a Morgan state. Grad and unbeknownst to me, she had forwarded my information cause I had really high sat score and really good grades. She forwarded my info to Morgan’s admission office because she was so close with them and they literally sent me a letter giving me a full scholarship with like room and books and everything covered.
[00:05:32] I just accepted and I had never been there and I was like, worst case scenario, I can transfer to university of Maryland after the first semester if I don’t like it.
[00:05:42] Dan: [00:05:42] That’s a pretty interesting, sort of a right turn. Morgan state’s a great school. So, you know, sometimes you hear about people, it’s a legacy, right? People want to go there because somebody in their family went there and. What’s a benefit that people don’t understand about going to an HBCU and what’s a challenge?
[00:06:01] Cherae: [00:06:01] Absolutely. So I think a benefit is, when you’re going to college, I was, you know, 17 years old, these are, like some of the most formative years of your identity.
[00:06:11] And I felt that going to Morgan allowed me to explore who I was. Unbothered by the societal pressures of racism. So I could be in a super supportive environment that didn’t pretend that the issues that existed in the world were gone, but allowed me to focus on my own personal development without worrying about race.
[00:06:36] I never had to wonder if something didn’t happen for me because of my race. I didn’t have to deal with those issues. While I was trying to decide who I was as a person. I think the other piece of it is you do get a level of nurturing from your professors and even from your university administration.
[00:06:56] That in many ways feels much like a family. I’m still in touch with, you know, our vice president of student affairs at the time. I mean, there’s so many people from Morgan. But I am still on, have a very strong relationship with, , and it’s because you’re treated like family, so when you’re not acting right, like someone’s pulling you up and saying, Hey, when you graduate, you’re going back out into the world and you sort of know that you need to be a different level of excellent.
[00:07:20] And that’s kind of drilled into you while you’re matriculating through university. And so for me. Those two things, the ability to lean into building my own definition of who I was and a safe space. but also, you know, the nurturing environment of, of something that in many ways felt like an extended family were huge.
[00:07:40]in addition to sort of those ongoing strong connection that I think most HBCU graduates with would say the same. in terms of post-graduation relationships.
[00:07:50] Dan: [00:07:50] That makes a lot of sense. That makes total sense actually. And the fact that the person who sort of helped get you there was in the admissions office of another school shows the shows the strength of these bonds that you’re talking about, and people I think underestimate.
[00:08:06] The coefficient of friction that you have to deal with in society, whether it’s professionals, personal community, , when you don’t know about the things you’re talking about, is there something that has to do with who I am as a label versus what I can do and what my character is? so I can totally understand that there’s a, liberating aspect of that for sure.
[00:08:27]Cherae: [00:08:27] There were challenges though. Yes. I think the biggest challenge is, trying to think how to say this. I think the challenge for me, and for most students at HBCU, unless you’re at maybe some of the more well known ones and Morgan is still like fairly well known, is just access to opportunity, right?
[00:08:44] And so like, when you think of things like technology, like Google or some of these larger institutions. Like they’re not setting up shop. McKinsey wasn’t recruiting at Morgan, so there was so many things that I didn’t know were an option. Like I didn’t even learn about study abroad until my senior year.
[00:09:03] And I was a person that like, was very much into an interested in exploring the world. So there were so many things that are like second nature at sort of larger majority institutions. particularly those at sort of a higher tier. That an HBCU, you might not know. So you develop a really strong network in the sort of black space, but that other network you’re not developing as strongly.
[00:09:27] And so whether that’s access to professional programs that take you from college into banking or tech or consulting, like those things are much harder to come by. And there was so many programs that existed that I just did not know about until. After I graduated. So for me, that just level of awareness and access, isn’t the same.
[00:09:48]and then, you know, these institutions are historically underfunded, and so, you know, I was a science major, and so, you know, access to the kind of. Lab frameworks and things that you might have at other institutions were not what we had. And we , as a school and the university were better off than most HBCU, so, that can be a challenge.
[00:10:11] That’s interesting. There’s two sides to that coin. You’re right. So a nurturing environment by definition is an environment that is consistent, understood, keeps other things out. And so the downside of that is you may not necessarily have access to these things you’re talking about, or at least you have to be proactive on your own.
[00:10:29] Yeah, absolutely.
[00:10:30] Dan: [00:10:30] So you graduate from Morgan state and you, you’re not going to be a doctor. which I can understand. and so then where did you go from there?
[00:10:40] Cherae: [00:10:40] So my first job out of college was actually at AARP. in their global health division, so I knew I wanted to go into global health. and I applied for a bunch of internships.
[00:10:52] Got an internship at ARP, and when I graduated, my team was just like, look, you know, finding a job is hard. Why don’t we give you a full time role here? And you start your career, in our office until you sort of figure out the next step. So I, did that and then eventually went off to the center for disease control to work, on a world health organization project.
[00:11:15] And I stayed there for a few years
[00:11:17] Dan: [00:11:17] Wow you worked at the CDC. Yeah. Understanding of kind of what they’re dealing with right now.
[00:11:24] Cherae: [00:11:24] Absolutely. when I worked at the CDC, one of, outside of the work I was doing, as a world health organization partner was actually, Addressing the first eco lie outbreak in the U S that came from a non-meat source.
[00:11:38] There’s all these eco lie cases running around the U S that were pretty severe. Turns out it came from spinach, and so like looking at outbreak response was actually something that I was like intimately familiar with while I was working at the CDC, and this is like COVID, it’s like a thousand times that.
[00:11:53] Dan: [00:11:53] Right. Amazing. So you’re at the CDC and it sounds like you’re doing some really interesting things. What led you to your next piece of the journey?
[00:12:02]Cherae: [00:12:02] I loved my work at the CDC, but I felt like I had a decision on , go to graduate school or like be stuck at a certain level. and I wasn’t, yeah.
[00:12:12] Really like 1000% sold on what I wanted an advanced degree in. And so, and I also got pregnant. And so between those two things, it was like, okay, even if I thought I was going to school, it’s probably not happening right now. so I, sort of pivoted out of. Civil service and into the more nonprofit side of international development.
[00:12:34] So I moved to Chicago, had my son had this moment where I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to sort of live the life that I had envisioned for myself. I was kind of for a year, I was kind of stuck feeling like, Oh, this is like a detour that I didn’t really imagine. and it took me time to sort of.
[00:12:55] Try to figure out like how do I get back into this world now with this like young child and it was a challenge to figure out how to get back on track.
[00:13:04] Dan: [00:13:04] Yeah. I think most people underestimate that. I think basically if you have children, there’s life before children and left after children, and that’s different for different people and the circumstances of how that happens, obviously.
[00:13:16] But I think we all, I have two kids and so you learn. About what’s the priorities and that you don’t have control anymore of everything. but yeah, I can totally understand that. You need to sort of reset. So , how did you go about processing that?
[00:13:33] Cherae: [00:13:33] Difficult? I mean, I also, I was in a city that I. Didn’t really know well, I was in Chicago at the time because my son’s dad was from Chicago, and you know, this was 2008 so the recession had happened, and so he was kind of out of work, and so it was just rough. It was a really rough year. And there was some. Low moments where I was just like, I had done all of these things, got the scholarship to college, like did all the things, and then it was like, how do I end up here?
[00:14:00] But I looked at my son and I just kinda was like, I would be doing a disservice to him if I didn’t go after this thing, let alone a disservice to myself. And so I just made a decision that I was going to just jump right back into it, and so I started applying to jobs back in the international development space.
[00:14:16]While I was in Chicago, I was working for this nonprofit in a director’s role in marketing and communications. How, I don’t know. But, but they were amazing. I mean, they were a wings was such a supportive environment for me as a new mom in a new city. I mean, my coworkers were like my family, and they were supportive of me.
[00:14:37] Even when I said, you know what guys like. I love this, but like what I want to do is get to Africa. And what I want to do is do this, like global work. And, you know, they were understanding and really just helped me through it. and eventually I got a job offer from care, which is one of the largest.
[00:14:55] International humanitarian organizations in the world moved back to Atlanta where I was when I was at CDC, worked under this woman Lermer Rackley, and also under the CEO of care at the time, Helene Gayle, who was at the time the only African American leader of one of these big global humanitarian organizations, and it’s actually why I wanted to go to care.
[00:15:16] Because her approach is going to be not like white savior. Like she’s going to have a different approach. So if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go do it at care. And so, I mean, working at care was so transformative. my son, you know, two month, three month old child was like right at work with me.
[00:15:31] My bosses were outstanding and flexible. And so it took me time to just , believe in myself again and like remember that life isn’t over. And I also made a decision to be a mom the way I want it to be a mom. I decided I wasn’t going to be a mom the way society says, and I wasn’t gonna forget all my dreams because I had a child.
[00:15:51] I wanted my child to know that no matter what, you can go after your dreams too. And so I just sort of took that on and. Got to care, and it was one of the most fulfilling professional experiences and wound up being why eventually got to Africa.
[00:16:05] Dan: [00:16:05] I mean, that’s takes a lot of courage to go through what you did.
[00:16:09] And I think one of the things I’m hearing is this idea that we all go through peaks and valleys, but it seems like when you. Make a decision, you’re in it. You’re, I mean, there’s no hesitation, which I think people respond to probably. You brought up this word family a lot in terms of the different seasons of your life.
[00:16:28] And I think that people respond to confidence and, intentionality and deliberateness, which. Yeah, I see a lot in the startup world too. Sometimes it’s bravado, which is a different version of it. but if it’s sort of genuine and authentic, and it’s where you are, it’s where your mind is, is where your heart is.
[00:16:49] People respond to that. And so I think the people that Care, cared.
[00:16:52] Cherae: [00:16:52] Absolutely. I mean, , my boss, my second boss, Joe Hodges was her name. there was this opportunity to do like a. Fact finding trip to Sierra Leone for an eventual donor trip around maternal health. because I had moved from like a media communications role and I’ve got promoted to like a program management kind of role.
[00:17:16] And that meant I was much more like donor facing and stuff like that. And so my boss said, I know going to Africa is like your life stream. Like I know that, and this doesn’t necessarily sort of like your role wouldn’t necessarily be the person going to do this, fact finding thing, but I think you’d do a good job.
[00:17:35] And she advocated for me to be able to go to Sierra Leone, even though I was still fairly junior, even though. You know, it wasn’t necessarily like my role was in many ways made up in the first place and she made sure I got to do that because she knew and I broke Ally’s like, like, this is what I want to do, and she made it happen.
[00:17:54]Dan: [00:17:54] That’s awesome. So how did Africa, we didn’t hear that part of the story,
[00:18:00]Cherae: [00:18:00] I think part of it was my upbringing. I think, you know, my aunt was one of these people that, think I was born in 1983 and so in the 80s and even the early nineties. Like black holiday cards were not prominent like for a long time.
[00:18:14] And so my aunt used to color in the faces of like the SANTAS and the angels. Like she would make them all Brown, like with crayons
[00:18:25] and send them to us. So it was like, she was like super pro black and. Then my, grandmother, even though she wasn’t well educated, she had all of the stereotypical, African figurines in her house. And she had this friend from Kenya and she would have us wear African outfits to church.
[00:18:44] And like, you know, my aunt would be reminding me that like, you know. Collard greens and eating things with our hands is like, from Africa, , so like I wouldn’t say they were like, they wouldn’t have said like, Oh, we’re Pan-Africanist. Like, they wouldn’t have said that. But my households growing up, whether it was my grandmother in the South or my aunt who was in New York, I think like.
[00:19:03] They just instilled a pride in being black in me. And as a person who’s obsessed with history, naturally I would dig into like, well where does the root of this awesome this come from? And so it was like a combination of things, but it really was deep seated in how I was raised and how I was brought up.
[00:19:21] And then going to Morgan where not only like HBCU also have high. Populations of black immigrants in the student body. So at Morgan we had, yeah, we had like Nigerians and Trinidadians, like every kind of black, I had never seen so many different kinds of black people and we had a huge African student population and a lot of them were people I became friends with.
[00:19:42] And so it took my like desire to get there up like to a whole entire other level. Then this seed that was planted in my childhood.
[00:19:49] Dan: [00:19:49] That’s awesome. Yeah. That, I wouldn’t even not thought about it that way. That there’s, like you said, there’s every kind of black, and that’s kind of what we’re doing with our podcasts is we have people who are Afro Caribbean and people from are first generation immigrants from the continent as well as people who are, you know, several generations and as an African American. So that’s really cool. That’s a great story. I love it.
[00:20:11] We will take a short break to hear from our sponsor and be right back with Cherae Robinson of Tastemakers Africa.
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[00:21:17] Dan: [00:21:17] We’re back with Cherae Robinson from Tastemakers Africa. And before the break we were talking about your desires and dreams and aspirations around Africa. How did that translate from the work that you were doing leading into being coming an entrepreneur who was focused on Africa.
[00:21:34] Cherae: [00:21:34] One of my first advisers told me this quote that said, the best entrepreneurs are unemployable, which is a really funny thing to say. I think it’s true. I would agree with that 100%
[00:21:48] so the story was kind of like that, you know, after working at care. I went and worked, for this world bank agricultural research center in Mexico. So I like moved to Mexico for a few years and I was in India for a little bit, and during those years I spent a lot of time in Africa.
[00:22:06] So it was like I took that first trip to Sierra Leone, then got a job that required me to be in Africa a lot, made a lot of amazing connections, and really got to understand the continent so, yeah, like I got to spend a lot of time in Kenya and South Africa and Zimbabwe because of work.
[00:22:25] And I was still, a young person sort of with all of my curiosity. And so I really got to learn and understand the continent and sort of. On the other side of that, this kind of passion and desire only became ever more present in my life. And so when I left the world bank, I moved back to the U S to New York city specifically decided, it’s take on, some different roles and grow in my career.
[00:22:52] I couldn’t let go of this like burning desire not only to be on the continent. But also to uncover , some of the stories that I was discovering through my travels, like I was spending a lot of time with musicians and artists and just people who , I wasn’t even seeing their stories anywhere. And I was like, how is it that people don’t know that this is the life that’s being lived in these places? And my friends were super curious, like, I thought this thing on Facebook and where, where are you and how’d you do that? And so. This became my world outside of work, to the point where my job in New York one day, my boss was like, I just don’t think you’re very present.
[00:23:28] Like you just don’t really seem like you want to be here. And I was just kinda like, yeah, probably. Right. Like that’s what I was thinking in my head. It’s not exactly what I said, but I remember leaving the office and knowing I was never going back to that office again and sitting home and being like, yeah, I want to chase this other thing, and I don’t even know what this other thing is yet, but I know that my work is to actually uncover and help unlock this massive continent and make it tangible, cool and real to people like me who are interested in this but don’t have a direct connection and don’t know where to start.
[00:24:09] And I knew that that’s the work I really wanted to do. It took a while for me to like figure out a business model, but from that moment on, the whole normative job thing just wasn’t in the cards anymore.
[00:24:22]Dan: [00:24:22] I think that’s such a hallmark of entrepreneurs that people under appreciate and actually really don’t understand because I think a lot of times the people around us, even our close friends and family are like.
[00:24:33] What are you doing? You have a good job. You have, you know, you have a family and you have all these other things that they think should be governing how you prioritize your life. And I think for a lot entrepreneurs, what happens is this burning happens. Like it’s almost like I have to let it out.
[00:24:49] I have to focus on it. I have to pursue it because it won’t go away. Right.
[00:24:53] Cherae: [00:24:53] Absolutely. Absolutely.
[00:24:55] Dan: [00:24:55] That’s amazing that you. You had that thought like, I’m never going back to this office again. that’s a definition right there. It’s like, cause there’s so much inertia. They can say, Oh well maybe I’ll give it another month or another six months.
[00:25:08] Or I’ll see if I can work part time. And you’re like, burn the boats. Here we
[00:25:16] That’s cool. all right, so, so where did tastemakers. How did it actually come together as a company?
[00:25:22] Cherae: [00:25:22] So my first go at it, I thought I would be like a consultant. So I made tastemakers like a sub-brand of this consultancy and I like tried to figure that out was an utter failure.
[00:25:34] Like it just wasn’t a thing. No one cared about what I had to say. Without degrees and long histories of work in tourism under my name. So like that just didn’t work out and went nowhere. I ended up taking another job at a startup cause I was like, maybe I should learn how to build a fast growing business.
[00:25:52] And so I worked at a New York city, healthcare startup in sales temporarily, so that I could understand like. Settling and like the startup world. And so I did that for about a year and then I was still back on the like, I can’t do this. And so, but all of that time I had at least now started, you know what you would say now is like talking to customers.
[00:26:12] So it wasn’t like a bunch of black travel Facebook groups. And still was going back and forth to the continent cause I like want to start up competition in Nigeria. And so like, stuff had started to happen before I had settled on a model. but eventually I started cracking the code on where the opportunity was.
[00:26:30] Dan: [00:26:30] That’s really fascinating. So a quick interjection here Unfound Nation here, there’s two golden nuggets. It is okay to go and work at a startup and experience what it’s like because it is nothing like anything else out there. And to this idea of constant customer discovery where you’re spending the time learning, what are people thinking?
[00:26:53] What are they missing? Where can I add value? And all of that you’re doing is sort of the backdrop or the background or the precursor. And then I think that’s. When you actually say, okay, let’s go and build this.
[00:27:05] Cherae: [00:27:05] Absolutely. I mean, it’s literally what happened. I mean, I did that and I probably didn’t even realize that that’s what I was doing, to be honest.
[00:27:13]but you know, in retrospect, it’s, it’s why we were able to do the things we did. So, won the startup competition in Nigeria called, She Leads Africa and they provided an incredible amount of support, both, you know, leading up to the actual competition and Legos. And then I ended up winning first place, which was not what I expected at all. But I remember being on the plane on the way to Legos from New York and saying like, if I win first place, I’m never looking back. Like, I’m not getting another job. I’m, I’m just doing this. And I won first place. And I said, let me keep this commitment to myself and to God and to all of the things that were with me on that plane.
[00:27:52] And so then I was like, Oh, well, I really have to do this now. And then. I went through the process of building. I mean, I took all of this information that I was getting from these Facebook threads, from people’s comments on my own Facebook posts, you know, and started to realize that the opportunity for tastemakers was to disrupt. Everything in Africa is Safari.
[00:28:13] Or go volunteer. So how do we make the sexy, dope, exciting side of Africa known to the rest of the world? Cause this is what I had been discovering and this was the thing people were asking me about all the time. And so I taught myself how to build a WordPress website. My cofounder at the time was a photographer based in Johannesburg.
[00:28:34] So. We were able to just build this WordPress site that looked like no other African travel website and it was just WordPress. And we would just like share stories about people in our network that were cool and we would put the photo on Instagram and tell people, go to the WordPress site. And then we had also like started to do group trips.
[00:28:54] So when we first started, we had an Instagram and I made a Facebook announcement of this like group trip to Ghana. And I was like, December in Ghana. It’s going to be amazing, beautiful people, music you guys been asking me about this 10 spots? Send me a PayPal. We’re going, and that’s literally how it started.
[00:29:11]Like it was like a word press and a Facebook post and an Instagram post, and that’s like where it went. Two weeks later, all the spots for this trip were sold out.
[00:29:19]Dan: [00:29:19] That’s a perfect example. You know, a lot of companies think, I’ve got to build this really elaborate platform, software, app, whatever, just to get out and see what people like .
[00:29:29] I mean, use basically tools that are off the shelf that you taught yourself and you’d said, here’s an experiment. Do people like this or not? Right. And the fact that it’s sold out obviously gave you some confidence that, Hmm, there’s something here for sure. But I think that the ability to constantly try to answer the questions, like, is there something here?
[00:29:49] Do customers want what I have or what I’m thinking about building. Is a pursuit that you can do every day right away.
[00:29:56] Cherae: [00:29:56] Absolutely. I mean, we, we continued to do it, so, you know, we started out with this WordPress site, but now we have a full on peer-to-peer marketplace. You know, that came from learning.
[00:30:07] It came from learning that. All of these amazing people we were discovering in these cities wanting to engage with tastemakers on an ongoing basis, and that travelers had become confident enough in who we were as a brand to trust that even if it wasn’t on a trip, that tastemakers was organizing and leading that a tastemakers verified experience meant something.
[00:30:31] So we made a pivot again , we went from a few organized group trips who have very specific countries a few times a year, and a lot of sort of micro content on Instagram and our blog to being a full on peer-to-peer marketplace where people were now booking day tours and nightlife crawls and trips.
[00:30:53] Right on our own website with a CTO and raising funds and the whole nine. So like we continued to iterate on who we were even after we started to see some things work
[00:31:07] Dan: [00:31:07] in my mind. Playbook is that you continue to get affirmation, Hey, this more and more interest. They want to do it this way. Like you said, instead of us just being a, a recommendation platform, we can actually be a facilitator and an aggregator. and so a lot of times people who are building marketplaces, the question of like, the chicken and egg comes up.
[00:31:28] do build a demand side? You’d build the supply side first. How did you think about that as you evolved into this idea of a marketplace.
[00:31:35]Cherae: [00:31:35] so I think what was interesting is even when we were launching, even when we made the decision to pivot, we actually did it quite slowly.
[00:31:44]cause we still had this existing group travel business and it didn’t go away. And we decided not to kill that business either. Cause we knew they were going to be some segment of the market that wanted to travel to Africa. And to travel period in like a group format. so we decided to keep that and then we decided that the first suppliers we would add to the marketplace or people we were already doing group trips with because we already vetted them.
[00:32:08] It wasn’t going to cost us anything to require them as curators, which is what we call our hosts on our platform. it wasn’t gonna cost us anything to require them, and so it did cost us time to sort of help them understand the format and get them prepared to offer an experience on their own. But that was the first thing we did.
[00:32:27] And it took time. We launched in beta first. So we just had a few experiences in Ghana and a few experiences in South Africa. And we tested first with like ex-pats in Accra and in Johannesburg to get the kinks out because we were like, they’re kind of a bridge between travelers and locals.
[00:32:46]So like, let’s ask them. So we would like giving away experiences to get them, test them and test the platform. And so that’s, in some ways we had a small amount of demand already on the group trips. So we just sort of like morphed it into the marketplace. So these existing customers we already had, we sort of began to educate them on the marketplace over time as we built the marketplace out.
[00:33:10] And then once we finish the marketplace in beta. Where we got a lot of the kinks out with people who already loved our brand and loved us, or were, you know, ex-pats in these communities. Then we finally were able to actually open the marketplace up, and so we focused on getting like a minimally viable number of sort of suppliers, quote unquote, and then like an amount that would make the marketplace.
[00:33:36]Credible, but would not overextend us because we needed to make sure these people were going to make some money. , so we did that and then started, again, building up demand. So rather than one or the other, it was like this for a while and then this side for awhile and then this side for awhile and then this side for awhile.
[00:33:54] Dan: [00:33:54] That’s what you hear a lot from the people who are successful in doing it and, and taking small focus, right? So you have a regionality aspect, right? So you didn’t take on 50 plus countries at once, you didn’t take on probably every kind of experience. And on the demand side, you focused on some specific populations and segments that you could get.
[00:34:15] I don’t know if you call them low hanging fruit, but at least there’s prospects. There’s a little bit easier. conversion for them. And then it’s very much a building, , exercise, right? It’s like you build one side, then you build the other side and cool. And, and your business model is essentially what?
[00:34:30]Cherae: [00:34:30] It’s a commission based model.
[00:34:32] So 80% goes to our hosts and 20% stays with us.
[00:34:36]Dan: [00:34:36] And I think what’s interesting about tastemakers is that you have a community and a. narrative and content. I think that sort of as an umbrella around the actual transactional aspect of the experiences in the travel, which is something that you can continue to build on, I imagine.
[00:34:53] Cherae: [00:34:53] Well, it’s the reason why we still have a company in the middle of COVID , to be honest. It’s, funny if someone asked me now, what is taste-makers? I mean, even in our conversation it was like, how do I want you to announce pacemakers? You know, what I’ve learned in these few weeks of COVID, to be honest, is the community we built around and in many ways the movement around what we’re trying to do was much larger and more valuable than what we were capturing with this transactional marketplace. I had that feeling as a founder. It’s one of the reasons when you know, we close our seed round at the end of last year.
[00:35:29] I was having this friction of Going all in on this marketplace, or taking a slower approach and sort of as we grew revenue on the marketplace, playing around a bit in this sandbox of community, because I knew we were not providing all the value we could or capturing all the value we created with just the marketplace as a transaction point.
[00:35:51] And so this, community element is actually the core of who we are. So where we happen to sell you trips and experiences. Like, that’s what we happen to do now. But as we saw 10 days ago, we did a virtual conference on the future of Pan-Africanism. We put it together in 72 hours. We had 1,405 people show up, which was insane for a nine hour conference on the internet.
[00:36:16] I mean, we had the head of urban music at YouTube as a speaker, and I asked him 12 hours before the conference started. We had Walshy fire from major laser. we had one of the doctors on the New York city Cova task force, and these were like WhatsApps and emails. These weren’t like us asking some agency to put it together for us.
[00:36:35] This was like what we did in 72 hours. One of our customers volunteered to help me do it. It was incredible, like it was incredible. It was still an experience. But it wasn’t someone traveling to Nigeria and booking a tour.
[00:36:47] Dan: [00:36:47] Right. And I think, again, this is so critical, I think that’s some people miss, is that in today’s marketplace, relationships and trust and belief really create the most value.
[00:36:58] And so I see you as on this mission, and you’ve kind of built this movement community around that mission. And yeah, one way to. Implement, quote unquote, that or to execute against that as what, this idea of traveling, being present and living in experiencing those, places and people and the cultures.
[00:37:16] But there’s so many other ways. Obviously most of us can’t travel constantly and so, right. I mean, that will be one element of the experience, but if you’ve got people who believe in you, I mean, that conference is a Testament to it, right? It’s that you’ve got. An ecosystem and a market of people who are bought in.
[00:37:35] And so I think that’s really what you always trying to build, because I see sometimes companies are more, they’re more transactional and they kind of forget. Yeah, somebody’s paying you today and that value that you offer for the thing that they pay you may be transient. Right? Yeah. Somebody could offer a free version tomorrow or whatever it is.
[00:37:53] Right. And so you want to know that you’ve done authentic job and creating that relationship.
[00:37:57] Cherae: [00:37:57] Absolutely .
[00:37:58] Dan: [00:37:58] That’s so cool. So you brought up COVID-19 every startup has kind of gone through some shock and awe around this. And the travel industry in particular has been pretty rough stuff by all this. how was your company handling it? How’s the team doing?
[00:38:13] Cherae: [00:38:13] The team is doing really well. I’m really proud of us. We’re a small team, so it’s myself. I’m a CTO and engineer and then a community manager based in Ghana, so we’re super small. We were actually literally sending offer letters out.
[00:38:27]When everything hit the fan. And I had to like make those phone calls and say, actually we can’t hire anybody. You know? So that was rough cause we were all really excited about these new team members who had gone through our crazy recruiting cycle. And so there was a couple of days where it was like, Oh, but we actually had such an incredible group of people coming to our seed round, and I intentionally say an incredible group of people and not investors, because to me, they’re people first in the way we interact with them.
[00:38:57] And one of the folks that came in our round is, Eric Blachford , he was at Expedia for like 20 years, like led Expedia through 9-11. Let it through SARS. And so being able to call those folks, I did not know that
[00:39:15] I have to collect them my favorite humans on the entire planet.
[00:39:20] He is an amazing, amazing person.
[00:39:22] Eric, is how I got through and how the team got through. I mean, it was. I let myself be like concerned and in a state of worry for a very minimal amount of time. To be honest, I was quickly able to, to be honest, like feel relief.
[00:39:39]because as I said, I was feeling like we weren’t getting to the core. With our existing business model, but I didn’t have space to experiment because now I’m venture backed and we’ve said we’re going to hit X, Y, Z targets. And so you got to do that. And I felt confident that we were going to do that, but I was having this tension of like, Oh, I feel like the direction we’re going and we’re going to miss something that’s important in the longterm.
[00:40:01] So in many ways, our team has used COVID as a reset, as a way to say, okay, we’ve got this marketplace. It’s incredible. We’ve got experiences that other people don’t have. Even sort of big competitors, you know, are not looking at these markets in the way we are. That’s amazing. But how do we make this stickier?
[00:40:19] How do we really provide insane amounts of value to the community we’re going after and what do they already see in us? What are they looking for that we’re not giving in this current business model? And so I spent a week or so just imagining that, you know, and I remember having to tell our CTO like, no, we’re not going to just keep marching on.
[00:40:39] Building our product the way we thought we would because we don’t know if the other side, we are going to be the same company. There’s so many things we had talked about around community, around membership, like all kinds of things that we actually get the chance to chase an Explorer because it’s expectation that we’re going to do a bang up job on revenue and bookings is just impossible for us this year.
[00:41:00] And so I just made a decision that we were going to rebel in that. And so that’s been incredible to actually sort of. Pause and get back into a space of experimentation, and that’s actually where the thread, the virtual conference we did came from. It literally changed from waking up to the possibility that, wait a minute, we were never just a travel company to begin with.
[00:41:21] We were always a community powered experience. Like we were always that, and now we get the chance to lean into that, to learn what that community wants to really expand who we serve and how we serve them and come out even better on the other side, and that that’s how we’re looking at it.
[00:41:40] Obviously, there are so many things happening in the world that we can’t predict it, but that’s. Sort of the motto that’s driving us. That’s the mantra that’s driving our team. And we’re fortunate to have raised at the end of last year and to have a group of investors. We’ve kind of always known that about us.
[00:41:56] You know, flybridge capital partners. Their whole thesis now is community. And so really has given tastemakers the space to expand how we deliver on our promise beyond travel.
[00:42:10] Dan: [00:42:10] Just the idea that you can have the courage to sort of say, Hey, what is this? And, the clarity that comes from crisis, right?
[00:42:16]sometimes that’s the thing, like you said, that can push us into, okay, what, what are we really about? So we’re going to take a short break to hear from our sponsor again and be right back with Cherae Robinson from Tastemakers Africa.
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[00:43:22] Dan: [00:43:27] So we’re back with Cherae from Tastemakers Africa. So Cherae you started to talk a little bit about the fact that you’ve raised some money and you have investors. Can you tell us a little bit more about the fundraising experience?
[00:43:39] Sounds like with flybridge you’ve done your first. I’m sort of institutional round, so to speak. tell us about your fundraising experience.
[00:43:46] Cherae: [00:43:46] Oh, fundraising as a person who , doesn’t know anyone like that, that I feel like that’s the saga of black founders. Like, well, not all. I mean, maybe if you went to certain schools, then that’s not your story.
[00:43:57] But for me, I didn’t even know anyone who had received money for an idea that like, I didn’t know anyone. no one in my ecosystem was like that, and so we did raise money along the way. Initially after winning, she leads Africa. We’re able to get some really good press from that.
[00:44:13]Our first angel investor was actually out of South Africa and he invested $50,000 I remember this. And then for the first two years of the company, it was that, it was every few months just when it felt like, sorry, you’re going to have to get a job. Somebody would come with like $25,000 like randomly, like buy at some happy hour.
[00:44:32] I remember there was a New York startup event and this guy was talking to me at the end of it. It’s guy called Mack McCombie. I’ll never forget it. And he was like, what do you need right now? And I was like, well, actually. I need like $15,000 that we have right now. Like that’s what I said.
[00:44:50] And he wired it to me the next day and was like, pay me back when you have it. Like just like that I’ve never had in my entire life. And so the first two years were that I didn’t know anybody, so I didn’t know enough about how to raise capital. I couldn’t figure it out. And one of the things that I did right is get an advisory board fairly early on.
[00:45:10] And so that helped me close the gap between the things I know, the things I know I don’t know. And then the things I don’t know that I don’t know. And so the more I got to that last part, the closer I got to being able to raise capital.
[00:45:24] Dan: [00:45:24] How did you find the advisors. How’d you, how did you make that connection with people? Who are you on your advisory board?
[00:45:30] Cherae: [00:45:30] Oh my gosh. The first advisor I met at this like Africa brain trust event in D C I didn’t even know I was looking for an advisor, but I had used Photoshop to like design a potential Africa travel app, and I was just. Showing it to anybody who would listen. And he asked me, did I have an advisory board for my startup?
[00:45:51] And I was like, I have a startup. Like, so
[00:45:57] he became my first advisor, John Gossiez became my first advisor. And he was super plugged into the world of startups. So he really like helped me pull the first couple together and then it literally was networks. It was super organic. the one person I did say I’m going to get involved in my company was Eric.
[00:46:15] So from the very beginning I was sending Eric cold LinkedIn messages. Like, I would just send him messages like, I don’t know, once a year, once every six months or so. I didn’t know Eric at all, no responses. But last year when he finally responded to me, he invested like after one conversation. So you know, this stuff just happens, but you have to kind of like just keep at it like you really have to keep at it.
[00:46:38] And that’s what I did. So it’s all very serendipitous.
[00:46:41] Dan: [00:46:41] Well, let’s unpack that a little bit. Cause I, I’m hearing this story and it feels like serendipity, but it was. The prerequisites of you putting yourself out there, and like you said, connecting into networks, and this is a very much, my friend calls, early startup days as dominoes at the top of a barrel, and you just need to get one to fall and couple more will fall, and then pretty soon they’re all falling.
[00:47:04] And so is it like, can I get this one. employee or this one co-founder that’ll help me get this first customer. And that first customer helped me get access to this advisor and that advisor gets me access to investors. And so there is this bold steps that you have to take, put yourself out there.
[00:47:21] Like you said, you were talking to people about your idea. And people respond to passion and they respond to the, the mission. And so if you can get some people to bet on, you and say, Hey, this person is got something here. Not, most people can’t see it yet, that it really can cascade into basically a larger network and access to the folks that need to help you build your company.
[00:47:43] Cherae: [00:47:43] Absolutely. I mean, I think one of the biggest examples of a cascading network was a pipeline. Angels investing in tastemakers, went through the pipeline. Angels for those, I don’t know. Pipeline angels is two sided one. It finds women and non-binary entrepreneurs to invest in, but it also trains women on how to become angel investors.
[00:48:06] And so I was successful in getting an investment from a pipeline angels cohort in New York. One of the cohort members, Lorene Pendleton, she tolls. one of the partners at Precursor Ventures about tastemakers, I , reached out to them and said, Hey Sydney, can you review my deck for when I’m ready to fundraise?
[00:48:27] She was like, I’ll review it. And actually I think Charles Hudson would love it. So Charles became my first. Institutional investor from an introduction from one of our angel investors, and even when I went to raise my seed round, we closed in October of last year. It was actually pipeline angels again, who was the initial source of connection.
[00:48:49] Because they had introduced me to like tech crunch office hours for diverse founders. And that’s how I met Chip Hazard from Flybridge who wanted to circle back with me to catch up with how I was doing, and then thought I should meet Jesse Middleton. And, and the story went on from there. So it was the sort of initial believers.
[00:49:07] That were able to help me cast a wider net in the end. So that investor that gives you $5,000 you know, if you’re smart and they really believe in what you’re doing, they’re going to give you so much more than that. You know, in those early stages, particularly exposure and introductions to people.
[00:49:22] Dan: [00:49:22] That’s, that is the crux of it.
[00:49:23] And I think also one of the things I think to take away from this is the idea that the persistence of. Regular contact. We’re, even if it’s over weeks, months, a years. And I think the story with Eric and with the fact that chip circled back with you, people like to see a line, right?
[00:49:42]So if somebody either says no or look, let’s keep in touch or whatever. The first time they meet you, it doesn’t mean that you’re never going to see them again. They’ll never be interested in you, or maybe they’re even, they’re not interested in you now. It’s just that persistence is part of the thing that we’re observing.
[00:49:58] Cherae: [00:49:58] Absolutely. I mean, to bring it full circle even more. By the time I had. Circled back with Chip it at Flybridge. Eric Blachford had given the yes to tastemakers maybe three days before that conversation. So I go into this conversation, which haphazard, and he’s like, wow, you know, the business has really evolved from two years ago when I met you.
[00:50:20] And I was like, yeah. He’s like, well, who are you talking to? And I’m like, yeah, well, you know, Eric from Expedia? He just said, yes. What I didn’t know was that chip was rich Barton who founded Expedia college roommate and had known Eric for 20 years. I had no clue. I did not know it at all. The level of confidence and sort of collusion that went from then on, and it was like as the founder, like I had no clue that these people were connected and had been connected for a couple of decades.
[00:50:50] But that allowed the conversation to go in a particular way that if I had said two years ago, Oh, this guy is not interested in, and not kept something warm, or if I had, you know, not repeatedly messaged Eric, you know, none of that would’ve come together.
[00:51:07] Dan: [00:51:07] Yeah. It’s amazing. And, a lot of times startups think, Oh, well I just want to build my thing and I want to sell to people and I want to had value to the marketplace.
[00:51:15]But doing the network of women, two things I say to the startups that I mentor is two things that you are always doing. if you’re kind of in the tech startup space, you’re always hiring and you’re always fundraising. Even if you’re actually not doing those things, you’re planting the seeds. You know, you bump into somebody at a conference and you’re like, wow, this, person’s a dynamo.
[00:51:34] And when I need that role, I’m going to keep them in my mind and I’m going to come back and I’m going to send them a note every now and then saying, Hey, we’re doing well. Right? Same thing with investors. And. People do like to help. And so if you reach out and say, Hey, could you just tell me what this, or is there a way you could make an introduction here?
[00:51:50] Or it’s a, it’s, and that’s how you build a network. And it’s, people like to think it’s more complicated than that, but it’s not, it’s not easy, but it’s not that complex.
[00:51:59] Cherae: [00:51:59] Yeah, absolutely.
[00:52:00] Dan: [00:52:00] So tell me, Cherae, so throughout these fundraising experiences, did you ever feel like the idea that you were kind of in the double blind spot as Ross Baird talks about in his book, right?
[00:52:13] You’re, you’re working on a product that our service that’s focused on a community that’s unfamiliar potentially to other investors. Plus you are an African American woman founder. Did you ever see those things as.
[00:52:31] Cherae: [00:52:31] Absolutely. maybe not in the way that people might think. So I’ve been super fortunate that I haven’t had this sort of blatant interactions with, you know, people in the investment community that some have had. I mean, I’ve read things that are just horrible. That hasn’t been my experience. a lot of it for me was originally the, lack of network.
[00:52:55] So I think, you know, had I come from a different background, I would have a different set of networks and I might’ve been able to get this thing going a lot faster. that being said, a lot of it was in my head too. It was like the discomfort of like the bro world. Like I remember going to a startup event in New York city and like, it was just like a sea of white men.
[00:53:15] And I remember thinking like, what am I going to talk to them about? That’s like remotely authentic. , I remember feeling like, Oh, I just, it’s going to take so much energy to do this. And it did. It took a lot of energy and I did sometimes feel like there were certain VCs that I spoke to.
[00:53:33]That almost like tried to make me feel dumb while I was pitching and it took me some time to feel competent in our unique value proposition and to realize that if they didn’t get it, then they just weren’t aligned and that’s okay.
[00:53:46] And not take it as like a personal upfront, you know? So it was, it was difficult to navigate, you know, just the spaces that you’re in. in some of these conversations where someone is the check writer and so they don’t understand what you’re doing, it’s made to seem like what you’re doing isn’t a value.
[00:54:05] And so I had a lot of like those kinds of interactions that weren’t explicitly because I was a black woman, but it was because they don’t know how our consumer base works. So then it’s devalued.
[00:54:17] Dan: [00:54:17] That’s a great point. And I think that’s really important. Understand as an entrepreneur, it’s almost like going for a part in a movie or right.
[00:54:25] You’re going to go through auditions and sometimes people will appreciate what you’re saying, what your messages, and sometimes they won’t and sometimes they will, but for reasons that are totally unrelated to you, they can’t really focus on investing in you because that point, their portfolio works, or they have somebody else in this space or whatever it is, right?
[00:54:43]That the mechanics of their fund may preclude them actually investing in you or investing at that stage. And so it’s so important to be able to have the kind of resilience you’re talking about. And. recommit yourself and say, okay, yeah, that person didn’t get it. Or they brought up some really good questions, but you know, it looks like they aren’t a fit.
[00:55:02] And I think one of the things that you’re also alluding to, which is there is a bit of serendipity there, and that if somebody totally doesn’t get it, their money actually won’t be as valuable as somebody who does.
[00:55:13] Cherae: [00:55:13] Absolutely. I mean, I would imagine that if some of those investors who were evaluating tastemakers by the marketplace metrics that made.
[00:55:23] Sense to them had invested for whatever reason. The conversations I’d be having in the middle of COVID would probably be very different. Whereas the investors who got it got it. And its potential. So we have alignment in what’s to come.
[00:55:36] Dan: [00:55:36] Awesome. So my last question is, I ask everybody, if you could get in a time machine and go back and talk to pre up, what kind of advice would you give her?
[00:55:48] Cherae: [00:55:48] I think the first thing would be. You got to this a bit earlier, but I got. You know, I became good at it much later in my startup career is really to nurture every relationship. and it’s really hard to do. Some people are like amazing at like the idea of personal CRM, but I really wish there was some people that I met early, early, early in my journey or even before I, I ran a company and I’ve just like lost touch.
[00:56:16] And I think like, I just didn’t. Realize how important that was because I didn’t necessarily come from a business background either. And so that would be one thing is just really lean into nurturing your relationships. The second thing I would tell pre-start up Cherae is to realize that advice is just advice.
[00:56:38] And you don’t have to take all of it and that there’s a reason you’re doing what you’re doing. And it doesn’t mean be bullheaded or non coachable. Like those are two different things, but don’t be so quick to sort of. Change directions or or shift perspectives. Make sure you’re super grounded in your why and your what because it can be really easy.
[00:57:00] You know, when you’re starting something and people start to believe in you, it can be really easy to sort of prioritize their thoughts and opinions on what you should do over your own. And that can sometimes lead you in a path that’s a way from the heart of what you’re supposed to be doing.
[00:57:18] Dan: [00:57:18] So we’re coming to the end of our conversation. Unfortunately, I could talk to you forever. but why don’t you let the audience know, how can they find out more about tastemakers Africa or get in touch with you?
[00:57:30] Cherae: [00:57:30] Awesome. So you can find email@example.com. I definitely encourage you to actually sign up for our newsletter.
[00:57:38] It’s actually pretty cool. I write these like Monday letters that are about what’s going on with me, and we also do some pretty cool. Friday mailers that I just telling you about. Cool stuff that we’ve discovered on the internet every week. And people seem to like those things. you can find us on Instagram, which is probably where most people, interact with us.
[00:57:58] That’s, @tstmkrsAfrica. But the word tastemakers has no vowels. So that’s. T S T M K R S. Africa. Do a lot of fun stuff on Instagram. It’s the same thing on Twitter. we live on socials, so definitely come say, Hey, if you stumble upon us there.
[00:58:17] Dan: [00:58:17] Well, this has been so much fun. I really appreciate you taking the time.
[00:58:21] This has been awesome.
[00:58:22] Cherae: [00:58:22] Thank you.
[00:58:23] Dan: [00:58:23] Thanks for the time.
[00:58:24] Thanks so much for listening to the show. We’d like to thank our guests, Cherae Robinson and our sponsor of The Plug. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and follow us on Twitter and Instagram. This podcast was produced by Dan , social media and other promotion by Omama Marzuq. Our music was composed by Bobby Cole, Lance Conrad, Neil cross, Jason Donley, Jason, David Greenberg, Simon Jompfe Lepind , Jess Stroup, and Michael Vignola.
[00:58:50]Hi, I’m Dan and you’ve been listening to founders unfound.
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