Full Transcript: Investor And Serial Entrepreneur McKeever Conwell II On GHOGH Podcast
They discuss Conwell getting recruited out of college by a U.S. intelligence agency, and making pre-seed investments for Maryland’s tech development state fund, TEDCO.
You can listen to the entire conversation right now in the audio player below. If you prefer to listen on your phone, GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin is available wherever you listen to podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud.
This is a full transcript of the conversation which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 31: McKeever Conwell II Jamarlin talks to investor and serial entrepreneur McKeever Conwell II about being inspired by a teacher to become an engineer, getting recruited out of college by a U.S. intelligence agency, and making pre-seed investments for Maryland’s tech development state fund, TEDCO.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re listening to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin. We have a go hard or go home approach as we talk to the leading tech leaders, politicians and influencers. Let’s GHOGH! Today we have McKeever Conwell. Welcome to the GHOGH show.
McKeever Conwell: I appreciate it. Glad to be here.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re an investor here in Maryland. Also, you’re a trained engineer. Let’s talk a little bit about becoming an engineer and your early life story.
McKeever Conwell: So I’m originally from Baltimore city, later moved out to the county. Thank you parents. Thank you mom and dad. What really happens for me and how I get into engineering was when I got to middle school, I had a teacher who at the time I didn’t realize was a former engineer, and he was really big into robotics and engineering and maglev trains, and building bridges and all this other stuff. Right? So I ended up having that teacher for all three years of middle school and I had it drilled in my head. I was going to build robots. I just knew that going off I was going to build robots. So that was the early life. It was really one particular teacher, Mr Davis that influenced me and kinda got me moving down that path.
Jamarlin Martin: What age did you know you wanted to be an engineer?
McKeever Conwell: I knew I wanted to be an engineer when I was like 10, right? I think the first time I thought engineering, like the idea of mechanical things being cool, was probably younger.There’s a Japanese cartoon called Robo Tech, and in the very first episode you see these fighter jets that are based off of the F-14 fighter plane, transforming into robots. And it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Like as a seven year old kid watching a fighter jet turn into a robot was the dopest thing in the world. So that was the beginning of peaking. But when I was 10, I kind of knew I wanted to be an engineer, I wanted to build robots. Mr Davis really kind of impressed that upon me.
Jamarlin Martin: What type of school are you in at this time in terms of the racial breakdown?
McKeever Conwell: So my elementary school, my first school was a little mixed, but the rest of my career was predominately African-American. I went to all black schools my whole career.
Jamarlin Martin: It sounds like you’re probably a geek at this time. Later, did you get picked on or people tease you?
McKeever Conwell: So I got picked on a bit in middle school, but I had a core group of friends. And when I got the high school was weird…
Jamarlin Martin: Pick on you. Let’s stop there, in middle school. So pick on you, describe like, ‘Hey, he’s a geek, Carlton. Like what type of stuff did you get?
McKeever Conwell: Yeah, I got, ‘he’s a geek’. Well, I’m a large guy, right? So I got picked on by my size. My parents didn’t have any money, so I came to school one day with these shoes from Macy’s, they were called Nucleus. So I’m walking around school with these Nucleus on my feet, so the moment I got to the bus stop, that was it.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. I remember we used to pick on the brand of car that each kid would come in, and people would be telling their parents to park down the street so the kids can’t crack about the car, but I’m more talking about a geek getting picked on, meaning that you’re into engineering, you’re an outlier, different, and kind of getting picked on because of that.
McKeever Conwell: Coming up in Baltimore in predominantly black neighborhoods, you get the label of, ‘you weren’t black enough’. I was told from early on, ‘you’re not even black, this is what black kids do, we don’t want to hang with you’. And that kind of creates a complex, right? Because then you want to overcompensate for it and you want to be super black. So then what does that mean? If I’m going to be as black as possible, that means I’m gonna identify with everything there is, hip hop culture because hip hop culture is the blackest thing you can be, right? So then you start to change your clothes, you start to change the way you talk. And I saw a lot of my friends do that and try to dumb themselves down to be cool and be accepted.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So the culture, from your perspective, it was promoting being dumb. It was optimized to go against if you wanted to really be good at engineering or you really wanted to be serious?
McKeever Conwell: Oh, absolutely. Being smart was not cool. So my friends were all as smart as me, and we all commiserated about, nobody wanted to hang with us, nobody wanted to play Pokemon at lunch with us.
Jamarlin Martin: So, are you a Democrat?
McKeever Conwell: I am.
Jamarlin Martin: Are you a registered Democrat?
McKeever Conwell: I’m a registered Democrat.
Jamarlin Martin: So, now in this environment, if you say that there are some deep issues with black culture in terms of where we assign value, but you don’t hear a lot of Democrats, like it’s popular to say, ‘Hey MAGA this, white folks this, Republicans this, we get that, and I believe in a lot of that stuff, but you don’t see a lot of voices talking about, ‘hey, there are some cultural issues that we need to address in terms of how we treat each other, how we related with each other’, meaning that white folks, they’re not going to inject themselves and teach us how to properly relate and value each other in what we’re interested in. What are your thoughts on that in terms of, do you hear a lot of talk among your peers who are politically active about cultural optimization? Things that we can do that the government can help us here.
McKeever Conwell: So it’s funny, I was just on a panel last weekend where we talked about this a lot, about the wealth in the black community here in Baltimore. And one of the things that came up was we tend to put blame on everybody else, want everybody else to help us, but we don’t take the time to sit back and like, ‘Yo, there’s all these other things in our community we need to work on and we need to learn the value’, like telling somebody, ‘oh, you have a dad, are you really black?’ That’s the craziest statement a kid can tell another kid, because you have a dad at home that means you’re not black. What does that even mean? You’re not hood enough. What kind of shit, that’s crazy.
Jamarlin Martin: I remember on a death row documentary, one of the executives was like, he’s not really a thug, although he grew up in Compton. I have family members who are familiar with that family and some stuff around there. And the guy says on this documentary, ‘He’s not a really a thug. He had two parents in the home.’
McKeever Conwell: What does that even mean?
Jamarlin Martin: How many people did this guy got a kill to get his credentials? Go ahead.
McKeever Conwell: But you find people who are treated that way at an early age then overcompensate and want to be extra hard just to prove I’m really a thug, because I got two parents with me I’m not a thug. Like what? What does that mean? Why do we have to take it to that degree? Right? And I think a lot of black history when they’re trying to find an identity, the thing you identify most with is portrayed in the media and the biggest influence in the media for the black culture is hip hop culture, right? So, if that’s what you see and those are the lyrics you’re hearing, as a youth, you’re not hearing pain, you’re hearing storytelling, this is glorifying, I want to do this, when really these people are talking about their pain and just trying to explain and let people know, the environment I’m in is a sick environment, but I’ve been able to make it out because I’m able to tell these stories.
Jamarlin Martin: For those on the left who are Democrats or those who are so called progressive, why isn’t cultural optimization internally a top five issue? Meaning that this is something that we can control, and in many respects for us to really move forward, yes, we need to have external things change in terms of racist policies, racist institutions, however, what can we do to optimize our culture and how we program things with each other and with our children.
McKeever Conwell: First of all, from the folks on the left and we talk from a political side, they’re worried about policy and the external things, they don’t tend to worry about the internal and all the grassroots stuff, right? That’s what these nonprofits in the communities are for, like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle in Baltimore, that’s the kind of stuff they do. And really what it is, is we’re not promoting. I really believe this. We’re not promoting the other images in our community, right? Like when I talk to my white counterparts, they can say, ‘yeah, when I was growing up, my dad’s best friend gave me an internship’ because your dad’s best friend who he went to college with is a lawyer or a dentists or a project manager at a marketing firm, right? And you get exposed to all these things and you see images around you. But in our communities, especially in blue collar communities, your parents, family and your network is limited typically to the people you live close to and the people they work with. They don’t have networks beyond that. And so those are the only images you see. And so outside of that, the only other images that you see are what you see on TV. We don’t promote the people in our community that are doing just regular positive stuff like the guy who has a real estate business or the woman who owns several assisted living homes. Right? And that’s why people talk a lot about mentorship in the black community because those people being mentors coming back or being big brothers, big sisters, you’re giving the young people that image to see. We don’t see enough of those images and it can’t be one-offs. Right? Like my high school, I went to Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, at the time, one of the three black schools in Baltimore County. My junior or senior year, we had an astronaut come back to the school who graduated from Woodlawn. That should be a big deal. That is the only real positive image we saw of somebody who went to our school and it was so far removed, we looked at it like, ‘What does that have anything to do with us?’ Because none of us have the opportunity to be where he is. But the thing that made the most impact in my school was my sophomore year, Kevin Liles, who also went to Woodlawn, donated a bunch of money to get us a new stadium built.
Jamarlin Martin: You mean the music executive, Kevin Liles?
McKeever Conwell: The music executive Kevin Liles donated money to the school to get a new stadium built and then donated a bunch of Phat Farm shoes.
Jamarlin Martin: We don’t hear a lot about that. I hear sometimes folks saying, ‘hey black people, we don’t help each other and we don’t donate and we don’t do that man’. There’s so many stories. At least my personal view is that there’s so many stories and a lot of these stories are hidden where you do find our people helping each other. It’s not like we’re helping each other less than other folks who are similarly situated.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah, I agree. And that’s the problem. Why don’t we hear these stories, why don’t we tell these stories, why don’t we show these people? There’s a bunch of them in the black community, but those images aren’t being seen and no light being shone on it.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got It. So you graduated from high school? Where do you go from there?
McKeever Conwell: So after I graduated high school I went to Morgan State University and it was just the cheapest school for me to go to. They offered me a scholarship, and I was like, I’m gonna go. And when I got there I knew I wanted to do engineering. So I showed up like, ‘what’s your major?’ I don’t know what major I’m supposed to do, I want to build robots. They were like, well go to computer science, they have a whole robotics team or whatever. It’s like, cool. I showed up. They didn’t have a robotics club. The robot they have was from the eighties and the chips falling off and things, and I felt completely duped, but I got to my first class and it was like intro to C++, and I was like, ‘oh, I can do this, this isn’t hard’. And then I looked up how much computer scientists made and I was like, ‘this is my major’. I specifically went to college not to learn but to increase my economic potential. I came from a family where my parents did the best for me and they sheltered me from a lot of things, but we didn’t have a lot of money and I was aware of that.
Jamarlin Martin: Even though you didn’t have money, I would argue you may have had something worth more than money in terms of growing up in a two-parent home. And before folks are like, ‘oh, two parents doesn’t mean the person turns out good’. I’m talking about in general. Obviously there’s exceptions. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but I do believe children in general are going to come out better with a team versus a single person.
McKeever Conwell: I agree. Not all parents are net positives, right? But I was blessed to have two parents who were caring and loving and I had a father who was a strong man, who gave me a lot of lessons along the way in life to prepare me to be a strong man. And so I attribute a lot of things to my parents. So when I got to college I was like, ‘alright, I need to make money, I’m doing a major that makes money’. So computer science is where it was. And so I got to Morgan and I realized when I got there, I’ve got to be involved in every organization I possibly can because I’ve got to build up a resume, because I need to figure out how to start getting internships and start building this out so I can get myself a good job. Fast forward, sophomore year I go to a career fair and I stopped at a booth, and I didn’t even read what the booth was for. They told me no, it was for graduating seniors. They weren’t looking for interns. I’m like, ‘But my resume is immaculate. So if you see my resume and you don’t hire me, there’s a problem with your organization’. I was really cocky back then. I got to one booth and the lady pulled me aside. She’s like, you’re not a fit for what we’re looking for, but I run student programs, so I want to take your resume and submit you for our student programs. Lo and behold, that lady worked for the NSA. And so my sophomore year in college, I got into a co-op at the NSA. So every other semester I was a full time.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re allowed to mention the agency.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah, I’m allowed to mention the agency, as long as I don’t mention anything beyond like the work I did…
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. I got to be careful because we had another guest come on the show, he also has associations with the intelligence agencies. You got so many people connected to intelligence agencies, ‘man is GHOGH funded by the CIA?’. You guys going to get me in trouble here.
McKeever Conwell: Let me Redo that. So my sophomore year of college I went to the career fair, and so basically the lady put me in for a student program for the Department of Defense, so here I am, a sophomore in college going through the process to get a top secret security clearance to work for the Department of Defense. And that got me into a program that effectively changed my life.
Jamarlin Martin: What do you say to that conspiracy theorist in Leimert Park, LA, who says, ‘man, I wouldn’t trust any brother who has a security clearance from the NSA’. Right there it’s like, hey, there’s something wrong with you in terms of uplifting our people in your consciousness. What would you say to that?
McKeever Conwell: I would say you have no understanding of what the intelligence community does or the Department of Defense does. Right? When I worked for the Department of Defense, we did things that affected world change and protected American citizens. Like I literally worked on projects where the next day I could see the outcome of my project featured on CNN.
Jamarlin Martin: You were having an impact.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. You can make a real global impact.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. So walk us through in terms of, the recruiter reaches out and what happens.
McKeever Conwell: So, they take my resume and then I get this big form in the mail.
Jamarlin Martin: Did you have dreads back then?
McKeever Conwell: I just started my locks. And so they sent me this big giant package that I had to fill out. I didn’t even know what I was filling out for…
Jamarlin Martin: How many pages are we talking?
McKeever Conwell: Talking about like 85 pages? They wanted to know every single detail of your life in the last seven years.
Jamarlin Martin: Did you listen to Shabazz the Disciple? Did you listen to X Clan? No, I’m just joking. But go ahead.
McKeever Conwell: So it’s like all this personal data and then they send somebody from the FBI to do a background check on you. They go talk to your neighbors, your friends, your family. They go talk to your boss. My boss pulled me up one day because I worked on the website for the office of residence life at Morgan, and my boss pulled me to the side and said, ‘Somebody from the FBI was just in here asking a whole bunch of questions about you. Is Everything okay?’ I’m like, ‘It’s for a job, it’s all good’. So I went through that process, took the polygraph and everything I needed to do, got my security clearance and then I got in this program when they rotate you through different departments. So every other semester you’re a full-time employee with Department of Defence.
Jamarlin Martin: Was there anything in your application that you were insecure about? Like, Hey, maybe this is not gonna go over well.
McKeever Conwell: Oh, drugs. I smoked weed in high school.
Jamarlin Martin: You were concerned about that?
McKeever Conwell: I was concerned because they ask you questions about it. And that’s the other thing, when you take the polygraph and all that, it’s an integrity test. There’s certain things you you shouldn’t have done. If you’ve taken some hard drugs or if you kill somebody, it’s going to be a problem.
Jamarlin Martin: Kavanaugh. Does he have the clearance you have?
McKeever Conwell: I don’t think so. No.
Jamarlin Martin: It’s not required for a federal judge?
McKeever Conwell: No. For a federal judge over specific cases they need that. They need that kind of security clearance, but most judges aren’t going to have it. Just because you have a top secret security clearance, there’s a whole bunch of nuances. So I can’t just go see and look at any and everything. But anyway, I got the clearance, I started working, I got in this program, there’s about 200, 250 students from universities all across the country. And the only majors they took were a electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science. Right. And so out of the 250, 200 students, about 30 of us were black and those 30 black individuals, black men and women became my core group of friends for the next stage of my life.
Jamarlin Martin: Were they actively recruiting black applicants or were you just in a general pool?
McKeever Conwell: So all the black kids there, oddly enough, either went to Ivy League schools or HPCUs.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. So that’s where the intelligence agencies are getting their black folks.
McKeever Conwell: They’re either getting from Ivy Leagues or from HBCUs.
Jamarlin Martin: There’s not a lot of in between.
McKeever Conwell: No, I don’t think I met a single person who was in between, but them being my core group of friends became a big deal for me. One, because one of my friends in particular, Patrick Jackson, who now lives in San Francisco and is the CTO for a company called Disconnect, a security company. And he was obsessed with being the black Mark Zuckerberg. Right?
Jamarlin Martin: I hate that term, but go ahead.
McKeever Conwell: I get it right. But he was the first one who like…
Jamarlin Martin: Like, I want to be a black criminal, I want it to be a black liar. I want to be the black hurt a lot of kids…
McKeever Conwell: He didn’t think of it from that standpoint, rather making money. But he was the first person I knew who started a website, started making money. He created a website called Buku for students at Howard to basically sell their stuff to each other, right? Then he went on to build apps and other things and so he got the rest of our group to start talking about those things. And we started having regular meetings where we would meet up at Chipotle and just talk about things and technology and things we should try out and run through ideas and that helped form a core group of my friends because six of us out of that group went on to start startups later on. And so that was a big impactful thing. The other impactful thing that happened as I went through that program, one, my father passed away right after I got into the program. And so that made things a little weird.
Jamarlin Martin: Your parents were married when he passed away?
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. So my parents met when they were in high school and they stayed together until the day my father passed away. But I was working on my first job, my first rotation and I was doing this work and I was looking next to me and my coworker and I’m helping my coworker with something. We’re writing computer code, and I had a moment where I stopped, I looked at him, I thought to myself, you make $85,000 a year. And I make the equivalent right now of $35,000 because I’m in the student program, but me and you, we’re doing the exact same work. The only difference is I’m in school and you’re not. In that moment, school died for me in my head in that moment. Like I knew I wasn’t going to finish college. And so I was in college for another year after that.
Jamarlin Martin: What were you at the time, a sophomore?
McKeever Conwell: Sophomore. So then my junior year, I’ll never forget, I was hanging around with my friends. I’m like, yeah I think I’m going to dropout. I remember all my friends looking at me like I was crazy. Why would you drop out? We in college trying to get our degrees and everything in. Mind you. I had a 3.8 GPA. I was on the path to get a masters. I knew what my plan was. I was like, I only did this so I could make six figures. I see a path to make six figures without this, so I’m going to go get that.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re smart enough, sounds like.
McKeever Conwell: And so, I’ll never forget. I put my resume on Monster and I started getting these calls from recruiters and so this one company interviewed me twice, and my second interview they wanted me to do some work that I had never done before. And the guy says, so you want the job? I was like, I’ve never done this work before. He’s like, well, you have clearance, right? I’m like, yeah. He’s like, Hey, do you want the job? Sure. Next thing I know…
Jamarlin Martin: Can you get the clearance that you had without a sponsor? Meaning that I want to apply to a lot of government related opportunities or jobs. Can I start with a security clearance without having a sponsor? Can I just go get it?
McKeever Conwell: No, there is no way you can.
Jamarlin Martin: Once you have a sponsor, then it just opens up a lot of opportunity.
McKeever Conwell: Unless you have a sponsor, you can’t and the sponsor’s probably going to be a government contracting firm or government, etc. Those are the only two ways you’re going to get these kinds of clearance.
Jamarlin Martin: So really you want to go through the interview process with just about anybody just to get the clearance and then now open up to a lot of opportunities. So you don’t really need to be picky to get into the game?
McKeever Conwell: No, you don’t need to be picky. As long as you get. If you get a top secret security clearance, man, you good. You are never without a job. There will always be positions for you, especially in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area, there is work always.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got it.
McKeever Conwell: And so, I got a job at Northrop Grumman, making more money than my parents ever made in their careers. And I was 20 at the time.
Jamarlin Martin: Wow.
McKeever Conwell: By the time I was 23, I had switched to another company. I had a six-figure job, a four-storey town home and three cars.
Jamarlin Martin: Government related entities, contractors hooking you up.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah, I was 23 and I was living in life and I looked around. I was like, this is awesome. And I’m like, so what do I do next? And everybody looked at me and said, start a family. I’m not ready for that. So what else? Do this for the next 30, 40 years of your life and retire? There’s nothing else. And that was shocking to me cause I wanted more and so that’s around the time I started playing around with the idea of starting a business and trying to figure out how I could create a tech company. I didn’t even think of it as a tech company at that time. I didn’t know what a startup was. I was like, how do I build a website that makes money for me while I sleep? That was the big thing. And So that was the beginning of me kind of moving onto the entrepreneurial phase in my life.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got it. Let’s talk about that, the entrepreneurial phase.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. So, a good friend of mine, Michael Washington, who now is the CTO of a company out in the valley, he came to me and said, I’m working on this idea with another, with another good friend of mine, Sam Henry. So Sam and Mike met through me and they said they were gonna start a company together. I was like, ‘well, you’re not gonna start the company without me’, it ain’t how this is gonna work. So I kind of injected myself into the business and the three of us started building this website together, called nobadgift.com. It was a registry site where people could put up items they wanted for their birthday or Christmas and people would crowdfund the money for individual items. Right? It was a novel idea, something interesting. And so we started building on it and we spent about a year and a half building out this platform and it had all this tech underneath but the three of us were just developers. So we would go to work and then in the evenings we would code and we do that every night. And then we got to a point where we realized, it’s been a year and a half. We don’t have any customers. We don’t know what we’re doing. So what do we do next? Well, we need to do some marketing. We ain’t got no money for marketing. So where we get money, well we need to get some investors. Okay, what are the investors and where do we find them? I don’t know. We need to figure it out. So it’s like this whole big thing, okay, now we need to go get investors, we need to figure it out. How do we do that? We had no clue. And so next thing I know I started getting invited to a few events and then I started noticing, going to events and doing this thing called networking is how you start to get into these circles.
Jamarlin Martin: And did you feel like you had the personality to kind of hey, I can really get out there and ‘how are you doing’, and I could possibly turn into a Stanley from Friday. Were you that guy then or did you have to get comfortable over time?
McKeever Conwell: I was that guy then. I didn’t realize it, but I was that guy then. And what happened was I started going to a lot of events and my two co-founders were like, you just do that. Just do the networking and work on the business stuff, we will do the coding because you like talking to people and we don’t. And so I was like, alright, so I got thrown into this position of being a CEO without even knowing what I was doing. And I started meeting some good people and good things started happening around and the more I was out, the more opportunities were coming. So I was like, okay, this networking thing really has legs. So then we go from 2010 when we started the company to 2012, where everything kind of exploded for us. We kind of broke into the Baltimore tech, we found our way into the Baltimore tech Facebook group where we started drawing people’s attention. I put up a post on Facebook one day like, hey, I’m trying to figure out how to get to investors and people keep telling me I need to learn how to pitch. The only two times you’ve picked either in front of investors or at competitions. And neither one of those scenarios is okay to fail. So I got a projector and said if anybody wanted to come to my house with some pizza and beer and we can practice pitching. Right? And it became this huge thing that turned into an actual event. There was a guy who offered us a space in Hunt Valley where we set up, we had six people pitching, we had like 30 advisors in the room to critique our pitches and it became such a thing that the Baltimore Sun actually wrote an article on it about how putting an ask on the internet turned into a real life event. And so that started getting people peeved like, who is this guy? And funny thing about that is, want to talk about some racial stuff. My best friend, Devin Partlow was also starting a business. He is part of that group who worked with me at the Department of Defense. And so he was starting a business too at the same time. He was a tall dude with locks. I’m a big dude with locks. When they took the photo for that event, they took the picture of him, so in the Baltimore Sun, the article’s referencing me, but there’s a big picture of him and every time me and him would go to events, everybody just assumed that we were working together. ‘Oh, it’s the two black guys. They must be doing this together’. It’s like, no, we actually have two separate companies. We just happened to know each other, which was funny. That was something that came up over and over. But then in 2012, we got into the first accelerator in the state of Maryland, Accelerate Baltimore. Me and Devin both got into the accelerator, which was amazing. We found that out while we were both at Mardi Gras. That was a cool time. And so, my company got our first bit of money from that. We got $25,000 for that and we got some advisors to start working through some things. And then a month after that program ended, we went out to San Francisco to check out the Valley and be part of the NewME accelerator for the third class with Angela Benton. And so, I was out there. We went through that. We were in a four-bedroom apartment. It was eight founders living in a four-bedroom apartment, living on Ikea bunk beds.
Jamarlin Martin: And CNN covered it?
McKeever Conwell: CNN was in the first class, the first one, I was two classes after that. And so we were just out there grinding hard. And everywhere we went it was weird because at the time we were doing this gifting idea, there are a lot of people doing the gifting idea. I’ll never forget we were having a meeting with an investor while we were in NewME and he came up to us and he’s like, ‘hey for some reason that idea is uncommonly popular these days’. So you expect an investor to say they’ve heard of your idea before competitors, and to hear ‘uncommonly popular’.
Jamarlin Martin: The market already kind of passed you guys by. It was saturated before you even get off the ground.
McKeever Conwell: The market was completely saturated. Facebook had already bought our biggest competitor at the time and it was like, ‘okay, we need to differentiate ourselves and do something different’. And so we figured out a way for people to gift each other apps out of the iTunes store, and that was cool. And then the way it would deliver it was in the form of a link, so I can send you a text message with a link and you click on it and just start downloading on your phone. It was that simple. And we started showing people and people are giving us these crazy reactions, well, I’ve never seen that before.
Jamarlin Martin: The first thing I’m thinking about, man, it’s just maybe some spam, this is some malware. Now you’re sending me the app via text and it automatically downloads on my phone.
McKeever Conwell: They’re prepaid for. It was all paid for stuff. And so we realized there was something there with that and so we pivot our company to just doing that so you could prepay for anything out of the itunes store and deliver in the form of link so you can send it on Facebook, you can do it on Twitter, you can do it on text, some cool stuff.
Jamarlin Martin: So give me an example. It’s a game that I can play, I got to pay for, but I’m going to buy it and gift it to someone. They get the game for free, the app.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. One of the marketing firms and we were talking to, they were kicking this idea around because they partnered with an airline and so they were like, when people go on Twitter and complain about their flight being delayed, we can send them a tweet and be like, click this link to download a free movie or free app while you wait. And our technology would run that. We did a thing for Nickelodeon where they had a show that was coming out and they did a competition, but they were giving out a bunch of digital copies of the soundtrack. So they used our platform to buy all the copies of the soundtrack in one go and to distribute them all out at once, and automate the whole process. Right? So there was a lot of unique things you could do. So we started getting corporate partners and corporate customers. But the hard thing was for our first company we were a business to consumer company, so we sold directly to consumers. And so we spent a lot of time trying to learn how to sell directly to consumers. and we were just starting to figure that out. When we pivoted, we were now a business to business company where we were selling the businesses where we had to learn what what it was like to sell to businesses and deal with long sales cycles or work with large corporations who pay you whenever they feel like paying you. When you work with Viacom, you get your check whenever Viacom wants to give you a check, not when you finished the work. And so that was a struggle and along the way me and my co-founders, we’re just now starting to learn what it meant to have a startup. We were learning about lean startup. We were learning what it meant to follow your passion and build something around your passion and start with why. And fatigue was starting to set in. We had been going on almost four years at that point and we were starting to get some momentum but it wasn’t moving as fast as we wanted and we weren’t building something that we really truly loved. We just built something that’s really cool. And so that started taking a toll on the team. And luckily for us though, through that process, we had a Fortune 100 company reach out to us. ‘Hey, we really liked what your guys are working on. We want to talk more’. And so we were able to navigate that process and actually sell the technology off to a Fortune 100 company, which was a win and it was good for me and my co-founders because we needed that break.
Jamarlin Martin: In terms of you guys are just burnt out and you guys ended up selling the intellectual property.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah man. People don’t understand some of the hardships you go through as an entrepreneur, the highs and the lows are crazy man. And you gotta remember when I started our first company I had a six-figure job, a four-storey town home and three cars. By the time we sold the technology off, I had a car.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. You decided, I want to take a lot of risks.
McKeever Conwell: I took too much risk.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re like, man, let me get back in that government contractor gig.
McKeever Conwell: I thought about it a few times. I was like, I might have to go back. But when I was in the Valley, I ended up going back to be the entrepreneur in residence for the next class at NewME accelerator. So I end up spending close to nine months in San Francisco and we weren’t making any real money. We have very little dollars in the bank and I remember… So Tristan Walker. He was an entrepreneur in residence at Andreessen Horowitz at the time. I met him at an event and we set up a meeting. So I catch the train, I catch the light rail to the train down to Palo Alto and now I got to get from where the train station is to Andreessen’s office. I don’t have any more money on me. So I get in the cab and right before when we get about a quarter mile away from the office, I told the cab to pullover, I was feeling sick. He pulled over, I took off running. And I showed up 30 minutes early to the meeting, sweating through my shirt.
Jamarlin Martin: Top security clearance, and you’re cheating that cab driver out of his or her money.
McKeever Conwell: I had a meeting with somebody at Andreessen Horowitz. I had to make it happen. I had to meet with Tristan. I left the meeting. I still have no money, but I had my ticket for the train. I had to walk back to the train, it was about a four-mile walk back to the train station. I would have walked to their office, but I didn’t want to be late, so I had to do what I needed to do. Then that night I didn’t eat dinner cause I didn’t have no money. Those are the kinds of things you have to do. But when you’re out there hustling, you’re trying to get it. You do what you gotta do. That’s why it’s funny for me when I talk to entrepreneurs now, now I’m on the investment side and they start giving me all these excuses about things they can’t do. I’m just looking at him like, oh yeah, so.
Jamarlin Martin: So how did that meeting go and was it worth it? Looking back, was it worth it to rob that cab driver out of his hard earned money? He was going to buy his wife and kids some dinner that night. But you had to make your meeting.
McKeever Conwell: It wasn’t worth it to rob that cab driver because he works hard for his money. I feel bad for that to this day, but yeah, it was worth it for me to get there for that meeting because if nothing else, that establishes consistency. When people see me, they know I’m gonna show up, and I’m going to show up early, so I had to do that.
Jamarlin Martin: You went for it? So you’re an investor now and you’re funding startups in Maryland. Talk a little bit about that.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. So I had a second startup. That one didn’t work. I kinda had to figure out what I was going to do with my time and I started working for this marketing firm in Baltimore and I hated the job. It was soul-crushing, but it made good money and it was easy. I looked up one day and the week Philando Castile got shot in his car. My marketing firm got a contract with the National Rifle Association. That Friday when they signed the contract, after they announced the signing, I gave them my letter of resignation. I couldn’t work there anymore.
Jamarlin Martin: Why?
McKeever Conwell: I couldn’t work for an organization that supported the National Rifle Association.
Jamarlin Martin: To that point, when you’re working with the NSA, possibly the CIA, when folks are working for these organizations, or the contractors working for the organization, did you personally see anything where you’re like, hey, I don’t know if I could get with this, whatever technology or whatever is been weaponized in a way that doesn’t fit with my values system?
McKeever Conwell: Never.
Jamarlin Martin: You never saw anything like that?
McKeever Conwell: Never. I had a lot of friends who worked there and I saw work that happened in a bunch of different offices. I personally never saw anything like that.
Jamarlin Martin: It never came across your desk. But if something did, do you feel like back then you would have been strong enough to say, I can’t do this, and let me give you the context. So as you know right now, there’s been protests in Silicon Valley at Google, at Microsoft, at Salesforce, where employees are feeling bolder now and where they’re challenging their companies and saying, ‘hey, we’re not with building this technology for ICE or we’re not with you working with the Chinese government to filter information’. And so there’s a lot more political activity within the employee bases of these large companies.
McKeever Conwell: I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to do it then, cause I was a really young man. I had recently lost my father. I was trying to find my way in life and if I was presented with that, I don’t know how I would handle it. But you fast forward to when I did what I did at my marketing firm, I was 30. I knew who I was. I knew what I was about and I knew I couldn’t do that. And it compounded that with the same week Philando Castile got shot and the NRA didn’t say anything about it. I can’t do this. And so the very next week I saw an email from the company I work at now, TEDCO, the Maryland Technology Development Corporation. They were looking to hire a fund manager. I don’t have a finance background, but I know tech, and I know tech in Baltimore.
Jamarlin Martin: And you know from an entrepreneur’s side you’ve trIed to raise capital, you’ve gone through the process.
McKeever Conwell: I’ve gone through the whole process and I know a lot of people in the community and so I reached out to somebody I knew who worked there and said, hey, ‘you think this would be worth it for me?’ And he’s like, give it a shot. And so I applied. I went through four months of interviews and they came back to me. He sat me down. He’s like, ‘Look, you don’t have the the experience for the position that you apply for, but we’re creating this new position and we want you to take it’.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Nice.
McKeever Conwell: And so they basically created a position for me to have me come in and help work with their investment team, and so when I got there I started working with their seed investment team and that was great. I got to see all the early stage companies coming in because the thing about TEDCO is we have about nine different funding programs. We get about $20 million from the state of Maryland every year.
Jamarlin Martin: And are you investing out of like a pension fund?
McKeever Conwell: TEDCO is called an instrumentality of the state. So we are part of the state. So within the legislative budget we just get $20 million every year out of the legislative budget.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay, got it.
McKeever Conwell: There’s no fundraising, it’s budgeted money. And for the seed fund, back when I was on the team, we did anywhere from 30 to 40 deals just out of that one funding program every year.
Jamarlin Martin: And what’s the size of the deal?
McKeever Conwell: $100,000 checks.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay, nice. And they got to be based in Maryland.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. So these are taxpayer dollars, so your principal place of business has to be in the state of Maryland, right? And we saw a lot of companies, I interacted with a lot of companies, and that was fun, but then TEDCO had this issue that they had a third party come in and do some internal research and they found out they weren’t investing enough in African-American-led startups, but they saw when African-American-led startups were applying for funding, they got funded at the same rate as everybody else, just not enough were applying.
Jamarlin Martin: So it was an outreach issue?
McKeever Conwell: So the question was, was it an outreach issue? So what TEDCO did was what we always tell the entrepreneur to do, go talk to your customers. So he set up listening sessions across the state, one at Morgan State University, one at Bowie State University where they brought the community out, and to TEDCO’s credit, they just listened. They let the people say how they felt and TEDCO got called a lot and things. But they listened to them, three things came out and they said, ‘You don’t look like us, you don’t market to us, and we don’t have access to early-stage capital even to compete for your seed fund. And so TEDCO was very intentional about addressing all of those things. And then when it came to the funding, I got the privilege to head up a program that was called The Minority Business Pre-Seed Fund, which was a partnership between TEDCO and Harbor Bank’s Community Development Corporation. Harbor Bank’s a black-owned bank out of Baltimore. They give 10 African-American-led startups $40,000 at the earliest stage of funding to help them compete for seed funding. And we made 10 investments out of that and that was amazing.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay, nice. These are all black?
McKeever Conwell: All black-led startups.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. nice.
McKeever Conwell: All black-led startups based here in Maryland. And then this year we’ve revamped the program, it’s now called Builder Fund, and we’ve broadened it out. It’s not just for African-American-led startups, it’s now also for minority and women-led startups, which I think is something we needed to do anyway because we were missing a lot of entrepreneurs along the way. We’re now going to give them $50,000 in funding, we’re going to give them some more attention and programming for 12 weeks, but then we’re also giving them access to a C-Suite of executives. So what we saw was all these early-stage companies lacked teams, very few of them had teams, right? And almost none of them had any experience. So we said, okay, we’ll hire a group of executives on a part-time basis and give you access to them. So we don’t want you to have mentors or advisors, we want people to help you actually execute. So we have six folks. We have CEOs, COOs, CMOs, CFOs, and CIOs that each company has a bucket of hours they can draw from these people as over a sIx month period to get work done. So if you need to work on new marketing campaign, tell the CMO you need eight hours this week to go work on something. If you’re going to have a sales call, hit one of the CEOs up and say, ‘hey, I want you on a sales call with me, I want you to come to this meeting with me’, actually help you do the work. I think that’s going to be really impactful for the companies that we have. We have five companies we just recently selected. They’re in their fourth week of the program now and I’m proud of them.
Jamarlin Martin: For our audience, is there an opportunity for entrepreneurs to move to Maryland and tap money. What are the requirements if someone was willing to come here and set up shop in Maryland?
McKeever Conwell: Oh yeah. So anybody can come to Maryland. The thing is before we can close on the funding, you have to have a physIcal location here, more than 50 percent of your full time employees have to live or work in the state of Maryland. And your executive decisions should be made in the state of Maryland. Those are the three things.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you need seasoning on these things? So for example, like how long do I need to live in Maryland to tap the funding?
McKeever Conwell: As long as you live in Maryland at the time that we signed the deal, you good.
Jamarlin Martin: Oh, okay. Got It.
McKeever Conwell: When we write the check for you, the address on the check better be a Maryland state address.
Jamarlin Martin: And for our audience, how do they get more information about this program?
McKeever Conwell: To get more information. You can go to https://www.tedcomd.com/, and look for Builder Fund, and you’ll see all the information and you’ll see that myself and Angela Singleton, our information is there. We both run the program together. Reach out to us and contact us. If you want to contact me its firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me and I’ll tell you all you need to know about the program.
Jamarlin Martin: So let’s change gears here. Let’s talk about Elon Musk. And recently he settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission. And this is involving him tweeting that he had a prIvate deal to take Tesla private at $420 a share.
McKeever Conwell: 420 is a magical number.
Jamarlin Martin: When he did it, I instantly knew that it seemed like he was getting psychologically tangled up into beef with short sellers betting against his stock. It was suspicious. That’s how I read it right away. But it turns out he committed fraud. You cannot go out there, including private market investors, and lie. Essentially when people are relying on your communications to invest in both ways, long and short, in this case. So Elon Musk is out there lying about his stock, lying about his business and he gets off the hook. They say, pay a little fine, $20 million. That’s nothing for him. It’s like buying a pack of Skittles for a lot of us. But he gets off the hook. He can stay CEO, pay the little fine. And what we’re seeing, of course, with the financial crisis in 2008 when Lehman Brothers and a lot of the banks and the mortgages, we’ve seen this over and over again, and you can see the promiscuous criminality in the Trump organization where they’ve been riding dirty and committing fraud for decades, that a lot of these white collar crooks are committing crime, but they’re not doing any time. What are your thoughts on that?
McKeever Conwell: It really comes down to the way we think about crime, right? When you think about crime, we think about who’s impacted. And so for a lot of white collar crime, it’s hard to quantify who’s impacted when you don’t see as opposed to somebody get mobbed on the street. You saw somebody get their stuff taken, get beat up and somebody ran off. The emotional connection’s different there. The other thing is people with white collar crime, these are people with money. People with money are people who have connections.
Jamarlin Martin: Connections inside the SEC.
McKeever Conwell: Connections all over.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. But a lot of these SEC officials, they’re coming from the banks on Wall Street and so as you mentioned, these people are well connected. When Elon Musk recently, he’s saying that short sellers are bad and they do this, but short sellers, they have spotted a lot of accounting fraud and when the SEC is compromised because of the connections with Goldman Sachs, bankers and hedge fund managers where there’s so much a conflict of interest, the short sellers can come in and give an objective view that hey, this stuff is shady, this stuff is most likely fraud. And of course if they see that after their due diligence and research, they’ll bet against the stock.
McKeever Conwell: Right. At the end of the day people are people, right? So just like where I come from, everybody wants to have a hookup with the cable guy so they can get free cable. They’ll make that their friend. Same thing happens in these big industries, everybody is looking for that friend to give them a hookup to make sure they get off whenever they make a mistake or wherever they commit a crime or commit fraud because we, regular people that don’t see that stuff day in and day out, a lot of people don’t even understand what some of those terms mean, right? We just see dollars happening, right? The people who are deeply entrenched in those communities, they care, the shorters, they care about that stuff, but they don’t have the power to make the change for the most powerful people in these industries. Right? So everybody’s got connections. Everybody’s got hookups here or there and how you use them is the power, right? Elon Musk’s ultimate power is the power of his network.
Jamarlin Martin: I’ve seen quite a few black folks, they’re in love with Elon Musk in terms of, he’s obviously brilliant, super successful. They’re in love with his accomplishment. And so because they’re in love with the accomplishment, they will defend white criminality, white billionaire getting off the hook. Is there any inconsistency with, you see a black folks defending Elon Musk and then at the same time these are the same people like, ‘man, we need criminal justice reform’. But, and not just Elon Musk, but also with Trump and other folks, I’ve seen that there’s an inclination to defend the big criminal.
McKeever Conwell: The language you just shared is coded language, right? So we’re talking about white collar crime, it’s white collar, it’s not that big of a deal.
Jamarlin Martin: Even to us, meaning that we’ve been conditioned where when you commit the crime, you guys go to prison and you’re doing hard time, you’re trying to put something on the books, you see the pain in your community. But when you see the billionaires commit crime a thousand, a million times the level of crime that poor folks are doing, you’re conditioned to be soft on that crime.
McKeever Conwell: You are very conditioned to be soft on that crime. And then when you talk about justice reform, let’s be clear about justice reform, it means how we control black communities, where we see there’s all this crime happening. Because when you think about communities that are filled with crime, you don’t see poor communities, you think black communities, right? This is coded language. This is language that was used purposefully to target black folks.
Jamarlin Martin: Are you paying any attention to Kanye West who recently had a speech to students where he said, ‘Leave Elon Musk alone’. And so of course, everybody’s on the bandwagon now of Kim Kardashian-flavored criminal justice reform. So Kim Kardashian and Kanye are now supposedly champions of criminal justice reform, in front of the masses of black people who have been working on this issue. But now he says, ‘hey, leave him alone, leave Elon Musk off the hook’. Although he’s admitting to fraud involving billions of dollars.
McKeever Conwell: I worry for our generations and future generations because, why does Kanye’s opinion about any of stuff even matter. First of all, I want somebody to give Kanye a hug, he’s going through some stuff. I hope Kanye is going to be okay, but the thing is about our generation, if you look over the timeline of history, and you start to talk about the leaders in the black community, up until the time where athletes and entertainers started making real money, the leaders of the black community were the intellectuals, the people who really studied and looked into these things, came with real arguments. It had push back on policy and things like that. And then there’s the shift, right? Athletes start making real money. Entertainers start making a lot of money. Black athletes and black entertainers start making a lot of money, so now they became the most noted black people in the community. And so now those are the people we go to for advice and for help. Why? Because those are the people we hold in high regard. There was this transition that happened from these black intellectuals who are really trying to put forth what could help the communities or what they thought could help the communities and have thoughtful debate to these athletes who maybe aren’t as well learned in certain topics. Now being the people we look to for advice and this trend is only continuing with the advent of social media because they have such a large platform. What LeBron James says about the black community will spread and will have more impact than what Cornel West would say today. Now that’s not me advocating for Cornel West, but just think about that, right? You have this black man who spent his entire life learning about black culture and black communities and how they’re affected versus an amazing basketball player, and if both of them put out a tweet today, the tweet from LeBron would be seen by more people and be talked about by more people studying in a Harvard class before Cornel West.
Jamarlin Martin: So the solution is for me not to mention it, that’s what it sounds like. I’m part of the problem. Keep it real.
McKeever Conwell: I wouldn’t say you’re part of the problem.
Jamarlin Martin: But you would prefer not to hear or not even acknowledged what some negroes are saying, whether they’re sick or not.
McKeever Conwell: Yeah, I don’t want to hear what Kanye West has to say, right? I want to hear what the folks who are affecting policy and who are working…
Jamarlin Martin: The folks really in the game. You also don’t want to hear what Kim Kardashian has to say about criminal justice reform.
McKeever Conwell: That’s the crazy thing. Kim Kardashian got somebody out of jail.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. So let’s say you’ve been in jail. You’ve been wrongly convicted for 20 years. Okay. So Kim Kardashian, who’s known the Trump family where she’s been connected to trump before he was elected. So her wealthy family, they are able to get to Trump. The people working on our behalf in terms of criminal justice reform, can’t get to these levels, but this white woman can. Okay. So she’s able to get to Trump. I believe this is all part of a PR scheme related to the Mueller investigation. But she gets to Trump and she gets this sister out of prison. Now, if you were in prison for let’s say, 20 years, this is the option. Trump has this PR scheme where he can use Kim Kardashian as part of a pardon strategy where I’m going to soften the people up for mass pardon, so help get all my criminals off the hook. I’m going to see how I’m going to use some black folks where they can get on board and I’m gonna start pardoning people because I believe there’s going to be a mass pardoning where he’s going to try to trick people into getting on board. ‘Hey, let’s fix the system, and the pardons that I give out here, look at all these other innocent people getting out here too. Let’s just put it all in the same box. Let’s mix it up’. So I believe Kim Kardashian and Kanye are part of this wicked strategy to trick people. Okay. But if you’re in jail for 25 years and the option is, you go with Kim Kardashian and Trump’s MAGA pardoning strategy to deceive the people with terminology where you start handing out pardons because it’s part of a bigger scheme to get white criminals off the hook. You want to mix it up. If you accept the pardon from Trump and Kim Kardashian, the white woman gets to be the champion of criminal justice reform. She gets to step in front of the bus and be the hero. Do you stay in jail and not accept it, and possibly die in jail? Or do you take the Kim Kardashian-flavored criminal justice reform, and you become part of the conspiracy between Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump?
McKeever Conwell: That’s the question is for somebody that has been in jail. Self preservation baby. I’m just trying to be honest with you.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re taking that pardon. I can see some people on principle saying, if my pardon is going to come, it can’t be a part of this conspiracy. It can’t be part of a MAGA-Kardashian evil and wicked conspiracy. I’ve already been in there 25 years.
McKeever Conwell: There probably are people who would and that takes a strong person to do that. Right. And you have to respect that, but if somebody’s like, hey, even if I don’t agree with and if this got me out I’m gonna role with it.
Jamarlin Martin: You gotta opt in.
McKeever Conwell: But that’s just me.
Jamarlin Martin: Alright. I want to thank McKeever for coming on the show. You’re starting your own podcast. Can you talk about that?
McKeever Conwell: Yeah. So I’m the newest member of the Get Found Get Funded network. You can find us at https://www.getfoundgetfunded.com/. And I’m going to be starting a podcast where I’ll be talking to athletes and celebrities about entrepreneurship and their investments.
Jamarlin Martin: Thanks everybody for listening to GHOGH. You can check me out @JamarlinMartin on Twitter and also come check us out at https://moguldom.com/. That’s M O G U L D O M.com. Be sure to subscribe to our daily newsletter. You can get the latest information on crypto, tech, economic empowerment and politics. Let’s GHOGH!