Stretch beyond your comfort zone to grow as a leader
By Braylon Gurnell ’23 MBA
Growing up in Houston, I didn’t know any investment bankers or consultants. Industries like private equity were unknown to me, and entrepreneurship was a complete enigma.
As I transitioned from the Air Force, I knew that I wanted to attend a school that offered me the chance to gain exposure to different industries and build knowledge through hands-on experiences. Throughout my time in business school, Kellogg has provided the curriculum and resources for me to learn and explore new opportunities.
Last winter, I took a course called Venture Equity taught by Professor Joe Dwyer and Professor William Towns. During one of the course lectures, Professor Towns stated that three people in the class will be future fund managers. Internally, I wondered if I was in over my head. I wasn’t aware Venture capital existed until a few years ago when a friend in the Air Force mentioned it to me in passing. I found it difficult to imagine myself in a position to lead a fund.
In the same way, my gut reaction was to question my ability to rise to the level of a fund manager, people often make quick judgments about others, their interests, their dislikes, and what they’re capable of accomplishing. Cognitive biases and heuristics have some practical benefits, but unchecked, they can lead to flawed decision-making.
We see cognitive biases in all aspects of life, and Venture capital is not immune. So far in 2022, a study found that less than two percent of venture funding has been allocated for women and underrepresented founders. It's clear that this is an issue that must be addressed, and the Venture Equity course at Kellogg is at the leading edge of preparing a generation of leaders who make investments with equity at the forefront of their decision-making process.
An inside look at the Venture Equity Program
The course married the in-depth, practical investing knowledge shared by our professors with research-backed diversity, equity and inclusion concepts. In class, we discussed how to minimize biases and heuristics in our own decision-making processes. Outside of the classroom, the coursework prompted groups of students to consult with underrepresented founders in the Chicago area and work to find ways to help them prepare for their own fundraising cycles.
The course was rounded out by the inclusion of a dynamic group of guest founders and fund managers like James Norman and Samara Hernandez ’14 MBA, who brought their own unique perspectives and encouraged each of us to consider how we could challenge the status quo.
After completing Venture Equity, I could not simply leave what I had learned in the classroom. Fortunately, Kellogg provided ample opportunity to put the knowledge I had gained in the class to the test.
I carried the lessons I learned in the course forward to other experiences at Kellogg. In Venture Lab, I interned for Samara’s fund Chingona Ventures. While screening potential startups, my experience primed me to check my own internal biases and dig beyond surface-level assumptions when performing analyses. This helped me provide more insightful and helpful feedback.
Since taking the course, I‘ve also had the opportunity to partner with Professors Dwyer and Towns on two Kellogg conferences to continue the conversation on equity in investing.
Last spring, I was able to lead the formation of a panel discussing the importance of DE&I in investing moderated by Professor Dwyer during our school’s Private Equity and Venture Capital Conference featuring investors from across the country.
In October, I worked as co-chair of the Black Management Association Conference (BMAC). As one of the conference leaders, I had the opportunity to expand on the topic of equity in investing even further. The conference was fortunate to have Professor Towns lead a fireside chat with Kimberly Marshall ’12 MBA, a prolific investor in black founders, on her investment philosophy and how she has navigated her career so far.
Taking on these leadership roles were some of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I have had during my time at Kellogg. Each of them required me to stretch beyond my comfort zone and grow as a leader. Kellogg strives to develop leaders who are impactful and purpose-driven. To truly move the needle, I’ve learned that I must grow accustomed to pushing beyond my comfort zone and continue to take on new challenges.
One of the more unique opportunities I had during Venture Equity was to conduct a one-on-one interview with Austin Clements, a Managing Partner at the VC fund Slauson & Co. We covered a range of topics such as investment theses and screening processes, but one point he made stuck with me. I asked Austin to tell me the most important change that he would like to see to make the venture ecosystem more equitable. His answer: keep funneling capital to diverse fund managers.
Right now, I’m not sure if I’ll follow in the footsteps of fund managers like Austin and Samarra, but after my experiences here at Kellogg, it’s easier to envision myself filling a role like this if that’s what I decide to do. Regardless of the direction, my career takes me I know that continuing to push myself beyond my comfort zone and growing as a leader will lead to great things. Who knows? Maybe one day I will take on the challenge and prove Professor Towns’ prediction correct.