“People, given the opportunity, want to be great”: Marquis Cabrera and Alysson Do on Leadership
by Meredith Hutcheson
On the patio at the Northeastern — Silicon Valley campus, Marquis Cabrera was listening carefully as student Shital Waters explained the environmental impact of algae blooms. Waters, who is pursuing her Master’s in Computer Science at the San Francisco campus, flipped through the deck she’d brought summarizing the work of her early-stage startup BluePlanetAI. She explained how her team’s drone-based technology will help spot blooms early, containing both the extent of the damage and the cost of intervention.
“I’ve seen algae blooms, but I never knew they were such a problem,” Cabrera said, and asked about the scope of work. How much did the technology cost? Would BluePlanetAI build their own drones, or partner with other groups? How far along in their development process were they?
As she gave more information, he smiled and nodded. “I have some funds for R&D,” he said, and encouraged her to get in touch.
“Go global, but give back”
Cabrera was there to give a talk at The Market, organized by the Office of Alumni Relations to help connect current students with alumni entrepreneurs. Along with Waters, several alumni were representing the companies they’d founded or helmed. Kalie Marder (D’Amore- McKim School of Business ’06) was handing out vegan charcuterie from her venture Renegade Foods. Saleh Alothaim (DMSB ’04) was representing his event-planning app The Hub App AG, and Zakary Smith (College of Engineering ’13) with Manufacturing-as-a-Service provider Instaversal. Students from both Bay Area campuses mixed with alumni and staff.
Cabrera (College of Social Sciences and Humanities ’11) took to the front of the room to share his own experiences as a founder, executive, and now CEO and Chairman of a venture impact fund.
He first started a non-profit that advocated for children in foster care, building a technology that sold for several million dollars in the process. Cabrera himself was adopted, and wanted to “go global, but give back.” He founded two more social good startups before becoming IBM’s youngest executive at the age of 26 and managing a $9 billion portfolio of government clients.
“In my business school essays, I wrote about how I wanted to be an impact investor. I want to invest in companies. Triple bottom line, right?” he told the room. “So I started a company called Stat Zero, a marketplace that has its own fund. We source and configure solutions.”
The company lives in the GovTech space. “Governments are at the center of every change. They’re the market makers, they’re the market leaders. And when you think about the problems that we all face, how do we tackle some of those? People without internet, people without access to finance, people without so many different things that we just need, basic literacy. To start to solve these problems, I want to help governments.”
The disconnect he saw was between the people coming up with the solutions—the innovators, the inventors—and the government agencies that could implement it at a scale that would move the needle on big problems. Cabrera’s experiences working in both spheres helped him recognize the opportunity for an on-demand marketplace.
“If an entrepreneur needs funding, come to me. If an entrepreneur needs to talk to a government official, come talk to me. If an entrepreneur doesn’t understand the workflows for getting their product into a government… come talk to me. We offer capital, community, and consultants.”
Entrepreneurship and leadership in uncertain times
Cabrera was soon joined on stage by his friend and mentor, Alysson Do. Do’s career spans several decades as a business executive and investor with top companies in the tech industry. “I can actually build a Pentium 4 computer,” Do told the room with a laugh.
“I thought, ‘I can talk, or I can bring my advisor to give you advice,” Cabrera said. “Probably two times a week we chat and she gives me advice, and there are three things I want you to take away from this.”
Tip 1: Be locally relevant
In a business climate where everyone is pushing to go global, you need to understand what that really means, counsels Do. “The biggest part is just knowing that there is nothing that is going to work globally. Western Europe and the US are all working on SaaS programs. That doesn’t work in conflict zones, because you don’t have reliable internet. Or, how if you look at the rest of the world, it’s all mobile first.”
Sometimes you won’t be able to fit your global strategy into every market. “I had an acquisition in Egypt. I was based out of Singapore. So they do all the diligence, they close, and I’m going to come in and basically give out offers and welcome the team,” Do said. “And I come there and they basically said, as a female I had to walk through the side door.”
“She was the boss,” Cabrera cut in.
“My team was like, ‘No, she is not walking in through the side door, you’re part of an American company,’” Do continued. “But that’s not the way to do it. We failed in our diligence and understanding the culture.”
Do chose to walk through the side door, accompanied by the rest of her leadership team, who were men. But at the end of the day the merger failed and the company sold the acquired business, because they hadn’t taken into account that men in the Egyptian company would balk at reporting to women higher in the hierarchy.
Tip 2: Prioritize guiding principles over core values
“Core values are just what you believe,” Do explained. “When we talk about guiding principles, it’s how are you going to act in a situation? How are you going to operationalize those values to meet your mission, your goals? They will drive your success or failure for you.”
This is especially important as companies scale. As founders become less involved in every day-to-day decision, it can be a make-or-break moment for a startup. “It’s really hard to create a process for everything that has to happen in your company,” Do said. “You’re going to over-process, people are going to feel like it’s a bureaucracy, and you’re just going to die under the weight of that.”
Instead, she says, by giving employees a framework to evaluate every new situation as it arises, you empower them to act independently. “My three guiding principles: be courageous, be accountable, and put the team first. If you [follow those], you’re going to make a great decision. The decision might be different than mine philosophically, but I will always back you with that.”
Tip 3: Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you
“The last one I want to end on is startup leadership in an uncertain world,” Cabrera said. “Instead of feeling frozen, how do you keep moving through your own insecurities, moving through your own doubt, moving through so much ambiguity of the markets going crazy?”
Do said, “Recognize where you are, what the assets you have here are, and leveraging those assets. You are in one of the richest places in the world. There is literally $220 billion of cash sitting in the Silicon Valley to build amazing companies.”
“I have lived all around the world. And I come back here, because if there are maybe five people in the world that do something, whatever it is, one of them sits in the Silicon Valley. And somebody will make that connection for you because that network is not a commodity.” Before you know it, Do advised, you’ll be connecting closer and closer to your goals.
“You’re only going to be successful if other people help you.”
As they wrapped up, Cabrera told a story about Vassal Benford, music producer for artists like Diplo and Patti Labelle. Benford is another of his advisors. At the start of the COVID pandemic, Cabrera was struggling to see how he could continue to reach his goals in this new environment.
“I’m sitting on his couch and he goes, ‘You’re only going to be successful if other people help you.’ And I had to say to myself, ‘I don’t got this during COVID. I need help.’ I had to have a level of vulnerability. Vocalizing that is really important, because then people can locate what you need and try to figure out how to rally behind you.”
“There are 280,000 alumni?” Do said. “So if any of you guys go into startups, that’s 280,000 contacts you should be reaching out to. That is incredibly powerful. Utilize that.”
“Northeastern is a great network to reach out and say, ‘How do I get some help?’” Cabrera said. “I’m a resource. I live here in the Bay. Let’s go Northeastern, let’s go Huskies.”