#191 Taj Ahmad Eldridge, General Partner at Include Ventures

Taj Ahmad Eldridge is a 25+ year investment professional whose career has included high level executive roles in banking, asset management, alternative investments, and entrepreneurship. As General Partner of Include Venture Partners and former Senior Director of Investments at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), Eldridge has built a longstanding career with expertise in the fields of fintech, media, energy, transportation, and the circular economy. Eldridge is also one of the 70 Black Investors in Bevy.com – a $325 million virtual conference platform as noted in AfroTech.

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Bigger Than Us #191

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:48

Taj, how are you doing today?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 01:32

Raj? How are you? And I must say it is phenomenal to be able to say Raj, for people calling me Raj for so many years. My name is Taj. But it’s great to be here. Thank you.

Host Raj Daniels 01:45

Thank you for joining. Taj. I’d like to start with this question. Who was Reginald F. Lewis? And what impact did he have on your life?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 01:53

Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for that question. Reginald Lewis is my fraternity brother. He is somebody who has inspired me. When I grew up in Texas, I never knew about venture capital, private equity. The things I knew about were music and sports. And that was a pathway for me out of sight of the community that I was in. And I read a book that he wrote called, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? And the title alone attracted me. And I said, “Why? What kind of book is this?” And my assumptions were that it was something totally different than what it was. And I read this amazing story about this man who really had an amazing life, and went to Harvard, and he was a great lawyer and did some amazing deals. And he died of a brain tumor when I was in high school. And he influenced me so much that I ended up going changing in my area. 

I was a poetry and literature major in undergrad thinking I had a pathway to music and everything else. And I immediately went into banking, first with Wells Fargo and UBS. And then later, of course, in private equity and venture capital. But he was a major influence for me, one of the first black billionaires in the United States. And he’s also the reason I became a member of fraternity we both are in.

Host Raj Daniels 03:13

So, “Why should only white guys have all the fun?”

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 03:16

I think the key to that book, and I’m glad he wrote it to that is not just even white guys, but also guys, period. I think, since that time, what I’m loving to see is that there’s more diversity in our space of venture capital and private equity, both racial and gender diversity. 

I’ll also talk about it being two things, geographic and intellectual diversity, meaning that even though I got a a PhD in economics and MBA in economics as well, the background of having a literature degree made a little bit different than my peers because I understood the aspect of storytelling. And I think that title for me tells everybody that there’s an opportunity for those who are not the cut of the meal, the way that we thought and people find it should be. And I think that’s great. I think there’s a beauty in diversity, not just racial and gender diversity, but people’s experiences as well.

Host Raj Daniels 04:13

You mentioned racial and gender diversity, which I think are obvious, but the geographic diversity might not be as apparent. Can you share what that is?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 04:23

Absolutely. And thank you for that. The idea of geographic diversity is a major focus part of my fund and the way we do. There’s a quote that I’ve heard over and over again. It says, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” For me, what that means is there’s a lot of talent out there that just needs that opportunity and to push in a bit of capital. For me, I experienced it firsthand when I was in California — I’m in California now — but I ended up being the accelerated director for the University of California and I selected a school called Riverside, UC Riverside, which is about 40 miles east of LA. Heavily black, heavily Latino, heavily immigrant. And most people, when I say Riverside, they remember Coachella, the music festival. 

But I’m so proud that our experiences there, we ended up making Riverside the number four place in the nation, for black and brown entrepreneurs when I led it. And so for me, what they taught me was that there’s an opportunity to make play space innovation, that you don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to create a great company and build a great company as well. And I think also to the pandemic, the good or bad, the pandemic has exacerbated that you’ve had a lot of people to move away from the major cities and move back to their to their homes and move back to different areas. And they realize that they can still operate from a virtual space, and I think it’s creating jobs and opportunities. 

And so for me, when I think about diversity, when I think about geographic diversity, I want to see innovation, and fund managers and founders get to fund in areas outside of the norm. We want to see growth in Memphis, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, and so forth and so on. And I think that’s going to better this country for the good.

Host Raj Daniels 06:10

I remember being involved in the Dallas startup ecosystem back in 2014, 15. And back then Texas, and the states that you mentioned, were referred to as flyover states. Yeah. So you mentioned venture capital. Can you give the audience a brief overview of Include Venture Partners and impact venture funds and your role at the organization?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 06:33

Yeah, absolutely. I’ll first start and say that I always joke and tell people we’re not impact investors, we are investors who make impactful investments. I sincerely believe every investment that a person makes has an impact. It impacts the persons economics, impacts, communities, impacts theway we use language, we say “FedEx” now, you say “Googling” now. So I, number one, I post it and say that every investor is an impact investor. 

But from from the the language that we’ve been using and seeing is that for us as investors, we want to see a return that’s more than just a financial return, we want to see, from our standpoint, a return on the way that environment is. We want to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we want to see clean water returns on that by the investments we’re making. We want to see social returns. We want to see communities that have been excluded from a lot of these innovations get included in those innovations as well. 

So when you think about impactful or impactful investments or impact investors, that’s kind of the go-to. For us specifically, we focus on this area called ESG — Environmental Social Governance — that’s just a way for us to really kind of measure our investments, both in the fund of funds that we make investments on the fund managers, as well as the startup companies we make investments in as well. It’s a way for us to measure how we’re doing in addition to the measurement of the return that we’re doing. 

Because at the end of the day, what I want the audience to understand is that in the past, people equated impactful investments with reduction of returns or philanthropy. We’re here to say that you can you can make money and still do good and be good. And that’s the way that we look at the world for us.

Host Raj Daniels 08:22

Now, you mentioned ESG, social returns, some of that might sound a little squishy. How do you measure the impact on social returns?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 08:32

Absolutely. One main goal for that is employment opportunities. In the past, venture capital has been looked at as a job killer. It’s been looked at as a way to reduce the amount of work that people do. And we look at that differently. We think that venture capital investments, that technology enhances jobs. 

And if I may, I’ll give you a perfect example. You know, there’s a company that we invested in my previous role at a cleantech incubator called LACI. And the company’s called ChargerHelp, led by an African-American woman, Kameale Terry, and that company is in the area of what I call the intersection of workforce and cleantech. What that company does is they train individuals to come into work to repair electric vehicle charging stations. 

And the reason why that’s important is because as we’re making this transition from ICS, or combustible engines, gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, we need to make the make sure the infrastructure is working. Imagine going to a gas station with your vehicle, and the gas pump doesn’t work. You’re going to be very frustrated, and you may run out of gas. And so we want to make sure that’s not happening with the electric vehicle piece of that. So I gave all that to say that is a perfect example where this is a tech company that gave venture capital funding, is at the intersection of environmental company in a workforce, and they’re actually creating jobs. And so for us, the social aspect of that is, who gets access to these jobs? We began and we talked about Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun. And that’s the whole thing. 

We want to make sure that people of color, women, even people with disabilities — I’m disabled; that is a huge part that I feel gets missed out as we’re talking about tech — we want to make sure those individuals have access to jobs. One last community that we think also needs access is Second Chance citizens, those people who are returning home from doing time in our penal system. If we want to reduce recidivism and make sure they don’t return, we want to make sure there are jobs available. And I think that’s one of the measurements that we look at when we talk about the social piece of that for ESG for us.

Host Raj Daniels 10:52

I interviewed a lady a couple of years ago, Tracy Wallace, here in Dallas. She calls herself a social justice warrior. And she taught me a term that I’ve adopted, and it’s “returning citizens.” And she said, “When people have done their time and are coming back, that’s what we should call them.” And I really, really appreciate that lesson from her. A question regarding how do you get the message out to a more diverse community, that there’s opportunity for them in the sector, even without what people might consider traditional education?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 11:22

I love this question. I think that what we — as I mentioned, my degree in economics — and there was a book that came out called Freakonomics. Phenomenal. And I loved it because it did what I call the “eight to eighty rule,” it made it to where people at the age of eight or the age of 80, can understand what we do as economists. I think the same thing has to happen for us in environmentalism and in venture. We have to make sure we’re communicating this in a way — this is why I began; my MBA degree and the graduate degrees were less important for me than the Literature degree — because I think that it’s all about making sure you’re communicating and making people feel a part of the solution. 

I wasn’t always an environmentalist. I’ll be very frank, when I was younger, when I would think about environmentalism, I would call them by this phrase of “crunchy granola,” which is a derogatory term in my view, but “crunchy granola,” “treehugger.” Like, those were terms that I quoted with people who were environmentalists because I felt like they were always talking about the skies falling. It wasn’t until I got sick myself. And I started seeing the impacts, the immediate impacts of climate, of the environment, that I felt like we need to talk about it differently. 

So I do talk about the the effects of climate, but I’ll also want to talk about the benefits of it. And that’s why I think job creation and wealth building are two main parts of it. Just from a main staple, as we talk about the transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, there is a huge opportunity to create the next focus of generation, of people, who are working on vehicles or servicing vehicles who are building things for vehicles. I always tell the story of former NBA player by the name of Vinny “The Microwave” Johnson, who played for the Detroit Pistons. He played against Michael Jordan and actually beat Michael Jordan. And he made a total of probably $5 million during his career in the NBA. When he left, he did not go into radio and television like most, but he went into the automotive industry. And he led and is currently leading a multi-billion dollar company. 

So I say all that to say that I think that we have to see these examples of other pathways in order to get people of color and people in the community excited about it as well. And that’s why podcasts like these are so important. So people will hear these stories, and see the people who may look like them, who may have similar backgrounds as them, who may not have went to school like them, and can see that they can do a pathway. And so I think it’s important for things like this to exist, to allow those conversations to be had.

Host Raj Daniels 14:11

I appreciate that. Earlier you mentioned fund of funds. Can you give an example of what that is?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 14:16

Absolutely. Thank you for that. So we at Include Ventures, we are two separate funds. We are a direct investment vehicle. Think of that as a traditional investment fund or traditional VC fund, where we make investments in startup companies, primarily startup companies that are Series A, which means that they’ve raised a lot of capital before. They raised either as pre seed round or a seed round. And now they’re ready to scale and that’s what we look at. 

And then a fund of funds is actually a fund that invests in other venture funds. And so we typically look at funds between 25 million and 100 to 150 million that are led by women and people of color, because we want to see more of those people into this space. And then also it goes back to this idea of, again, experiential diversity. We want to see funds that are outside of San Francisco, outside of LA, outside of New York, that are in different areas that might be able to contribute to their community. 

Again, thinking back on the things that we did in Riverside, or my partner, Bahiyah Robinson, who’s one of the partners, that she did in Africa — she led this company called Appfrica, to develop a lot of things there. A fund a fund is a really great tool that other venture capitalists use to raise capital. 

Host Raj Daniels

So you also invest in funds internationally? 

Taj Ahmad Eldridge

Yes, we do. And as a matter of fact, I think by the time of this taping that people will here, we would have already announced ten funds that were supporting that are all focused on climate, seven in the United States and three in Europe. One is in London, one is in Sweden, and then one is in Germany. And the reason we did that is because we we can’t solve the climate crisis in a silo. We can’t just say, “Southern California is doing great. They have all the innovation. But Austin, Dallas, London, Brixton, Dusseldorf everywhere else can can figure it out.” 

We have to make sure that we’re collaborative in the approach. And we realized that there are people of color all over, and when I say people color, let’s be specific: people of African descent. On that end, you’ll see it in different different countries. When I when I studied abroad in China and Hong Kong, there were African students in the country. We’ve just heard today about the African students, and Ukraine who are there and trying to get out as well. That’s one of the reasons that we’re really excited about this fund that we’re doing. Because it’s really impacting immigrant communities that are in these countries that are of African descent, but also other refugee descent. The fund is in Sweden. One of the co-founders is a refugee from Iran who’s doing some great work for the communities of color in Sweden,

Host Raj Daniels 17:07

How do those funds overseas hear about Include Ventures?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 17:12

Great question. So you know, I always say that venture capital is part marketing and part financial analysis and so you know, one of the other things, too, is that we’ve done a good job of really kind of getting deal flow. And we had a lot of different contexts and connections overseas that allowed us to work. One of the other things that I fail to mention is that the reason that I’m so adamant about environmental racism, and environmental climate racism, is because I got diagnosed with a disease about four years ago called FSGS. That was caused by environmental factors. 

And so Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, I do dialysis, which anybody knows, and your audience, it’s very tough on the body, you’re sitting down. But I go at three o’clock in the morning, and I’m done at about eight o’clock to allow me to spend the rest of my day to do work and do things like this. I just went this morning. But I say all that to say that because I’m up at three o’clock in the morning, I’m able to call overseas. And so I use the time wisely. I feel like again, even though it’s a horrible disease, and it sucks, I turned a negative into a positive, and I used that time to contact those funds in Europe. And they’re very appreciative that they had opportunity to talk to a California-based fund during their work hours as opposed to at midnight like they usually do. 

Those are some of the ways that I found those three funds: Mellon Capital in Germany, Unconventional Ventures in Sweden, and then SDS in London.

Host Raj Daniels 18:44

Sounds like a lot of marketing work on your behalf.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 18:47

Absolutely. I love to do it. I love talking to the excitement of founders and fund managers. And for me, I think that that’s what makes this job great, is that we get to really see people who really want to provide a change to their communities. And when I say communities, I’m talking about the world community. So I think that’s great.

Host Raj Daniels 19:07

Now, when I was doing some research on you, I came across what you call your “four C’s framework.” Can you share what that is?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 19:15

Oh, man, you’re great at research. I love it. Yes. I was a founder myself. And I feel like there are some funds that just provide capital, and they get out of the way, and that’s great. Some founders may need it. But I’m always about, how do you add value? 

I talk about, as an investor, both personally and through our fund, we look at the four C’s. And the four C’s, for me, means access to capital, access to connections, access to customers, and access to culture. When I talk about culture, I’m talking more than about race and gender. What I’m talking about is a culture of good corporate hygiene, a culture of transparency, and a culture of really doing the right thing for your team members. For us, we try to add value at every step of the way, even post the investment. 

And I think that’s kind of the thing I wish I had as a founder. At the end of the day, one of the things I’ve learned is that raising capital is that once you get the check in, that’s the first part of the story. You have so much work after that because you have to make sure you use the money wisely. The reason I decided to do the four C’s, and really kind of focus on that was that when I was in an accelerator, we had these things called platform services, which, for us, meant that as a founder, you didn’t have to go and find a legal firm. You didn’t have to go and find an accounting firm, you didn’t go and have to find all these partners. They accelerated ahead for you. And it reduced a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, and a lot of wasted money. 

So a lot of that same thing we’re taking for us as a fund manager and investor. And we’re providing some of those same tools to funds and founders. And I think, again, when you talk about the access to connections, that’s what connections mean. And then lastly, customers. I’ll be honest, when I hear companies raise money, and they announce it, I cringe because I’m like, “That’s not newsworthy for me.” What’s newsworthy is you having a great customer, you’re announcing a customer acquisition or something of that nature. But they’re just raising money? 

Money is a tool. It’s not something you celebrate, it’s an obligation. Once you take that check from me, you’re obligated to me to really do a great job and run your company. I get excited when I see founders — for example, the founders from Dallas, and companies based in Boston, and their exposure in California called Spark Charge. And he just announced by the time this will be out, he would have announced this deal with Kia and Hertz. And again, for me, that’s newsworthy. Those two things we should hear. And that’s why access to customer is so important.

Host Raj Daniels 21:54

I’ve had Joshua on the show.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 21:55

Awesome. Yeah. Josh is good. And Josh is also my fraternity brother.

Host Raj Daniels 22:01

Look at that. Yeah. Capital is measurable, customers are measurable, connections are measurable, culture. Again, back to squishy. How do you measure?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 22:11

You need to have squishiness sometimes. I think you do.

Host Raj Daniels 22:14

I think I’m a big fan of squishy.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 22:16

I think you do. But I think there are ways to measure that piece of it. Man, these are some great questions. This is a great pocket, I must say. But I think that you need to have some squishiness. And the reason I say that is, for any of your listeners who may have gone through business school and MBA degree, I always say there’s one class, I felt a lot of people just overlooked. And it’s called HBO, human behavior organizations. And there are ways to measure — you look at Myers Briggs and other ways to measure content, to measure people’s skills, to measure the team. But again, I think there’s some of these things that you have to do that that will benefit you later on down the line. And what you would measure is the efficacy of it, and how the team reacts to some of the things you implement and some of the things you put into place.

Host Raj Daniels 23:06

You know, I heard it said that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 23:14

You took the words out of my mouth. Absolutely.

Host Raj Daniels 23:17

It’s one of my favorite. And the reason I like squishy, half-joking, but half-serious: there’s been this push recently, in the last, let’s call it three to five years around what soft skills are, the values that soft skills bring to the table? And I’m going to ask you specifically about your soft skills because I think you’ve mentioned it in a previous interview. How did you develop your listening skills?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 23:39

My wife will say 22 years worth of marriage that she’s tried on me, but I think I mentioned earlier, briefly, that I’m disabled. I’m partially blind; I was born blind in my right eye. And so that really impacted me when I was younger, to where I had to listen more attentively. There’s a relation that people don’t think about seeing people talk, and then hearing them talk, and not being able to have that vision really impacted me. 

And so for many times, I think they really made me want to be a great listener. And I think also too, I think that as investors, founders want to be heard sometimes. And we give good advice, and when there’s always good advice. But I think first, first and foremost, a lot of times where I cringe is where advice is given before they’ve even heard from the founder. And I can tell you that a lot of founders of color experienced that from investors who want to be mentors and think they’re doing a great job and just talking versus them listening to what the founders talking about what some of their needs are, what direction to go in. 

But I definitely say that listening is a really great trait. In addition as an invester, in addition to having Southern hospitality, I think that is a superpower that I possessed and I’m pretty proud that Texas has bestowed on me, amongst many things. But I think when you talk about Southern hospitality, that’s really a sense of having empathy. And having emotional intelligence. I’ve been a founder before, I know what it’s like to almost miss payroll, the stress on that. And so I think having that is one of the reasons that I also like investors who have been founders before, to work with founders because I think you have a different bit of empathy for those situations.

Host Raj Daniels 25:36

So some of the founders you work with, some of the CEOs. How do you coach them on this link?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 25:47

Number one, we have to have steady communication and constant communication to a degree. When I work with founders, as an advisor, on companies I’ve invested in, I want to make sure I’m updated, I don’t want to just write a check, or invest and walk away and never have a relationship with him. I want to be engaged with it. 

I think also, too, one of the easiest things that investors can do is actually use the product that you’re investing in or use the service. I cringe when I hear investors who have not even been a user for the product they’re investing in. And I think you should because I think you should know how people are experiencing it. And you can give that feedback as well. 

But I think it starts out with trust. Some founders may believe that investors don’t really care about them, or care about their company, or care about whatever they’re doing, they just care about the return. And for me, I’m a Holistic investor, which means I do care about returns. I mean, without that, I wouldn’t have a job, they wouldn’t have the investment. 

But I do care about the mental health of the founder, about the mental health of their team. And I’ll give you a perfect example: when I was at the accelerator for the University of California, one of the first programs that I did, before we talked about, you know, product, market fit and anything else, we talked about mental health. Founder mental health. How to deal with rejection, how to deal with notes, because you’re gonna get many of those. Andwhat started me on that was at the time, I think it was in 2015, there was a young gentleman, father of three, I believe, who worked for a startup tech company who committed suicide because of the pressure. 

And so for me, I, again, I have to think about how we need to bring a holistic view into investing. Because if something like that happens, or you may have something that happened, your company can impact your investment, all the work that you’ve done can be down the drain, if you allow some of these things to happen, go unchecked, because you don’t care about the squishiness of building.

Host Raj Daniels 27:52

I’ve been advising companies, startups, in the Dallas area for 10 to 15 years. In fact, I was having a conversation this morning with a young lady, her name is Steph, from a foreign VC. And I was telling her that many a time, and I use the word “companies,” and I told her this too, I said, “We use the word companies, but they’re people.” They’re individuals. And so company’s just a legal definition. 

Occasionally I just check in from a mental health perspective and say, “How’s it going? I’m not asking about the company. I’m not asking about progress, I’m asking how are you?” It can be in a weekly or bi weekly basis. But I know from being a founder, it can be a very, very lonely journey, and that every crevice of your brain is occupied by your startup. And so like you said, just checking in once a while on mental health. Because if mental health isn’t there, I don’t think anything else is worth it.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 28:43

Absolutely, totally. And you know, you mentioned Dallas, I think I’ve said I’m born and raised in Dallas. I’m so happy that you’re there and making the impact. And I’m and I’m glad to see people like Benjamin Vann who are there making some impact as well. A good friend of mine from Minnesota with a company called Upsie has moved to Dallas and relocated personally. So it’s just exciting to see a lot of the excitement around the city for startup companies who are moving into the city and realizing that there’s more to Dallas than just oil and cow.

Host Raj Daniels 29:16

Absolutely. Now, how do you feel like your literature and poetry background has informed your VC career?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 29:28

When you think about literature, you’re reading stories, and there is a beginning, there’s an end, there is character development. We as humans, we also sometimes are characters. Some would say Elon is a character within himself. 

But yes, there are characters in venture, there are characters and startup. And I think literature and poetry for me allows me to be able to connect with people and to realize that there are some people who might like this genre of books, or literature, and they might like a different genre. And you have to quickly figure that out. And I think this is the same thing on the on the startup tech side is that I’ve learned how to be relatable to people, to allow people to feel like as an investor, they can let their proverbial hair down and they can feel comfortable with me. 

And I think that comfortability leads to honesty, truth, and transparency. For me, that allows me to see are the great companies, really great founders. It’s valuable. There’s a gentleman by the name of Frank Luntz, who was a lobbyist for the political space. And he wrote this book called Words That Work. And it restates the power of words, and how words can really change people, the past president used one word, a four-letter word, hope to really get people excited and going down a pathway. And so I think the same way can happen for founders and for investors. 

I’ve seen founders who understood a way to speak, to get people excited about quitting their job and working with them. I’ve seen investors speak and talk in a way to where they can get founders to say, “I want you and only you to be my investor,” because I’ve seen it myself. And so I think that piece of it, for me, has been more important than my analytical background. My analytical background helps, it helps me not make a bad decision, and it reduces my risk. But I think that at the end of the day, we play a game of relationships. And this is relationship investing. 

And the first part of that is relationships. And so I think that’s the benefit of having that social science, that literature degree that so many people shy away from. So lesson to all those folks who who want to get into technology, you don’t have to just be engineers, you could be many other things as well.

Host Raj Daniels 31:55

So Frank Luntz, his book is phenomenal. The ability to change people’s minds using words. Now, poetry, who’s your favorite poet?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 32:07

Oh, great question. This is the first time ever in a tech energy podcast that I’ve been asked that. And I really appreciate that. Two poets, actually, that I love. First is Jack Kerouac, big poet from the days of San Francisco, really interesting guy. Another one is guy by the name of Etheridge Knight, who wrote a lot of poetry while he was in prison. He was one of those returning citizens that we talked about. And also he was married to a young lady by the name of Sonia Sanchez, who’s obviously one of my other favorite poets as well. So I had to give you three because because they are so many, but those are basically the three for me.

Host Raj Daniels 32:49

So it’s interesting my relationship to poetry. My youngest daughter, who’s nine years old, she has a book on poetry, all different poems, and we have a nightly routine where she reads me one poem every night, and if we skip a night, the next night is two poems.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 33:03

Love it, love it. We need more of that. Someone asked me, why did I go into economics? And I said that, for me, poetry is the possibility of language and economics is the possibility of math. And so I think there’s a lot of relationships to them both. They both kind of exhibit beauty, in both language and in numbers.

Host Raj Daniels 33:24

There’s one poem I personally read over and over again, and it’s William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 33:31

For me, the poem that I read over, that I think encapsulates my life, is a poem by the name of “Invictus” that essentially just says, “I’m the captain of a fate, the master of my soul.” And it governs a lot of the things that I think about in my life. We talked about a lot of the difficulties with me being born disabled, with this disease that I have. And in that poem is one of the things that made me realize that even with those things, my weaknesses are actually my strengths, and that they’re blessings, actually. So yeah. I think, if more people feel that way, I think we have a lot less issues around this as well.

Host Raj Daniels 34:13

Well, speaking of weaknesses being strengths, what are the lessons have you learned about yourself on your journey?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 34:19

Oh, good question. Yeah, I think that, you know, one of the things I had to learn, too, is that there’s a — and it’s funny, I’ll do two things. Number one, I mentioned how I looked at my disability. I never even used that word when I was young, even though I was born blind. My parents never used the word to me. But my daughter had a similar eye disease, and she also was born with low vision. And so I had to learn that the way I approach things doesn’t mean everybody should approach it the same way. 

We’re all different for a reason. And so that also equates to how I look at and talk to founders. I have to take myself out of it and put their shoes on, and literally walk on their shoes to kind of understand from their point of view. I think it’s something I’m constantly learning. I think the other thing that I’m learning as well is as an investor, I’m an optimist, which is probably totally different from what economists should be. But I’m an optimist. And so I try to see the good in people and good and opportunities. And I think, as an investor, a lot of times we’re so used to being pessimists. And we’re so used to finding the no’s so that way we can go on and look at the no’s. I’m trying to be better looking at those no’s as a benefit, to reduce a lot of the noise that’s out there. 

One of the things I always learned is that we’re going to ever be growing, and the only time we’ll stop learning and stop changes, and when we pass on, when we leave this earth. So I’m just thankful that I have the opportunity to continue to change and continue to be better at what I’m doing as an investor and a human being.

Host Raj Daniels 36:07

So speaking of seeing the news, tell me about “find a way or make one.”

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 36:12

Yeah, that is a quote, actually from Hannibal, believe it or not, the general. That is something that’s been ingrained in me from from my father, who, when I was growing up, and because I couldn’t see on the right side, I would be depressed, or I would be kind of upset that I couldn’t do certain things. And my dad would say, “You find a way or make one.” And so that that has become the mantra for me throughout my life, that there’s nothing that’s difficult. There’s just a way you haven’t thought about. And I think that is one of the reasons that you know, even though I began my career as a banker at UBS, I eventually became a founder and an investor because that whole mantra, “find a way to make one,” I think is the is the mantra of an inventor, which also is what I think founders are. I think founders are inventors. And it’s great to have that background.

Host Raj Daniels 37:12

You know, I think we’re cut from a similar cloth. My daughters know that if they come to me to ask me for help, I often say to them, “Figure it out. Or at least show me your first draft or your first attempt.” Yeah. Let’s move into the future. It’s 2030-ish. What does the future hold for Include Ventures?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 37:36

Great question. What we hope to do by that time, is really build a great firm that is investing not only in the United States but abroad as well, and that we really are impacting all the communities similar to how we talked about the United States. As we focus on climate, we realize that the climate issue is going to impact more than just the United States, will impact so many other places. And we’ve seen from this pandemic that we’re in is something that happens in one part of the world can easily impact everyone else. 

And so we have a responsibility to not just — there’s this philosopher by the name of Gramsci who talks about being an organic intellectual. And I think we all have to be an organic intellectual that cares about the world community around us. And so what I hope by that time, a number of years from now, eight years, eight or so years from now, that we have more exposure in Latin America, we have more exposure on the continent of Africa and Southeast Asia, and that we’ve grown to a really great team of investors who think the same way that I do, and think beyond what I do. 

I really believe that the future of venture is going to change, meaning that I think that the old model might not be the best way to exacerbate change. There was this debate on Twitter that said, “Is venture capital, the best for infrastructure investments,” because we need some infrastructure as we check in this transition, energy transition. And perhaps, maybe by that time, we would think about a new way of deploying capital, a new way of having capital. So that’s my goal that I’ve seen, and me personally, I hope my wife will be be retired by that time, my wife is a professor and a principal. And I’m trying to convince her to move to Panama. So hopefully, we will, I will be good at convincing. So check back in with me in eight years and see if I’m working and she’s relaxing in Panama City.

Host Raj Daniels 39:41

I will for sure. Now, last question. You’ve already sprinkled a lot of advice through his conversation. But if you could share some specific, let’s call it advice, words of wisdom, even recommendations with the audience, what would it be?

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 39:54

Yeah, number one. Thank you, Raj, for this. This has been phenomenal. And I must say I feel like I’m on with Terry Gross from NPR because it feels so conversational, and you’re so great. But if there’s one piece of advice I would give for founders, or for fund managers, or anyone listening to this podcast, is that there is value in authenticity. There’s value in being yourself. I tell the story, because I was ashamed of it. But I tell it because I don’t want anybody to ever experience this. 

When I was growing up, I was very ashamed on my name, my name means “crown” in Arabic. And I felt like I was other, felt that it wasn’t quote, unquote, air quotes, “American.” So by the time I got into corporate America, I went by a different name. I went by Tad because I thought that was American, I thought that was what would not scare clients away. I thought that that would not make me an other. And when I was working at UBS, I met this guy who was an Orthodox Jewish gentleman. And it was my first time really meeting somebody who’s Orthodox Jewish, who, you know, wore the hat, his uniform of his religion. And he was himself. And we had this long conversation about being yourself and the value of yourself. And at that moment, is when I let my beard grow, is when I used Taj, I made sure people pronounced it correctly. I think that’s very important. Because your name is the first gift that your parents give you. The first gift that you’re given, I should say, even if you’re not getting it from your parents. It’s the first gift you’re giving, even if you’re an orphan. And so it has meaning. 

And so for me, I think that authenticity, whether you’re a founder or a fund manager, or just a person who’s listening to this podcast is important, and it’s valuable. And so that’s the piece of advice I want to give, Raj.

Host Raj Daniels 41:47

I appreciate you, Taj, and I appreciate your time today. And I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Taj Ahmad Eldridge 41:53

Awesome. Thank you so much.

Thank you for listening. If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media, where you’ll find us under our Nexus PMG handle. If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send me an email at BTU@nexuspmg.com, or contact me via our website, nexuspmg.com. And while you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech, green tech sectors. Bigger than us is a Nexus PMG production.

Raj Daniels

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