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An Investment in Social and Economic Change

Blending his callings to business and ministry, Paul Campbell GS’14 turned the lessons and hardships from his past into the inspiration to form Brown Venture Group, a venture capital accelerator focused on technology entrepreneurs of color.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

April 17, 2020 | 3:30 p.m.

Paul Campbell GS’14

After years of blending his loves of business and ministry, Paul Campbell GS’14 co-founded Brown Venture Group, a venture capital accelerator focused on technology entrepreneurs of color.

After a successful period working for Sprint, Paul Campbell GS’14 applied for a job at a large telecommunications company. He felt he checked every box needed to get the role. He had consistently exceeded expectations. He had buy-in from peers. He’d built a strong network of connections that would be beneficial in the job. He formed a strong 90-day plan for the new role. He had two master’s—one in pastoral care with an emphasis on leadership and a Master of Business Administration from Bethel.

But he didn’t get the job. It went to someone he had worked with, someone Campbell had objectively outperformed. For the first time, Campbell admitted it was likely due to racial barriers. “Being biracial growing up, I experienced things, but I said, ‘I refuse to be a victim,’” he says. But as he reflected on his career, he recognized this had been an issue—for himself and for many others. “I realized that my problem was not unique to me,” he says.

The experience inspired Campbell to form Brown Venture Group, a venture capital accelerator focused on technology entrepreneurs of color. Campbell believes this effort will build organizations that can produce jobs, solve problems, and help overcome racial barriers through technology.

This is a business opportunity that can make a significant return on investment, and it’s a social entrepreneurial opportunity where I can make a tremendous impact by making generational wealth, creating jobs for people who had a hard time getting jobs, and removing barriers to contribution that existed in these organizations.

— Paul Campbell GS’14

Business and ministry

In many ways, Brown Venture Group blends Campbell’s callings to business and ministry, and he has deep family ties to both. His maternal grandfather, Thomas McKee, was born in 1887 and was a pastor for 70 years in the Denver area. His paternal great-grandfather, Columbus Johnson, was also a businessman and minister. Johnson was an “Exoduster” who helped lead former slaves from the south to the Kansas City and Denver areas in the late 1800s looking for opportunities. Years later, Campbell’s parents did inner-city ministry work in the Twin Cities, and his dad was a highly-educated pastor and co-founder at the Minnesota Graduate School of Theology, where Campbell would later earn his first master’s and a doctorate in social entrepreneurship. But after experiencing biases that kept him from getting a job, Campbell’s father joined the military as a chaplain in 1989 and moved the family to Virginia.

After his father died suddenly in 1992, Campbell remained involved at Rock Church of Virginia Beach, where he met and learned from many prominent evangelical leaders and eventually became a youth pastor. Though his time at Rock Church was an entrepreneurial experience as he helped coordinate concerts and largescale prayer rallies, Campbell felt a tension between his call to ministry and his lifelong love of business. Then in 2006, Campbell and his mom traveled to Africa to help train pastors. When the local pastor took him around town, Campbell noticed signs of past violence. After the pastor told Campbell of past religious warfare between Christians and Muslims, Campbell asked why it stopped and the answer changed his life. The warfare was causing economic unrest and hurting businesses. “When they realized they were killing each other’s customers, it stopped,” the pastor told him. “It was kind of this ‘aha’ moment that business could be used to do tremendous good,” Campbell says.

Campbell started seeking ways to blend faith and work and was later introduced to the Theology of Work Project, a program that strives to make work more meaningful and productive through a Christian approach. This connected him to Ron Soderquist S’93, who became his mentor and directed him to Bethel’s MBA program. At Bethel, he became involved with Work With a Purpose, which helps leaders engage with whole-life discipleship in workplaces.

Campbell says the experience, connections, and lessons he gained at Bethel helped him be able to embrace and understand the opportunity to form Brown Venture Group, inspiring him to think critically about solving problems. Chief Advancement Officer Jim Bender met Campbell and asked him to join Bethel’s National Alumni Board. Bender notes Bethel's programs combine rigorous business training with a Christ-focused core to prepare students to face issues in a unique way. “Paul carries this out as he takes his business acumen, combines it with his MBA education, and then layers in Biblical principles in serving others,” Bender says. Today, Campbell also serves as a mentor for undergraduate business and economics students, which he says can start on topics like business and entrepreneurship and transition to discussions about marriage and life.

Taking action

After losing out on the job, Campbell sought a solution instead of staying angry and frustrated. “I didn’t want that to be an issue I had to deal with,” he says. “I wanted it to be the fact that I was out-performing. My work should speak for itself.” After earning his MBA, he began making connections between behavioral economics and racism—and he started seeking ways to get around them. “My experience at this company kind of forced me to open my eyes to a larger [issue],” he says.

Campbell poured over topics around race from issues of today all the way back to reconstruction after the Civil War, slavery, and before. He started seeing patterns that he calls “barriers to contribution” that keep people of color from succeeding and acquiring transferrable wealth. He traced a long line of barriers, including states taking measures to keep African-Americans from owning property, voting, and seeking education; redlining policies which kept African-Americans from buying homes in certain neighborhoods—or from buying homes at all; and much more. These barriers were built into education and grew into financial gaps over time. Today, most African-American wealth is in entertainment, sports, music, and similar jobs, but few, he argues, have transferrable wealth like property.

Campbell wondered why he was able to overcome some barriers earlier in his career, while others couldn’t. He realized he was able to use technology as a tool to overcome some barriers. He researched technology companies and startup programs, finding that only a small percent of venture capital was given to communities of color, even though they have a similar or better success rate. Campbell started exploring ways to bring startup and funding dollars to the Africa-American community. That led Campbell to found Brown Venture Group in 2018 with Chris Brooks, a pastor who has spoken at several Bethel Chapels, and Jerome Hamilton, a Twin Cities businessman. “We all came together to start a firm that focuses on accelerating bright ideas that have a hard time getting capital,” he says. All three bring extensive experience in ministry and smart, sound business. “We have this intersection of faith and work,” Campbell says.

One goal is to help propel businesses to success, but another goal is to make a positive impact on the community. By helping groups that haven’t gotten frequent support and opportunities, Campbell says the entire community will benefit. The team is fundraising and already working with six companies as it readies for a full launch. Brown Venture Group is already working with Simpli-Fi Automation, which has two provisional patents on hospital beds designed to treat patients suffering from COVID-19 and people with limited mobility challenges. MoneyVerbs, another founder-company, created an app to gamify finance and banking to help people understand how to handle stocks, bonds, and other financial pieces. People first use fake investments to learn in scenarios before transitioning over to real dollars. Fanfare, another, helps musicians raise revenue by sharing fans with other similar musicians.

Brown Venture Group continues seeking ways to bring undervalued assets to the forefront, and the founders have set their sights high for the future. “We want to see a Fortune 500 company come through our program, that we would help scale and launch,” Campbell says.

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