Building a Supply Chain Community: Brian Aoaeh, REFASHIOND Ventures

In a recent conversation with Brian Aoaeh, co-founder of REFASHIOND Ventures, we covered the strong influences of his parents and his grandfather. He attributes his love of learning and ability to persevere through adversity to these early years. Armed with these character traits he has honed analytical skills and acquired a deep knowledge of the supply chain world. These lead to his unshakeable belief that investing in supply chain technology and startups is one of the greatest opportunities of our lifetime. Below is a transcript of our fascinating, delightful conversation.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Today’s guest is Brian Aoaeh, co-founder of REFASHIOND Ventures. Welcome, Brian.

Brian Aoaeh
Thank you. Thank you, Marcos. Thanks for having me, of course.

Marcos Dinnerstein
And let’s start with what does your company do?

Brian Aoaeh
So REFASHIOND Ventures is a venture fund, an early-stage venture fund. And we’re building it because we believe that if you were if you stand in 2020, and look out towards the future, we think that the biggest and most attractive investment opportunity of our lifetimes is the transformation or refashioning of supply chains around the world, so to speak. So we’re raising a venture fund to invest in the startup founders who wants to be the catalysts in that transformation.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Okay, so your name is actually a play on fashion as well as the verb refashioning.

Brian Aoaeh
It’s actually more a play on refashioning transforming than, than anything else. And, you know, in fairness to my partner, and co-founder, Lisa, that three partners and co-founders who are building the fund. But in fairness to Lisa, when she first had the idea, it was in the context of the opportunities in the fashion and apparel, a supply chain. And so the phrase in her head was, the fashion supply chain is broken, and it needs to be refashioned. But then when we came together, we decided that the opportunity in supply chain more broadly, since supply chain is a horizontal across all industries. And if it’s the one that we should be pursuing, so yeah, yeah. But you’re absolutely right. When most people see our name, the first thing they think of, oh, you’re a fashion fund. Well, we do fashion and we do a lot of other things. Other things, too.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Yes. I had the advantage of knowing you long enough to understand that. Okay. So let’s actually go back in time and talk about your family life, what your parents did, what your siblings if you have any do, and how they influenced you.

Brian Aoaeh
My parents are teachers. Both my parents are teachers growing up. My mom taught in an elementary school. My dad taught English at a university in northern Nigeria. My younger sister is in the civil service in Ghana, she works in the accountant General’s department, and now she’s in the ministry of fisheries. And my younger brother lives with my parents does various entrepreneurial things in northern Nigeria and Canada. And I’d say the impact on my personality – so my parents are really good teachers. Sometimes, sometimes I wish I had them as teachers instead of parents. But they have a gift, they have a real gift for imparting a very deep level of learning in the pupils that that goes through their tutelage. And so I think I took some of that with me. And then I spent my teenage years living with my grandfather. When I wasn’t in school, I lived with him in the village and my grandfather was a peasant farmer in the village I come from northern Ghana. So at least with him, and I’m not going to go into all the details, but as a young man, he suffered a debilitating illness, which left him one, with a hunchback, and two, with chronic rheumatoid arthritis. And yet, I never saw him complain once about any. I mean, he would be in pain and but he never complained about it. In fact, remarkably, every year he would have the biggest harvest in the village. And his more able-bodied compatriots would often come to him because you know, the rains would be bad their harvests would be poor, they were running out of food, they needed some help. And that taught me a lot about, you know, remaining positive in the face of difficulty not making excuses. Working hard…

Marcos Dinnerstein
That’s a great role model. That’s amazing. Yeah, very cool. So, being a farmer, that is entrepreneurial. You’re running your own business. It’s you.

Brian Aoaeh
It’s exactly it’s very, very entrepreneurial. In fact, I’ve often thought that a great blog post would be the lessons you can learn from farming that, you know, translates to either being a venture capitalist or being a startup founder. Because you’re absolutely right. It is entirely you and much like with entrepreneurship, there are so many things you can’t control, right? You can’t control if pests come and wipe out your harvest. You can’t control if the rains on time. You can’t control if some sort of disease crops up and destroys. And so you really have to focus on what you have control over and do those extremely well. So that no matter what the circumstances, you come out better than you would have if you did not work as hard as you needed to.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Sure, sure, it’s also about working smart. You can work very, very hard and still fail.

Brian Aoaeh
It’s also about working smart. So one of the things I learned, being at his side as a teenager is the importance of rest. Right? He worked extremely hard. But when he rested, he took his rest almost as seriously as he took working hard.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Yeah, that is a good lesson. A lot of people don’t remember to revitalize.

Brian Aoaeh
Yeah. Just last night, or early this morning, I was reading a blog post, by Ryan about some of the difficulties that he just had –  but he just stepped down as a CEO of CircleUp.

Marcos Dinnerstein
This is Ryan…

Brian Aoaeh
Caldbeck is his last name. He wrote a great post about stepping down as the CEO of CircleUp. And many of the things he talked about were things that I could say, you know, you could draw parallels between being a farmer and some of the experiences that he had. One thing that I’ve actually never talked about, but this might be a good time to talk about it is during that time, one of the things I did – because obviously, during the farming season, there are times when you’re actually farming, and then there’s a dry season when you’re not really farming. It’s after the harvest, there’s no rain, and so you’re not really farming. And so during that time, I would help my cousins and uncles who took care of a herd of cattle. And so I learned to be a cattle herd. So imagine herding a herd of you, know, 20 or 30 cattle. You wake up. You take them out. They roam them around. They graze and then you have to bring them home in the evening. There’s a lot that you learn about dealing with stubborn, with stubborn people. You learn about dealing with stubborn [Marcos] – Getting behind and shoving them. -people who have a mind of their own and don’t really care for whatever it is you think it should be. Yeah,

Marcos Dinnerstein
This puts to shame the idea of herding cats. I like it. That’s excellent.

Okay, so how did REFASHIOND get started? Obviously, I met you when you were still working for another investment fund and then you left to strike out on your own? Yeah. What precipitated that.

Brian Aoaeh
So basically, we got to a point where it didn’t look like we would be able to continue with KC ventures in the form in which it existed. And so you know, different people on the team went off to do different things. I think the fund has now been absorbed back into the family office because that’s where we had that Genesis. And I met Lisa in June of 2016. And before we teamed up to form REFASHIOND in 2018, we had, we came together to build the New York Supply Chain Meetup in 2017. And the idea for the meetup arose because I got to a point in developing a thesis around investing in supply chain and innovation and technology where I said, I really need to be hanging out with supply chain people. And I thought someone in New York had created a meetup where supply chain folks could meet, you know. And when I say that, people in the audience might think, well, aren’t there already trade association? We’re not a trade association, in the sense that we aren’t designing a community for supply chain people to meet with other supply chain people and talk about how wonderful how mutually wonderful they are.

Marcos Dinnerstein
…As fun as that might be.

Brian Aoaeh
That’s not what we’re we’re building. What we want to do is to bring together the startup founders who usually understand the technology, but don’t have a deep background in the industry. We talk of them as the builders of early-stage supply chain innovation, with the industry executives who usually have a deep understanding of the industry and the problems in the industry, but not necessarily how far along the technology has come. The issue is that if there isn’t a place for these two groups of people to have a low risk, low stakes conversation, it becomes much more difficult to have those initial high risk, high stakes conversations because you haven’t had time to learn enough.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Right, right. And that’s essential. that’s it that’s essential for the growth of any skill set, right? Like I can relate it to the performing world, in which you saw these amazing performers come out of the vaudeville era. I don’t know how familiar you are with that? Well, it was a period of time in American history in which there were circuits of performance venues that were broadly called vaudeville. And, it was the only form of mass entertainment. Performers would be on this circuit and perform many times a day. The old comedians are Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, and all of these, you know, who went on to the movie stardom, they perfected their craft, by doing it many, many, many times a day, it again, relates that 10,000 hours to develop a skill. You know, they just weren’t talented. They had that talent and, you know, honed it and refined their craft, over many times. And by creating this community, you’re right, you’re giving a – creating a platform in which people can practice in a sense, practice their craft and learn.

Brian Aoaeh
That’s exactly – that’s precisely the idea. And in fact, when we’re having an event and startup founders are nervous about, oh, I’ve never spoken. This, my first time. I tell them, take a deep breath, relax. Everybody in the audience is going to be there because they specifically want to hear about what you’re doing. So the idea is, you tell us what you’re doing, do it as well as you can. It’s probably going to be great. Because, you know, you wouldn’t be building what you’re building if you weren’t great at something. So it’s probably going to be great. And then our job as the audience is to say, you know, this seems right, this seems right. But this one thing, the way you describe it doesn’t seem quite right. If you shifted the way you described it a little bit, it would land much better. And then obviously, if there’s someone in the audience, that would be an immediate customer, and they felt the urge to come and talk to you right after the presentation, you know, then that’s

Marcos Dinnerstein
…sure.

Brian Aoaeh
…that’s even amazing. We’ve had events where speakers said, even before the events that they were exchanging business cards with potential customers or potential investors and whatnot, and that’s precisely why we’re building the community.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Yeah, and I’ve been following you since you first started this. And I mean, it’s like the growth of the New York Community and more impressively, national and international community has been just like wildfire. Talk a little about that. I mean, how’d you pull that one off?

Brian Aoaeh
If I told you it was our genius that led us to where we are, I would be lying. The initial idea was a really simple one. You know, we just wanted to hang out with our people -with people who obsess about supply chain, and innovation and technology.

Marcos Dinnerstein
And you found a ready audience, a ready community to be brought together.

Brian Aoaeh
Yes. And so the idea was, we’ll do this in New York. But I’m a very big – Lisa and I are both big believers in one, talking to other people about what we’re trying to do. So we talked about this on social media. And very quickly, even before we had our first event in New York, people in other parts of the world reached out to us and other parts of the US reached out to us and said, hey, we’ve heard about what you’re you’re trying to do in New York. It turns out that we would benefit from having a community like that. They would benefit from having a community. Would you would you help us try to establish a community in the cities – Los Angeles, Atlanta. Some people in Europe in various cities in Europe. Some places in Asia, and someone in Australia was talking about this. But then, for the people abroad, they also said, Oh, and by the way, we would like if any communities that we developed would be connected to your community in New York. And I thought to myself, whoa, I’m not really signing up for a whole lot of work. I just want to hang out. I just want to hang out with some smart people. And so I asked them, Why do you want to be connected to our community in New York, and they said, something that should have been obvious to me, but that I hadn’t thought about, right? They said, well, as startup founders, if we’re successful, we invariably are going to need to pursue customers in the United States, or to raise capital from investors in the United States. And if there is a community of people like the one that you’re developing, that we can immediately tap into, even before we’re in the United States, that would be amazing. And so the idea occurred to us that maybe what we should develop is a network of meetup, communities. So each one will be started and run by someone local to that, who understands what the community needs, but we will ensure that everyone is connected, and we can help startups when they need.

Marcos Dinnerstein
So let me jump in just a moment to bring our audience up to speed. Since you and I both are too familiar. Your co-founders are Lisa Morales. Hello, is that the correct way to pronounce your name? Yes,

Brian Aoaeh
I believe that’s the correct way to pronounce it.

Marcos Dinnerstein
And Simon Campbell, okay. I just wanted to get that out for our audience that when you refer to them, that that’s who we’re talking about?

Brian Aoaeh
Yes. Yes. That’s what we’re talking about. So then it became this idea of developing a network of communities. Now, it turns out that building a community is a lot of work. I think you might know that. So the earliest people who said to us, hey, this sounds like a great idea, have turned out not to be the ones who have gotten the community’s going. But,

Marcos Dinnerstein
Yeah, there’s always going to be that in any social group, you have somebody who goes, Hey, you know, somebody ought to do that. It’s rarely them who want to be that somebody. Meaning, why don’t you do this for me.

Brian Aoaeh
And we also think when you’re building a community – we’ve seen it with ourselves – that if the community starts from a place of enthusiasm and passion, rather than someone else mandating that it be done, it’s more likely to survive. So for example, I think Startup Grind grew very slowly until they were maybe five years old, and then their growth really took off. CreativeMornings I think also had the same experience for the first four or five years. It was a real grind, and now they’re in over 150 countries, I think. Even Ted, the world famous Ted organization. So real stuff stumbles in its early life before it really became what it is now. And so I think we’re doing we’re doing fine.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Yeah. So, let me kind of shift the focus. You’ve been very successful at creating this culture. How is that reflected in REFASHIOND Ventures itself? Are there, they’re more than three of you? How large is the company? And how do you create this culture?

Brian Aoaeh
REFASHIOND Venture is still in the early stages. I don’t know if you know much about raising a venture fund, it’s incredibly difficult. In fact, some people will say it’s a little more difficult than raising capital for a company because at least with a company, there’s a definitive thing. So we’re still trying to raise the fund. We’re talking to two LPs right now. It’s really the three of us doing all the work. I’m I’m very tentative about bringing other people on this early, you know…

Marcos Dinnerstein
Sure you have to be very careful about your burn rate. Just staying viable.

Brian Aoaeh
Yeah, so it’s the three of us. We’re hoping that we can do a first close sometime this year.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Let’s jump to your expertise, which is the industry broadly. Where do you see the supply chain industry going? Obviously, we’ve got this huge shift. As I mentioned, and other things yeah, there’s a concept in biology that was promoted by a biologist, Stephen Jay Gould called punctuated equilibrium. Gould talks about evolution, not being a straight path, but you have levels of stasis where things are at an equilibrium, and then some event comes to punctuate that and cause a change that precipitates evolution. I think we’re in one of them now. And I’m not out on a limb here with this pandemic. And what’s it gonna do for supply chain?

Brian Aoaeh
I think you’re absolutely right. And I’ll describe a conversation I’ve had with a few people. And I’m sure that others who haven’t made these comments more explicitly are thinking it in their minds. But usually or sometimes when I say to people that supply chain is the biggest investment opportunity that we’re going to see in our lifetime. You know, some people will respond and say, no, it’s obviously climate change. And climate change is the biggest issue that mankind has to deal with. And so it’s the biggest opportunity. And I agree with them, I agree with them. 100%, that climate change is what it is what they described. The connection they fail to make between climate change and supply chains is that generally, scientists agree that human activity is either causing climate change, or at a minimum is making it worse than it otherwise would be. Now, the thing about human activity is that all human activity is driven by supply chains. And so invariably, if you’re going to solve the climate change problem, you have to take a look at supply chains and figure out, as we like to say, figure out how you’re going to refashion them. Climate change is slowed to an acceptable pace and I think you’re absolutely right that if this was a difficult connection for people to make, the pandemic has made it much more obvious. One individual consumers are much more aware of how, what they do, what they buy, what they consume, impacts the supply chain. Executives and companies now understand just how fragile their supply chains are. So not only do they have to do something about their operations and supply chain, but then individual consumers because of this awareness, are putting pressure on companies to do better. And then governments are finally getting in on the action as well. So in Europe especially, there are a lot of laws, I think many have started with looking at the fashion industry, specifically. But then, as they work on fashion, they start to look at others. The interesting thing about fashion is that it’s one of these industries that relies on every other industry, right? So there’s culture, there’s energy consumption, there’s materials, there’s manufacturing, there’s data, there’s logistics, transportation, right? There’s the health care of the workers in the fashion industry. And so it’s one of these industries that once governments start to tackle it and say, hey, you have to do better, it’s very easy for them to then go from, okay, that’s worked well, there’s manufacturing. Let’s talk about manufacturing, there’s, you know …

Marcos Dinnerstein
So, do you want to hazard a guess as to where we’re going to end up in the next 5 to 10 years?

Brian Aoaeh
I’m an optimist. And so I think we don’t have a choice but to be optimistic about the future. You know, so I think as difficult the problems we face are, human beings will figure out a way to solve them. And if I’m wrong, you know, then we’ll all be dead anyway.

Marcos Dinnerstein
There we go!

Okay, stock up on beer and wine. Terrific. It looks like we’re in the right time for stopping is that’s true, right?

Brian Aoaeh
Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Tell our audience, how they can reach you, how they can be part of your community, how the LPS can contact you so that they can support what you’re doing and benefit from your wisdom.

Brian Aoaeh
Yeah, so we’re very easy to find online. If they type in – if the audience types in ‘supply chain and meetup’ or ‘supply chain and VC’ we’re likely to be on the first page. And my name is easy enough to remember, well, it’s not easy to remember. But it’s unique to find online. It’s A,O, A, E, H. If you type that into Google page, one should be filled with where you go, and information.

Marcos Dinnerstein
Terrific. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. My guest today has been Brian Aoaeh, co-founder of REFASHIOND Ventures.

Brian Aoaeh
Thank you. Thank you, Marcos. Have a great day!

Transcribed by https://otter.ai – (This is a terrific platform! – Marcos)

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