Former big-name executives invest in startups


The Wall Street Journal article Second Act for Corporate Titans: Startup Whisperers Cisco’s John Chambers and AmEx’s Kenneth Chenault are part of a wave of former big-name executives who are putting their business acumen to work in venture capital and offering counsel to young companies by Vanessa Fuhrmans, highlights how John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, mentors founders.

Chambers ran Cisco for over two decades, transforming Cisco from a small networking-equipment company into a tech giant. Chambers was a voracious acquirer of small companies when he was CEO of Cisco, now he both mentors them and invests in them. He launched a venture capital firm called JC2 Ventures with $100 million of his own money. As you can see by the tagline superimposed over the photo – Mentors of Digital Innovation –  mentoring is key to JC2 Ventures. To quote the author:

But it’s not just his money at work. To the fledgling companies he backs, perhaps more important is the value he brings as a “chief guru,” as one startup founder dubbed him.

“It’s not about the investments,” Mr. Chambers says about his portfolio. “I want to first be a strategic partner with the CEO, where I am his or her most trusted adviser, mentor—a coach.”

Interestingly enough Chambers offers founders mentoring before investing in their ventures. Uniphore CEO Umesh Sachdev says Mr. Chambers mentored him for nearly a year before buying a 10% stake in the company this past.

Chambers spoke at MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 event in New Delhi and offered to hold monthly  group mentoring sessions via video with Mr. Sachdev and the other honorees.  I’d be very interested in know how virtual group mentoring worked out for Mr. Chambers. I have had no problems mentoring a founder or two on a video conference, but I find it hard to imagine mentoring a group over video. But then Chambers probably took one of Cisco’s teleconferencing systems with him when he retired! I’ve found it difficult enough trying to mentor founders in a group, let alone virtually on my 27″ iMac. It’s too bad that none of the mentoring organizations I’ve volunteered for have been at all interested in virtual mentoring, as I would be glad to help raise the money to buy them a high end systems like Cisco’s.

I do find that Chambers tends to muddy the waters on the important differences between advisors, mentors, and coaches. From the JC2 Ventures About section of their web site: We’re mentors of digital innovation, who coach each company on their journey, using our experiences to help them see around corners, accelerate markets, and create entirely new ones. I’m not exactly sure how one goes about mentoring innovation but I guess we will find out. Or maybe he will hire a copy editor to rewrite the Objectives section I’ve quoted 🙂

Steve Blank has done an excellent job of delineating the differences amongst mentors, coaches, advisors, and teachers.

While other former big name executives are mentioned in the article – including former Time Warner Inc. CEO Richard Parsons; Rachel Lam, the longtime chief of the media company’s investment arm;  American Express Co.’s Kenneth Chenault; and Jeff Imelt, former CEO of GE, turned venture capitalist. only Mr. Chambers notches any mentions of mentoring. It will be interesting to see how these former honcho’s of Fortune 100 companies can zoom down from their Olympian perches to help tiny startups. My guess is that like execs who tried to transition from very large companies to joining a startup they may make a number of mistakes before learning all the differences between being captain of an aircraft carrier and pilot of a 16 foot sailboat. Though with all of Chambers experience acquiring acquiring small companies he’s ahead of his competitors.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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