5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started: Horace Williams, CEO of Empowrd
I had the pleasure of interviewing Horace Williams, Founder & CEO of Empowrd. Prior to Empowrd, Horace was a Key Employee in 2 back-to-back acquisitions of social technology startups ultimately resulting in him being in a director role at Oracle overseeing user experience design activities for an entire product offering by the age of 29. He then founded Empowrd in 2015 and built a business that is now responsible managing one of the largest and most robust sets of elected official data in the country, and doing so from within a proprietary platform that makes it easy for the company to keep the data up to date, log historical elected official data, and ensure people are able to quickly view and access their specific elected leaders.
Empowrd has recently started working with organizations to help them monitor their advocacy campaigns and in just a matter of days, they have already been able to show them how well their advocacy initiatives are working and who their most powerful advocates are within the organization. We’ve seen the transformation of consumer attitudes and companies’ actions through The Made in America Movement. Empowrd is helping to simplify and incentivize civic engagement for all.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share a little of your backstory?
Sure, I was born and raised in Brooklyn New York and moved to the Bronx when I was 14. I attended Saint Francis Xavier HS; a well-known High School in New York City and after graduation I left NYC to attend North Carolina A&T State University. My high school years were pretty rough as it related to scholastic performance, I was nearly on the verge of being asked to leave but instead remained on academic probation until graduation, A&T resumed that academic probation in my first semester, however, my college years would be different. I would end up graduating from A&T Cum Laude in 3 years thanks to a newfound work ethic, the discovery of my talent for design and an amazing faculty and administration who went out their way for me time and time again since the day I landed on campus. After graduation I went on to start my first business, Horacescope Designs, a web application development firm that I co-founded with my cousin Mashima who was a talented developer and recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon. We successfully went on to build several web applications during which time a life-changing moment occurred when I was hired to do design consulting for a small startup company called Ugen Media. Ugen Media focused primarily on making user-generated content valuable for corporations during the early stages of the emergence of what we refer to today as social engagement marketing.
As the business started to grow Ugen Media made me an offer to join full-time and I accepted. That same year they were acquired by another startup company in Atlanta, Ga. called Vitrue. Vitrue had approximately 20 people at the time and I was their lead designer. Over the course of the next four years, I was promoted to Director of Creative Services; responsible for user experience design and brand execution and Vitrue had grown from 20 people to over 200. The following year VITRUE was acquired by Oracle where I was positioned as Director of User Experience Design for the Oracle Social Relationship Platform, an enterprise-level social marketing and management tool that was born as a result of the merger of three separate Oracle acquisitions (one of those acquisitions being Vitrue) that ultimately became the first full-service Social Marketing Platform of its kind.
Oracle was a challenging yet amazing experience, I was blessed to have been retained as a key employee in our acquisition giving me three years of incentives to stay around and be part of Vitrue’s growth and transition into our newfound home; however, during those three years I started to find myself seeking a new purpose, one of which was inspired by much of dynamic I was seeing more and more of on television focused around the broken relationships across law enforcement, young black men and their political representation and felt that if I was smart enough hold a Directors role in one of the most prestigious technology firms in the world then perhaps I was smart enough to help solve this problem too, and from there Empowrd was born!
Tell me a bit more about your company?
My father used to say that we will never benefit from a truly democratic society until political engagement becomes an active and regular part of people’s everyday lives. Today, because our lives have grown to become so complex and busy we have enabled political circumstances that have left many people so far removed from the actual Democratic process that it’s easy to feel like you don’t have any control over what’s going on around you, Empowrd’s goal is to change that. Empowrd’s mission is to put the power of influential political engagement in the palm of people’s hands, making it easy and accessible enough for anyone at any stage in life living under any economic circumstances to find a way to be effectively engaged in the political process.
Our first step for Empowrd was to create access and awareness, today we focus on making it easy for anyone to quickly become aware of all elected officials who represent them at every layer of government from your local city council members and county commissioners, all the way to your state and congressional legislators. We make it easy to learn the roles and responsibilities of all elected officials, view term limits, election dates and most importantly we allow you to quickly contact any of them at any time with just a click of the button. We bundle all of this in an experience that requires no background knowledge from our users on how the political process works, and only needs an address in order to provide our members the access necessary to start their political engagement.
We hear a lot of negatives about social media in the news. Do you think social media and the changes we’ve seen in how people communicate can be used for good?
Interestingly enough, I might have given you a different answer to this question about 5 years ago; however, today I’ve come to realize that the social media of yesterday which was made to bring us closer to one another has in many ways devolved into the social media of today which is driving us further apart. Algorithms, corporate and political marketing campaigns, news propaganda, and poorly misinformed opinions with loud voices are creating an environment where critical thinking has been removed from the conversation and it’s become all about being right or wrong. Under these circumstances, over a long period of time human behaviors change too, and instead of people seeking access to more information, many are simply embracing the comfort of being around other like-minded individuals and villainizing those who see the world differently. As a result, social media in many ways has become less of this one big planet where we all live together and learn from each other and more like several planets in a galaxy looking at those who live on other planets as aliens looking to invade us and take over. However, I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I believe the gross misuse of social media has gotten so bad and so blatant that people are starting to see it for what it has become and steps are being made by people to enlighten themselves and see beyond their bubbles, and frankly humans have this cool trick where we turn conflict into innovation, so in many ways I believe we needed this to happen in order to fully realize that the next evolution of Social engagement needs to be less about enabling more communication and more about improving our abilities to listen and learn from each other.
This obviously is not easy work. What motivates you?
It’s definitely purpose-driven work, if I am being truthful, I was doing pretty well (financially) at Oracle and was on the path to do even better; I was young, well positioned, and my team had done great work that was recognized well throughout the company, but I needed something with more purpose to keep me motivated. its cliché, but I am not motivated by money at all, we all need to pay bills but wealth doesn’t drive me. I want my kids (when I have them one day) to know their father did his part with his talents, intelligence, and energy to legitimately try to make the world a better place. Empowrd at its core is about improving community relations, equity in governing and ensuring all people have access to the quality of life they deserve much of which is controlled through policy processes and governing structures that people don’t interact with due to lack of knowledge, access or intimidation. My goal is to change all of that, to show the power of the people at mass can drive more influence than a dollar ever could.
None of us are able to find success without some significant help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for that helped you get to where you are?
This is a great question, and the truth is it’s more people than I can name. My friends and family have given me more loans over the last 2 years then in my entire life! In addition, great people like yourself have gone out their way to provide me a platform for my personal and company brands and I definitely can’t forget the people who work on Empowrd day in and day out and sacrifice a great deal in order for us to execute a tremendous vision all while dealing with the rigors of having a CEO who is still trying to figure it all out. However, if I have to narrow it down to one person, it would have to be my wife. Behind the scenes when no one is looking, my wife has probably dealt with more through this process than anyone because while I have a high threshold for stress its easy to forget that your energy walks into the house with you every night, every time money is low or tight, every time there is a bad day, every time she notices some stressful occurrence that I try to hide, every time I stay up late or have late meetings, the pressure on her to uphold household responsibilities while I try to take on the world, it’s a lot and it’s not easy for her, but she does it, that’s the definition of sacrifice and I appreciate it more than she knows.
What are your “5 things I wish I knew when I was just starting out”?
- Don’t focus on what you think might be trendy in the VC world and jumping through hoops to meet those expectations, focus on building a business and getting users/members/customers and making revenue. There is nothing more convincing than results.
- Believe in yourself, seriously. If I would have had more conviction in my own ideals and purpose and didn’t try to shift and shape myself into what I thought I needed to be in our first year, we would have been much further now as a business. It’s important to learn from others and evolve as a result of those learning’s, but ultimately trust your gut, if it feels wrong it probably is, if you feel like you are all over the place, you probably are. Be creative, be yourself, and ultimately that improves the overall focus of your business, improves your perception as a leader and makes it a lot easier to move and get things done and not to mention, keeps you from going nuts in the process.
- Entrepreneurship is touted as being about speed, speed, speed, but you should really also allow for the patience necessary to make important choices, especially hiring choices. I am naturally aggressive, I don’t think I come across that way too many people at first, but in my head, I move quickly and my thoughts take action quickly, but sometimes too quickly. However, don’t think patience eliminates the possibility of failure nor does patience equate to slow. In startups, you need to move fast enough to keep up momentum on your team and take advantage of market opportunities, so you will fail in the process but patience keeps you from at least failing the same way twice.
- Equity creates interest, money creates focus. When you are first forming a team (IMO) this is an important thing to remember. Equity makes people feel like they are part of something, it gives people a sense of ownership, it makes people feel like they are entrepreneurs and not just employees or contractors, and while all of that is great, money is what keeps people focused. Even the most loyal and well-intentioned people will not give a project the time that it needs to thrive if they don’t have a way to put food on the table or take care of their necessities, so remember that the next time you try to simply compensate with just equity to get things going because that kind of gas runs out really quick and as a leader of an organization it’s your job to get ahead of that or you will lose a lot of equity, all while losing momentum, morale, and progress, and there will be no one to blame but yourself for lack of planning.
- I would have taken time between leaving Oracle and starting this business, I would have never guessed I would be 3 years in now without having taken a single vacation, while I have learned how to improvise to create rest opportunities I would have benefited a lot from taking a break, I worked at Oracle as a result of two back to back acquisitions totaling 8 to 9 years, that including my fathers passing away the month I left Oracle, didn’t leave me time to rest or mourn, so when I look back, I think being patient (as noted above) and taking that time off would have done a lot to help me plan, think, and most important rest before I took on the marathon known as Empowrd.
What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?
Not sure if this is a Hack, but waking up early is important for me because it’s a lot easier to get things done while everyone is still sleeping and it allows you to get in front of your day vs. being reactive to it. it’s also better for you health wise than staying up late; when you’re up late you will get all the distractions from everyone without the benefit of any productivity, and if you’re like me late night means snacks, and you want to limit your snacking, trust me on this.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When in doubt, do what’s right. Sounds simple right? However, there is something very spiritual about this to me. In life or as an entrepreneur you are going to run into some really, really tough situations and in many cases you will find that relying on pure objectivity will be of no help because not all resolutions have an outcome that can be perceived as fair for all involved. In these cases, I look to God a lot, and I determine what is the most ethical conclusion I can make, even if publically it’s not well received, I think to myself am I making the best choice possible and if God were the only audience could I live with that decision? That’s way more important to me during this journey then trying to save face. Also, as a result, I have discovered it rarely goes wrong when you do right, and by that what I mean is when you find yourself doing the ethical thing, no matter how painful it may feel at the moment, it never turns out half as bad as you think it will. Trust me, if you are a real entrepreneur at some point you will run into this scenario and I promise you this will be sound advice.
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