NCTF hires venture fund vet as managing director

Fund nears $10M goal that will allow it to make investments in POC-owned businesses.

After a national search, a Grand Rapids venture fund focused on boosting minority-owned businesses hired its first managing director and soon will be ready to make its first investments.

Ollie Howie. Courtesy New Community Transformation Fund

The New Community Transformation Fund (NCTF) board of directors said Tuesday, Nov. 8, it hired Ollie Howie for the managing director position.

Howie comes to Grand Rapids after deploying over $50 million in venture capital throughout his career. Most recently, he invested in a SoftBank venture fund dedicated to building and supporting a community of Black, Latinx and Indigenous founders.

Howie, who graduated from Harvard University with a degree in economics, has served as a capital analyst in executive positions at companies in Maryland, New York and Atlanta. 

“I am honored and humbled to help a team serving underrepresented entrepreneurs in Michigan. Birgit, Skot and Kwame are making a profound impact on this community and are challenging the status quo,” Howie said, referring to NCTF board members Birgit Klohs, Skot Welch and Kwame Anku.

After research and visits to Grand Rapids, Howie said he was impressed by the generations of entrepreneurial families in the region and their community philanthropy.

Howie also has a history of entrepreneurism and philanthropy, as he started a mentoring and service nonprofit, My Brothers Keepers Club, while in elementary school. That effort garnered Howie a community service award letter from then-President Barack Obama, and later, a day named in his honor in Roanoke, Virginia.

“With the New Community Transformation Fund, we are building on (the local philanthropists’) legacy while creating a new chapter in our region’s history by investing more than ever in helping entrepreneurs of color (to) succeed,” Howie said.

NCTF leaders said Howie’s investing prowess and experience with a transformation fund similar to this one stood out to them.

“This is a very exciting time for the New Community Transformation Fund, and to continue our growth and momentum, we’re pleased to welcome Ollie into the role of managing director,” said Renee Tabben, president of Bank of America’s Grand Rapids market and board chair of NCTF. “He is a highly regarded, innovative leader in the venture capital space and bringing his expertise to western Michigan will ensure that entrepreneurs of color have direct access to capital and support services.”

As managing director, Howie will be responsible for guiding the work of the organization to achieve its mission by sourcing deal flow and building relationships with investors and the community. He also will lead business growth through creating, negotiating and closing investment opportunities.

Inspired by an idea in 2018 by Klohs, former president and CEO of The Right Place, NCTF launched on Jan. 23, 2020. She said hiring Howie is the next step in the process of enacting the vision for a more equitable economy.

“This announcement is the culmination of my three-year journey to bring this type of investment vehicle to the region,” Klohs said. “I am delighted to welcome Ollie to West Michigan, where I know he will be successful in not only continuing to grow the fund, but to start making investments and creating upward mobility for entrepreneurs who have not been given opportunity historically.”

Klohs shared her idea in 2018 with her friend Welch, founder of Global Bridgebuilders, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm. Welch then recruited successful venture capitalist Anku, CEO and general partner of Black Star Fund, who is widely known as one of the first Black venture capitalists to create a fund with an all-Black-owned company portfolio. Anku began serving as a fund consultant during the first year of NCTF operations. The trio incubated the idea and socialized it with potential funders, finding a wide base of support.

Welch served on the selection committee that hired Howie. 

“We had strong interest from exceptional people, but Ollie’s direct experience working for the Opportunity Fund, being involved in their venture efforts with a similar focus, and having deep connections in the entrepreneur-of-color ecosystem, was simply unmatched,” Welch said. 

NCTF initially was seeded with funds from Bank of America and Consumers Energy Foundation. DTE Energy followed, along with additional funding from BoA and the Consumers foundation, as well as John Kennedy, Gentex, The Meijer Foundation, Horizon Bank, Mercantile Bank, Rockford Construction, Spectrum Health Innovations, Wolverine Building Group, WGO Capital and Brooks Capital Management.

To date, the fund has raised almost $10 million, which was the goal set before it would make its first investments.

NCTF intends to invest between $250,000 and $500,000 in second-stage, people of color-owned companies involved in advanced manufacturing, food and agribusiness, e-commerce and information technology, life sciences, and finance technology, as well as legacy and transitioning succession businesses.

The fund will focus on three areas: West Michigan-based, people of color-owned companies; transitioning, nonlocal companies that are willing to place an entrepreneur of color in executive positions; and second-stage entrepreneurs of color who will relocate to West Michigan to grow their company.

NCTF has an investment committee comprised of local and national members and is governed by a board of directors which, along with Klohs, Welch and Anku, includes Tabben; Garrick Rochow, president and CEO of Consumers Energy; and Christal Jackson, an international venture philanthropist.

Howie has met most of the board and investment committee and said he looks forward to working side by side to accomplish the fund’s goals.

“I firmly believe that the authentic passion and dedication exhibited by the board and investment professionals to make this fund succeed will create sustainable change in the West Michigan economy. I am honored to be a (part of) this story,” he said.

Howie recently moved to Grand Rapids and will spend the next several months getting acclimated to West Michigan and meeting with entrepreneurs and businesses. He said he already has started to shape his vision for what’s next. 

“It’s important that we are seen as trusted partners to those looking to make a difference. Our job is to create an ecosystem that says ‘yes’ to diversity,” he said.

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