Rodney Sampson on influential leadership: You’re qualified to lead to the degree that you’re willing to serve

Eufemia Didonato

Rodney Sampson co-founded several companies, including Multicast Media Technologies Inc. in 2000. The Atlanta-based company was a pioneer in streaming video. “One of our verticals was churches,” he said. “We were one of the first to stream churches live and on demand and on a 24/7 continuous basis over the […]

Rodney Sampson co-founded several companies, including Multicast Media Technologies Inc. in 2000. The Atlanta-based company was a pioneer in streaming video.

“One of our verticals was churches,” he said. “We were one of the first to stream churches live and on demand and on a 24/7 continuous basis over the Internet.” His company sold in 2010 for about $24 million and lives on at sites like

Soon, Sampson wrote his fourth book, “Kingonomics: Twelve Innovative Currencies for Transforming Your Business and Life Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” After its publication in January 2013, he used the principles he laid out in the book to start Opportunity Hub – OHUB, for short. OHUB’s programs teach, support, and invest in emerging technologists and high-growth founders. He aims to create equitable access to tech, startup, and venture ecosystems.

Sampson serves as executive chairman and CEO of OHUB, based in Atlanta. In addition, he’s co-founder and general partner of 100 Black Angels & Allies Fund. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he teaches as a visiting professor at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and Morehouse College in Atlanta.

In November, invited by Martin Babinec of Upstate Venture Connect, Sampson brought his entrepreneurship insights to the Upstate Unleashed 2020 conference. About 500 people attended via Zoom.

A message Sampson heard as a youngster from a visiting pastor at his church in Atlanta resonates today as a lesson for leadership: “It was Edwin Louis Cole who said you’re only qualified to lead to the degree that you’re willing to serve.”

Give me the elevator speech for OHUB.

We were founded in 2013. Today, we exist as a suite of companies committed to increasing racial equity in the technology startup and venture ecosystem to provide a path to prosperity for socially disadvantaged, under-tapped, under-resourced, under-sponsored, under-represented, however you want to define it, communities, which tend to be Black and brown. We ensure that these communities have access to opportunities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We have an ecosystem-building framework and platform that we bring to cities. We form public-private partnerships with Chambers, corporations, philanthropic organizations, the cities themselves, their economic development arms, and their stakeholders to launch the inclusive ecosystems that output new talent for careers in the future of work and Fourth Industrial Revolution. And we output new entrepreneurs to start companies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I believe it’s going to take all of our communities to reposition America as the leader in innovation and a leader in entrepreneurship.

I believe that one of the most important causes going forward for our private sector, our government, our education, every you-name-it community and sector, is to focus on understanding the future of work and Fourth Industrial Revolution. Make search engines your friends to leverage the online tools and the content that’s out there. There are really good books and articles. We invite everyone to join the OHUB ecosystem. It’s free. You get access to some of our content to get started.

Please describe the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Let me give a little historical context. There was the first, which relied on water and steam power. The second used electricity. And the third introduced the world of digital technology we’re in now. The fourth is the convergence of technology and society that is being driven by artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum advances, robotics, drones, blockchain – all of the edge technologies. It impacts every industry, every ecosystem, every field of work and practice, and it will impact the way we live.

We work at OHUB as an end-to-end ecosystem-building platform to prepare for that.

I think what’s interesting for your readers is when people say, Oh, I’m an ecosystem builder, they may think it’s someone saying, I’m an economic developer. We may hang out in the same fields of practice, but traditional economic development has been focused on the attraction of companies and the retention of companies in a region.

When Amazon was saying, hey, we’re looking for HQ2, every economic developer at every city in America was trying to figure out how to potentially attract them. You may report something in your newspaper that says XYZ company is setting up an office in Syracuse and bringing jobs. That’s traditional economic development.

Ecosystem building says we develop the talent and we create the jobs through new businesses. The net result is, hopefully, shared prosperity for all of the city’s stakeholders. We focus on ensuring that everyone participates. If you look across America, there’s a lot of reskilling, a lot of educating, a lot of hiring in the tech world, in the startup world, and in the digital world. It’s not inclusive of everyone.

OHUB works to focus on inclusion and equity and normalize that in a community. So, over the course of a decade, you get output at scale. We’ve seen that in Atlanta. We’re working on that in Kansas City. It’s a very hyper-local approach to building ecosystems.

Let’s pivot to topics in leadership. Were you in leadership roles growing up?

One of my early mentors was John Maxwell (well-known author, pastor, and leadership coach). Maxwell articulated it best when he said leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.

I had the honor of participating in Dr. Maxwell’s EQUIP organization, which is what sent me to the continent of Africa for the first time in 2003, where I had the opportunity to be a part of the EQUIP initiative. We trained over 30,000 people in Namibia and the surrounding region in values-based entrepreneurship.

But, to more appropriately answer your question, I would say, yeah, I had leadership roles growing up. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and I graduated from Frederick Douglass High School (Class of 1991). I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. I was in the church – a junior deacon. I was a musician growing up, and so I was a part of the music ministry at my church. I was eighth-grade president at my high school, which still included eighth grade. In college, I was president of my fraternity. So I often had leadership roles throughout my life.

My uncle was the pastor of our church. It was The Body of Christ Church here in Atlanta. I grew up in a family of four pastors in churches. So I was around a lot of spiritual leaders.

I had an opportunity to meet Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta and then the next Black mayor, Andrew Young. They would come to speak at our schools. I remember when the Reverend Jesse Jackson came. I think he might’ve been running for president for the first time. I was able to see and know about the work of John Lewis and the business owners we had in the Southwest Atlanta community like Herman J. Russell. So I had role models in addition to family and relatives.

I did my undergraduate work at Tulane University in New Orleans. I was a psychology major in pre-medicine and went to Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania. After that I decided I wanted to go back to my technology roots and become a tech entrepreneur. I got an MBA while I was working on my startup (Multicast Media Technologies).

Tell me about your tech roots. How did that come about?

I go back to Christmas in middle school, sixth grade. I was flipping through the Sears catalog and came across a computer and happened to circle it. It was a Tandy, I believe. And my parents got it for me for Christmas. The next Christmas, I got the cassette tape player, which is what you used to store your code on a home computer system. I taught myself how to code and program.

Then, in high school, I continued with advanced placement computer science. After that, I pretty much let it go for a long time. I didn’t study computer science or engineering in college.

Early exposure is key to having interest or creating interest for creating and tinkering and learning. But it does not mean you can’t learn these skills literally at any age. I want to make sure that I signal a balance there.

What’s your advice to be an effective leader?

Edwin Louis Cole was a minister. I remember him coming to my church when I was young. I believe it was Edwin Louis Cole who said you’re only qualified to lead to the degree that you’re willing to serve.

A lot of people will look at titles and authority and jurisdiction, but they’ve never served in a capacity to learn, to make mistakes, to improve on their craft, to develop not just knowledge but application of knowledge.

Leadership takes lots of those traits – being willing to serve, being willing to master a craft, being willing to make sacrifices.

Leaders have vision and the ability to manifest that vision to execute. Just because you have an idea doesn’t make you a great leader. Can you bring the idea to life, and can you get people to join you? If you write a vision and make it plain for people to understand, people should want to join forces and be a part of it.

I think the greatest leaders listen and include other voices and other thinking people from different backgrounds. When I meet a leader and everyone around that leader is just like them, I struggle to see a great leader, because they are not putting themselves in uncomfortable environments to attract new talent, new ideas, and new people. It’s just a homogeneity of people telling them how great they are.

Leaders who don’t have diverse teams from a race perspective, a geographical perspective, a gender perspective, a neurodiversity perspective, when you don’t have that intersectional diversity, to me it shows mediocrity in leadership.

What other attributes do you see in poor leadership?

Selfishness. Egotistical. Lacking empathy. Homogeneity. Groupthink. All of those things are traits of poor leaders.

How can a leader avoid groupthink?

They are paying people that are different than themselves to be on their team.

When I talk to heads of corporations or venture funds or high-growth startups, I look at their board of directors. That tells me a little bit how you are thinking and want to think. Change happens top down and grassroots up.

I can pretty much look at someone’s P&L and see what their priorities are. Companies do a lot of performative stuff and a lot of press releases and pilots and good intentions, but if it’s not on the P&L it doesn’t mean much or make sense.

What does it take to think like an entrepreneur?

Thinking like an entrepreneur? That seems like a loaded question.

I didn’t mean to make it loaded. I’m looking for advice for a person reading this who has an idea or wants to start a business. How would you advise them?

One is to solve a problem that people are willing to pay for or businesses are willing to pay for. That’s a business entrepreneur. Or are you just passionate about it as a hobby? Entrepreneurship is about making money, building a company, building a business.

You become committed to what I call the science of company building, not just your domain expertise in the industry that you’re in. A lot of things go in to company building that I think a lot of younger entrepreneurs take for granted. They might think: Oh, I’m ready to start a business, I’m going to go raise venture capital.

It’s great to be open-minded and be innovative and have ideas. But can you look at this as a science and as a practice and something to master? Ultimately when people become obsessive about solving a problem and then actually go on to build a service and/or product to do that, that’s when they become an entrepreneur.

Company building is a practice. Some folks can spin up a business pretty quickly because they know what to do and how to do it. Solving a problem is one thing, but building a company is another. You think about the legal structure, the governance structure, the operating agreement, building the culture, HR, benefits, business planning, executive summaries, pitch decks, sales documents, sales agreements, contracting, hiring a team, incentivizing that team, understanding your market, fundraising. How do you go to market? What does it cost to go to market? What’s the cost of customer acquisition? How do you contract a customer? Is it reoccurring or is it short term?

All of these are different things that people may just take for granted. Those are the things you learn through the science of company building. We teach what is required in our programs.

I’ve been an entrepreneur for 20 years, and I’ve studied this. Entrepreneurship is the path to wealth creation for so many people, for prosperity, for income. So it’s to be taken seriously.

People kind of get stuck where they are, passionate about what they want to do, and they aren’t good listeners, aren’t flexible, aren’t willing to pivot, aren’t willing to re-learn and re-teach themselves, and aren’t willing to respond to the market demands or the customer demands.

A lot of passionate idea creators never move beyond that because, once again, entrepreneurs build businesses. You have to actually learn how to do that.

The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected]. Last week featured Christina Sauve, CEO of Cooperative Federal credit union. She provides equitable access to financing for small businesses and people of modest means.

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