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Coffee With: Camelback Ventures CEO Aaron Walker

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Aaron Walker
Location: New York, NY
Job: Founder and CEO, Camelback Ventures
Education: B.A., International Relations and Foreign Affairs, the University of Virginia; J.D., the University of Pennsylvania Law School
Twitter: @walker_at

What’s the first job you ever had?

When I was 16, I started working as a sandwich maker at a family-owned restaurant called Town Hall Deli in South Orange, New Jersey. I ended up keeping that same job throughout all of high school and between semesters in college. I learned a lot of valuable lessons through my interactions with customers and the family in charge. I distinctly remember a time when the father had to have surgery and was back at work in two days with no complaints. I still think about that. It has helped me appreciate the power of showing up and getting things done no matter what.

Tell us about your job now.

Camelback Ventures is an incubator program that offers seed funding and support to entrepreneurs with promising ideas. Through our fellowship program, we identify and support new leaders focused on creating educational and economic opportunities within their own communities – particularly entrepreneurs of color or from underrepresented communities.

As CEO, I spend the majority of my day convincing people to do things: I set the company vision, convince donors to invest in our program, keep my team motivated, and maintain relationships with our board members. I set aside time each week to read and think about how we can evolve as a company to make the biggest impact.

How did you become a social entrepreneur?

Before law school, I joined Teach for America and taught ninth grade English at a high school in West Philadelphia. I felt like I had to perform heroic feats just to provide my students with the quality education they deserved. But I knew that education was a fundamental right. I went to law school to gain a deeper knowledge and a set of skills that would allow me to address the systemic issues that I saw at play in the classroom every day.

One of my favorite African proverbs is: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” My time as a Teach for America corps member and as a law student represented my time of “going alone.” After those experiences, I was ready to “go farther” with a team. After speaking with my wife and trusted friends, I decided to launch Camelback Ventures to increase the number of women and people of color in social innovation and education. It was inspired by the notion that the genius of all people and all voices are needed to change the educational landscape for our children.

Tell us more about the Camelback fellows.

To date, we’ve supported 24 fellows with coaching, capital, and connections to help them gain exposure and maximize their ventures’ social impact. We’ll be working with a new cohort of fellows in early 2017.

Each venture is different and inspiring in its own right. One of our fellows, Larry Irvin, is the cofounder of Brothers Empowered 2 Teach, an initiative building a pipeline of men of color into the teaching profession. Another is Sunny Williams, founder of Tiny Docs, who came into the fellowship program believing he needed hefty capital for his business to be successful. Through the fellowship, he narrowed his focus and worked on building momentum behind his initial concept. He ended up securing his first hospital clients and accepting a fellowship at the Unreasonable Institute.

At the beginning of 2016, I got an email informing me that three of our Camelback Fellows were being named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30 In Education” list. To know that after only two years of operating, our fellows represented 10 percent of that list was the most awesome, rewarding, validating feeling.

What have you read recently that you’d recommend?

Sprint by Jake Knapp and Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay Mcgregor.

Who has had the biggest influence on your professional life?

Definitely my wife, Ify Offor Walker. She’s taught more than any boss ever could. As a professional, I’ve learned so many things from her that are critical to my work now, from how to fundraise to how to make decisions strategically. Her support for me has been steady and enduring, and it’s our partnership that has allowed me to take a chance and start my own company.

How do you motivate your team?

One of our core values at Camelback is being unafraid of failure – that’s how you become the GOAT (greatest of all time). When I think about Lin Manuel Miranda coming up with the crazy idea that ultimately produced Hamilton, or how LeBron James decided to return home to Cleveland so he could bring a championship to a city that hadn’t enjoyed that feeling in 50+ years, that is what I see: People who were unafraid to dream big and then built things none of us have ever seen. At Camelback, we support entrepreneurs. But what inspires us is pushing back against the status quo to create a future none of us have ever seen before.

Do you have a favorite motto?

"You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same." I think about ways I can improve every day. I ask myself, “What am I doing today to make myself better than I was yesterday?”

What advice do you wish you could have given yourself on day one of your career?

I’d tell myself to be patient. Ambition is important, but it takes time to get good at something. At the beginning of my career, I was hungry for opportunity. I’d grown up being told that I was smart and talented, and in some ways, I think that actually led me to feel over-confident and to make decisions more hastily than I would now. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for experience.

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