"You have to bet on yourself..."

by Erica SunkinMar 09, 2021

NEA's Q&A series is focused on the company building journey and the impactful work of leaders across NEA’s portfolio. Our goal is to shed light on unique perspectives, guiding principles, defining moments, and lessons learned. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You currently serve as the CEO of Forethought – what led you to start this company?

I have always been a problem solver. When I think about something that needs to be fixed or solved, I obsess over it. And once I am sufficiently obsessed, I go out and try to solve that problem.

I have always believed that AI can help anyone become smarter. The first time I really proved this to be true was when I used AI to study for history. I actually built AI that would read my notes and quiz me on the materials – that is how I got through a subject that was not my best. My first job was in customer service, stocking shelves at Shopper's Drug Mart, and I found myself constantly thinking about all the customer questions. I kept coming back to the idea of how AI can help people – help the customers, help customer service agents. That was why I decided to start Forethought.

In the early days of Forethought, I actually applied to YCombinator. I got rejected. This is when something clicked for me. Despite being rejected, I knew I wasn't going to quit. I really flipped that switch and decided to dive all in on Forethought. It was my conviction – in myself and my belief that AI could help everyone become smarter – despite being rejected that brought me here today.

You raised a Series B round with some very prominent names in entertainment and VC; what does this say about Forethought and enterprise tech more broadly?

Enterprise technology is often considered “unsexy.” When you think about technology brands, you think of consumer businesses – the Facebooks, the Googles of the world. We think Forethought can become one of the few household names among enterprise brands. The same way we believe AI can permeate every single workflow for humans, we want Forethought to become synonymous with those workflows, and synonymous with intelligence in the enterprise.

When we were raising our Series B, there were quite a few folks in the entertainment space who really believed in the promise of artificial intelligence, and at the same time understood the art of brand building. They innately understood the power that could be behind a company like Forethought—a company that is already making waves in enterprise—and the potential to build a brand that every single human, every single workflow, can jive with. That was one impetus.

It’s also really important to us to tell a new story with Forethought. As a founder – a Black man and a founder of color – I didn't come from the traditional background. There's this phrase, "You can't be what you can't see." I want Forethought's story to be one that resonates with the next generation. Whether you come from an underrepresented background or otherwise, to see Forethought as a company that's built by people like you and me. This is a core part of our Forethought story, and it’s something that resonated with that group of investors—with all of our investors, really.

How would you describe your leadership style and approach to building culture? As CEO, what are the most important ways you cultivate or strengthen that culture?

It always starts with people. One thing I've learned while building Forethought is that a company will always seek to hire the best people in the world at what they do. My job as CEO is to empower and enable them to be their best selves and to do the best work of their lives.

I believe in leading with authenticity and showing up as exactly who I am – something I have had to push myself to be comfortable with but I think is important. I try to reinforce this through the power of storytelling. By consistently telling your story – talking about the mission, the vision, the culture and the values – it starts to permeate. Partially because of repetition but also because your team sees that the executive team all believes in it and lives by it.

I also find it important to get to know people at a personal level. I believe that by knowing your team and trusting them to be the best versions of themselves, they end up going a lot farther and doing a lot more.

Lastly, I believe values and culture should be actionable. We know we can bring our values into everything we do, every single day. This includes things like our hiring practices and building that into performance culture. We talk about genius in our mission – enable genius in every human and in every workflow – but we actually have a “GENIUS” anagram in our values that encapsulates this for our employees.

Every quarter we encourage team members to set growth objectives and key results (OKRs) for themselves. They can be professional or personal; “I want to learn machine learning” or "I want to get in 10,000 steps a day." But whatever it is, they’re working on themselves and continuing to cultivate that genius. That is one example of how to create culture that truly is actionable and self-reinforcing.

Ultimately, we strive to create a culture of excellence and at the same time a culture of empathy. We have built a world-class team by leading with empathy, having a constant curiosity and growth mindset, and continuing to learn and grow every single day.

Being a leader that is so focused on culture and people, have you found this to be more challenging in COVID?

100%. Maybe 1,000%. Our company was 16 people a year ago. Today we are 65 people. So you compound the fact that we aren’t in person and in a pandemic with the fact that we are substantially growing and two-thirds of the “office” is new – it is tough.

At the end of the day, we rally behind the mission, being able to be part of the solution for many people. Customer service is actually one of the most impacted areas when it comes to COVID. People changing flights, people asking tons of questions to their banks and about health benefits. And rallying behind the mission and the ability to be a part of the solution has been helpful. It's been challenging and we are still in the thick of it. So, we'll keep going.

What has been your experience as a Black founder and leader? Is there any advice you’d offer those in the early stages of their journey?

I’ve thought about this a lot. The key is that you have to bet on yourself. You may or may not have examples of what you want to be in the outside world, which can be tough from a cognitive perspective. For example, I'm an engineer by training. One of the toughest things in becoming a CEO was that I got a lot of questions along the lines of: "How are you going to go and run an enterprise company? What about recruiting? What about sales? What about all these things that, as an engineer, you shouldn't be good at?" And I internalized that.

As an underrepresented founder, you are likely going to have outside labels and assumptions placed on you. And you may start to live in them. Betting on yourself it is all about breaking out of labels. You are going to be an outlier automatically as an underrepresented founder. At the end of the day, you have to truly know yourself and what your superpowers are to be successful. Just believe in you and bet on that.

Interestingly, in venture and entrepreneurship, we are all trying to be outliers. We are trying to be that 1 in 1,000 company. And so sometimes, in order to be a leader, you have to do it your own way.

What is your superpower?

My superpower. It's somewhere between these two things:

  1. I am a problem solver. I will dissect things, try to look at the world a different way at any point in time. This has always been how I think about the world. That's how I approach math, computer science, physics. That's how I approach business and people too. I ask questions and read voraciously so that I can learn, grow and attack the problem.

  2. I’m empathetic. This is a strength that I used to think was a weakness... I love people, right? And so sometimes that translated to not being as assertive. But the strength is that when I find really great people, I get to know them. I truly understand what makes them, them, and then try to empower them as humans.

Are there mentors or role models who have inspired you in your career or played a significant role in your own professional development?

I've had the good fortune of having a lot of mentors, at different stages in my life. And it's always, always somebody who goes out of their way to lend a hand. It's in these micro moments of serendipity when you meet these people.

When I was a little kid, my older brother – who is seven years older – had a friend. And this friend was a hacker. Like, could literally get into your computer type of person. I don't know what he did with that, but he taught me how to be on a computer and how to code. I was super interested in video games and so he downloaded this program onto our crappy Windows 95 or 98 computer and showed me how to make video games through drag and drop. I wasn’t exactly coding yet, but it was a start. It was also my foray into storytelling. I was building these ideas and games and eventually coding.

I believe that experience, and similar serendipitous moments in my life, have really made an impact on me. The little things that go a long way. It is the moments when somebody sees something in you and gives you that extra nudge where you wouldn't have thought something was possible that enables you to go and make it possible.

Being an underrepresented founder, I feel like a lot of people took bets on me – even my earliest investors. It’s the people going out of their way to just get to know you and say, "Hey, I'd love to get to know this guy. Probably get nothing out of it, but I'm going to be helpful." And that really has gone a long way.

Quick Qs

First job? Stocking shelves at a Shopper’s Drug Mart (basically the Canadian CVS)

Open book? Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan

Best productivity tip? Live and die by your calendar. Block time to work on product, block time to work on recruiting, block time to work out, whatever it is. And treat those like meetings with yourself.

First thing you do in the morning? Check my email and Slack to make sure there were no fires overnight. Second thing I do is get up my two kids and have breakfast with the family.

What keeps you up at night? Other than my kids, haha? At the present it’s how to build a world-class culture, where people can do the best work of their lives and truly be happy.

Anything else? Company buildings is hard. Make it worth it. Work with the best people, have fun, and remember that mission you are going after.

Click here to learn more about Forethought.

About the Authors

Erica Sunkin