Updated: November 14, 2012 6:05AM
While Chicago’s startup cheerleaders trumpet rapid-fire business launches, South Side native Aaron Gray is working to empower the underserved, overlooked and unconventional businessperson to think about a variety of options.
Gray, 31, has started The Legacy Movement to upend the conversation about business startups: He has set up LegacyMovement.net for would-be entrepreneurs, franchisees and business owners looking to sell, as well as people aiming to start for-profits, nonprofits or social ventures and others who don’t necessarily want to start a company from scratch.
The Legacy Movement, whose network charges $25 a month, is focused on many of the people who suffered the most in the recession: women, military veterans and people of color.
“Our goal is to change the conversation about success in entrepreneurship in underserved communities,” said Gray, who now lives in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.
“We are taught that success is to go to school, make money, get a job and marry and have a family,” he said. “But that formula doesn’t work for many people, especially the many who have lost their jobs and their homes in the economic crisis.”
These groups are largely invisible in the dealmaking networks of Silicon Valley, Wall Street and even the Silicon Prairie, Gray said.
“There is a knowledge and opportunity gap,” he said.
Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and academic who has criticized Silicon Valley for its barriers to tech-leadership diversity, said the Legacy Movement “is exactly what is needed” and “a great first step” in helping people outside of traditional networks achieve success.
“By hanging out with others who’ve achieved success, people gain ideas, and if investors like those ideas, they will invest in them. It builds on itself,” said Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research at Singularity University, a California-based center that educates select leaders about technologies soon to change the world.
“We need to have this (network) increased by a factor of 100,” said Wadhwa, whose new book, “The Immigrant Exodus,” calls attention to barriers to immigrants’ success as tech entrepreneurs in the United States.
There’s another group Gray wants to include in his network — one he knows from his own experience — the successful corporate professional whose alienation and lack of fulfillment make him or her realize he wants to run his own venture.
Gray had an enviable career as a successful investment banking analyst and venture capital associate with the best-known names on Wall Street and in the investing world. He worked as an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs, as a venture capital associate at at Greycroft Partners and as a business investment and business intelligence analyst at Fandango, a Los Angeles-based pioneer of remote movie ticketing backed by Accretive Technology and Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV).
Gray said the 16-hour days and other demands of the shrunken workforce cause many people to figure out they’d be better off investing that time into their own companies or nonprofits, or to carry on the legacy of a retiring businessperson whose venture would otherwise disappear.
He credits his economics teacher at Whitney Young High School, Raymond Grant, with raising his interest in finance and ultimately inspiring him to create The Legacy Movement.
“Grant was an avid individual investor who talked to the class about his investments,” Gray said. “It piqued our interest in learning about financial markets.”
Grant went out of his way to help his students, including Gray, and met with Gray and a friend, Frederick Freeman, after work to recommend books for the students to read and offer advice on getting a job on Wall Street.
The Legacy Movement’s technology platform aims to counter the isolation with free resources and information online, outside of the monthly-fee network: Books and articles with pertinent advice and YouTube videos of workshops and seminars the Legacy Movement does for college students and business people.
The Legacy Movement has inspired Gray’s friend, Michael Curry, 32, a second-year MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, to explore putting together a group of investors, mentors and supporters to connect first-time entrepreneurs with businesspeople looking to transfer their companies to the next generation.
The network, Project Rejuvenate, would boost the economy in two ways: By helping MBA grads in a tough job market quickly find support and an existing business to run, and let Baby Boomers ready to retire pass on their business legacies, Curry said.
Curry had previously worked as an investment banking analyst with Morgan Stanley in the U.K. and ran a men’s clothing business in his native Atlanta from 2006-2009. For two years before entering Booth, Curry led fund-raising and development work for a financial literacy nonprofit.
Curry is using The Legacy Movement website to find resources and contacts.
“Aaron’s ability to continue adding to the number and caliber of people on his site is extremely helpful in our group’s growth,” Curry said.