She may have been once known as the stylish, quirky friend to NeNe Leakes on Bravo’s hit reality TV Show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, but there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Tanya Sam. Originally a registered nurse with a BSc degree in Genetics and Cell Biology and a BScN in Nursing, Tanya made a career transition several years ago into technology after being introduced to the field by her now fiancé Dr. Paul Judge, a serial tech entrepreneur and investor. Now, the Canadian beauty is blooming in the city of Atlanta as not only an intelligent friend of the city’s most popular “peach holders”, but as the Director of Operations and Partnerships at one of the city’s most prominent centers for innovation, TechSquare Labs. TechSquare Labs has invested in more than 30 companies and has a robust portfolio that has generated over $100 million in revenue.
Tanya is also the co-founder of BuiltxWomen, a business accelerator geared towards woman entrepreneurs, and developed Ascend 2020, a small business pre-accelerator that seeks to help inner-city businesses and minority-owned businesses thrive in the United States. In this interview with BAUCE, Tanya shares why investing in other businesses is such a powerful tool for achieving financial freedom. She also discusses her top tips for building wealth over time.
Prior to working in technology, you were a registered nurse! But then you met your partner who kind of opened the door for your career transition. Can you share with us a bit more about how you made the switch into technology?
Tanya: At like probably on one of our second or third dates in Atlanta [Paul] was like, “Hey do you mind? We have to take a little detour.” We were going to go to dinner and he said, “I just have to meet this guy.” And it turns out that meeting was over coffee with a gentleman who was a Ph.D. Computer Science graduate from Georgia Tech like him. They were early-stage building this company and you know in a startup it’s all hands on deck. So, whenever I’d be hanging out with Paul he’d be like “Can you do this? Can you help with this part of the business.” And I’d be like, “No, I have no idea what I’m doing! No, I don’t have a degree in Computer Science. I don’t know how to run operations or do a sales plan.” And he’d be like “Yeah, yeah, yeah you’ll figure it out.” And that’s really how I got into tech and startups. It was kind of like a real-life accelerated MBA program.
You know I never felt like I had the experience and the schooling to do it, but I tell [anyone] trying to make the career shift to just throw yourself into it and find great mentors. Fast forward, that was about seven years ago and I now run a technology and innovation space in Atlanta. I [create] and run all our programs. A lot of them I obviously geared towards women, people of color, minorities, the LGBT community.
Most people were introduced to you via your appearance as a friend on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. What part of your personality did people not get to see on the show?
Tanya: It’s so funny because you live your life and you assume maybe people will follow you on social but then I’ll meet so many people and they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know you’re a nerd” or “I didn’t know that you have all these different personality traits.” I’ve come to realize more and more that you know the exposure I did have on the show was very focused on just the show. So people didn’t know that I’ve had multiple careers, I’ve had some very interesting jobs within the nursing realm as well as technology. People didn’t know that I’m now working on doing more personal investments into early-stage companies especially that are focused on women and entrepreneurial people of color.
Interesting! Tell us more. What is your advice when it comes to investing in a business?
Tanya: I kind of love this because I’m getting a little bit older now and a lot of us have worked and saved some money and are now looking to make their money work for them and so everyone’s talking about investing and making the “right type of investments.” And I think a lot of it starts with the research into either the company, or the founder, or the person you’re investing in. And you know one of our strategies in particular at Tech Square Labs is it’s the person. If they’re building a company, they need to be really dedicated and almost to the point of, you know, that they are borderline crazy about getting this company or this idea across the finish line because entrepreneurship in general, no matter what type of business you’re building, is so difficult. So you need someone who is going to work like a dog to give you the returns that you want on your investment.
And you know that doesn’t mean that they haven’t had failures before. But we look for someone that has some sort of special knowledge or intel into the problem they’re solving. So, it could very well be a nurse who’s like look I’ve worked for 15 years and this drove me crazy every day at work and now I’m going after that problem because she has a deep understanding of how it can be solved and the needs that are required to solve it.
I will say you have got to trust your gut. You never regret the investments that you do make — it’s the investments that you don’t make that keep you up at night.
Are there specific things that people need to remember to be a make a powerful pitch? Are there red flags that you notice when someone’s pitching you for investment that makes you say “Nah, I’ll pass on that”?
Tanya: I love but I can overlook a well-designed pitch deck. I tell people that goes a long way. You know it’s so easy to make beautiful graphics and stuff. Now I mean gone are the days where it cost you like $20,000 to have something created in Photoshop. So, I think the first part is presentation, presentation, presentation. Make it beautiful. Study other decks and look at what’s beautiful and happening now because that goes a long way even though it is a surface piece.
I think you should absolutely understand your market. Understand your competitors because you know you’re going to get asked that question and you know often times people will be like “I have no competitors because nobody is doing what I’m doing. I’m the only person on earth that is doing this and there’s nothing else out there.” That’s not a good answer.
And when you’re pitching, if someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, “Say you know what I will look into that, someone on my team might have a better understanding” and follow up. The follow up is really important. If you follow up and say “listen you raised a really great point — we thought about it more and here’s the answer” — that goes a long way in terms of how it shows how you would potentially communicate in future with investors.
Achieving financial freedom is one of our main tenants here at BAUCE. Would you say that investing is one of the top ways to achieve that goal or would you caution against it?
Tanya: I say the first thing is to be fiscally responsible in your life from an early age. So I think, especially for women, one of the things that I talk about a lot about is saving. You have to be cognizant of saving your money. And this is such a culture of spend, spend, spend and be fabulous, fabulous, fabulous and that often gets lost. But there are ratios like you should be saving at least 20 percent of your paycheck or your income every month. If not every week. So that I think is the first piece: saving so that we have the cash assets and availabilities that we can invest them once we have that.
And then I think it’s your choice where you really want to spend your money. I mean it could be real estate, it could be in stock, it could be in technology. Real estate is a great way to start investing. I’ve had a lot of success with pre-construction investments. By investing in a pre-construction condo, you just make sure you understand who the builders are and then three years later that money can prove to be very profitable and have doubled.
Savings should be something that we do every week. It’s really, really a lifestyle. Don’t get your tax return and blow it. Like, put that into something that is meaningful and can multiply. One last thing on savings and I will say you know once people start turning to the idea of investing in technology and stocks there’s a lot of great apps out there that make this so much easier. For example, Robin Hood is one of them. You don’t need to go to this evasive financier who will invest your stocks and stuff, you can do it yourself on the phone and you can follow your stock going up and down.
There’s been a lot of conversation about Atlanta becoming a huge tech hub in the south as a place where companies run by black entrepreneurs can thrive outside of Silicon Valley. Do you feel like this is true?
Tanya: I mean I will say [Atlanta] is a tech hub and a strong one. The community here is extremely vibrant, and it’s thriving and growing. I think one of the things that makes it so vibrant is the fact that we’ve got great technical institutions. I mean Georgia Tech pumped out more computer science and engineering graduates than Stanford and M.I.T. combined. So if you need smart people to build and scale technology companies, they’re right here in your backyard. We’ve got just some amazing assets and resources.
The other thing with the Valley is there are so many companies out there that I find a lot of people go out there and it’s overwhelming. But what’s happening here in Atlanta is you’ve got different types of companies growing from biotech to fintech. We’ve got a lot of commerce. We have a lot of culture startups that are really interesting because it’s such a town influenced by music and everything else. So, it’s a great place to build companies and I think you’re seeing more and more of that across the country in other smaller places that you know kind of make people surprised that they can build big companies outside of the Valley.
I would also say probably eight or nine years ago one of the big drawbacks was if you were raising VC funding for a company – at that time invariably the VCs and the investors would say you have to come to Silicon Valley to get the money. That’s not happening anymore. Like you are starting to see investors and VCs get on a plane and take their board meetings in Atlanta and other cities because if the idea is good and you can scale it for half the price in another town that takes their money a lot further. So I think that’s changed the game a lot as well.
Thank you for all the solid advice! In your definition, Tanya, what’s a BAUCE woman?
Tanya: I would say a BAUCE woman is just out there, she’s getting up every day, and she’s going for what she wants. And I think the key to that also is doing it with a smile on her face and a good heart. Just trying to do right for herself and others and pull other people up all at once. I know that’s a lot but that’s essentially what I thrive to do.