Aaron T. Walker has always been struck by how his upbringing profoundly shaped his future. His childhood home in a suburban New Jersey town was only one block away from Newark, a city that had struggled since the ’60s to recover from riots during the Civil Rights Movement.
“I was the first in my family to go to college, the first to go to law school, the first to do a lot of different things, and one of the things I became passionate about as an adult was education, and the impact education can have on changing lives. I know how important it was in my life.”
After teaching high school English in West Philadelphia and going to law school, Aaron spent years working in the education space, namely in venture philanthropy. Today he’s the founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures — a nonprofit in New Orleans, Louisiana that provides coaching, capital, and connections to underrepresented entrepreneurs.
The inspiration behind Camelback, Aaron shares, was this belief: “Genius is equally distributed but access is not. If you really believe that, then you know that talent is everywhere. It’s just incumbent on you to allow that talent to flourish.”
Finding and elevating “genius”
Aaron’s experience in education taught him about the importance of talent, and the impact it can have at a teaching level — for example, through organizations like Teach for America, which enlists and trains teachers for low-income communities. However, he saw a lack of programs dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Organizations weren’t taking advantage of all the amazing talent out there, particularly among women and people of color:
“If you look at a lot of social entrepreneurship organizations, over two-thirds of the founders are men, and over 80% are white and went to prestigious universities. So there’s a whole group of other folks who we are working in the margins and the front lines — who have great ideas that could change education — but who aren’t being funded and supported in the same ways. I wanted to create a place and a platform to elevate that genius. That’s why I started Camelback Ventures.”
Genius is equally distributed but access is not.
Like many startup founders, Aaron started Camelback out of his apartment. The timing wasn’t ideal — his wife was about to have their second child. Nevertheless, Aaron felt supported in pursuing his dream. With his wife’s blessing, he used what little money they had, plus some donations from family and friends, to gather $30,000. The first Camelback Ventures cohort was only three entrepreneurs.
After coaching those entrepreneurs for four months, Aaron spent the rest of the year telling his company’s story. That enabled him to raise $1M — and everything snowballed from there. To date, 34 aspiring entrepreneurs have participated in their fellowship program, and Camelback’s partners now include organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and more.
Bringing together a diverse team, with a single mission, in a unique place
Today, Camelback Ventures is a spirited team of five full-time employees and around half a dozen part-time consultants. The name was inspired by New Orleans, where the first “camelback-style homes” originated following the Civil War.
As their website explains, “Families of the Free Black population resourcefully added a second story to the rear of these shot-gun style houses, creating a structure reminiscent of a camel’s back. We took our name from this innovation, believing we could continue the tradition of using creativity and ingenuity to improve not only our communities, but also lift up and create opportunities for our underrepresented peers.”
Limited resources force you to be creative and ask yourself what’s really important to people.
While a couple of the team members were so moved by the mission that they relocated to New Orleans, a few already had ties to the area. Elizabeth Bates, Director of Venture Excellence, was one of the first employees who helped Aaron start the organization. Jacob Pouncey is the team’s resident local. Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Jacob went to school at Tulane University and started at Camelback Ventures as an intern. His internship worked out so well that he joined full-time last year after graduating. He describes his hometown’s unique appeal this way:
“There’s no U.S. city that’s similar to New Orleans — it’s definitely an oasis with its own identity and history. After Hurricane Katrina, the rate of entrepreneurship almost doubled the national average. Once you throw the food, the music on top of that — it’s the perfect recipe for creative types and people with entrepreneurial spirit. That’s what keeps me here. You could strike up a conversation with anyone on the street and that person will be your best friend for life after that.”
We’re trying to be ‘Moonlight’ for the social sector. How do we as a small, scrappy, mighty, relentless, and passionate team take home the trophy?
Respecting the team’s time
As part of the company’s culture, Aaron says he simply tries to approach employees with respect — as people, but also in terms of their time and their intentions. For one, Camelback has an unlimited vacation policy. “I’m not counting. That’s just a way to respect the fact that it’s not necessarily about the time you put in, it’s also about the quality of the time you put in,” Aaron says. Perhaps the most unusual policy at Camelback is a relatively new one — a “five-hour work day.” One day a week — currently Wednesday, though Aaron says they hope to get up to two or three days — everyone works from 8:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. or 9:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. “By the time lunch comes, your day is over and you get to go home,” he explains. “Limited resources force you to be creative and ask yourself what’s really important.”
Giving people back their time has led to more opportunities to find joy and productivity outside of the office — recently, the team challenged each other to “go do something you keep saying you’re going to do, but you never do.” Aaron went to Home Depot to finally start in on a home improvement project and Elizabeth, who wanted to buy a home to improve, spent her extra hours at open houses. Aaron points out that these shortened workdays not only helps people focus during work time, it can enable people to pursue other interests as well. “Jon has been trying to write a children’s book. For him to be able to have that time to write that book will make him a better employee. He’s thinking in new ways and developing his writing.”
One more time-honored (and time-honoring) tradition at Camelback Ventures is “Affogato Fridays,” a regular meeting outside of the office (originally started by Amanda after a group milestone) where the team discusses and celebrates what they did during the week. The meeting happens a few blocks away at a cafe that serves affogatos, an Italian dessert made with ice cream covered in a shot of espresso. Whether people choose to order coffee, ice cream, or a sweet mix of the two, it gives the team a chance to build connections and bonds on a regular basis.
And when it comes to Aaron’s leadership philosophy, he emphasizes empowerment: “This should work without me!”
How a strong mission permeates an entire organization
Elizabeth says the Camelback team practices what they preach. Because they encourage their Fellows to be experimental, they also frequently try new things — for example, fresh ways to convey information. When the program’s coaches visited New Orleans for training, the Camelback team wanted more “experiential” onboarding sessions that went beyond presenting a dry deck of slides. They had the coaches pair up, interview each other about their skill sets and perspectives, then pitch their partners to the broader group. To make things even more interactive and visual, the coaches were also asked to co-create a map of their respective skill sets. That activity resulted in — as so many things at Camelback seem to — a whiteboard filled with ideas that they could share.
With no marketing budget, they got 181 applications, compared to 85 in the previous year.
Operating on a limited budget, the team’s penchant for brainstorming often comes in handy. Aaron recounts one of their biggest challenges to date — driving more people to the fellowship program. Because they couldn’t afford to have someone solely dedicated to that effort, the team pooled together their individual areas of expertise. Amanda (Creative Director) created beautiful and elegant collateral, Jon (Director of Insights & Strategy) made a series of webinars to educate potential applicants, Jacob (Operations & Strategy) worked behind-the-scenes to ensure their application tech was seamless, and the whole team pitched in on reading applications. This collective effort resulted in the most applications Camelback Ventures had ever received — with no marketing budget, they got 181 applications, compared to 85 in the previous year.
Small but mighty — the “Moonlight” of the social sector
Aaron advises other early-stage organizations to find “rowers,” not “steerers” — folks who are “willing to roll up their sleeves,” and who “love you enough to tell you the truth but also to give you another chance.” Some examples of “rowers” for Camelback include Aaron’s wife, Ify Offor Walker, who was willing to make sacrifices for his dream alongside him, as well as Paula Sneed, a former Kraft executive who has been one of their champions from the start.
In describing the shared characteristics of the Camelback Ventures team, Aaron makes a remarkably timely analogy. If he had to assign a collective “spirit animal” to his team, he would choose recent “Best Picture” Oscar winner Moonlight. With only a $1.5 million budget, it beat out all the expensive blockbusters.
Aaron says, “We’re trying to be Moonlight for the social sector. How do we as a small, scrappy, mighty, relentless, and passionate team take home the trophy?”