Our 1 Under 30
Mar 08, 2019 03:53PM
Jason Black started reading about technology in May of 2003 when he saw Jada Pinkett-Smith on the cover of a Wired magazine at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Costumed as Niobe, a character in The Matrix Reloaded, Smith looked ready to ride a motorcycle off the pages and into the terminal. The tech magazine’s cover story—“Re-enter the Matrix: Inside the Sequel That’s Re-inventing Cinema”—featured the film’s revolutionary visual effects. The meshing of popular culture and technological possibility sparked the imagination of twelve-year-old Jason.
“That’s when I became a tech nerd,” he remembers.
Nearly sixteen years later, Wellsboro born and raised Jason Black is a principal at RRE Ventures, a New York City-based venture capital firm that has raised $1.5 billion for new enterprises in fields including financial services and media: RRE’s portfolio includes Venmo (a mobile payment service owned by PayPal), The Huffngton Post, Giphy (an online data base and search engine), and BuzzFeed. Jason analyzes companies interested in machine learning, business intelligence software and security; his contributions to RRE’s portfolio have led to his becoming the fastest-promoted employee in the firm’s nearly twenty-five-year history. Late last year, Forbes named Jason to its 2019 list of “30 Under 30” figures to watch in his field.
Now in its eighth year, Forbes “30 Under 30” listing in the United States and Canada recognizes 600 individuals identified by the media company as “the next generation of entrepreneurs, visionaries, and game-changers” in twenty professional categories ranging from manufacturing and industry to art and style. After culling thousands of names recommended through open nominations (this year’s online submissions numbered around 15,000), Forbes staff identified finalists for industry leaders selected in each category; these experts then selected thirty names to represent their fields. A member of the 2019 “Venture Capital” category, Jason’s class of thirty includes an engineer with a planet named after him, a former Department of Defense mathematician who graduated from Berkeley at age thirteen, and Arielle Zuckerberg—seasoned product manager, investor, and the younger sister of Facebook’s founder.
Jason graduated from Wellsboro Area High School and started Harvard University as a pre-med major. While taking requisite classes in chemistry, life sciences, economics, and psychology during his first two years, he practiced sketching and buried himself in “voracious tech reading.” He founded the Harvard College Tech Review, worked as a freelance graphic designer, and thought a lot about advertising.
“It took Jason awhile to figure out what he wanted to do,” recollects his mom, Kate Black.
During his junior year, Jason added computer science classes to his schedule and accepted a paid summer internship in Washington state with Microsoft’s Office division. He graduated from Harvard a year later with a degree in psychology (he minored in computer science) and returned to Microsoft to develop Office’s first dedicated startup analysis. Fresh out of college, Jason found himself presenting to a team that included Bill Gates, an empowering experience that “de-deified” the business magnate.
“I realized, ‘he’s a human too,’” Jason says. The encounter encouraged him to realize that a Wellsboro kid could have a place among industry titans simply because his perspective—as a digital native well read in tech trends—was unique.
“I’m not going to assume that everyone is smarter or that I have the best way forward,” he says, “but I can contribute and bring something new.”
When Jason arrived at Microsoft, there was no centralized person in his Office division to assess what startup tech companies could offer in terms of software and vision. His work helped the company improve by, among other things, broadening the user experience. After a year, he was ready for something different.
Kate says her son admires Microsoft and values the training it gave him. “I think for his own career, he was looking to work at a place where he would be exposed to the new edge of technology. And being a tech analyst for emerging companies was what he wanted to do.”
Jason returned to the East Coast nearly five years ago after beating out hundreds of applicants for the job at RRE Ventures, a small firm and one of the first of its kind when it began almost a quarter of a century ago. He realized right away that there wasn’t an instruction manual on how to become a successful venture capitalist. The job relies on educated instinct.
“Nobody tells you what to do. Any one thing can lead to a great deal,” Jason says. His professional world exists in a state of uncertainty, and until he began figuring out his work style, so did his days. “You can network with everyone or focus on industry details, going super deep in robotics, data infrastructure, or healthcare information technology. Nobody knows the right answer, or what is going to be a multi-billion dollar opportunity.” One of his most successful ventures is RRE’s investment in Latch, a smart lock access system that allows users to unlock doors from a smartphone. Targeted at enterprises with multi-unit buildings, Latch launched in 2016, raised $70 million in its Series B financing round, and found quick partners in UPS and Wal-Mart. Most startups are not so fortunate.
Every investment is a calculated risk, with analysts assessing emerging companies from an ever-evolving knowledge base of industry, marketplace, cultural trends, and consumer demand. The average start-up needs three to five years to prove itself, and the odds are overwhelmingly against its success, no matter how smart the plan or savvy the investment team.
“Exceptional entrepreneurs find a way to make their business successful,” Jason says, pointing to a businessman named Steward Butterfield as an example. Butterfield is the founder of Slack, a real-time team collaboration app and platform. Slack began with the failure of an online video game called Glitch Butterfield and his company developed; when Glitch folded, Butterfield focused on one successful piece of the game—its chat room.
“Instead of seeing the loss, Butterfield noted that people loved the chat,” says Jason. Two years after it launched, Slack was valued at $2.8 billion dollars.
Real World Problem Solving
For decades, Sherm Warner taught his math students at Wellsboro Area High School how to tackle problems like visionaries such as Butterfield do. Jason studied AP calculus for two years with Warner and calls the man his most influential teacher. On one of his first days in AP calculus, Jason and his small in number yet large in enthusiasm classmates took out graph paper to work through an exercise.
“[Warner] said, ‘What are you doing?’ and handed us regular composition paper,” Jason laughs.
From day one, Sherm Warner used class procedures to mirror real world problem solving. Instead of relying on textbooks, he would present a mini-lesson and have students exercise a concept on scenarios he contemplated outside of the classroom.
“He would teach us one lesson, and then bring in one problem at a time to work on until it was time for a new concept,” Jason recalls, commenting on some of the theoretical applications Warner presented more than a decade ago. One was “something about calculating the optimal position on the soccer field to take a shot if you are running ten yards from the sideline.” Another concerned the derivation of railroad angles.
Sherm Warner retired in 2013 after decades of teaching across three different school districts. His colleagues speak to his ability to reach and teach any type of student. Today, Warner and his wife, a retired elementary school teacher, have a farm on a couple of hundred acres in nearby Millerton, where they oversee a sawmill, tend to twenty-seven beef cattle, and watch some combination of eleven grandchildren every day.
Warner loved teaching, and he loved teaching calculus.
“One of my big things,” he reflects, “was that I wanted to make students aware that there was a bigger world out there and to take responsibility for what they were learning. You can talk about the ‘how’ and the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ for them to learn the material, but they need to internalize it.” He pauses when considering his classroom philosophy. “I would try to give them something to relate the ideas to...something to connect them to.”
It Helps to Know Your Roots
Jason constantly relates the ideas of entrepreneurs to the interests and habits of his hometown. Growing up in Wellsboro gave him an understanding of consumer space different than that of his peers in the city.
“Very few people here have grown up in a town of 3,000 people,” says Jason. When discussing non-essential goods and services with team members, he always thinks about Wellsboro.
“I ask myself, ‘Is this something my high school classmates would buy?’ People are claiming they know middle America, but would anybody in Wellsboro buy a $150 T-shirt? How many people would pay $300 for luggage?”
Raju Rishi, a partner at RRE Ventures, has watched analysts and investors jump on flashy ideas that generate buzz but ultimately fail. “There’s a little bit of a herd mentality. People see something, and they all run to the ball,” Raju says. “Not every idea is a billion-dollar idea. Few have billion-dollar potential.” When hiring or considering promotions on its small team, RRE evaluates the intellectual horsepower, intellectual curiosity, and work ethic of team members. Raju attributes these characteristics to Jason, along with one other: patience under pressure. Some of the savviest employees in the business, Raju has found, are former athletes. Under intense pressure, such individuals are competitive but also collaborative, and capable of calculating risk while managing stress.
It’s All Downhill
Around the same time that Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character in The Matrix graced Wired magazine’s cover, Curt Schramm, owner of CS Sports in Wellsboro, noticed the name “Jason Black” appearing often in youth ski racing results. Curt, a lifelong skier, had become a coach when his son was a toddler. He left his native Williamsport for Wellsboro in the early 1990s to manage Country Ski and Sports (the precursor to CS Sports); on weekends and evenings, he coached at Ski Denton and later Ski Sawmill. It didn’t take long for Curt to realize that one of his customers—a Dr. Richard Black—shared the same last name as the kid ski racer he’d been reading about.
A bit of a backstory: Dr. Richard and Kate Black have lived in Wellsboro since 1987. The two met in Boston when Kate, a respiratory therapist from Michigan, needed a dentist and found Richard, then a graduate student at the Harvard University School of Dental Medicine. After specializing in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, Richard took over a dental practice in Wellsboro and the two settled nearby. In addition to Jason, they have a thirty-year-old daughter, Rachel, a dentist outside of Indianapolis, and Max, a twenty-three-year-old legal analyst at Wayfair Corporate Headquarters in Boston. All three siblings attended Harvard.
“The Harvard expectation was pretty much set the first day of kindergarten,” Jason laughs.
Kate attributes her children’s academic success to a shared internal motivation. Jason, she says, was a “meticulous” kid with organized notebooks and neat handwriting. He did scare her though.
“He has always been a risk taker, physically and mentally,” she laughs. “I don’t think we’re surprised that he is where he is.”
Max Black describes his older brother as having a “knack for walking on the edge.” Literally. “Growing up, whenever we were anywhere dangerous, by the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon or on a ledge by the sea, Jason would always try and walk as close to the edge as possible (much to my mother’s vocal protestations),” he says. “I think he likes the thrill of the void. Jason’s someone who does not feel fear in the face of uncertainty or danger, but joy. I think this is one thing that makes Jason such a successful person: he feels exhilaration where others feel fear.”
Anyway, after making the Richard/Jason connection, Curt began coaching Jason. Under his tutelage, the teenage skier became a Pennsylvania state champion in Alpine ski racing and a competitor in the Junior Olympics.
“Ski racing is a character builder,” says Curt, who went on to coach two other state champions. “At some level, competitors become your teammates.” Curt recalls Jason competing against a celebrated young skier from western Pennsylvania the year he won the Alpine event. The other kid had a “different pair of skis for every type of run”—the downhill, the slalom, the giant slalom, and the super-G (super giant slalom). Curt remembers overhearing a conversation between the two young competitors in which Jason said he only had one pair of skis for every type of slope. “That Jason could ski so well on one pair of skis,” laughs Curt, “totally got into this other kid’s mind.” He lost and Jason won the title.
“Jason was usually very calm and collected, very attentive,” Curt continues. But not always. When his athletes would get frustrated about a bad run or glitch in technique, Curt redirected them with a no-nonsense approach. “I’d tell him that you only have to be the racer that makes the least amount of mistakes,” Curt reflects. “Just keep going.”
And Then It’s All Uphill
In a profession where “people jump around a lot,” Jason looks forward to staying with RRE for a long time. “I love what I do. It is really a very fulfilling job and one that is so unique to what I love.” He is on track to become a partner at the venture firm, and in his spare time, he sits on the boards of ten different companies.
“I love continuously learning,” he continues, “and of watching companies grow and helping them grow.”
Sometime after Jason moved to New York, his mom wondered if he was doing too much.
“I said to him once, ‘You’re always working,’” Kate remembers, “and he said to me, ‘Mom, I want to be the best I can be in this field because I love it.’”
Her older son greatly credits his upbringing for his ambitions, saying that it taught him to be himself and do what he loves. Sherm Warner taught his classes that “you can go further than you expect on your own,” says Jason, and he has found his teacher’s lessons to be as true in Tioga County as they are in Manhattan. Jason loves living in New York City, and he tries to “recreate” his hometown’s sense of community by getting to know his baristas and bartenders.
Kate likes to hear this. She recalls pinning a Dale Carnegie quote to a corkboard in Jason’s room at home. It read as a principle from Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
And mom doesn’t need to worry about her son’s working too hard. He manages to get outside of the office to cycle at least 100 miles every week.