The summer before that fateful day of September 11, 2001, right as the tech bubble was bursting, new college graduate Marcus Shaw went to work building internet data solutions at IBM Global Services.
“You have this unique dynamic and an opportunity as an engineer to do some really cool things because you’re coming into the industry when other people are falling out and leaving,” says Shaw, 40, who recently became executive director of The Company Lab, popularly known as CO.LAB, a Chattanooga nonprofit startup accelerator that supports entrepreneurial ventures of all sizes.
“What’s interesting is you saw this again in the 2007, ’08, ‘09 period, with people coming in the industry as there’s a lot of dislocation,’’ Shaw explains. “It’s kind of like buying a house at the bottom. You get it really cheap, but you have enough capital to put together. You’ve got a job and you can hold onto it. It’s the best time. Buy low, sell high. It’s the same thing with a career.”
Of his knack for staying put when everyone else is running away, Shaw adds, “I’d like to say it’s mostly talent and insight. But it’s really just timing and luck.
“If I had graduated five years earlier, I would have been on the up side of the bubble,” he notes of his 2001 entry into the dot.com arena. “I think my outlook on this is informed by being an investor. We all get lucky at some point in life. It’s about being wise enough to realize it.”
As a boy growing up near Washington, D.C., Shaw gravitated toward “tinkering,” numbers and electronics. (His mom was a chemistry teacher, his dad a psychologist.) He went on to complete a dual-degree program, earning a B.S. in mathematics from Atlanta’s historical black Morehouse College and another in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech. Upon leaving IBM in 2003, he enrolled at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business MBA program, where he “fell in love with finance.” About a quarter of his classmates, he points out, were engineers, too.
“After a few years, engineers start to determine that maybe they want exposure to other things,” he acknowledges. “They want to understand how their products are marketed or financed, or how their teams are run. For engineers, getting the MBA is the place you acquire those other sets of skills.”
After an internship as an equity research analyst at Bank of America Securities in New York, Shaw took a fulltime job with the company, advising telecom executives about hedge funds and predicting the performance of their stocks.
Once again, luck was on his side.
Rather than accept an offer from investment bank Bear Stearns in 2008 – it would have required uprooting his wife Maren, a dermatologist completing her residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and their young daughter – he turned down the offer, thereby avoiding the collapse of the company, and the new job, shortly after. Instead, Shaw returned to North Carolina, joined Piedmont Investment Advisors in Durham, and for four years helped manage $3.5 billion in retirement assets.
Then the bottom dropped out of the market.
“I saw it happening,” he recalls. “It builds up a certain resolve in you, that things always do get better.
“My mom put this in perspective. She said, ‘You know, the ‘60s were tough. From ’63 to ’68, you had a president, attorney general, and two civil rights leaders slain. We were coming out of one war and going into another. But things always get better.’
“What I took away from this is that a lot of life is about staying power, perseverance, and finding the right opportunities,” Shaw continues.
“I stayed through the bottom, and we saw stimulus come in. We saw the economy turn around. We saw the market come from a low where people thought it would never come back. Even when things are very tough, if you have enough perseverance, enough perspective, you know where to stay.”
In 2012, Shaw left Piedmont Investment to start his own technology, media and telecommunications team at Height Analytics, a D.C. firm focusing on regulatory issues affecting companies in those fields. Two years later, a health scare forced him to slow down.
He’d been steadily building his own consulting firm, distilling what he knew about billion-dollar businesses into valuable advice for owners of small-to-medium sized companies. But his spouse was just starting her practice, and one of them needed to earn a regular paycheck.
So, when a friend recommended Shaw to a diversity group called Management Leadership for Tomorrow, he jumped at the chance to make a difference and find jobs for qualified Hispanic, Native American and other minority job candidates. He intended to stay for a short time, but ended up working there for three and a-half years.
Despite his usual knack for timing, Shaw turned down the first opportunity to move to Chattanooga in 2012 when his wife got a job offer at a dermatology practice. At the time, he felt compelled to stay in D.C., where he could meet with clients and prospects on Capitol Hill.
But, he admits, “Luck does happen twice.”
In 2015, Maren got another chance to work in Chattanooga, so the family moved to the Scenic City, with Shaw continuing to commute back and forth to D.C. for a year.
“The one thing that was still missing for me was that – and I attribute this to my parents – you want to be a person of impact where you are,” he says. “It’s hard for me to be a remote worker.
“I like to interact with my team. So, I felt this yearning: How do I get engaged in things that I enjoy in Chattanooga and work with innovative, progressive people?”
In 2016, Shaw and his wife bought a house and set down permanent roots. When the Realtor learned about Shaw’s interest in collaboration, she urged him to contact her husband, an attorney and mentor at The Company Lab.
Shaw met then-executive director Mike Bradshaw and other CO.LAB staff members and, in an effort to learn more about the organization, attended a GIGTANK pitch night for high-bandwidth business applications on the fifth floor of the Edney Innovation Center building.
“The floor’s packed,” Shaw recalls. “You’ve got about 11 or so companies that are exhibiting before the pitch competition, talking about their ventures, their stories, and you’ve probably got 120 people in the pitch competition.
“And, it’s everybody – the mayor and city council people to investors and other entrepreneurs to family and friends, people of all colors, all ages. I sent my wife a text and I was like, ‘I’m going to be home late. I think I found the place.’”
Shaw left his D.C. job and took over as executive director in July after serving as a volunteer mentor. “CO.LAB is fully aligned with my philosophies on entrepreneurship, which is, ‘Build, manage, sell,’” he points out.
“I don’t care whether you’re selling lemonade or whether you’re selling hard drives. You could be a $20 a day shop or a $20 million a day shop. The fundamentals of business are the same. And the fact that we’re able to house that philosophy in the same four walls is something that represents who I am.”
He and his team are now pinpointing areas in which Chattanooga holds a competitive advantage, including healthcare, auto manufacturing and logistics. “Maybe you’re in the wrong location and maybe you have a lot of clients that could be here,” he says.
“Or maybe you have an idea and you’ve built a prototype. What a great place and a low-risk environment, from a rent perspective, from a competitive threat perspective, from a lifestyle perspective.”
The first African-American to lead CO.LAB since its inception in 2010, Shaw hopes to diversify the city’s entrepreneurial landscape. He points out that roughly 42 percent to 45 percent of the Chattanooga population is made up of underrepresented minorities.
“That’s opportunity,” he says excitedly. “If we can figure out how to get diversity from a racial standpoint, from a gender standpoint, from an age standpoint, if we can get it right in Chattanooga, the country will be watching.
“What works in New York and San Francisco is not going to be applicable to the country. What works here is.”
Not surprisingly, persistence – or stubbornness, depending on how you look at it – is Shaw’s strong point, he says. Adaptability runs a close second. “Sometimes it requires a pivot,” he adds, “but the pivot is part of the process.
“The goal here is to create something that’s impactful and meaningful for the region. There are ideas that I can bring to the table, and I may look up and say, ‘Boy, we’ve got to zig where everybody else is zagging.’”
Shaw’s sideline consulting has morphed into “angel” investing for a few select companies. But the man who thrives on advising others is happiest when building a team, like he’s doing at CO.LAB.
In his spare time, Shaw loves reading comic books – he owns a few hundred, many featuring Batman and Spiderman – and in 2016 coached his son’s basketball team at the YMCA. A “huge” college basketball fan, he no longer plays because of a hip injury. “But basketball probably built a lot of my life theories,” he says.
On the job, he says he believes in empowering new business owners, no matter their background. “This whole spirit of entrepreneurship is not just for kids in hoodies in San Francisco,” he acknowledges.
“It’s for kids from Soddy-Daisy. It’s for kids from East Brainerd. Whether you grew up on a farm or in the ’hood, it doesn’t matter. Anybody that has an idea and is willing to persevere and build some relationships to help cultivate that idea can be successful.
“Success is not measured by raising a hundred million dollars through venture capital. If you can build a business and employ some people and put products in the community that are helpful, that is success.”
All entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, he adds.
“No tree just plops on the earth and is four stories tall,” Shaw says. “Everything starts as a seed. You’ve got to be willing to be a seed and a sapling among other trees, if you ever want to be a tree too.”