Episode 014: Neil Gordon: Disrupting Côte d’Ivoire’s Cocoa Sector with Blockchain

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About Neil Gordon

Neil Gordon is the founder and CEO of Global Agricultural Exchange (GAEX).

You can connect with him @gaexcocoa on Twitter.

GAEX is a Blockchain-enabled platform that provides liquidity to cocoa farmers in West Africa.

Neil is a former banker having worked at JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank, and KPMG.

Neil is probably one of the most ambitious people I’ve met in a while. His goal to disrupt the Ivorian cocoa sector is a breathe of fresh air. It’s uplifting to meet someone who isn’t scared of dreaming big and masters the mechanics of how it'd work.

Cynics — and the cocoa sector has a few — might say it’s pie in the sky.

But, this is the wrong attitude.

I survived a year and a half trading cocoa and I know that the sector does not lend itself to innovation. But, as margins for commodity traders get whittled down, traders need to boost efficiencies, which Blockchain can provide.

Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa sector is also known for its problematic supply chain. Whether right or wrong, it is synonymous with child labor and rampant deforestation, which has made chocolate companies more vigilant about their supply chains.

All of this to say that a Blockchain-enabled solution that could solve the trust deficit that plagues cocoa trading is much needed.

Neil also had great actionable advice for how startup founders of color should deal withVC investors.

If you’re interested in finance, trading, or curious about Blockchain, which Neil helps to demystify, this is the episode for you.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Neil Gordon.    

What We Learn from Neil

Neil shares lessons on navigating the VC (venture capitalist) world. He elaborates on choosing the right VC, demystifying their role especially in early stage financing, and preparing a pitch deck. 

Neil’s Actionable Tips    

  1. Don’t approach VCs like you're looking for a handout. VCs need you more than you need them as they’re always looking for deal flow. Build the best product, best service, and they’ll come running after you.

  2. Learn to screen VCs quickly. If they still don't know if they want to invest in you after two or three meetings, move on. If they've never done a deal in your space, they're trying to figure out how to do it. Don’t waste your time.

  3. Before you send a pitch deck to a VC, ask for a meeting over coffee. This is important because it lets you tell your story, something the pitch deck can’t do.

  4. Send emails to VCs updating them on your progress. They like to see momentum.

  5. Set up a Blockchain discussion group to brainstorm with others in your community how it can provide solutions to local problems.     

Neil’s Top Quotes

  • “When you're thinking about building a business, especially for people of color, less than 2% of VC capital goes [to fund] people of color and women of color even less, doesn't matter if they're black, Indian, Chinese, it doesn't matter. When I understood that metric, I said it's possible that we may get funding only one time. Because of that, we have to be able to grow organically and be profitable on every trade.”
  • [on getting a MBA] "What it doesn't teach you is how to hustle, how to grind, where to go, how to build political relationships, how to maneuver the marketplace. Like that's not in a book. It has to be innate in you. You wake up one day and you say, I refuse to fail; I refuse to lose. I wake up every morning and after prayer I say to myself: what are we going to do today to win? You can't learn that in business school.”  
  • “VCs are only wanting to throw money at you if other VCs are throwing money at you. Most of them cannot take the lead. They need someone else to take the lead because their mandates say that they have to wait for a lead investor.”     
  • “You’ve always got to be ready because you just never know who you're sitting in front of. You never know who that person knows. With the enthusiasm that the entrepreneur has, the passion that they have, you still have to plan for the opportunity because you don't know when it's going to come.”
  • “When you believe in something, you've got to take the risk. If not, you will always have regret. If you're young, that's the time when you have to fail. Because you can bounce back; you can make changes; you can make adjustments.”

Neil’s Links

Neil’s Mentions

  • Startup52
  • Chike Ukaegbu

Key Timestamps

  • Neil’s first foray into entrepreneurship [4:36]

  • Lessons learned from his first business [6:02]

  • Why Neil wanted to start a business in Côte  d’Ivoire as an Jamaican-American [8:12]

  • His first failed business deal in West Africa [10:29]

  • Why he chose to enter the cocoa sector [11:55]

  • How he handled telling his investors about the failed deal [17:00]

  • What business school doesn’t teach you as an entrepreneur [19:28]

  • The use case of Blockchain in Côte  d’Ivoire’s cocoa sector [24:30]

  • Plans for digital payments and getting funds into the hands of farmers more quickly [32:02]

  • What he learned about venture capitalists (VCs) from participating in the Startup52 accelerator [41:33]

  • Differences amongst VC investors [46:22]

  • Advice on fundraising to scale your idea [51:12]

  • Why you should always practice your pitch [51:14]

  • Neil’s tip for networking with VCs [57:50]

  • Resources for learning about Blockchain [59:18]

  • Best advice he’s received as an entrepreneur [1:05:54]

  • Where he’d travel in Sub-Saharan Africa to improve his business [1:08:23]

  • How he’d invest a $1bn in Africa [1:09:53]

  • His one piece of actionable advice to an aspiring African entrepreneur [1:11:02]