Mike Ross is one of the most influential angel investors in Atlanta.
For the best part of a decade, he’s been discreetly writing checks and privately advising some of the most successful startups in the Black tech ecosystem.
Ross has an uncanny ability to spot winning teams. He often bets on founders when their early-stage startups are just getting off the ground or when others deem it too risky.
“I’ve been very fortunate in the construction industry,” says Ross, founder of management consulting firm MHR International. “I want to pay it forward and see the community thrive.”
His track record speaks for itself. Ross, a Morehouse College alumnus, has invested in a slew of black-led companies such as Luma, Partpic, Monsieur, Axis Replay, Myavana, TechSquare Labs, Opportunity Hub, and The Gathering Spot, to name a few.
“Mike has funded many successful Black-led startups in the Atlanta ecosystem and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him. When many have faced the run around of false promises or flat out rejections, Mike confidently put his money in and pushed our founders further.”
“Mike was the catalyst for our company’s success as our very first angel investor,” says Candace Mitchell Harris, co-founder and CEO of beauty tech startup Myavana. “I still remember meeting him for the first time at the Black Founders Conference in June 2012, inquisitive and eager to get behind the movement that was beginning in Atlanta in the tech startup scene.
“We were able to go to market with our first product through Mike’s support, which became a domino effect for other investors and supporters to come along,” she adds. “Overall, it really enhanced our confidence as a black female founder team that someone believed in us enough to put their money in to fuel our vision.”
Big wins for Ross include being the sole Atlanta angel to invest in Partpic, which was later acquired by e-commerce giant Amazon. Ross also took a chance on Paul Judge’s Luma, a consumer Wi-Fi company that was sold in 2018.
“Mike Ross was the only Atlanta-based angel investor to believe in Partpic and invest in our business,” says Partpic founder Jewel Burks Solomon. “He helped us understand the importance of getting certified as a MBE and WBE and made introductions to help us learn more about leveraging those certifications.”
Several of the entrepreneurs Ross has backed have gone on to become influential players in Atlanta. Burks Solomon now runs Google for Startups USA. Monsieur founder Barry Givens is a Managing Director at Cox Enterprises Social Impact Accelerator powered by Techstars, and Paul Judge’s innovation hub TechSquare Labs continues to thrive.
Givens and Burks Solomon alongside Justin Dawkins are also co-founders of investment firm Collab Capital, which offers both funding and mentorship to entrepreneurs.
“I really want to focus on problems that we can solve here in Atlanta,” said Givens in a recent interview talking about his Techstars role. “We have a lot of issues here that, if we solve them here, they can scale fairly rapidly outside of this market also.”
“It’s hard to capture how the support of Mike Ross helped me thrive with EnrichHer,” says Dr. Roshawnna Novellus, founder and CEO of fintech startup EnrichHER. “More than money, he has provided his time and insight.
“As a black woman entrepreneur, I had no prior experience with men being real supporters of women in business,” she adds. “Mike has fundamentally changed my perspective of how black people can support one another and the possibility of black men rallying behind black women.”
Ross, who has opted to stay under the radar, is fiercely loyal to Atlanta. His work is motivated by a relentless commitment to see the ecosystem thrive. “Ten years ago [the Black tech startup ecosystem] was just starting out,” he says. “Now Atlanta is one of the top tech hubs in the country and the ecosystem is probably one of the most diverse.”
This is aided by HBCUs, world-class universities like Georgia Tech, the growth of co-working startup hubs, and the relatively low cost of living. This flourishing landscape is helping the city nurture and cultivate tech talent as well as birth the embryonic black tech ecosystem in Atlanta.
Ross, a former member of the Board of the Georgia Technology Authority, says Atlanta is uniquely positioned to embrace its growing status as the Black tech mecca. “It’s the best place to start a business if you’re a black person because there are so many support mechanisms in place, from the local government to black colleges.”
Statistics back this claim. An astounding 25% of employees in Atlanta’s tech industry are black, in San Francisco, it’s 6%, according to a recent Fast Company article. This figure is likely to rise as Black ambitious transplants continue to relocate to the “chocolate city” seeking new opportunities.
Still, Ross admits there are challenges. “Venture capital is growing yet it’s got a long way to go. It’s hard to replicate what’s been going on in Silicon Valley for 50 or 60 years.”
The son of Clark Atlanta University educators, Ross says he was raised in a loving home that encouraged giving back. “My parents always taught us to give back to the community. I want to make a difference in helping to grow companies in Atlanta. This is part of my ministry.”
Burks Solomon is full of praise for the support Ross has given to Atlanta’s Black tech ecosystem. “He is one of the very few active angel investors who has taken a chance on many of the people who are leading some of the most notable Black-led startups in Atlanta today including me, Barry Givens, Candace Mitchell, and Ryan Wilson,” she says.
Mitchell Harris agrees. “Mike has funded many successful Black-led startups in the Atlanta ecosystem and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him. When many have faced the run around of false promises or flat out rejections, Mike confidently put his money in and pushed our founders further.
“He is someone who personifies ‘don’t talk about it, be about it’. That is the differentiator in Atlanta realizing its potential as a startup hub. It’s important that we continue to lean on the wisdom of the greats in business like Mike to realize the financial success that we’re on the brink of as a community.”
In many ways, Ross is the bridge between Atlanta’s traditional business community and the city’s emerging Black tech ecosystem fuelled by a younger generation. Former Atlanta mayors, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young were both trusted mentors to Ross as he forged his career in the burgeoning construction industry.
In fact, he says it’s critical to pay homage to these trailblazers who laid the foundation for Atlanta’s thriving black middle class.
“The ecosystem for inclusion in business was created several decades ago by the likes of Maynard Jackson, David Franklin, Oscar Harris, David Moody, Emma Darnell, Jesse Hill, and Herman Russell,” says Ross.
“The standard that was set by Maynard Jackson, he basically said we’re going to have minority participation in the city and that created an environment for black businesses to develop and thrive.” Jackson, the ultimate champion for Black business, was well known for mandating quotas for black contractors.
Ross’s ability to become an accredited investor is very much tied to the success of his day job.
With over 25 years of service, MHR International has a track record of success, managing and providing strategic guidance to multimillion-dollar and multibillion initiatives. Major projects under its belt include the Centennial Olympic Games, Georgia World Congress Center Expansion IV, and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expansion.
The downtown Atlanta firm has co-managed several billion dollars in construction projects, including over $2 billion in contracts that have been awarded by its clients to minority, female-owned, and disadvantaged contractors. “The company has received several awards for diversity & inclusion, including two national awards from the Airport Minority Advisory Council for DBE Program of the Year in Atlanta and St Louis.”
Despite all his accomplishments, Ross is happy to quietly do the work without public applause. Still, last year he was propelled into the spotlight when he was awarded the Investor Choice prize at Atlanta’s annual Siggie Awards, which recognizes unsung heroes in the startup ecosystem.
“Mike Ross was the only Atlanta based angel investor to believe in Partpic and invest in our business. He helped us understand the importance of getting certified as a MBE and WBE and made introductions to help us learn more about leveraging those certifications.”
Yet, Ross’s influence extends far beyond his service in Atlanta. He was the only U.S. consultant to the South African Public Sector Procurement Task Team, an integration program launched by the South African government to reconcile South Africans and redress the inequalities of Apartheid.
His work involved several trips to South Africa in the early to mid-1990s. “I was hired by the South African government to help develop their affirmative action techniques which eventually became the Black Economic Empowerment Program.”
Asked about the impact of Covid-19 on black-owned businesses Ross admits that “we are in uncharted territory.” But despite the uncertainty, he’s deeply committed to supporting Atlanta’s growth as a burgeoning innovation hub for Black tech founders and technologists of color.