A Unicorn Gives Back
Dug Song wants to build a culture of community investment.
by Vickie Elmer
From the August, 2019 issue
Song built Ann Arbor-based Duo Security into a company worth more than $2.3 billion. Now he wants to strengthen the area's social and entrepreneurial ecosystems.
He is doing that by launching the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund. He sees it as a place for tech founders to discuss their needs and problems--and a catalyst for tackling social issues and funding local nonprofits.
"We're working to rally the entrepreneurs," Song says. He's asking them to seed the fund with slivers of stock or profits, or promises of volunteer service.
The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation will manage the fund in partnership with Song and an advisory committee consisting of Paul Brown and Doug Neal, managing partners in eLab Ventures; Jeff Rinvelt, principal at Renaissance Venture Fund; and InfoReady CEO Bhushan Kulkarni, a former Community Foundation board chair.
To join, tech companies pledge 1 percent of their stock, 1 percent of their profits, or 1 percent of their staff time for volunteering. Modeled after similar efforts in Silicon Valley and Austin, it's the first such fund in the region and likely the first in Michigan.
Many details, including the issues to be addressed, are still being considered, but Song mentions a couple of big ones: affordable housing and racial disparities in life expectancy.
Song unveiled the concept at the Intermitten Conference for socially responsible businesses at the Ark in June. In a pitch session later that month at the Circ Bar, about ten start-up founders and venture capitalists showed up to hear Song and to network. By the end of the evening, one founder was ready to sign up, and a handful of others expressed interest.
Though there are other tech meet-ups in the region, Song sees value in bringing together founders to discuss needs and problems in small groups. "Previously successful, currently successful, and aspiring entrepreneurs all rub elbows," he says. "This leads to better outcomes for the companies--and for the community."
The fund will focus on tech companies because of their potential for
fast growth, Song says. Duo was the first billion-dollar "unicorn" to be acquired in Ann Arbor, and "being first means that we have a responsibility to lead."
He wishes he'd started the fund earlier so that it could have captured a payout when Cisco bought Duo last year. He says he considered launching something like it around 2011, and even created a slideshow on how it could work. But his wife, Linh Song, was expecting their second child and he and John Oberheide were just starting Duo, so he did not pursue it.
"The rollout's really going to take a couple years," says Community Foundation president Neel Hajra. But one advantage of waiting, he points out, is that there are many more tech start-ups to engage now. "We're [going to] take the organic approach," he says. "Build it entrepreneur by entrepreneur."
"Every year for fifteen years, we've had a company exit for around $200 million," Song told the Intermitten Conference. "We've been very, very successful for a city of our size." Exit refers to the time when investors, particularly venture capitalists, sell their stake in a startup; often it involves the sale of the entire company.
What will success look like for the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund? "It's community impact," says Hajra, "moving the community forward." Though it may take five years or more, he sees the fund eventually yielding a steady stream of grants to county nonprofits.
Song hopes the fund will become the "gold standard for what truly thoughtful founders do here ... For me, the hallmark [of success] will be that it's something that every entrepreneur wants to join."
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