Loren Lancaster is on a mission to find “noble-hearted business leaders.”
After decades-long careers in music and engineering, the international business banker is helping to shape business culture in Vietnam — and building relationships between companies there and in the United States.
He’s dedicated to supporting startups and professionals in both countries — serving as a longtime consultant with the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center here, and as a member of the business education team and the resident team with Resource Exchange International in Vietnam.
REI partners with hospitals, universities and organizations to develop leaders who will pass on their knowledge and skills. REI Senior Vice President Brian Teel first took him to Vietnam as a guest lecturer, Lancaster recalls, and he “absolutely fell in love with the place, the people, the culture.”
This week, he spoke with the Business Journal about entrepreneurship, building bridges between business communities, and what Colorado Springs’ startup scene needs next.
Where are you from?
I’m born and raised in Texas; fifth generation. I went to school at the University of Texas at Austin and I got my degrees in electrical engineering there.
Tell us about your careers.
My first career was in music. I played professionally and wrote and performed for almost 20 years — I started out really young. … I played professionally all the way through college and in the beginning of my engineering career, until I started working at Bell Laboratories up in the Northeast. So that was my second career: in engineering. That one lasted about 23 years.
My specialty was in material science and device physics. I developed leading-edge technologies to produce a wide variety of semiconductor products and also develop manufacturing processes and circuitry technology. In the span of that career I brought up 20 different manufacturing lines all over the world. … Ryan Hirose and Brian Hegarty built NVX Corp. with me, where we invented flash memory technology. I have quite a lot of patents in that. … And Richard Petritz originally brought me to Colorado Springs to help build [semiconductor company] Simtek [Corporation]. Ultimately I achieved every lifelong dream I had for engineering and decided to transition out of that career. My friend and advisor at that time — T.J. Rodgers, a famous Silicon Valley entrepreneur — counseled me to go into investment banking. So I went that direction, and I’ve been doing international investment banking ever since.
Tell us about your work in Vietnam.
That’s really my heart passion right now. I used to work all over the world doing mergers and acquisitions, and growth financing for middle- to large-sized companies. But I’ve focused on Vietnam for a few years now, and I do a combination of things. The primary objective is to be a significant part of helping to mold and shape the business culture in Vietnam as it grows. It has been classified as a poor nation, but now it’s a lower-middle-class nation and it’s growing over 7 percent per year. So it’s a really happening place. I teach in the top universities there … and that gives me channels into a lot of different valuable relationships. But I also build trade relationships between U.S. — mainly Colorado — companies, and Vietnamese companies. That’s the business side of it. But the whole purpose is not business for business’ sake. It’s to have a positive and enduring impact on the business culture in Vietnam as it grows.
As you’re helping to shape that, what do you hope to see emerge?
We work really hard to identify what we call noble-hearted business leaders — people who demonstrate care for their families, their employees, their community — and we empower them to be more successful. We want to multiply the values that we believe are conducive to building a stronger and more peaceful, more prosperous Vietnam, and then multiply those values by helping those people succeed. Because by myself, I don’t have much I can do other than teaching classes and helping a deal here and there. But the noble-hearted business leaders who are embedded in the culture, part of the community, if we can empower them to be successful, then we go a long way toward achieving our objective.
Your work there also helps the business community here — can you talk about that?
Again, it goes back to the trade relationships. Our primary objective is to strengthen Vietnam, and one of the ways we can do that is by putting honest-to-God, real revenue-generating, profit-generating opportunities in the hands of those noble-hearted business leaders. That means we build relationships with companies here in the United States that generate that kind of revenue. So we’re constantly looking for and finding companies here that are also led by noble-hearted people that have an interest in offshoring certain elements of their production, or their development, or maybe shipping product that they manufacture here to there. There’s a huge demand for American-anything in Vietnam right now, so it’s a great opportunity for us to ship our products and services there — and vice versa.
Talk to us about offshoring — it’s not always a dirty word?
Well, no, it’s not at all. You know, the unfortunate part about working in a capitalistic economy is we have firmly embedded competition, and that’s the way it works. We can either bury our heads in the sand and be beaten out by the competition, or we can level the playing field by rolling up our sleeves and doing everything it takes to be successful. So if we can find noble-hearted business leaders here who need some sort of competitive edge that we can develop for them in Vietnam, we’re more than happy to do that, because we want them to be successful.
We want Colorado to be a stronger state in every way and we want that economic power to be in the hands of noble-hearted people.
For early-stage ventures, how would you characterize starting out in Colorado Springs?
You know, I’ve been starting companies here since 1988. When I first got here, there was really no infrastructure to help startups. I championed and led the development of two separate nonprofits that help support entrepreneurship here, because of that lack of resources. But since then, the community has just completely exploded around it. There is a tremendous amount of resources here now, and I’m really happy about that. I think the one thing we’re missing — I have to point the finger at myself as much as anybody else — but we’re still lacking savvy institutional capital resources here for startups.
What will change that?
It takes people who have the background skill and knowledge and also the personal passion and commitment to empower the community to be more successful. And what I see, without any doubt, is we have a lot of capital in the community, we have a lot of high net worth individuals … but most of them don’t have the knowledge and skill to effectively deploy that in a way that supports the entrepreneurial ecoculture. I think what’s required … is that two or three really savvy people put together a community-based fund that helps intelligently invest capital so that our well-heeled investors can confidently support entrepreneurs. Another thing I’d like to see — and I know this is very controversial — is a very small county sales tax that is exclusively earmarked to help support developing entrepreneurial infrastructure, even beyond where we are today. We have a lot of resources, but we’re lacking enough financial support to really push it over the edge compared to, for example, the initiatives that have been fully embraced in Boulder.
Tell us about your consulting work with Pikes Peak SBDC.
That’s the joy of my life, honestly. When I came here in 1988, the SBDC was nothing more than a hot phone sitting on a desk at the Chamber of Commerce. I was very lucky, at that point in my life, to be married to a woman who knew all about small business development centers, and she had worked in the Northeast. Her name is Kathy Wallace. And Kathy took on the challenge of developing the SBDC here and was very, very successful … . Now all that is being led by Aikta [Marcoulier] and she’s doing a truly amazing job. The SBDC is so rich with resources and capability. It’s a joy as a consultant to work there, because we have a nonstop stream of excellent opportunities to support, and access to a wide variety of very powerful resources.
What else should we know?
We did fund a startup just last year … . It’s a hotel that’s being built in the southern downtown area, called Kinship Landing. … It’s a brand new concept for Colorado Springs and it addresses a tremendous market need that we have around adventure travelers. … I’ve been extremely excited about it because not only is the founding team a group of truly solid and, I would say, noble-hearted people, but the community has gotten behind the idea in a very big way. … It’s a huge challenge, building a hotel, but without the support of the community and without the SBDC providing a lot of resources, it just would never have been successful. It’s not often that the community will fund a startup to the degree that they have.
I’ll be honest, this is the largest startup funding program I’ve ever worked on, and I’ve been doing this a long time. So when people say that Colorado Springs doesn’t fund startups, I’ve got tangible evidence that that’s not true. This one’s really big.