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Rice research: Do leaders with distinctive names run distinctive businesses?

A CEO with an unusual name is likely to be confident about creating a unique strategy, this Rice University researcher finds. Photo via Pexels

You probably know the names Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Bob Johnson. But how about DeShuna Spencer? She's the founder and CEO of the online streaming platform KweliTV. The platform's broad array of movies, news and other programming features are all created by people of African descent. KweliTV (Kweli means "Truth" in Kiswahili) was recently ranked one of the 16 best movie streaming services of 2020 by PC Magazine.

This achievement is all the more distinctive considering Spencer competes in the same territory as billion dollar brands such as Hulu, Disney, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — and has managed to do so without securing a single full seed investment. Today, 60 percent of KweliTV's revenue returns to the pockets of its Black creators, who typically have limited distribution access.

What enabled Spencer to break out of the pack? Part of the answer could lie in her unusual first name, according to research by Rice Business professor Yan "Anthea" Zhang and David H. Zhu and Yungu Kang of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. In a recently published paper, the team explored the startling role a first name can play in CEO strategies.

While companies direct considerable resources — and lip service — toward innovation and better products, the team writes, they should also give special consideration to CEO candidates with unusual names. According to their findings, a CEO with a distinctive name is more likely to lead a distinctive company.

Past research has shown many links between organizations' success and their leaders' personal traits: temperaments, life experiences, personal values and demographic profiles. CEO names should be included in this list of variables, Zhang's team argues.

That's because people with unusual names see themselves as being different from their peers, studies suggest. The dynamic is unsurprising: others often see the holders of unusual names as different. As a result, people with uncommon names internalize these impressions.

The feeling of difference can be excruciating, as anyone who has spent time in a schoolyard knows. CEO types, however, don't have that problem. "Many people may not have the confidence to exhibit how unique they believe themselves to be," Zhang's team writes. "CEOs do — they are generally confident individuals."

Armed with self-assurance, CEOs with rare names are at ease differentiating themselves in the workplace. Their leadership strategies, the researchers found, reflect that impulse. In other words, a CEO with a striking name is likely to build a striking business strategy.

To study these links, the team analyzed business strategies and other data from 1,172 companies between 1998 and 2016. Industries in the sample included mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, wholesale and retail trade, finance, insurance, service companies and real estate.

Then, to measure how common — or uncommon — a CEO's name was, the researchers looked at naming records from the United States Social Security Administration between 1880 and 2016, controlling for ethnicity, gender and country of birth. James, John and Robert were among the predictable greatest hits. The most uncommon names included Phaneesh, Frits and Jure.

Among the researchers' findings:

  • The more uncommon a CEO's name, the greater her firm's strategic distinctiveness is likely to be.
  • The more confident a CEO is, the stronger the correlation between her name's distinctiveness and that of her company strategy.
  • A CEO's power also affects the correlation between her name's distinctiveness and her likelihood of having a distinctive strategy. The greater the power, the stronger the correlation.

Overall, the researchers concluded, a CEO with an odd first name may be more likely to help a business rise from mediocre to revolutionary. Boards looking for this kind of transformation should consider CEOs with names that suit.

Recruiters are notorious for ignoring resumes and applications headed with ethnic names. Not only is this linguistic tunnel vision an engine of systemic racism, Zhang's team found, it's a strategic mistake.

Gravitating to a familiar face, race or name is human nature. It can also weaken a company's talent base — and ultimately its own quest to be outstanding.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan "Anthea" Zhang is the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management — Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cloudbreak Enterprises is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo via Getty Images

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudgate is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

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