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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

 
 

These fast-growing companies have new personnel announcements to share. Photos courtesy

Three Houston startups have new hires they're excited about.

From new board members to c-level execs, here's who's moving and shaking in Houston innovation.

GoExpedi names senior vice president of sales

Michael Hanes will focus on sales at fast-growing GoExpedi. Photo courtesy of GoExpedi

E-commerce and supply chain company, GoExpedi, which is focused on transforming procurement for industrial and energy maintenance, repair and operations, has announced named a new executive.

Michael Hanes has been onboarded as senior vice president of sales. Hanes has over 20 years of experience in startups and emerging technologies. Most recently, Hanes worked at Heart Rhythm Society as its director of corporate relations.

"There are very few leaders that have the same level of sales experience and the diverse industry background as Michael. He is an outstanding addition to our team, as he's already started to build fruitful relationships with customers and partners, who are embracing change through the adoption of our interactive intelligence platforms," says Tim Neal, GoExpedi CEO, in a news release.

"Michael has also begun establishing a strong rapport with all of our sales leaders across the country, helping to further sharpen our processes and accelerate the growth of our already robust sales pipeline," Neal continues. "He will be instrumental for the expansion of our customer base and overall success."

Last fall, GoExpedi raised $25 million in a series C investment round in order to keep up with growth and demand.

"I am thrilled to join GoExpedi. What Tim and his team have built in just a few short years is nothing short of remarkable," says Hanes in the release. "Driving the sale of a truly innovative technology -- with the support of a deeply talented team of sales professionals -- is an amazing position to be in.

"I look forward to introducing fresh perspectives and bringing energy to further enhance our sales processes and market presence and accelerate the company's already fast-paced growth trajectory."

The Postage announces new board of directors member

Former startup CFO and venture capital adviser is joining a Houston tech company's board. Photo via liveoakvp.com

Lynn Atchison has joined the board of directors for Houston tech company The Postage, a full-service digital platform and mobile app for afterlife planning.

Based in Austin, Atchison most recently served as CFO at Khoros (née Spredfast) and also previously worked at HomeAway Inc. as CFO as well. She currently serves on other tech boards, such as Absolute Software, Bumble, Q2 Technologies and Convey, as well as being an advisory partner at LiveOak Venture Partners.

"As evidenced by her impressive experience, Lynn thrives when working with transformational and fast-growing companies, making The Postage a perfect fit," says Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage. "She has scaled operations, driven growth and improved profitability for companies in all lifecycle stages. We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Lynn to The Postage team."

The Postage launched last fall as a way to help simplify afterlife planning. Cisek was inspired to create her tech solution after she lost three family members back to back. This month, the company announced its new app.

During her time at HomeAway, Atchison oversaw more than 20 acquisitions and global expansions before the company went public in 2011 before being acquired by Expedia in 2015 for $3.9 billion.

"Throughout my career, I've worked with companies that redefined and established markets, ultimately becoming leaders in their respective industries, which is what I hope to do at The Postage," said Atchison. "Addressing the challenges associated with end-of-life planning is an exciting opportunity that I can personally relate to. I recently experienced a loss in my family, and I know there is something special about this idea. The Postage creates security of all users by ensuring that their families are taken care of after they pass."

Innowatts appoints new c-level exec

Energy software expert Jeff Wright has joined the globally expanding Innowatts. Photo courtesy of Innowatts

As Houston-based Innowatts continues its global expansion — most recently opening its European Union headquarters in Cork, Ireland, the energy software-as-a-service company has named a new member to its C suite.

Jeff Wright has been named the chief revenue officer of Innowatts. to drive continued expansion in the U.S. and also accelerate its growth globally. Wright was previously the global vice president of GE Digital's Grid Solutions business unit. During his tenure, GE's market position climbed from the No. 5 to No. 1 for its energy control room related software, according to a news release.

"Jeff's career can be summarized as 'Energy Meets Technology,'" says Innowatts CEO Siddhartha Sachdeva in the release. "As Innowatts business and global reach expands, we are grateful to have Jeff joining the company. He is a true energy tech leader who has second-to-none domain expertise across a diverse set of utility functions and operating units."

Wright will lead all aspects of the company's go-to-market initiatives and oversee global sales efforts and marketing channels.

"My passion to help companies disrupt and transform the utility industry aligns squarely with Innowatts' mission," says Wright in the release. "Innowatts is transforming the way energy providers will leverage data and AI to operate. Playing a pivotal role in the growth of the company coupled with driving the resilient and sustainable energy solutions of the future is a career opportunity that I am excited and passionate about. I'm truly delighted to be part of the Innowatts leadership team."

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