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Lawrence Humphrey

December is a good time to take stock and think about how to approach the new year ahead. And for this week’s guest, Lawrence Humphrey, this year was about striking out on his own and starting Pearl, a peer-based leadership consulting platform where he serves as CEO.

We began by talking about the origin story of Pearl, and Lawrence walked me through the platform and spoke on how collaboration is a big part of how he makes everything work. He also shared how he started out as an engineer, talked about how his tenure at IBM inspired him to found Tech Can [Do] Better, and gave recognition to those who have helped him achieve the success he has today. According to Lawrence, the best outcomes are a result of bringing diverse people together — a great message that we can all take to heart!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Hi, yeah, so I’m Lawrence Humphrey. I’m founder, CEO of Pearl, and I as a very new startup, very stereotypically, I do everything from setting the strategy, building the team, to executing against the strategy, executing it against myself, to taken out the trash and cleaning up the floor, so to speak. So very much the stereotypical start-up journey right now. But yeah, I do it all. It’s been really exciting. As a nosy person, I love being able to stick my nose in everything.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far? I feel like the second half of this year has been plagued by news about tech layoffs and things like that. How have you been holding up?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, this has been a very, let’s say, uncomfortable year, but not, obviously there are the greater, as you mentioned, societal forces making people uncomfortable, the job uncertainty. I am one of the people that quit my job this year to go full-time with Pearl. So my discomfort is more for from, and I get discomfort and excitement for having taken that leap. And I mean this is my first rodeo, so to speak. So I’m excited, and it’s very much, and I don’t have kids, but I have so much optimism for this kid and I’d want to make sure I raise them in order to be, I want it to be successful. So that’s been a super fulfilling journey and definitely a venture into uncharted territory for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, anytime you step out there and do your own thing for the first time, it is equal parts like exhilarating and terrifying. You have so much freedom, but you also really want to make sure that it actually succeeds.

Lawrence Humphrey:
And I’ve been telling people that both the highs and lows are much more, they have a higher magnitude. I feel the highs more. I mean, because they’re my doing, this is because of direct output from my input, which the same could be said for the lows. So I’m getting used to the swings and trying to approach them with more equanimity, so not get necessarily as whipped around by them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, going into next year into 2023, do you have any kind of big resolutions or goals that you want to accomplish?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I mean, the big one and very practically is to be working on Pearl and that’s like the low-hanging fruit. Ideally, and I haven’t quantified this yet, I haven’t actually run the projections, but I would like for there to be a healthy amount of organic collaboration instead of me, let’s say heavy handedly really, really guiding people’s hand using the platform. Ideally we would have some early evangelists and the early adopters, just really giving us good data, using it, driving value from it. Beyond that, I mean I’m very shortsighted right now with just making sure that the business is set up for success long term and doing what, and I haven’t done my 2023 strategic planning yet. That’s going to be the next few weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk more about Pearl, which I see here is described as “a platform that makes finding actionable hiring solutions from vetted and diverse leaders easy.” Tell me more about it.

Lawrence Humphrey:
So this is born from, and it’s kind of without getting into the full origin story, maybe we’ll get there. The observations that I’ve seen, are we have no shortage of collaboration tools, a lot of which come to mind, let’s say the Slacks, the Teams, even HBR articles to get thought leadership.

But there is a shortage of solutions that A, get us out of our own echo chambers into finding, I mean really practically, let’s say what do women think about hiring? Where are women hiring, et cetera. And also the follow-up to that is a lot of it is quote unquote like thought leadership and not the boots on the ground practical work, the practical instructions and recipes that these users or these leaders have used in order to drive results.

And I see these both working together in this very pernicious cycle of we continue to reinvent the wheel, we’re slower in terms of delivering outcomes, we deliver worse outcomes. People feel like worse leaders because they’re not getting connected to the work that in most cases already exist from the leaders that have done it. So that’s the opportunity that I see with Pearl. And we’re starting with a problem that all leaders have or will face hiring. So this is where we’re at the first step of our journey in proving out our value prop. So without getting into the origin story, that’s what Pearl is here to solve.

Maurice Cherry:
No, look, get into the origin story. Where did the ideas sort of come from?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So for that, it starts two years ago and the name of that org was Tech Can [Do] Better. And the week after George Floyd was murdered, I was still working at IBM and I noticed how my company at the time and the tech industry, and not just the tech industry, but that’s just where I live and breathe. They threw their hands up and they were bemused about what could be done to drive racial equity and what ways are we perpetuating it, how could this happen? And I got really frustrated at the confusion and how frantic the industry was knowing that I’d been on the inside with some of my coworkers, predominantly other black tech employees, advocating for what racial equity looked like within our company. And it felt like at the time we just got pats on the head. And Tech Can [Do] Better was my response to basically remove any obstacle that a tech company could have, like I don’t know what to do, where to go.

And I co-authored essentially a white paper with other black and brown folks from across the industry to outline very actionable steps about how to drive racial equity, whether you were an executive middle manager, independent contributor, anywhere in between, this is how you can get started with racial equity. And I think we hosted a dozen community calls, had people representing 50 companies from across the industry to help get each other unstuck. And that was when I realized that there was a demand and let’s say an overlooked opportunity and unsolved pain point for having very actionable perspective from black and brown perspectives, but even more broadly, it just exposed a lot of collaboration hiccups and we weren’t making it easy to get the answers we need. So it started there. And the other half of the story, I’ve been a leader with Pearl for almost two years, or a little over two years now.

And I find myself reinventing the wheel every day. And I mean hiring is just one of them. And I wrote the white paper for what diverse hiring looks like, and I assembled all of these diverse hiring sources and I still have trouble doing it. So even for me, very selfishly, I’m creating this tool to hopefully mitigate reinventing the wheel over and over again for all of these what I perceive to be mostly solved problems. I have to imagine hiring in any capacity is roughly 80% solved. And it’s just a matter of getting that answer and putting my own little Lawrence Humphrey customization on it, or Maurice, you customize it that last 20%, but I’ve been doing a lot of starting from 20% and then building out 80%, which is an abject waste of time.

Maurice Cherry:
I see. I mean it’s interesting because you know mentioned that this sort of came out from the summer of 2020 and a lot of companies certainly had those pledges to quote unquote “do better” in whatever way that meant for them in terms of diversity and inclusion. And it feels like now two plus years out from it that some of those promises have kind of started to wane a little bit. Is Pearl kind of a way to hold companies like this accountable?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I will agree that I’ve seen the demand and let’s say the attention wane, and I wouldn’t say Pearl is a way to hold them accountable. I think Tech Can [Do] Better was more that than Pearl is. One of my philosophies is I think that as a designer, my design background here is if users will do whatever is easiest in most cases or whatever the system sets them up to do, and Pearl is an aim to make doing the right thing easier, I’d venture to say in my learnings with Tech Can [Do] Better, there are no shortage of people who want to be practicing racial equity at work, showing up in a more human way, building diverse teams, fostering inclusive collaboration.

It’s just that they don’t have the tools, and let’s say the literal practical tools like the software and let’s say the soft skills tools to actually do those things. So Pearl is trying to make doing the right thing easier and less about accountability, pointing fingers, et cetera, et cetera. It’s assuming positive intent, and connecting people that want to be doing the right thing but not, might not know where to start.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking at the website now. I see you’ve got a great diverse team of advisors behind you. What does a regular day look like for you working on Pearl?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Being so early, and I’m sure it changes at some point, but every day looks really different and to the extent that I have any sort of consistency in my routine, it’s more location based. I love going to coffee shops, so I’ll go in the AM to the coffee shop to do my heads down, deep thinking work where I will do everything from craft social media, marketing outreach, to working on the product itself, to planning out what features need to be added, prioritizing from feedback that I heard in user interviews, what releases need to happen and when. And then in the afternoon, usually I have my calls either with my team, with potential customer discovery interviews, with my advisors, and that’s usually when I do my more, let’s say, not heads down work, but by and large the shape of each day from the outside might look similar. But what I’m doing is very different day to day. I mean, I can’t say I take many podcast calls right now, so already [inaudible 00:14:09] quite the variety that I’m getting right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, you got to get the word out about what you’re doing, so you have to do a little bit of press here and there.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, no, I 100% agree. And I had a release last Monday where I opened up Pearl to close family friends, I mean the social media, the people within my first, second degree connections. And I was joking that I feel like I need to go on tour now. I dropped my little EP and I’m shopping it around and seeing how it lands, getting people to listen to it, getting them to download my mix tape and all that.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s say that I’m a company or I’m a leader of a company that’s interested in Pearl, what does the onboarding process look like?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, so right now, and I guess it’s worth backing up and just talking through Pearl is a B2B and B2C, you can think of a GitHub or even a FigMore or Slack or something like that. So there are two avenues for which you can get engaged and I know you were talking about that B2B version. For that you can reach out to us and pilot with us and you can do that from our website. But the onboarding looks like an opening call where we can do some intros. I can tell you, I mean maybe if you are listening to this, I won’t have to tell you as much about Pearl, but we do some discovery to hear which pain points are you most struggling with. The few use cases that I identified are basically we’re helpful in smoothing out the transition between either people joining or leaving your team.

So let’s say you are getting rid of some folks, which is timely, whether they’re either leaving or they got laid off, that work doesn’t just evaporate, it usually gets reallocated somewhere between the team. And it’s about helping them codify that work such that whomever is picking it up, it minimizes the time between zero to 60 and getting up to speed.

And then whenever they backfill that person, minimizing the friction of getting them caught up to speed. So that’s one use case. We’re also useful in kicking off projects that have multiple stakeholders either within or outside the company that require frequent and high-touch collaboration. So a couple of use cases that we talk out on that call and then fleshing out what success looks like at the end of a two to four-week sprint, it’s very much responding in the in-person just live in the meeting for where we can add the most value. Like I said, it’s more important to me to add value and see how folks are using Pearl, and it’s about figuring out where that sweet spot is between what problems they’re having and what I see Pearl being poised to solve.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging parts about what you do?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh, boy. I think that this might be, I’m just going to think out loud here and I might have to, I might discover the answer, so just more talking it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Because this is my first rodeo, I feel like I have a strong intuitive sense for what I feel like needs to be done at any given time. At the same time, I’m grappling with the fact that practically and in reality, because I’ve not done this, I cannot fully trust my intuition for what should be done. And for that I have advisors and knowing when to pull them in, and I usually bounce ideas off of them, but it is just truly the, I’m meandering, like I said, into this uncharted territory with very little visibility of what’s in front of me. And it’s just navigating the ambiguity in a way that it makes me feel like I can confidently chart the course and bring other people in.

Luckily, I’ve had great advisors and because I don’t have a team of 100, I don’t really have to justify my decisions to many people. But sometimes it’s just like the day-to-day, I have no clue if this is going to work and I just try something, and if it doesn’t work, and I don’t mean no one likes failing, but it’s just I’m getting used to things not going according to plan more so than they do go according to plan. The self-management, I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it, but just that keeping my own, keeping the wind in my own sails. I don’t know if that’s the way to say it now, I’ll probably think of a more eloquent way to say it as soon as we [inaudible 00:18:45]

Maurice Cherry:
But to keep that but to keep that motivation going essentially, right?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, and just like it is the age old, all right, “I tried six things, none of them went according to plan,” and you know have that day you get off a call where it’s like, “That did not go like I wanted it to go,” and at the same time tomorrow I’m going to get up and do it all over again. You got to keep pushing through. But yeah, that motivation’s huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I don’t know, as you were describing that, it sort of reminded me of that old Donald Rumsfeld quote about how there’s “known knowns” and there’s “unknown unknowns.” And it sounds like certainly I think with venturing into a start-up of something like this where you’re trying to, you don’t know what you don’t know, so even as you’re trying to build this product and build this company, there are other things down the line that you may encounter that you don’t really have an idea of. But that’s why you’ve got advisors to hopefully kind of help you out and to give you that foresight.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Exactly, and I mean it’s not an unknown phenomenon. There is, it always doesn’t work right before it does. And that’s what keeping me going. And I read another quote and I think it was, and this might be exposing one of my little guilty pleasures here, but there is this book called “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Cheryl Strayed, is this amazing writer, and I think she said in one of her books that “You just have to show up and do the work.” Like miners don’t show up and self-doubt like, “Oh I’m not a great miner, I don’t think that I’m not good at this. What should I do about it?” They just show up and dig, and I just tell myself literally I have it written down. It’s like, “show up and dig.”

Maurice Cherry:
I like that.

Lawrence Humphrey:
It doesn’t really matter how you feel about it. Just do the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, ultimately what would you see as success with Pearl? Let’s say it’s, I don’t know, a couple of years down the line, what do you see as being Pearl’s biggest success?

Lawrence Humphrey:
A few years out, I would like to have the most actionable stop for workplace or leadership questions period, or challenges period. And those two pain points that I mentioned at the start, I do think they’re inextricably linked. So very practically, I am a pretty early mid-career professional black leader in a SaaS-based business, SaaS-based startup.

Disproportionately the solutions that you could find on the internet that you could talk to mentors about, all of its skews towards a couple of the majority demographics. So most leaders are white, most leaders are male, most companies are enterprises. These aren’t as helpful for me with all of those attributes that I mentioned. So if I could create a platform that allows you to find the most actionable solutions by the people who have done the work and are living it, I would consider that a huge win. And speeding up time and quality of outcomes or time to task, time to delivery, quality of outcomes, but also making leaders feel like, okay, I’m not the only one struggling with this.

There, I can find my little pocket of other similar leaders, and also burst, look outside of my bubble to see, “Okay, for this challenge I want to know how women are solving it.” I mean there are just some challenges that certain demographics are more poised at addressing than others.

I mean, rewind to 2020, I don’t want necessarily to know how let’s say white folks are solving racial equity in their workplace. I think that most people were looking for what are black and brown folks’ solutions to hiring, to doing or to measuring impact of my product those sorts of things similar to the Me-Too era, men didn’t have as much of a place in that. That was a woman’s conversation. So if I can do that, that’s a huge win.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’ve talked a lot about your work, of course we’ve learned more about Pearl, but I want to learn more about you, about Lawrence. Tell me about where you grew up?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So I grew up and Nashville, Tennessee. And it’s funny because I’m living in two of the trendiest places in the US right now, but back when I was growing up in Nashville, I was both underaged and it was underdeveloped. So I didn’t really experience the cool Nashville that a lot of people experience today. But I moved around a lot growing up, landed in Nashville in third grade and was there through graduation, and I was pretty into STEM but didn’t really know. And I think that this is a through line of my story, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a long time. I had a vague idea of I wanted to create something that impacts a lot of people. And at the time it was the scientist of the time, Nicola Tesla and Leonardo DaVinci and Newton and all these people that create things that change the world.

And then as I went through high school, I had a vague idea of what computer science was because I watched “The Social Network” all the time and I was like, this seems dope. Just being able to create stuff from your dorm room that scales, it impacts just millions, tens, hundreds of millions of people. This is awesome. And it just all started as a series of guesses. And I had a friend that we would just dream up these big ideas and he was more the design business guy. I was the tech person. And it wasn’t until, I mean honestly late college that I realized that okay, entrepreneurship, it is possible even though the path to do that was unclear. But yeah, I think that if I had to reflect on my story, I didn’t really feel like I had a lot of clear direction for what was possible.

Maurice Cherry:
But you had that interest I guess from early on, like you said, right?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh yeah, I had the interest and a lot of it was gained through just guessing. And I guess media, as weird as that is, just like movies. I thought hackers were cool, I thought computer people were cool, people that built, like people in the STEM, I mean STEM always seemed like magic to me. So I was like, “This is dope.” I don’t know, I mean this might not be cool, like conventionally the cool thing to do, but it always felt really just impactful and magical.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think that’s really interesting. You know, mentioned the movie, “The Social Network,” that was, let’s see, that came out in 2010?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Like 2010, yeah,.

Maurice Cherry:
2010? So that means you were probably in elementary and middle school in the early to mid-2000s, I’m guessing?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So let me walk it back. I was definitely in high school when The Social Network came out because I was [inaudible 00:25:55]

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you were in high school then. Okay.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, I was doing my, I think my AP Bio homework. I had “The Social Network,” on my laptop and I would just play that movie over and over again, like that one and “Inception,” I watched those movies over and over again playing them while I was doing my homework.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that media was also kind of a thing that motivated you about this, because when I think about a lot of the media that sort of depicted tech during that time, I can go back probably as far as say like 1999 with “The Matrix” and then “Matrix Revolution,” or I forget what the others were.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Those movies were huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Lawrence Humphrey:
I remember even then, that was one of the movies I was watching a ton at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
But also the world wide web really started to, I don’t want to say mature during that time, but I graduated college in 2003 and I just remember that time from 2003 three to 2010 how there were new innovations in tech and design. It felt like every week there was something new. So progress was being made in such a quick pace that whether you were in it as an actual practitioner or even on the outside of it being the beneficiary of this technology, things were just moving at such a rapid pace. I mean, you think about print magazines, print magazines from 2000 to 2010 took such a sharp decline because of the rise of desktop publishing. And people could write blogs, they could make websites, they could use content management systems. So why would they have a print magazine?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Exactly. And I feel like the people, and obviously, I was mean, I don’t want to say obviously, but I was pretty young at the time, and I feel like there were beneficiaries of people who just got to create and go very hands on, and they rode that wave of let’s say digital literacy, and just that scrappy entrepreneurship and the Wild West of the worldwide web that was a mouthful.

But there are people that just made a lot of money and influence and clout and learned a ton, and that compounds. And I still think that there is a lot of opportunity in tech, which is why I’m so passionate about scaling my knowledge, and especially for black and brown people, underserved people, underrepresented folks, of raising our technical literacy because, I mean this, any sort of privilege it all compounds. So yeah, I just think that that was always so cool.

And I kind of keep going back to magic, like “Matrix” was literally just people defying physics and cracking the code. And “Social Network” just felt larger than life of how this, these gawky kids created this social network that literally changed the world of tech and connected everyone everywhere all at once. It was crazy. And I think that that’s something that I’m really passionate about, is just scaling that knowledge, like I said, because it’s magic and it’s making a lot of people a lot of money and changing the landscape in ways that are for better and worse for some people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I think what it also did is it, I would say not just for black and brown people, but if we look at black and brown folks specifically, also really kind of helped change the mindset of us from being consumers to creators. Because now the tools, whether it’s the personal computer, or whether it’s even just learning the languages themselves, had become so easy to access that you could do these things now that you were seeing other folks do, and there weren’t any sort of real gatekeepers to get a lot of these things done.

I’m thinking back, you mentioned 2010, CNN had this, they used to do this series on CNN called “Black in America,” and they would do “Black in America Two,” Black in America Three,” Black in America, Four.” And they would be focused on different things. And they had one that was “Black in America, Four” that focused on the rise of black folks trying to get into Silicon Valley. They called it the “New Promised Land,” and…

Lawrence Humphrey:
Is that like the “If you build it, they’ll come,” mentality?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. And it was so…

Lawrence Humphrey:
[inaudible 00:30:11] age.

Maurice Cherry:
It was so interesting because I was watching that and not only were these people on there that were my age, Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton, et cetera, but I personally knew these people. I had met them, I had sat down and had dinner with them, and it’s like now they’re trying to accomplish these big huge, monumental goals, now. It’s really hard to capture that feeling or to recapture that feeling I think now maybe, but certainly back then it could have been very easy to really get swept up in the feeling that you could do this too, because you also just saw people that looked like you that were doing it Exactly.

And the tools were available, the opportunity was there. It was just a perfect storm.

Lawrence Humphrey:
And I feel I very much subscribed to that last point you’re on, you can’t be what you can’t see. And I think especially when I was getting started, I kind of always consider myself a little out of the loop, but I struggle to find just role models that really fit tightly to my trajectory, let’s say.

I’ve always been a little too counterculture for my own good. So it’s never been sufficient for me to just necessarily cut and paste someone else’s trajectory. But even still like, okay, I want to find someone who is threading the needle between being conventionally successful in business and obviously meeting the needs of the business, while also taking this social responsibility lens, who is also a young black leader who also, it’s all of these Venn diagrams that I’ve just struggled to find, and which is why I try to be, and I definitely jump at the opportunity to be something of a role model if I can, through mentorship, through podcasts like these, just to be the person that I wish I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned going to college, you went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. What was your time like there?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I think that it was, if I had to summarize it still me getting closer to what I felt like my fit was, maybe it is for a lot of people and for some people it clicks more than others. But I started in engineering, so my undergrad was in computer science and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t feel like I fit there. Cultural reasons, and I mean demographic, I was one of the few black kids in my class, and in some cases one of the only black students in hundred-plus lecture halls, which exacerbated things a little bit.
But even just the culture of it, in my opinion, the egomania of some of engineers, this wasn’t for me. And also it just didn’t feel very tactile. I didn’t feel, it all felt kind of abstract from time to time. But through that, met a lot of designers which began, light bulbs started firing, and so what that world looked like, found web development, which was the sweet spot of, okay, I can be an engineer that can think more about the user, what their needs are, what can add value for them.

And it was honestly through that web development, I rode that out for a while, and found the world of design through an internship at IBM, which you know in my opinion completely, I think everyone has like landmark milestones in their life. And interning at IBM was absolutely one of them, of “This is what design looks like at scale,” this is how these multidisciplinary teams collaborate.

It was so eye-opening, and I love the work that was being done there, and I guess I won’t say moreover, but equally loved the people from very junior to senior designers, Just all incredibly talented people, and with just huge hearts, great character. And that was around my senior year of college that I did that internship. And it was then that I was like, “Okay,” I felt like it started to click, that was the first time in my four or whatever years there that I felt like, “Okay,” this is the click that I was looking for. And I guess the three years before that where, I mean obviously I did projects here, I did a class there, but it was a lot of meandering, let’s say in hindsight until I found that click.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated, you’d mentioned this sort of IBM internship and you stayed there for a long time. You were there for almost six years, starting off as an intern and then working your way up to becoming a strategist. When you look back at that time, what do you remember? Are there any sort of specific takeaways?

Lawrence Humphrey:
So it can kind of be broken down into a couple chapters. So there was my early career internship, then we went through another onboarding, let’s say experience, they call them “boot camps.” That’s the one phase where it’s like starry-eyed early career, Lawrence, “the world is my oyster,” the same traps that all of these early 20 somethings succumb to. And then I was on a team for around three years. It was basically IBM design for AI, which is the intersection of design AI and basically consulting and facilitation.

But in essence we were creating technical, so how can non-technical teams get started with AI and create compelling, honest in the sense that this is what the technology can actually do implementation with AI. And amazing experience, and maybe one of the best ways that I could have started my career, on that team in terms of the work that I was doing.

And my boss at the time, extremely encouraging and just gave me a long leash. So I mean there was that chapter, and the next chapter was my tenure on the transformation team, which worked on enterprise wide transformation efforts predominantly in hybrid cloud AI and culture.

So the net of it was, I was doing a lot more consultative work, even on my AI team, the IBM design for AI. And that was when I realized that I just loved sitting in the middle and working in cross-disciplinary teams or multi-disciplinary teams, having high visibility projects, working with a lot of different stakeholders with big personalities. Basically translating the technical needs into layman speak into the needs of the business. And the kind of glib and story that I tell about it is I started in engineering, and then realized that designers tell engineers what to do. So I went into design and then in, or designers get told what to do by PMs and the business people. So I went into that lane. So I don’t know what you can make of that story, but that was how I decided to hop through those roles

Maurice Cherry:
From designer to engineer, I feel like that’s a journey of itself.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Engineer to designer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Oh, engineer to designer.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah. And even now I feel like both are pretty misunderstood titles. I would say design a little more so than engineering, but a lot of times people think, oh, shapes, colors, make things pop as a designer, which I am not that kind of designer. It was, I mentioned my first boss, and I just think that that was a great place for me to start because he built my, I mean both, he was a design executive, so he practically sharpened my skills as a designer, but really just gave me the confidence to go into rooms with very senior people and feel like my perspective had a place there.

So when I think about leadership, and I’m really passionate about leadership, there was a lot to be learned from the myriad of actual leaders, like reporting chain leaders, and just some of my mentors and peers. Everyone was just so generous with their perspective. There was a lot to learn in how to lead teams.

Maurice Cherry:
And now when you started the organization, Tech Can [Do] Better, were you still at IBM or is this after you left?

Lawrence Humphrey:
It was at IBM. So fun fact, and I recommend this to anyone that can pull this off, I ended up taking two leaves of absence to work on, the first one was Tech Can [Do] Better and work on that full time for three months. And the second one, I took a four-month leave of absence to work on what was Pearl, and I mean we reorged right in the middle of my leave of absence, but to work on that full time. And that second leave of absence was earlier this year when we got accepted into a start-up accelerator.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. So IBM was pretty, it sounds like they were pretty supportive of what you were trying to do?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh, yeah. And I mean even more specifically, my managers at the time, my leadership, and I mean if you know me, I don’t, for better or for worse, I think that I’m pretty obvious with what my intentions are and what my feelings are about, I think. It’s no secret how passionate I was about this, and how much Tech Can [Do] Better and Pearl meant to me, and I explained it to my managers that I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Tech Can [Do] Better.

It was maybe a month or a couple months, I’m losing track of the time after the George Floyd incident and I was like, “Okay, the attention’s waning. I only have so much time before people move on and focus on the next thing. I need to focus on this in order to capitalize in this window.” And I mean they were receptive to that. And then the second one was, like I mentioned, I got accepted to a startup accelerator and I was like, this is a once in a lifetime thing. And I mean I was like, “I need to focus on this or I won’t be able to forgive myself.” So they were supportive of that. So to their credit, IBM and especially my leaders at the time, I give them nothing but my gratitude for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Shout out to IBM.

Lawrence Humphrey:
I know, big shout out. And it’s so easy to just be greedy with talent like that. And I realized that I think I took two leaves of absence, maybe less than a year and a half or something apart I think. So that was, they didn’t have to do that, shout out to them.

Maurice Cherry:
How has both Tech Can [Do] Better and Pearl kind of been received by the tech community? Have you gotten any sort of valuable feedback to go into either the organization or to the product?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh, definitely. I mean, I kind of joked that I accidentally ended up in this leadership role, because when I was starting way back, 2020, when I was starting Tech Can [Do] Better, I would’ve never predicted that I would be on here right now still talking about it by any means, I mean you always hope so.

But that was unprecedented for me. I’d never done anything of that scale. And I put out a proposal, I mean I asked some of my usual suspects and some of my closest friends and confidants at the time, “Hey, I’m doing this thing, do you want in? I really could appreciate your help.” They helped out. I kept asking more people for help. Other people were asking if I needed help, and I was like, “Yes.” Months later I ended up in Fast Company not knowing how I had got here in the first place.

And it was just overwhelmingly positive and people saying they spun up Tech Can [Do] Better chapters of their company, they gave the proposal to their executive leadership. I mean, it was incredibly surreal for me. I mean, like I said, everything was so novel, and I keep going back to, I have to imagine a lot of that came from just how actionable it was. I get personally really frustrated with all of the noise and just the content generation machine valuing quantity over quality.

And I like to think that a differentiator can just be okay, this is something that takes us beyond that 20%. If I hear another takeaway that’s like “Make sure to talk to your team,” or like, “Listen, or do your education, it’s all well intentioned, but it’s just so ambiguous and doesn’t help people get started,” that I have to imagine with Tech Can [Do] Better it was a breath of fresh air because we were going one level deeper, if not like two levels deeper, which informed Pearl.

I mean Pearl is the tech solution that is Tech Can [Do] Better at scale. So driving actionable change from diverse leaders, helping each other get unstuck and unblocked. I mean, it’s the product that allows that matchmaking to happen. So it is those learnings that I brought even into this new org. But yeah, it’s a lot of great feedback that, I mean a lot of this has just been listening and responding and reflecting, and doing my best to take in what the signal is, and what can make the product better and more valuable.

Maurice Cherry:
In recent years, what would you say has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Oh man, I was not expecting that question, but I will say, and I think that just off the cuff there is a very thin line between what is a strength and what is a weakness and vice versa. I think that that’s the high level what I’ve learned about myself. And even more practically, and I have friends and advisors call me out about this all the time. I am a very big picture thinker and great, a lot of times people love visionary thinkers, big picture thinkers.

But I am slow and I struggle to get into the details and make it very, very real, and make it maybe in another way like very small so that you can touch it. For me, it has to exist in this universal principles, the big picture, this applies to everyone sort of thing. That’s like one example, of my what I think is a strength becoming a weakness.

I have other ones too, but it really is such a thin line. And also it’s just reinforcing to me that in order to change anything, any external thing, it really does start with you. I mean, right now I’m leading the org. I’m the first full-time hire, let’s say, I jumped full-time. But I have to manage my own morale, my own boundaries, my own timeline, my own organization.

And that predicts how well I can manage all of those other things for a team of people or one other person. And let’s say if I don’t take the five minutes before the call to get my talking points, it tends to not go well when I bring in whomever I want to bring in. So everything just starts with me. And obviously, I can only control me, but I’m just front and center every single day, for how my own actions manifest and shape the outcomes.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you get to this point in your career? I mean, no person is an island of course, but I’m curious who your support system has been throughout all this?

Lawrence Humphrey:
It is kind of chapter dependent, early career, the people that got me at IBM, Adam Cutler, Greg Story, Phil Gilbert, a huge, Devin O’Brien. I mean really, either they got me to go into IBM or just really hands-on mentorship, far more than they needed to be for an intern at the time. Huge people. Then just naming names like Brad Neal, one of my co-founders of Tech Can [Do] Better. I mean, honestly, a big brother, if there is one.

He is just such a role model in composure and equanimity. And he and I chat pretty regularly and I always love his perspective. Moses Harris, Jill Soley, one of my advisors, Suresh, Fallon, Wayne, so my advisors now. I mean by and large, I need perspective, and I don’t do well just working by myself. So even if I’m not day-to-day working with someone, I’m always bouncing ideas off of people.

I mean, it might be a little trite or corny to say it, but my mom is such a reliable just, I mean she is my bedrock. I go to her for both practical and emotional support. So I mean, she is just the absolute best. So I mean her as well. I mean, of all the people who are the most reliable through lines, I mean she’s it. I love her to death.

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s someone out there that’s listening that kind of wants to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I would say, and I was reflecting on this recently, that it’s not too early to start. I know a lot of people say it’s not too late to start, but I would say it’s not ever too early to start. I do think that, I know that a lot of people would say, I’m young, but I still spent time feeling like I needed permission to do things or I needed the credentials or credibility or I needed something.

I was missing something in order to just do that thing, and I regret it. And I wish that I just had… I heard it best once, “the confidence to be imperfect and the courage to be imperfect.” And I just think that life is short. You just got to do it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid of failing or looking bad. Honestly, you are, by doing your own thing and following your path, you’re doing what a lot of people don’t, and I won’t say can’t do, but are slow to do it. And just following that fire that exists inside of you and just staying true to whatever that is. So it’ll be really fulfilling, and it’ll be a hell of a rollercoaster, but I think that that’s what makes life worthwhile. If you’re 80 years old and looking back at your time here that you’re going to be happy you did that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you want to do professionally?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I mean, get Tech-, I mean now Pearl to a place where it is I mean, it’s a mainstay, it’s a household name. I mean, that’s the obvious one. I just feel like there’s a lot of impact I haven’t yet made that is just ripe for the taking. I have also, I mean on a side note, and this could be a subject of a whole other thing, I have gotten really obsessed with writing comedy, and that is basically filming a show, that is a whole other thing, we don’t have to get into it here, but I’ve always…

Maurice Cherry:
No, let’s get into it. Let’s get into it!

Lawrence Humphrey:
I love the idea of, I mean, just writing a show or a movie or shorts and filming it, and specifically some sort of a comedy. Maybe like Atlanta Meets Nathan For You or something like that, I love stuff like that. But I honestly have no shortage of projects. But that’s been one of the ones that I haven’t been able to shake.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, the comedy writing sounds, I like that idea. Would it be something like, I don’t know for some reason when you said that, “Abbott Elementary” immediately came to mind, but would it be some kind of workplace comedy, something like that?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I’m honestly scared. I have a show that, I mean, I might actually film and every time, I’ve shopped it to a dozen or so people and they’re like, “Dude, why aren’t you making this?” I’m honestly scared to give away my game right now. But I have a show, that let’s say is the style of the show will be more like mockumentary, let’s say. So it wouldn’t be a necessarily workplace, but I have maybe the whole first season stubbed out. Definitely, I’ve talked about it with a friend just shooting the pilot, because I even think I have the pilot mostly stubbed out. It’s just a matter of doing it. I don’t know, I just I’ve always wanted to try my hand at it. I mean, I know I’m being very vague, but…

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, I get it. You don’t want someone listening to poach your idea. I totally get that.

Lawrence Humphrey:
I feel like I could be over-hyping it. I could be delusional, but this is such a good idea. Maybe someone’s already done it, but I need to release the pilot before I’m just out here talking about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, that could be a good side project. You could work on that in your downtime.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, I mean, maybe these holidays when things slow down a little bit, I can get out there and just shoot a crappy pilot.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Lawrence Humphrey:
But no, I think that that’s one of the ones, but I think that realistically, I just want to see Pearl succeed, obviously. And there are some quantitative milestones that I would love to hit. And there are some kind of qualitative things, I guess side missions, if you will, that are in support of that goal. Some of those goals that I would like to hit, I want to create a successful company, IPOs, exits or exits.

Obviously this is a long journey. I want to have a tool that is used by let’s say tens, hundreds, millions of people, that adds value, that changes the landscape, that spawns competitors, let’s say collaborative companies that do similar things. I just think that the land of the better collaborative software that focuses in on identity and personal context, because this matters, is pretty underexplored. And I say it’s to all of our detriment, and I’m going to see it through given this everything that I have. So to the extent that I have a life’s purpose, I feel like that’s my calling in addition to shooting the other show that I mentioned, but.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Well, this is kind of a good, I guess follow-up to that then, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want your legacy to be?

Lawrence Humphrey:
I see those as two different questions, but five years, I would hope to have a team and wherever Pearl evolves from this, because obviously it will evolve. I’ll use Pearl as a shorthand for the mission that I’m on now. I want to have a strong leadership team, and I mean just both be practically doing good work, but even, I’ll say equally importantly, to the work that we’re doing, the value that we’re driving through our business, be role modeling a way of better leadership.

So I started Pearl because I felt like it would be more impactful to demonstrate through our actions, all of the recommendations and that we were espousing through Tech Can [Do] Better, than it was just to say them and recommend them. So I want the team to just be a team of all-stars who are just devoted to demonstrating a higher degree of leadership and holding ourselves the industry to a higher standard and five years.

I want that to be even stronger than I’m doing it today with an awesome just all-star group of people, many of whom I’ve already collaborated with and potentially some who might be listening to this, hopefully we all find each other.
My legacy, I mean, as that’s a huge question. I do hope that in line with what I was mentioning before, I very much believe in the idea of leaving things better than we found it. And what that looks like for me is I feel like I owe so much to my ancestors, mostly black ancestors, very directly in my lineage. And let’s say my cousins, aunts, the folks around me who sacrificed a lot to get me here to where I am right now.

And I want to contribute to that chain of progress of making it easier for black and brown folks younger than me who follow me. Making it easier for them to have the opportunities to create widescale change and showing them that it’s possible, showing them that you don’t have to conform to someone else’s trajectory to do that.

You have the freedom to do it the way that is right for you, basically widening what is possible for people to be conventionally successful and what that actually means. And hopefully never sacrificing, I won’t say hopefully, hopefully this is conveyed through my actions, threading that needle between doing what’s right for the business and what is just societally responsible, whatever that looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about Pearl, about your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Lawrence Humphrey:
Yeah, so best starting place for that is our website. So pearl.us.com, and you can find all of our links there to our LinkedIn, to our Instagram, to our app itself. Everything is, that’s the best place to start for my work. If you want to follow me similarly, you can follow me at lawrencehumphrey.com, so L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E.com. Hopefully, I think this will probably, be shared out in the description, but that also has all of my links and basically anywhere websites are found, you can find those links and find everything else.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Lawrence Humphrey, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think first of all, just thank you for sharing your story of really kind of building a company. I think it’s something that we see a lot. I think we have seen a lot over the years, just what does it look like to really step out and try to do your own thing, but I think it’s really important to also kind of build in public in a way.

And based off what you’ve kind of been saying, how IBM kind of allows you the time to do this, and now you’re building it out in public with advisors and such, I think that’s really important for people to see that they can achieve their own dreams in this way. And of course, what you’re doing is not only just helping you out as a founder, but also helping out the industry as a whole and hopefully helping generations of people to come, so.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Exactly, and that’s important to me for exactly the reasons I said before. I want to be really honest about this story too, that it’s fulfilling, that it’s hard. The self-doubt is to come and it’s just that more important to just keep doing it anyway. I have to imagine something. Only good things can come if you just keep doing the work and surrounding yourself with good people.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. Lawrence, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Lawrence Humphrey:
Maurice, thank you for hosting. This was a pleasure.

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