Movers & Shakers: Pete Blackshaw on sustainability, his international corporate career and a love of networking

pete blackshaw standing on TED stage

Pete Blackshaw, Chief Executive Officer, Cintrifuse

Pete Blackshaw, Chief Executive Officer, Cintrifuse

Pete Blackshaw has never been accused of lacking enthusiasm for business and startups. If he can find the time in his schedule, the Cintrifuse CEO will talk to you for hours about his love of making connections, his fascinating corporate career that spanned the globe or his newfound love of Ohio and the Midwest. He might even give you one of his TED talks. We sat down with Blackshaw to talk about the exciting Cincinnati startup scene, why Ohio is a hotbed for innovation and how diversity and sustainability will change industries.

Why is your role at Cintrifuse the right place for you at this stage of your career?

Cintrifuse is an innovation catalyst. We’re trying to make greater Cincinnati the number one startup hub in the Midwest and the top innovation center in the country. We help entrepreneurs by providing services, resources, access to capital, access to partners and access to talent. We also have a strategic fund that invests in some of the best venture capital firms across the country. We take advantage of that for two purposes: It brings that external focus to our large companies like P&G, Kroger and Scripps, and we also use it to heighten the visibility of local startups with potential. A lot of the VCs we’ve invested in had never heard of Cincinnati, so it’s a good way of kind of starting that relationship.

What brought you to Cintrifuse after a career in the corporate world?

My career is a bit of a yo-yo between mid and senior roles in major corporations and also working on startups. Six years into my P&G tenure, I launched a startup called PlanetFeedback here in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine district and ultimately sold that to Nielsen, where I hung out for a while before I got hired by Nestlé. I think that if there’s any thread that cuts through my career, it’s the spirit of thinking and acting like a startup. In large enterprises, I’ve always played the role of the disruptor and the change agent. At P&G, I started their first interactive marketing department; at Nestlé, I was leading all of digital. If you’re not thinking change, you’re not thinking like a startup and you can’t do the job effectively.

What energizes you about the work you do?

Entrepreneurs are inherently attracted to opportunity — unmet needs, filling gaps, seizing momentum. I think our industry is in a really interesting inflection point, even amid COVID. There are so many extreme challenges that we need to solve — on the business side, COVID-related, social justice, sustainability and more — and that’s a ripe environment for entrepreneurs to jump in and prove that there are better ways of doing things. Sometimes you can do more for less, leveraging the power of technology to make an outsized impact. So this is a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur.

How do your corporate years shape you today?

I think there’s a real competitive advantage to having some of the corporate experience. When I left business school, I had an option to go into a bunch of tech firms or go to a place like Procter and Gamble. I decided to come to Cincinnati and get my basic training in marketing and executive leadership, and those skills are invaluable. I think you need a certain amount of that to really be credible if you’re going to start a company. If you’re going to go out there and try to raise money from VCs or angel funds, they need to know that you’ve got your business fundamentals in place. You just can’t go there with a cool, sexy idea.

The business experience has helped me my entire career. Even when we coach entrepreneurs today, there are so many basic things that they don’t know like how to write a really good concept, build brand architecture and even basic communication. These are things that really help you. You have to have a great idea, but you have to tie it in a bow. Then you have to really be persuasive at convincing team members, investors and others to invest in you.

Is that the part of the job you enjoy most?

Yeah, I’m a big social connector. If you just spend two minutes on my social media handles — Twitter, Pinterest, even more recently TikTok — you can tell I love connecting people. If you’ve got a business idea, I know someone who could help you, who might be on your board, who might have money, who might be a good team member. I get a certain high out of that. The same dopamine rush that some people get from a like on Facebook, I get from helping someone in the startup scene click with another person. It’s a really exciting job, and when you see that value creation take place it’s incredible.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Southern California. I was actually born in Detroit, but my dad was in the advertising business, so we moved at an early age to California and I grew up in Pasadena, where I started my first business, our family business. Our home was in an old avocado grove in the foothills of Pasadena. So my first business was selling avocados and I made a ton of money. I ended up working all of our neighbors’ trees into the mix, and that was when they had an early certified organic farmer’s market. I was basically an organic seller. It gave me the business bug.

Did that bug continue into your school years?

I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I sold Banana Slug T-shirts to pay my way through school. When I got there, we had a campaign to vote for a new mascot and I co-developed the design for our iconic mascot, the Banana Slug. It was subsequently featured in Pulp Fiction. I started a company and a website called Slug Web and I actually paid my way through college and the trip to Europe on the slug initiative. It taught me a lot about early branding.

What’s the lasting impact of your international Nestlé experience?

It was transformative. It transplanted my family halfway around the world in Switzerland and I spent a lot of time traveling — China, Singapore, London and Paris dozens of times. I had a chance to really see many different flavors of the digital, mobile and technical revolution. I learned that innovation and diversity share a symbiotic relationship, which really influences my thinking now. If you don’t have diverse founders, venture pools and ideas, you’re absolutely not going to win.

It also made me appreciate how quickly even large, bureaucratic companies are willing to move. The pressure to adapt to e-commerce and sustainability is forcing companies to speed up and entrepreneurs need to be on notice of that opportunity. I led innovation and training programs and I know that companies today are externally focused and looking at the little players who can solve issues. I came to appreciate how small entities are able to challenge big companies. At Nestlé, small companies who were often sustainably based were eating our lunch and taking our market share. Little companies convince themselves that they can’t compete when in fact you have agile startups reinventing industries and making things happen. That’s why I came to this job with incredible confidence that we can help Procter & Gamble pivot really fast or help Kroger seize the opportunity around sustainability and drive market share at the same time.

Sustainability is important to you. How does that manifest itself in your work?

I think there’s a huge unmet need with the large corporations and we have the initiative and the ambition of the startups to close that need. Take Procter & Gamble for example: their CEO recently spoke with very deep passion about his organization’s commitment to sustainability on a number of different fronts. He talked about the transformation of packaging and supply chain and water conservation. They put out huge, aggressive briefs saying they’re trying to solve extreme challenges across a number of areas. Multiply that by a hundred, and that’s what corporations are now on the hook to deliver. There’s millennial buyer pressure, there’s even UN commitments that everybody has to meet. That is going to create a renaissance of opportunity for entrepreneurs.

As the matchmaker, what we need to do is articulate that need and find the entrepreneurs to meet them. We know a lot of money is going to be spent in that area, and I want to make sure Cincinnati gets its fair share. And in the process, we can make a big impact on the world. Entrepreneurs want to do two things: some really want to make money; some really want to change the world. I think the combination of the two is what really creates the magic.

What’s exciting at Cintrifuse right now?

There are a couple of big things going on with Cintrifuse this year. We just hired a new fund manager who is looking to have a really, really big impact as we launch Fund III, which will focus on sustainability, supply chain and logistics and FinTech. It’s going to have a little bit more of a local imprint and will probably involve more direct local investing with other partners and more intentionality around diversity and inclusion, which I think is just a massive business opportunity. It’s not just one of those check-the-box things. This is really where markets are going. I think that will have a really positive impact.

How do you spend your free time, when you’re not making TikToks?

I read a lot and I listen to a lot of podcasts. I love How I Built This and Planet Money. There are a couple of new sustainability ones. I love The Daily, I’m addicted to it. I just think the quality of journalism is off the charts. And I love hanging out with my kids. Anybody who knows me on social media knows I love making movies of my family. I’m an iMovie freak and I just love that expression. It keeps me sane.

What’s a hidden gem in Cincinnati you think more people should know about?

Right below Union Hall is a place called Ghost Baby. And if you close your eyes, go in and open them, you’ll feel like you’re back in a 1920s speakeasy. It’s 100 feet below the ground and has this massive beer cellar. We are in one of the largest historical brewery districts in the country, and it’s coming back to life and having a whole new renaissance. Right there below the ground, you’d almost think you’re in the Roman catacombs.

What’s one piece of advice for any entrepreneur?

I’ve always said, “Don’t be afraid to write the memo.” I think investors, partners and potential employees are extremely eager to hear your recommendations and ideas. Don’t hold back. There are so many things that need to be fixed and changed. And even if the memo gets rejected initially, you can dust it off and try it again. But I think about all the things that have helped me in my career and they’re when I just overcame those fear barriers and wasn’t afraid to ask. “Be my mentor? Can you throw me some money? Can you give me some advice? Can you give me some free market research?” People want to do that. There are so many people that want to give, and what we’re trying to do at Cintrifuse is facilitate that process. Don’t be afraid to write the memo.

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