From Kansas to Miami

My internship at a $200 million venture capital firm in sunny South Florida

This post was authored by Carter Robinson, a junior at the University of Kansas, who was part of the Rokk3r Fuel ExO Summer Intern C/O 2018.

Having three months off from your courses and extracurricular activities as a college student means for many an opportunity to relax, take a low-maintenance elective course or maybe pick up a few shifts at a summer job similar to those you had throughout high school — waiting tables, working cash registers, golf caddying. None was part of my summer this year.

I landed an internship at a $200 million venture capital firm in Miami, Florida, called Rokk3r Fuel ExO, headquartered in the heart of the world-famous Wynwood Arts District.

Kansas might as well be in another country, if you compare it to South Florida, where, for three months, I immersed myself in the fast-paced world of venture capital, and, in my free time, the diverse art, music and food that make Miami a cultural capital on par with London and New York City.

At the Rokk3r Fuel offices, I worked in a glass-encased room decorated with high-tech gadgets created by the fund’s portfolio companies, just steps away from a long hallway adorned by paintings and installation art pieces created by some of the world’s most talented up-and-coming artists.

My day-to-day largely involved analysis of startups — organizations built from nothing by entrepreneurs aiming to change the world. I got a firsthand look at how artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data aren’t just buzzwords, but world-changing technologies and multimillion-dollar endeavors. Come dusk, I’d experience everything else Miami has to offer, beyond the hands-on professional experience I was accumulating each day at Rokk3r Fuel.

Driving to the beach at sunset. Visiting galleries filled with the creations by international artists. Eating “medianoche” sandwiches at authentic Cuban restaurants in Little Havana. Staying out later than I should, rubbing elbows with people who’s faces have been on magazine covers and prime-time TV. Only once you’re immersed in it do you realize there is no substitute to actually experiencing Miami’s culture to truly understand it. Take the city’s Cuban influence. It’s well-known beyond South Florida that it permeates much of Miami, but it really is everywhere you look, from the food to the family-owned businesses labeled with signs in Spanish. And that’s just Miami.

One Friday afternoon, I drove the 165-mile stretch to Key West, a city in the southernmost point in the U.S. Just a couple hours away, and suddenly I was in another world. That weekend, I was talked into skydiving, among other activities; it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had.

Back at the office on Monday, I continued my work, climbing gradually farther and farther up a steep learning curve. The venture capital world is one that’s become glamorous, even infamous, because of the impact it’s helped create, through companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla and others. From the inside, you feel its potential for change, and the complexity of it is reflective of that potential. I was taught how to understand and point out untapped revenue streams in startups, create a registered investment advisor (RIA) database and how to properly format a investor letter.

What’s more, I was learning about these things, and more, from the perspective of a venture fund in an emerging market — far from the more mature Silicon Valley landscape — and one that happens to be a bridge to the rest of the world, whether Europe or Latin America, even Asia.

Rokk3r Fuel was founded, and is managed, by Jeff Ransdell, a former Managing Director of Merrill Lynch. He launched Rokk3r Fuel in 2017 because he realized how rapidly the world was changing, and that opportunities were no longer in the public markets, where you can invest in companies only once they file for initial public offerings. Instead, the opportunities were in the earlier stages, when companies are still evolving into the multimillion-dollar juggernauts they will one day become.

It’s barely two years old, but Rokk3r Fuel has the feel of an established organization because of the caliber of talent it has rallied. Each person who works there is as ambitious as they are shrewd.

The driving force of Rokk3r Fuel is a thesis ideated by Jeff that posits that, the world’s exponentially rapid evolution, in terms of technological innovation and globalization (Google “Moore’s Law”), will fundamentally impact the investment landscape, rendering traditional asset classes and tried-and-trued methods of investing obsolete. Equally, however, Rokk3r Fuel is driven by the prospect of helping to positively impact the world by financing disruptive technologies and companies and amazing founders, particularly those of diverse backgrounds or groups underrepresented in tech, such as women.

Jeff was consistently impressive – the first one in and the last one out at the office, and there most days of every weekend.

When he wasn’t meticulously scrutinizing potential investment opportunities to the tune of the Rolling Stones, he was boarding flights to Mexico, Dubai or China, or holding court with Latin American investors in the Rokk3r Fuel executive conference room. Which brings me to another point: The Rokk3r Fuel headquarters were the antithesis of the typical office environment.

No cubicles, patterned carpet or fluorescent lights anywhere. Instead, modern installation art created by today’s greatest painters and sculptors adorned the walls. There were neon signs, glass-encased meeting rooms, mid-century modern furniture, facial recognition devices and 3D printers.

Interning at a VC Firm is unlike other internships. It was an unspoken agreement that everyone within the organization, even summer interns, were expected to absorb as much information as possible to contribute maximum positive impact, whether it was determining how much follow-on capital to provide a portfolio company or crafting quarterly reports for investors.

In these functions I worked closely with Maggie Vo, CFA, a Rokk3r Fuel partner and the fund’s chief investment officer. Maggie former served as portfolio manager for a prestigious private equity firm based out of Boca Raton. She is one of the sharpest people I’ve ever encountered — the quickest to identify and correct errors in real time and a diligent analyst. She also was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. She encouraged me to learn by doing — company valuations, KPI dashboards, new founder submission portals, excel scoring systems, and more.

The metrics we used to analyze prospective deals and evaluate growth took into account disparate variables that I would’ve never thought to consider. Take, for example, Admobilize, a Rokk3r Fuel portfolio company that was founded with the intent of making advertising “smarter.” Its initial idea was to insert tablets emblazoned with mobile ads into the backpacks of college students all over the U.S., and the world. Jeff and his partners saw the idea, quickly realized how it could be better, and facilitate a business model overhaul that has enabled Admobilize to transform into a big data and artificial intelligence company worth millions.

The original model, Jeff argued, would be successful only after expensive startup costs and for a limited amount of time. Admobilize would never reach an “exponential” growth curve, expanding by leaps and bounds each year to keep up with — or outpace — the rate of change of technology and the economy. Rokk3r Fuel prides itself on acting in the present with an eye toward the future.

That sort of foresight is part of the reason entrepreneurs seek out investment from Rokk3r Fuel. Becoming a portfolio company of Rokk3r Fuel doesn’t just generate fresh startup capital, but invaluable mentorship. My internship guaranteed me that kind of mentorship, too.

The opportunity to intern for Rokk3r Fuel was one I’ll never forget, and getting to do it in Miami was a bonus I’ll always be grateful for. The juxtaposition of hard work and exhilarating downtime reinvigorated my desire to work in the venture capital space one day.

Taxing as it is, palm trees, the beach and night life were just outside the door, waiting to restore my drive for the everyday, and what will come in the future.

Carter Robinson is a junior at the University of Kansas, pursuing a degree in finance, and house manager of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He was part of Rokk3r Fuel ExO’s Summer Intern Class of 2018.