It’s not often that celebrities hang out at Atlanta Tech Village and when they have – it’s been because they are using our building for on location filming and we are required to keep the details quiet. So when Ashton Kutcher’s team reached out to me about visiting the Village, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew Ashton was a major tech investor but was curious to see how his celebrity impacted his approach as a VC. After all, I’ve seen That 70’s Show, Dude, Where’s My Car, and Punk’d.
Wait, was I getting punk’d?
Late Monday night, Tuesday’s meeting was confirmed and I was told no formal pitches. Ashton just wanted to “bounce around” within the allotted time.
We have had many important visitors at the Village. From Mayor Kasim Reed, to the CTO of the United States, rappers, actors, University presidents, foreign embassies, Fortune 500 CEOs, and many VCs. I have done thousands of tours and connects such as this. But Ashton was unique. And honestly? He threw me off my game a bit and I am usually hard to rattle. He was one of the smartest, most gracious, and least entitled people I have met with at Atlanta Tech Village.
- He was not only on time, he was early.
- There was no entourage, just him.
- He actually had read the one pager and suggested startups that I had sent over the weekend and could refer to them knowledgeably.
- He had done additional research. In fact, he called me out on an incorrect stat I mentioned that he happened to be reading about the night before. (Remember? Rattled. And yes, that was embarrassing.)
- He immediately engaged with startup Founders on a technical level.
A rainy, Tuesday morning after Memorial Day weekend meant the Village community got off to a slower start than usual. Ashton assured me that the legit startups would be there working. He didn’t care who he missed, he just wanted to talk to the entrepreneurs who were present and hustling. As we walked around for the next three hours, it was totally organic, and we “bounced around” as I steered us towards Founders who were not only present but had significant traction.
I got a lot of joy walking by an office and introducing the Founders to Ashton Kutcher. There was always a delayed click in understanding who he was followed by complete surprise, and then sincere appreciation to share what they are working on. We first popped into Cognira’s office where Founder Baha Ustaoglu casually pitched his startup and they began a dialogue on retail analytics. As we continued these office visits, Ashton listened, asked insightful questions, engaged in technical conversation, current trends, and mentioned competitors that weren’t always known. Several times I heard successful entrepreneurs say to him – “That’s a really great question.”
None of this should surprise any of us. After all, Ashton is a known tech investor. In 2011, Kutcher created a venture fund, A-Grade Investments, with Ron Burkle and Guy Oseary. A-Grade has made 61 investments, including Village graduate Bitpay, along with Spotify, Airbnb, Foursquare, and Uber, and an additional 30 investments through Sound Ventures. He has been named one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People, and his company, Katalyst, was named one of Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies. Ashton is also good friends with Mark Cuban who has invested in Villager, Bruno Francois. In Ashton’s words – the Village is like a startup “play ground” to him and it was easy to see he belonged.
Using Technology for Good
The biggest impression left on me was a conversation he had with Storj developers. Storj is a Village startup that is the AirBnB for cloud storage and they had just completed a $30 million token sale in seven days. That conversation could have gone a lot of different ways. But Ashton’s question to them was, “What are you doing to prevent your users from storing child pornography?” This was followed by a serious 10 minute discussion about encryptions, hashes, and Ashton offering to provide them access to a database and tools to better help them fight this never ending battle.
What you may not know is that Ashton Kutcher also uses his celebrity and resources to passionately advocate against child abuse and human trafficking. He addressed the US Senate just last February. Did you know that America is the number one producer of child pornography in the world? We are talking as young as 6 years old. We are talking violent images. All shared through the web, using the latest and greatest technology. In Ashton’s words, it is stuff that truly “makes you question humanity.” I would add – it’s horrifying.
Thorn is Ashton’s non profit that is battling this terrifying epidemic by driving tech innovation to fight child sexual exploitation. They have created one of the largest databases in the world identifying producers and users on the dark web and hashing images so they can be taken down. When we talk about using technology for good, this organization should be at the top of your list. And it is now on top of ours. The Village is committed to bringing the Atlanta community together to support this important work. What that looks like, we aren’t quite sure yet – but we are working on it.
Tech, BBQ, and the Bachelorette
Throughout Ashton’s three hour visit, I couldn’t help but be struck by what an interesting dichotomy he was- incredibly successful and famous, yet showed up without an entourage in a backpack and sneakers. Incredibly smart, yet often known for playing humorous and less intelligent characters. He seemed equally versed as an experienced and successful tech investor as he was about the latest Bachelorette bracket, and as energized by technical conversations about startups as he was about Atlanta bbq. I mean, we do have really good bbq.
And yes that means we talked Bachelorette (he says Rachel is awesome and legit), Fox Brother’s BBQ (and the debate of #1 vs #2 food spots), how nice it is to be able to go places in Atlanta without paparazzi (gah, can you imagine?!), and he even quoted a line from Cheaper by the Dozen when one very fan-atic Villager requested it (and it was hilarious).
But most importantly, Ashton showed he truly has a heart for using tech to make the world a better place.
You want to know how celebrity impacts Ashton’s VC approach? It makes him one freaking likable guy who quickly and easily demonstrated that he could contribute incredible value to any board he would sit on. In our world money isn’t just money, it’s who it comes with. And this is one investor everyone should want on their team, and one person the tech community should be incredibly proud of.
Ashton, Atlanta wants to be friends. Come back anytime.
Now, everyone else needs to go watch The Ranch on Netflix.