When Nexus Louisiana CEO Genevieve Silverman called Calvin Mills Jr. to let him know she was stepping down, he knew the right thing to do was to offer to step up as interim CEO. It wasn’t a difficult decision for Mills.
“It’s just the right move,” Mills says. “What better person to have in this seat than an entrepreneur that has gone through all of those things, knows the organization, knows the amazing team that we have here?”
Mills has decades of experience as an entrepreneur in Louisiana and has spent nearly a decade working alongside NexusLA as a board member — including 3 years as board chair — to support its mission of providing coaching, capital and connections to local tech startups.
We’re taking a look at where Mills came from — and his vision for the future.
Applying Determination — and Heart
Mills has always been technically inclined (he took apart his mother’s TV and put it back together before turning 10). Mills built on his aptitudes by pursuing a double-major in computer science and business at Southern University, where he played for the football team as starting fullback — helping the team earn 3 conference and 2 national championships during his tenure.
As a young adult post-graduation, Mills put his technology knowledge to use at Best Buy, where he helped customers make the right purchases for their needs. But it wasn’t a great fit for his attitude or ambition: “I just wasn’t happy making money for other people and working as hard as I was but not really getting the recognition that I felt I deserved,” he says.
Mills has always understood his worth. So while working for Best Buy, he began learning everything he could about running a business. He studied the company’s business model and determined what he thought they did well and where they could improve. But the nudge he needed to branch out came from a personal experience.
“It was a family that came in that hit home for me. A family that didn’t have a lot of money,” Mills says. “They came in to buy computers, but they were disappointed because they weren’t able to afford the before-rebate cost.” Mills saw the disappointment in the kids’ faces, and it didn’t sit right with him to let the family walk out empty-handed. As they were leaving, he ran after them and asked if they’d give him the chance to try building them a computer at a more affordable price.
“That night I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to help low-income families gain access to technology,’” he says. “And that’s how I started my business — literally in the back of Best Buy in the computer department helping families.”
Mills founded CMC Technology Solutions in 2001, a business he maintains today.
Persevering Through Setbacks to Find Success
Although he pursued self-employment, Mills had to work other jobs on the side to make ends meet. But in summer 2005, he’d had enough and quit the extra job he’d taken on. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit a month later, upending his life. “I was freaking out,” he says. “I had my pet and my mom at my home, and all of a sudden I had family there, too — I had 10 to 12 people in my two-bedroom apartment.”
In Katrina’s wake, Mills saw the federal relief coming through and the need for technical support for the rescue-and-recovery process. He started Googling how to work with the Federal Emergency Management Association. He soon got a call to help them secure 300 laptops, although he wasn’t able to fulfill the order. But that process put him on the radar, and the orders started pouring in — catapulting his company to the next level.
“I was able to land a contract, and it was only $2,500,” he says. “But I went from $2,500 to $350,000 in about two months.”
And that’s not all: The work Mills put in during the hurricane-recovery process earned his company national recognition. “Because of the work we did after Hurricane Katrina,” he says, “I landed my first national award, which was from the Department of Homeland Security as the Small Business Company of the Year.”
Recognizing and Sharing the Keys to Success
As a serial tech entrepreneur, Mills understands what it takes to succeed. As interim CEO, he wants to share what he’s learned with founders in the community. “Now that I’m sitting in this seat, I have an opportunity to change the narrative of what it means to be an entrepreneur,” Mills says. “It’s important that entrepreneurs understand it’s not an easy road.”
Of course, Mills doesn’t expect founders to go it alone, and he wants them to know about all of the resources available for startups through NexusLA and its partner organizations in the state. “If you ask the questions and allow people to help,” he says, “you will find the resources that will allow you to get where you’re trying to go.”
One of Mills’ goals is to get the word out about what organizations like NexusLA can do for local startups. “There’s a lot of resources around the state that we have,” he says. “But people don’t know, and I feel like it’s our duty to really tell people.”
Those who know him expect nothing less than a 110% commitment to supporting local small business and startups, of whom he’s always been a fierce supporter. In fact, Mills was recently recognized at the national level for his contributions to the small business community, earning the National Small Business Association’s 2019 Lewis Shattuck Small Business Advocate of the Year award.
With 10 years of as both a former board member and board chair, Mills is familiar with the NexusLA team and their capabilities. He’s looking forward to fielding ideas from talented team members as they continue the organization’s mission of expanding Louisiana startups’ access to coaching, capital and connections. To give them more opportunities to explore their potential, Mills is building out NexusLA internally. “The biggest priority I have right now is getting support to our team,” he says. “We’re going to build it out the way it’s supposed to be.”
Everything on Mills’ immediate to-do list as interim CEO is designed to drive success for Louisiana startups. By providing excellent resources to founders, Mills hopes to take NexusLA’s contribution to the local economy to the next level.
“Our job moving forward is to put our arms around local founders to help them to become successful entrepreneurs and business owners of companies that can employ hundreds of people locally, statewide or nationally — to really grow those ideas and bring them to fruition,” Mills says.