It’s well known that what doesn't kill you, will only make you stronger. Carmen Dawson, founder and leader of innovation management firm Advanz LLC, knows this expression all too well. As a self-taught entrepreneur with a journey full of obstacles, including a life-threatening disease that nearly ended everything, Dawson is living proof that, regardless of what cards you are dealt, what resources you have access to or what challenges are thrown your way, if you're determined and you have the right attitude, you will prevail. He's also proof that adversity breeds strength and builds character.
“Growing up as a Shriners kid, I have always faced adversity,” Dawson said. “I was born with a floating eye and as a child, I wore a patch and had a deformed chest, extra rib, and a missing pectoral muscle. I was taught to not feel sorry for myself and to be thankful for the blessings I did have. I’ve been an X among O’s my entire life and was one of the only ethnic kids in Millcreek, a suburb of Erie, PA. I also went to a school with little to no diversity.”
Dawson had no business people in his family, so he had to learn everything on his own. The way he became an entrepreneur was pretty much the result of a tragedy.
“I was living in Washington D.C. at the time,” he said. “I was the number one sales rep for a public telecommunication company. My friends and I were living the dream, nice cars, Jet skis, multi-million-dollar houses and making a lot of money. Everything was great until two major things happened at once. A massive deal I was working on fell apart because of 9/11. I also found out I had Stage 3 Lyme Disease.”
“The doctors initially thought the symptoms, which included whiplash and arthritis, were from a car accident. I ended up going on short-term disability and needed an in-home nurse. It got really bad. I had a catheter in my arm for six months. I eventually lost the ability to walk and use my hands well and most doctors had no idea how to help me.”
In 2005, Dawson was forced to move back to Erie to get his condition under control and be closer to family. At one point, his family and friends thought he was going to die. He had shoe implants to support his swollen feet and ankles, neurological issues and rheumatoid arthritis, among many other ailments. After going through Unemployment Insurance and starting the Social Security Disability process, Dawson made a life-changing decision.
“I decided I wasn't going to give up,” he said. “I wasn't ready to live on Social Security and declare myself fully disabled, so I decided to start my company. Based on past success in sales, I decided I would bring sales and technology consulting to businesses that needed help. While building out the business, I became aware that Erie wasn't like D.C., where there were lots of deals. I also became aware that there weren't many resources for minority entrepreneurs. I had to teach myself what I needed to know.”
Around 2007, Dawson got even more involved by volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and for several entrepreneurial organizations. He took state leadership roles for the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education and the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Week and, after receiving a small loan from his parents, worked to broaden the reach and effectiveness of his company.
He researched the top entrepreneurs, universities and investment groups in Pennsylvania and hosted regional events. His goal was to build the first statewide entrepreneurial leadership team to help aspiring entrepreneurs obtain mentorship. Along the way, Dawson met and partnered with top notch universities and influential people, such as Richard Bendis, CEO of Innovation America and Maryland-based BioHealth Innovation, and innovative companies, such as Cisco Systems, eager to help build entrepreneurial ecosystems in local communities.
Dawson shared what happened next:
“I started working with disadvantaged entrepreneurs of all types, and began developing entrepreneurial mentoring programs,” he said. “My first major project was with the Mental Health Association of Northwestern PA. This project was extremely special because I was going through many health-related challenges at the time and all of my participants were disabled and/or suffering from mental health issues. I built programs to help them believe in themselves and to become more self-sufficient. That's where I came up with the idea of Adreamz Institute. The institute ultimately developed a mentoring process that increases the probability of an individual achieving their dreams or goals.”
“The entre mentoring process innovation was inspired by Dr. Richard Caruso’s protégé-led research and methodology,” he continued. “I met Dr. Caruso through an introduction from Richard Bendis. In 2008, I asked him to be the keynote speaker for my first large GEW event in Philadelphia. I was in awe of him. Caruso had created regenerative skin and took Integra LifeScience public, earning the prestigious 2006 National Winner for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.”
“But even more fascinating was his foundation’s mission to totally reshape mentoring as we know it today. Richard became my true friend and mentor in 2008. By 2011, he and I were partnering on programs and events around the state. That year, my work with the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute and Adreamz Institute led to an opportunity to be the opening keynote speaker for the White House Urban Entrepreneur Forum housed at Temple University's Fox School of Business.”
“Dr. Caruso connected me with urban entrepreneurs that were transforming their country, and we collectively presented to 300 of Philadelphia's leaders in entrepreneurship, business and education. After the event, Richard invited me to his home and asked if I would work for his foundation as a Vice President of Entrepreneur Education. That’s the day my lifelong work was validated.”
As the VP of the Uncommon Individual Foundation, Dawson focused on building mentoring programs that helped youth and minority tech entrepreneurs create investment-worthy businesses. Fast forward and Dawson has helped facilitate over 30 million in project funding and has been involved with the launch of a few technology accelerators and incubators, appointed to a variety of economic development boards and served on the board of directors for the Black School of Business at Penn State’s Behrend campus.
In 2013, he went back to school to pursue graduate Executive Education in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, with a focus on Technology Commercialization from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Also, in 2013, Dawson was named “Business Advocate” of the Year by the Philadelphia Business Journal’s readers.
In 2014, he and other like-minded organizational leaders decided to take control of Erie’s future and held a “Day of Innovation” that brought Richard Bendis and Ray Leach, CEO of Jumpstart, to town to discuss how to turn Erie’s innovation economy around. Their intent was to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem fueled by access to impact investment and traditional venture capital for startup companies and innovative non-profits.
Dawson’s company worked with the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority to create an innovation-based economic development strategy called “Ignite Erie,” which invested millions of dollars generated by gaming revenue to develop innovation hubs for collaboration between universities, businesses and citizens. Not long after, his company was brought on by Samuel P. “Pat” Black III, chairman of Erie Management Group, to help grow a community-building initiative in Erie and help manage his portfolio of companies, including one of the nation’s leading bio-diesel manufacturers.
Over the last decade, Dawson and his clients launched a K-8 charter school focused on leadership, built 76 units of low- to moderate-income housing, created a university partnership that offered affordable college credits for two-year college degree programs, created a minority business lending organization and installed Cisco TelePresence equipment to allow all the entities to communicate locally and internationally.
In 2015, Dawson had a new focus.
“Erie had record-breaking poverty and homicide,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to reduce the violence in my hometown. I expressed my intention to my mentor, Richard Caruso, and he hired my company, Adreamz Institute, to study, design and implement a strategy. I paired up with a fellow Ernst and Young Award Winner’s Company and built a language and literacy lab in partnership with the Booker T. Washington Center and a local college.”
“My team and I and created a logic model accompanied by a year-round strategy to help Erie’s most challenged K-3 learners develop literacy and character using technology and reward-based incentives. This was around the time when my soon-to-be wife, Ebony, got an offer to relocate to Florida to work for the Collier County School District as a behavioral specialist. The timing was both good and not so good. I always wanted to live in Florida, plus I’d just started a Jet Ski hydro-sports business and thought Florida would be a great place to grow it, however, my research was still in its infancy.”
Even though things didn't go as planned with the new hydro-sports business, Dawson is someone who knows better than to put all of his eggs in one basket. He continues to be involved with mentoring and is passionate about designing programs to increase literacy. He’s also in the process of launching a chapter of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs (SOPE) in Southwest Florida. SOPE is a not-for-profit he helped expand into Philadelphia while working for Dr. Caruso that has the potential to disrupt the medical device and wellness industries.
“We don't have a lot of university-based innovation in this area,” he said. “However, there are individual pockets that concentrate on health, wellness and medical device innovation. I saw an opportunity and partnered with the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs and the Innovation Institute to give medical innovators access to capital and the technology-transfer resources needed to bring their products to market. We basically developed a turnkey solution to allow these folks to easily bring their ideas to fruition, in exchange for giving up some equity.”
On the verge of being fully disabled and not having a clear path forward, Dawson kept his faith in God, made a decision to not give up and decided to focus on creating a legacy as a transformational social entrepreneur. Guided by his desire to help communities and under-represented entrepreneurs, Dawson has made a career of bringing together like-minded individuals with the desire, capital, knowledge and resources to support traditional and social innovation.
Looking ahead, Dawson has a long-term goal of helping medical innovators and device companies go public. Ideally, he hopes to experience an Initial Public Offering and wants it to occur in Southwest Florida. But more importantly, he also wants to be involved with saving lives by helping medical innovations become mainstream and more easily available to the public. His spirit of volunteerism will remain constant in the meantime, as proven by his involvement in local entrepreneurship efforts such as 1 Million Cups® Naples, Golden Gate High School INCubatorED and Taste Of Immokalee.
What advice and lessons learned does Dawson have to share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Before you do anything, learn what it costs to sell one unit,” he said. “Understand price per sale. Also, before you present to an investment group, learn about their Internal Rate of Return and build an executive team with a history of creating returns for investors. It’s also important to understand things like working with attorneys. There are less expensive ways to get things done. For example, you can utilize online tools to see if your idea already exists. If it does, and you did the research yourself, you just saved yourself a lot of money. Lastly, remember that once you put your intellectual property out there, it's now in the public domain. If it’s not protected, it’s difficult to prove that the idea was created before a competitor or troll.”