AlchemistX: Innovators Inside

E.31 - Michael Moreno: The Tech Frontier

Published on

April 1, 2022

"Artificial intelligence, crypto… they're all technologies that I think that we can be investing in and cultivating for the betterment of humankind." - Michael Moreno

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Show Notes

Rachel Chalmers:

Today, I'm excited to welcome Michael Moreno to the show. Michael is the business development manager for VCs and startups at a little bookstore I.T. shop up in Seattle called Amazon Web Services (AWS) – You may have heard of it. He is also a former CIA officer with an MBA from UC Berkeley. Mike co-founded a startup of his own, Volt.ae, to bring clean energy infrastructure to the Middle East. He is a prolific advisor to startups and a venture partner with NextGen. Mike, it is so great to have you on the show.

Michael Moreno:

Thank you so much, Rachel. It's really great to be here.

Rachel Chalmers:

You have taken a fascinating path to startups in the cloud. Can you give us a sense of the through line from Policy Advisor at the State Department to where you are today?

Michael Moreno:

Yeah, absolutely. My first job out of college was the ultimate startup for me, which was a Policy Advisor to the Iraqi government in 2004. We were trying to rebuild the country. [There were] a lot of good intentions and I raised my hand to go work for the US government. I started out as a Defense Department civilian. I did that for about three months and then we converted our roles over to the State Department. So I was a civilian in the US government for about two and a half years there in Baghdad. I learned a lot. I did a lot of internal security policy work. I bounced all around the country and learned a lot about operating in austere environments with limited resources. 
Then I went on to grad school. I went to Columbia University to do an International Affairs Master’s for International Security Policy, and left from there to go to the Military Academy at West Point. I trained FBI agents for about a year and went back into the government after that. Somewhere along that timeline is when I went back and joined the CIA as an operations officer, and did much more work around the Middle East. I spent a lot of time, again, operating in austere environments. I learned Arabic along the way, but then at a certain point realized I wanted that to be a chapter in my life and not the entire story. My last tour was in Dubai in the UAE where I saw a lot of really exciting things going on in business and technology. It felt like the right time for me to step out, and actually what you don't see on my LinkedIn profile, is another startup I did in addition to Volt.ae. 
So I did a company called Marathon and that was focused on defense tech, focused on bringing defense technologies to our closest allies in the Middle East. And I ran that for about a year and a half – tons of lessons learned about selling to the government and the public sector there. Along the line, I also started with an Emirati co-founder, Volt.ae, and ran both of those for about two years and then came back to the US, and had a family. 
We decided that was enough for us in the Middle East, and I acted as a tech scout for a big Middle Eastern public private partnership for about a year, helped them commercialize startups that were growing in the US, and brought them to the Middle East. At a certain point I did the trade study between working on my own sort of as an independent operator for these folks and then working at a bigger company and fell in love with the company in San Diego called Viasat, which builds satellites. They were looking for folks to help them with their international expansion and market intelligence. So I I joined a great and quickly-growing team there at Viasat, had a ton of fun, and then finally, after about a year and a half of doing that, came across this team at AWS where I am now, and it was the perfect blend of everything that I just described: My background in public sector, service, investment, and startups. And that's how I landed where I am now in the Public Sector VCs and Startups team at AWS.

Rachel Chalmers:

What lessons did you take from that first chapter of your life as you started looking around in Dubai and appreciating the potential of the tech industry? You mentioned the idea of service. How did that manifest as you shifted your career goals away from government?

Michael Moreno:

So the lessons that I learned from my government service and then especially in the transition to the private sector (and I talk about this every day) – I talked to a lot of folks that are transitioning out of government. In fact, I had this conversation earlier this morning with a military veteran who's transitioning. For me, it's all about looking for your asymmetric value and where it's needed most, right? So as a guy that had been working in the Middle East, a lot of looking around, I had a tremendous network from my time in the Middle East… almost a decade. 
I saw that there were a lot of companies that wanted to work in the Middle East and didn't really understand how to do it. For example, when we started Volt.ae and we were developing a smart EV charger and installing the EV infrastructure around the Middle East, there were companies like Tesla that wanted to work there but didn't really have that on-the-ground exposure or experience. So I could, and then my partners and I could, operate as advisors, helping advise on market entry in Middle Eastern culture – And this is just me, right? Like, whatever it is that makes you unique and your asymmetric value, that's where I would look for the opportunities. 
So when I got out, I found a lot of companies that would put me on a contract and I would help advise them on how to enter the market in the Middle East. Conversely, there are a lot of companies in the Middle East and maybe investors that want exposure to Silicon Valley startups, for example. I was able to help them and add a lot of value in bringing them to the table and having those conversations. So the lesson in transition for me in terms of how I grew in the private sector was to find that unique value and find the folks that that really need it.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, that's really insightful: Inventory your assets. It's almost exactly the same advice we get in writing workshops. Write what you know. You've got a unique story; you've got a unique set of perspectives that other people don't have and may pay you for.

Michael Moreno:

Yeah, and I like that term also, “taking inventory.” It took me a while to understand what I was good at and what was valued in the private sector and translating those skills that I had developed, and being a case officer in the CIA is a lot about building trust-based relationships and being able to assess folks in a quick way with little to no background. It turns out that's really valuable in startups and really valuable in venture, for example: We're evaluating founding teams and looking people in the eye and building relationships with them so that we can go do crazy things together. It just took me a while to take that inventory personally and understand this is what's really valuable. As a mid-career professional, I wasn't going to leave the government and then go do really well at financial analysis or be a really good engineer as much as I might love either of those two things. It's not what I had been doing, so I needed to use a little bit of my past and then leverage that into what I wanted to do in the future.

Rachel Chalmers:

I love your comment about using your CIA training to do those snapshot assessments of people. Can you say a little more about that? Obviously it's a big part of my work at the accelerator and I find it fascinating. You do refine that sense over time of how you identify a good founding team, how you identify a person who's trustworthy but it's hard to distill that into advice that you can give to other people.

Michael Moreno:

What a great question. 
I will say this: Intelligence agencies in the CIA, the hiring process (and you can read this all online; you can literally go to CIA.gov and they write about this), they screen for applicants with a certain psychological profile, and they look for people that naturally are able to do that and can make friends and can assess people in real time. But it is a skill set like anything else that you cultivate and nurture and develop. I think a lot of where that comes from is just what we would call “time on target”, right? Just repetitions like anything else, role playing, training, going through meetings with people and understanding what their intentions are, and “Can I trust them?” and, “Does this feel like they're telling the truth?” That's the first assessment.
Then down the road, you can test that in various ways, much like when you're talking to someone with the pitch deck: it might look great and then down the road, you go into the data room and do your due diligence, and it turns out there are some red flags or questions.
I just think you get enough reps of that and you start trusting your gut. Like I've heard from very successful VCs that it's all about pattern recognition. What I didn't realize is that as I was transitioning, I had built up that pattern recognition just not in the context of VCs, investing or assessing startups

Rachel Chalmers:

That closed-loop moment is crucial, though, because a lot of VCs, when they're talking about pattern recognition, they're talking about, “Oh, his name is Steve, and he went to Stanford.” You've got to do that closed-loop piece where when we're teaching customer discovery, we call it “training your hunch” where you go back and verify how those initial assessments turned out. Because if you don't do that, your pattern recognition doesn't improve over time, and that's the critical piece.

Michael Moreno:

I think the really important part of what you just said to me is “What is my unconscious bias?” and recognizing that and, “Am I just saying yes to this person because they're also named Mike and they're also from San Diego, or because they came from a similar background?” – I need to be really careful about that. 
Fortunately, another thing that I had a lot of exposure to in my early career was a diverse set of folks that I was working with. When you're in that particular job, you have to be able to make friends with everyone, whether or not you have strong feelings about where they came from or what they look like or what their political beliefs are, it doesn't matter. Your job is to become close friends with them and to develop a trusting relationship. And I think that you cannot accurately or fairly assess founders or job applicants or product ideas unless you're able to do that. Put your biases aside and take them at face value.

Rachel Chalmers:

This is something that always blows me away about veterans and people who've worked in those military-adjacent environments. The rest of us talk the talk about diversity, but the military walks the walk. They put together these highly functional teams with people from any background whatsoever. It's the real deal. 

Michael Moreno:

Yeah, it's crazy. I mean, again, my first job out of college, I showed up in Baghdad with little-to-no training. I literally had 10 days of training as a civilian at Fort Bliss, Texas. So, I grew up professionally in this joint interagency environment where I was a guy that worked for the Defense Department, but that really wasn't even part of my identity. I was just a recent graduate out of college, and I had been doing an internship in D.C. when I raised my hand for this job, and to my left and my right were Australian Army, FBI, State Department diplomats, USAID, NGO workers, political appointees. It didn't matter. We were all there for the mission. 
What I love about that type of environment is as long as you're contributing – and by the way, Iraqi military, Iraqi foreign service and all of our other allies and coalition partners at the time, back in 2004, there were dozens of different countries represented. I would bounce around the country and I would end up in a base that was run by Ukrainians or a base that was run by Bulgarians. I would stay there for a week and put my life in their hands as I did what I was there to do. The most important thing is the mission and getting the job done. 
Now in the private sector, I look for teams like that that have that appreciation. It happens to be, you're right, a lot of veterans. It's kind of a shortcut to that mentality. I know that that has largely been the veteran experience, but there are folks all over that have that mentality, and I really appreciate it when I see it.

Rachel Chalmers:

Oh, look, if you can tolerate working with Australians, you can tolerate working with anyone.

Michael Moreno:

A lot of good times with Australians, great folks.

Rachel Chalmers:

Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about what you're working on now?

Michael Moreno:

Like I said, I'm on the worldwide Public Sector VC and Startups team at AWS and my area of focus is space and national security. Our team has other areas of focus and public sector for AWS such as health care, non-profits, education, digital governance, and for space and national security. I spend most of my time with founders advising on things like go-to-market strategy and fundraising strategy. I help them out with access to resources inside AWS, finding technical experts to help them on a deep dive, and I also work with VCs. So we're called VC and Startups; we don't write venture checks, but we do work with VCs as our customers help them to optimize their portfolio, help them to meet new companies, and then finally, we work with our government customers and our government partners all over the world to help them find new technologies. 
A lot of that is one-to-one, me to a founder meetings, but we're always looking for ways to scale that. One of the things that we did last year is we built and ran the AWS Space Accelerator, and it's one of the most exciting things that I've done in my time in the last year and a half plus at AWS is building this accelerator because first it gets folks excited all around the world about building a space startup. And for our first run, we had over 190 applications from 44 countries, and we are about to kick off the second iteration of the space accelerator for 2022 and we hope to surpass that and we're really excited about how we can continue to help the community.

Rachel Chalmers:

What are some of the challenges in building private space startups and how can programs like yours help?

Michael Moreno:

I think that for space startups and I would say deep tech in general, moving from a science project to a sustainable business model is hard for any deep tech company. It's not enough that the tech works. You also need the business model and you need the team to execute on it. So business model, innovation and good storytelling, by the way. One of the biggest challenges I've seen with companies that I mentor is they have really breakthrough, exciting technology, but it's a challenge to tell that story, frankly, even to people like me who don't have that deep technical expertise. And if I don't get it, there are going to be investors out there that don't get it and customers out there. So in the accelerator, for example, we help startups with their go-to-market strategy and we give plenty of opportunities to tell and refine that story. 
Then from the technical piece, the accelerator gives you dozens, if not more hours, with some of the world's technical experts at AWS. So this program, it's all about building on the cloud and accelerating what you have. We like to call it the graduate course of accelerators, so we don't spend a lot of time on the basics of building your startup. For really early stage startups, we assume that the startup has gotten to a certain level where they generally understand what their product is. They generally have a good feeling for product market fit, and now they want to accelerate their go-to-market strategy. And so we have that piece and then we'll bring in the technical advisors to build out proofs of concept, to test new products and to help you explore new solutions and missions in a highly customized way. Because at the end of the day for the accelerator, we want our startups to be massively successful and that's what we're there for.

Rachel Chalmers:

I love what you said about the storytelling piece because I've spent my career in deep tech and it is this interface as they're building a business, it's getting those customer stories, getting those case studies and then refining all of that into a really nicely polished elevator pitch that they can drop at the drop of a hat. I love that part. It's like poetry.

Michael Moreno:

I think it's everything. And I learned this first from personal experience on my own in the defense tech startup that I mentioned. We had the best technology. We had the best solution. We had the world's experts that had built this for the US government, and we were bringing it to our allies in the Middle East and showing them that they could use this. And we just failed to tell the story effectively. And I saw and I learned this painfully through dozens of hours of pitching the, you know, the Air Force general and telling them about this technology and then seeing, “Oh my gosh, we just wasted three hours walking through the tech and they don't understand what the actual customer experience is or why they need this.” And that was a failure on my part. I use those lessons every day now, as I advise startups. And I've seen it from other startups that I work with, is this technology will change the world and it's going nowhere if you can't explain it to people in a basic way.

Rachel Chalmers:

What advice and encouragement would you give to anyone thinking of applying?

Michael Moreno:

So the first thing I would say is just apply. It doesn't take long, and there's no downside to applying. It's a form on the website, and the questions we ask are probably what you would expect for an accelerator about your company, your background, what you're trying to achieve and where you are today. And then the second piece of advice, I would say is think big. That's an Amazon leadership principle. Show us the art of the possible and then also a realistic way to get there. I'd love to hear about these big, amazing problems that you're trying to solve. And then let's chart a path together for how you can solve those problems. Finally, I would say, have a good story for why AWS and even if you don't know much about the cloud yet, that's OK. We generally would love to hear why you think AWS could help you achieve what you're trying to achieve. Another thing I would add, too, is if you're not sure whether or not you're a space company, that's OK. Again, just apply. There are plenty of companies out there that I think are in what I would call space-adjacent markets… and don't be afraid of applying because, again, it doesn't cost you anything but time. 
We'd love to have a conversation about that with you. And by the way, even if you don't get into the accelerator, we know that you applied and we try to reach out to everyone and have a conversation with the folks that applied and see if there's any way that we can help them outside of the accelerator. 
Another thing that I would mention and I always say this even outside of the context of the accelerator is show us what the problem to be solved is that you're trying to solve and work backwards from the customer. It's always a better idea to do that than to start with your amazing technology and then go looking for a market. It's an easier conversation, and frankly, I think easier to build a business around specific problems to be solved that we can then apply your solution to.

Rachel Chalmers:

When you look back on your career to date, what are you proudest of?

Michael Moreno:

For me, this is very early in my career and I think I knew it at the time. In fact, I'm sure I knew at the time I used to joke that I peaked at 22 because in 2005, I was a security advisor to the Iraqi government, and I took on the role of advisor for Election Security. We developed from scratch the security plan to secure and run the first democratic elections in Iraq in 2005. It was January of 2005, and say what you will about the country, a lot of really hard stuff has happened since then, but we started with a blank sheet of paper. A multinational group came together and planned security to secure over 8000 polling centers. Fifteen million people were registered to vote in those first elections. All sorts of crazy stories. I mean, I had nightmares that it was going to totally fail and we pulled it off that day. You saw the headlines, you saw Iraqis holding up their purple fingers.

Rachel Chalmers:

(It was incredibly moving.)

Michael Moreno:

Oh my gosh. I mean, it was… again, it's the moment I'm most proud of because I had a part in that and we were able to help support this opportunity for a country. And it was just magical. And again, that country has been through so much. The process is far from perfect. We can have a much longer conversation about what success looks like, and we did a lot of things that didn't turn out right. But those elections were a high point. And by the way, just for fun, I'll tell you a great story about the purple ink, because this was all over the news: I argued very strongly against the purple ink. And we had these planning meetings, like every little thing was planned: “Should we allow cars on the road? Should there be a rule against people gathering? How do you secure a polling center through policies and through actual checkpoints and stuff like that?” And the question was, “How do we prevent people from voting twice and how do we secure against election fraud?” And so this ink idea came up and the options were ink that you couldn't see unless it was under UV, like a black light or this purple ink. And I said, this purple ink is a horrible idea because they'll be targeted because someone's going to dip their finger and then the bad guys will see that they have a purple finger and they can do horrible things. And I said that we should do this the UV ink or something else entirely,

Rachel Chalmers:

Which is a great instinct wanting to protect the voters.

Michael Moreno:

I know, right? Because security is a balance – where do we find that balance and where do we find the balance between protecting against election fraud? And then protecting the folks that are voting? And I was overruled and it turns out I was wrong and I'm so happy that I was because this was the enduring symbol of those elections and a rallying point for so many people to proudly hold up their purple fingers.

Rachel Chalmers:

Sometimes it's wonderful to be wrong when you are feeling paranoid

Michael Moreno:

My gosh, yeah. And the lesson is, by the way: It's OK to be wrong. I no longer am afraid of being wrong, and it's OK to have a strong opinion and then realize, OK, I have a lot to learn from this.

Rachel Chalmers:

The security spectrum is a really great lens, though I talk a lot about risk management, about venture as risk management and about running startups as a process of identifying and then retiring risks. And that's really just the flip side of security. It's how much risk are you comfortable with? How much risk are you taking on and what can you do to mitigate it?

Michael Moreno:

I totally agree. And right, it's a spectrum at different points in your life or different points in your portfolio. You have more or less risk tolerance. And once you decide that you're going to make an investment, then the question is, “How do I minimize it? How do I mitigate the risk and what can I do leading up to, during and then after that investment or that event to reduce the risk?”

Rachel Chalmers:

And it's a really key insight that people's risk tolerance, their risk profile changes over time. You know, it's certainly the case that when you've got little kids, you want to have a house with a roof with no holes in it and a good school system. The good news is your kids grow up and leave school and your risk profile increases again. That's a key insight for us working in corporate innovation because folks might be working at a big company because they're sending remittances back to their families, but they may be truly entrepreneurial people, so it's helpful to always bear that in mind.

Michael Moreno:

Again, this is a conversation that I had this morning with someone about whether they should join a startup or whether they should join a big corporation, and because folks want that excitement and the opportunity to be entrepreneurial. But it's sometimes a tough pill to swallow to endure that risk that comes along with early-stage startups. So you have a few choices, right? You look for the later stage startups where they've reduced that risk considerably, you know, the Series B, C and beyond startups, but there's still risk there. I have friends who are Series B founders that still have days when they're not sure they're going to make payroll. Or you get the big corporation that has that safety net, but maybe not the opportunity to be entrepreneurial. So I say, I feel very lucky that I ended up in the best of both worlds. I can work with founders and I. I can build new things and be entrepreneurial with. In my company, we also have the significant resources, the platform, the world stage to make an impact from, and so different points in your life, you're looking for different things. 
When I got out of the government, I was done with that safety net. I wanted to take a risk. And I dove headfirst into that pool and it turns out there wasn't a lot of water in that pool. I learned those lessons, but I learned so much that's taken me to where I am today. And then the pendulum swings to where I was doing a lot on my own and I thought, You know what? I can learn a lot from a big company, and that's when I went to Viasat and I learned so much. And then it just evolving that coming to AWS. Like, how do we scale things on a world stage? Startups talk about scale. Amazon has millions of people working for it, and we're all over the world, and that's a great opportunity to learn large scale processes.

Rachel Chalmers:

I do think one of the most enduring legacies of the FANG companies may be this ability to structure very, very large organizations with small, highly autonomous, high agency startup-like groups within them. It's it's clearly incredibly satisfying for the folks who find that niche

Michael Moreno:

It is, and the two pizza team thing is very real. There are absolutely pockets of incredible entrepreneurship within big companies. And I talk a lot about balance for me and whatever the FANG company or the big company that you're in. You have to find that balance of how do we empower those teams to be entrepreneurial and innovative and to take risks and for us to be OK with that, we give them the top cover. But also, how do you balance that with the fact that you don't really want a dozen teams at your company doing the same thing and competing with each other like they have to at some level know what's going on with the other teams. There has to be some sort of connective tissue and you have to be able to capture the value and not have a lot of deadweight loss of so many teams within that company trying the same thing over and over.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, we're better at planetary scale computing than we are at planetary scale collaboration, but that's because collaboration is really hard.

Michael Moreno:

It is, yes.

Rachel Chalmers:

Michael, if you had one do over what you do differently.

Michael Moreno:

I really want to give you a specific answer to this. There are a few that jump, that comes screaming to mind, but I can't because it has to do at the time that I worked in the government and I hate that answer and – 

Rachel Chalmers:

You can just tell me, but then you'd have to kill me.

Michael Moreno:

Well, and that's just not something that scales. So it's better just to not say it. But I would say every mistake that I've had in my career has led me to where I am now. There are a few that I would take back or I would adjust. I think a lot of that has to do with work/life balance and either over indexing, you know, over indexing too much on focusing on work, which is easy to do when you're overseas and heads down on a really intense project and you ignore everything else in your life. And so I've learned to calibrate, I think, a lot more effectively on that. But in terms of a tactical choice that I would do over, I just can't pick anything because I don't know which one of those threads I would pool that would lead me to someplace that's different from where I am today. And I'm really happy where I am.

Rachel Chalmers:

I'm really glad. How would you distill all of this experience into two or three lessons for our listeners?

Michael Moreno:

Oh, two or three? Hmm. I have a lot more than that, so let me try to think of the highlights. The most important thing to me is something that I learned from my dad was just to try not to worry so much about everything. I'm a big believer that nothing is a big deal until you make it a big deal. And I always ask myself when I find myself stressing out about something, I check in and ask myself, “Will this really matter a year from now?” And if it doesn't, then I just stop worrying because there's not a lot of utility that comes from that. It's not easy for everyone, but it's something that I aspire to. And my dad, he's a heart surgeon, and he had a phrase that he learned from his mentor: “All bleeding stops eventually.” So, whether you solve the problem or it resolves itself, it's going to be over. So just focus on working through the problem and try to maintain your mental health along the way.

Rachel Chalmers:

That's some good perspective, though.

Michael Moreno:

Another one that's really important to me is to be authentic. And again, I mentioned that in my previous career, and today it's all about building trust-based relationships, and I really admire leaders who are authentic, and I find that that inspires the most trust and that those are the folks that I want to follow. It's pretty easy to pick up when you're faking it, and sometimes it's not easy to be authentic, but it's something that I really aspire to. I have two more. So yes, for two or three, I'm gonna give you four.  
My next lesson is to be nice to everyone. Again, it’s something that my dad taught me. He was a surgeon walking around the hospital. I used to follow him around as a kid, and I was always really struck by the fact that he treated every single person in the hospital equally, whether it was the administrator or the other surgeons or the nurses or the janitor. There wasn't a single change in the inflection of his voice or the way that he spoke to people.
And you know, it's the age-old advice that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. I try to make friends with everyone. Be friends with everyone. And then the government version for me is always be recruiting, right? It's good to have people on my side, even if I don't necessarily again believe in their political beliefs or line with them, or we might not get along. It doesn't cost me anything to be nice to them and treat them with respect. 
OK, and then the last one, I promise, is I always try to learn something from everyone. This one's about staying humble, and I'm sure, and I hope that you've heard this 100 times on your podcast. I have something to learn from everyone, and the minute I catch myself thinking that I don't, I really need to change something and recalibrate in the conversation. Because even if I'm the one in front of a classroom teaching, I have lots to learn from the students, and so that's how I approach every relationship and every conversation.

Rachel Chalmers:

Yeah, it ties back to your dad's respect for the janitor. The value of any given person is infinite and the differences between us a miniscule compared to that and keeping that at the center of your practice keeps everything calibrated, I think.

Michael Moreno:

Oh my gosh, and especially folks that have nothing to do with my background or who are totally foreign to me, like in any sense of the word. That's where I lean in the most. I don't understand anything about where you're from or what you do, or why you think the way you do. So I really needed to open my mind and learn from you because that's going to make me a better person. It's going to make me better at my job and at everything that I do.

Rachel Chalmers:

And until we can do that, I'm not going to crack planetary scale collaboration.

Michael Moreno:

Absolutely.

Rachel Chalmers:

Michael, how do you avoid burnout? Do you avoid burnout?

Michael Moreno:

I have historically had a propensity to burn out. It's something that I've learned a lot from because I am… one of the lessons that I didn't say was I always work hard and I believe in putting the most into everything that I do. And that can lead to over-indexing and burning out. I've fortunately come to a place where I stop work when I need to – period, and I realize that the world won't stop when I stop work, and that's OK. What that allows me to do is to save those hair-on-fire moments for when there are real emergencies and deal with them appropriately. But if it's five o'clock and I've generally done what I needed to do and I can save something for tomorrow, like no one's going to die. If I don't finish it tonight, I'll stop. Because guess what? My kids want to play with me. I'll spend time with my wife. I go read a book and do things that help me stay sane. So I stop when I need to. And I don't do the overtime unless you really need me to do the overtime.

Rachel Chalmers:

That was a big one for me, learning that my team needs a leader who has emotional resources that haven't been depleted.

Michael Moreno:

Yes, that's so true. And I think whether it's as a leader or in a family, if you're not taking care of yourself, you're not going to be doing the best you can for your team. And I put my family first. I'm also a believer that work won't be there for you after you retire, so you really have to prioritize the family and your loved ones and the people that are around you, your friends, because that's what's going to be with you for the rest of your life.

Rachel Chalmers:

You want your kids to want to put you in the nice nursing home.

Michael Moreno:

Exactly. Yeah. The irony is, by the way, I grew up and my dad was such a great dad, but he was gone a lot because he was always operating and the nurses would ask me, “Do you want to be a surgeon when you grow up like your dad?” And I said, (I can't believe I said this. I feel so bad now) I said this right in front of him, I said, “No, because I want a job where I can be around for my kids a lot. And if you're a doctor, you work on the weekends. It's all day, every day.” And you know, joke's on me. The irony is, I then went and picked a career where I was not only gone all day, but like out of the country in a war zone. That's again something I've had to pull way back from and realize what is important in my life. And where do I want to be directionally?

Rachel Chalmers:

What is the best way for our listeners to connect with you or follow your work?

Michael Moreno:

I'm on LinkedIn. It's pretty easy to find me, and I love to connect with new folks on there. I have great conversations with people that reach out to me and I believe in paying it forward. And so I love to have conversations with folks that are starting companies or starting funds or want to transition into tech. So feel free to contact me on LinkedIn and then I am on Twitter @MikeMorenoSD like San Diego

Rachel Chalmers:

For the next five years. Everything in the tech industry goes exactly the way you want it to. You're the God Emperor. What you say goes. What will the world look like in five years?

Michael Moreno:

Oh my gosh. That's a serious nuance on that question. And I didn't know I could control everything in the future. 
I spent so much time with startups and a lot of time with founders. No matter what, I want to continue to help founders for the rest of my life. And I'm really excited about space and national security, but also other areas of deep tech as well. Things like climate tech, digital health, spatial computing, cybersecurity,  artificial intelligence, crypto, they're all technologies that I think that we can be investing in and cultivating for the betterment of humankind. I also think they can go horribly awry. So in my perfect utopian future, I'm making more direct investments in startups, in all of these areas, and I'm helping to align them with the interests of not only in the US, which I've done professionally, but for all humankind. As cheesy as that sounds, I believe that we're citizens of the Earth, and that we should be harnessing these resources and these technologies for good.

Rachel Chalmers:

Vote for Michael for President of the Federation.

Michael Moreno:

Are you a Star Trek fan?

Rachel Chalmers:

Oh God, yes.

Michael Moreno:

So the first episode of the next generation is called “Encounter at Farpoint,” and I think about this all the time because at Farpoint Station, Picard and the crew of the Enterprise are in their first episode ever, literally put on trial for all of humanity. And they have to speak for humanity and show that, “Hey, we're actually a good species and we have all these incredible capabilities and technologies.” And cue the alien that's putting them on trial saying, “You've just done horribly. Look at your past, look at your history as a species,” and the crew of the enterprise is saying, “We've turned a corner and we're using this force for good and watch us for the next seven seasons and see how we use those technologies.”

Rachel Chalmers:

Such a classic episode and Next Gen was so formative for me as I was growing up, but I just want to shout out to Discovery, which is the Star Trek of my heart. All of these space babies and every color of the rainbow, they're completely adorable.

Michael Moreno:

What I love about all of those series and science fiction in general is that you can draw a straight line from the big, the think-big, crazy ideas that those writers came up with to technologies that are actually happening today. And that's the really exciting thing about working in this area is that you get to see those ideas come to life. And science fiction in general is what inspires so many of us to do this

Rachel Chalmers:

Very concrete example. I've just been listening to Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's amazing book, “The Disordered Cosmos,” about being an astrophysicist who's also a black woman from East L.A. And she talks a lot about how directly she was inspired by the examples and the representation of Star Trek. 
What else should I have asked you?

Michael Moreno:

Well, the first question that you asked me was about my road from policy adviser to where I am today. You didn't ask me about that before. So that story starts at college and my first job out of college. But I feel like a lot of the foundational stuff that drove me came from before that. So maybe the question would be: What was your pathway before you became a policy advisor that led you to where you are today?

Rachel Chalmers:

I love that question. What was your pathway before you became a policy advisor that led you to where you are today?

Michael Moreno:

I'm so glad you asked. Well, there are a couple of big things that happened when I was a kid. One in seventh grade, I landed in Russia on about the same day as Yeltsin dissolved the parliament and there was a coup. And so as a kid, I was there on the streets right outside the Moscow Aerostar Hotel, watching tanks roll down the street and, you know, literally ducking into train track little areas to dodge the snipers that were on the roofs. And it was this crazy formative experience that really, I think if I look back, led me to where I ended up after graduation, after college, to work in.

Rachel Chalmers:

That'll make you think about nation building.

Michael Moreno:

Yeah. And so there was that I talked about founding some startups. The first real startup I had was that I played in a band in high school, which is like this little mini business. I know that's silly, but it was, you know, such a formative experience being on stage, learning about presence and then running a business, recording, selling, selling merchandise, having a marketing strategy. So to any super young entrepreneurs or, you know, kids out there who want to get a start. I think starting a band is a great way to go. I also started a T-shirt and graphic design company in college called Royalty Clothing. We sold a bunch of different designs, put stuff in stores on consignment, and then we also started an art and politics magazine. So it was all about the intersection of art and politics, and it was called “High Resolution,” which I think is a pretty cool name. I'm still very proud of that.

Rachel Chalmers:

Well, I'm very glad to have welcomed you as the second rock star we've had on the show. Michael, it's been an absolute pleasure to spend this time with you. Thank you so much, and best luck with the next iteration of the AWS Space Accelerator.

Michael Moreno:

Thank you so much for your time. I'm really grateful and really happy to be here with you.

Contact

Get InvolvedTalk To Rachel

References

Michael Moreno’s LinkedIn on LinkedIn
Michael Moreno’s Twitter on Twitter 
Volt.ae One of Michael’s first startups
Amazon Web Services Where Michael is head of development for VCs and Startups
NextGen Where Michael is a Venture Partner
Viasat Where Michael worked after his last tour 
AWS Space Accelerator Where Michael and his team are working with AlchemistX to deliver the second accelerator program 
Intro and Outro music composed by: www.PatrickSimpsonmusic.com   

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