The Power of Passion in Building a Business 

Nic Cary interviews Sekou Kaalund, Executive Vice President and Head of Branch and Small Business banking for US Bank, where he oversees the organization’s 2,200+ branches across 26 states. emphasizes the significance of having a clear vision, the necessity of mentorship, and the critical role of networking and relationship building in achieving business success. The episode concludes with Sekou emphasizing that passion fuels perseverance, but success in entrepreneurship requires a clear vision, structured planning, mentorship, and financial understanding.

S3E4 - Sekou Kaalund - Website Image 300x300

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • The importance of having a clear vision and structured planning for successful entrepreneurship.
  • The critical role of mentorship and networking in achieving business goals.
  • Navigating the complexities of accessing capital and managing finances effectively.
  • Strategies for leveraging resources and building a strong support network.
  • The transformative power of passion and resilience in overcoming business challenges.

In this episode…

Nic Cary interviews Sekou and they discuss the lessons learned during his career journey including:

  • The importance of a clear vision and structured planning in a business' success.
  • The critical importance of mentorship and building strong networks.
  • The understanding of financial fundamentals and effectively leveraging resources is crucial for growth.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by Sky’s The Limit, one of the largest nonprofit programs for underrepresented young adult entrepreneurs in the US. Sky’s The Limit is a quick-growing digital platform that connects entrepreneurs with their peers, volunteer business mentors, training resources, and funding.

Our goal is to develop the social capital that founders need to chase their business dreams.

To learn more, please visit today.

Episode transcript

Intro (00:04):

Welcome to the First Buck podcast where we feature stories about entrepreneurs and the people who support them. Now let's get started with the show. 

Nic Cary (00:24):

Hello and welcome to the First Buck podcast, brought to you by Sky's the We feature stories about entrepreneurs and the people who support them. Today we're joined by Sekou Kaalund, executive Vice President and head of Branch and Small business banking for US Bank, where he oversees the organization's 2200 branches across 26 states. Prior to joining US Bank. Second, who spent 15 years at JP Morgan Chase in a variety of leadership roles. Most recently serving as head of Chase consumer Bank for the Northeast Division, overseeing 375 billion in deposits and investments. His commitment to impact coupled with its extraordinary experience building businesses led to his involvement in launching the Advancing Black Pathways, the first global corporate initiative that leveraged a data-driven strategic framework to develop scalable programs to reduce the racial wealth gap. The success of this initiative, which included hiring thousands of black students, providing millions of dollars in capital to black businesses, reaching over 1 million individuals with financial health content led to a historic five-year firm-wide, 30 billion commitment to advanced racial equity. So we are extremely lucky to have you today. We've got a little tradition around here, Sekou, we need to learn. How did you earn your first buck? 

Sekou Kaalund (01:40):

Well, first of all, thank you for having me and thank you for the great work you're doing for incredible entrepreneurs who will be the future of this country. How I earned my first big buck is through entrepreneurship of my parents. They had a small business transportation company and we worked my brothers in the company, and so at that time, minimum wage was about $3 25 cents an hour, and so that's where I started my initial work, but also was able to observe the challenges that they had as a small business. When I turned 14, I did work in retail, so I continued that earning the buck, so to speak by working at a clothing store, and I did that throughout high school as well. 

Nic Cary (02:25):

So from helping out with your parents in the earliest days to going on in, working in retail, your story sort of chart some things I think that really connect with a lot of people, which is they're sort of use the things that are around them. To get started, tell us a little bit about what you learned about small business from your parents and how that sort of translated after you went into retail and then furthering on in your career. What are some lessons that sort of apply regardless of what stage the business might be? 

Sekou Kaalund (02:51):

Yeah, I was able to learn a lot of lessons, some of which influenced my path. So the importance of finance, for instance, with small businesses or banking relationships, quite often business owners launch an initiative or a business because they're passionate about a topic, they see an opportunity in the market, they don't launch their business to be able to engage with accountants and understand banking and finance. That's not why you launch your business. You don't say, you know what, I would just love to sit in the bank branch, and so 

Nic Cary (03:25):

You're surrounded by all accountants and tax lawyers and everybody else. That's a parade. 

Sekou Kaalund (03:32):

Sign me up. So since that is not why folks launch businesses, it's important to then understand early on how you engage, how you structure your business from the outset, which will then have an impact as you look to get financing, et cetera. But also understood the challenges that small businesses have, particularly in the hot labor market in attracting the talent that they need. Many times small business owners have to play multiple hats, so they have three different jobs and it's just the requirement as you're bootstrapping or launching or leveraging your business to grow. But what I would say is understand upfront, again, getting the right people around you, your majors, what are your minors, what are the things that you don't walk into your office excited about? Who has that skillset that can help you in those areas where, again, it's not necessarily your passion, but it's critical for the ongoing success of the business. 

Nic Cary (04:41):

Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about how people go about maybe finding those majors and minors, and maybe if you could pull a little bit of your personal story. So you're on up, you've got parents that are running a small business. You start learning a little bit about the business world yourself. Then you go on into the business world. What were some things and how did you end up sort of taking personal risks and what were you investing in on an individual basis for yourself that sort of gave you those, I would say, moments to grow in your career? 

Sekou Kaalund (05:07):

Yes, and I'll share more of my story. I guess what the podcast, this is what the podcast is for. So my parents, their business ended up failing because of a lack of access to capital and some other challenges. And so that prompted me. You asked about my first book to actually work two jobs my freshman year, ninth grade, I worked probably 35 hours a week during the school week and about 70, 75 hours a week during the summer. So I saw firsthand in terms of the challenges of navigating small business, but I will say the greatest wealth creation that has occurred in this country has been entrepreneurship. And so it is a difficult journey. It's your passion doesn't make it easier. It makes it easier for you to navigate. So it doesn't just because you're passionate about something, the ocean doesn't part and all of a sudden you skip to work with all these great clients, et cetera. 


So again, what the passion gives you is that ability to have perseverance through the difficult times. And for me, those difficult times were also a learning lesson. So it allowed me to see firsthand that there are many talented people. Talent is created equally. Opportunities not, but we, even with talent, you have to understand how do I lock into resources and attract resources and the support that's going to be necessary for me to grow? And sometimes that's individuals mentors, and other times that's programs. It's again, the sky's the It is getting access to the information and people that can help be helpful on your journey. As for my journey, I later on participated in an internship program in corporate my senior year and was making double the money per hour. And so then that was another aha moment that you can work as hard as you want, but sometimes it's about working smarter with the right set of opportunities. 


And so that opened my perspective in terms of corporate America and what it could do to support small businesses. Specifically, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that this was not my journey at age five. I wanted to run for Senate, I wanted to create laws that impacted poor communities. And so I was on this service journey. I had this epiphany in graduate school that capital and banking and finance could be a better way for me to drive the impact that I wanted to across communities. And so I would have to be open to the pivot and realize that my passion was about serving and recognizing that there's more than one way to serve. And so the more access you have or exposure to information, you're able to refine the steps on your journey to really be focused on achieving your goals. 

Nic Cary (08:09):

Yep. Lots of pearls of wisdom in there. Tell us a little bit about how, from your perspective, having both been involved in watching small businesses and the highs and lows with that and then supporting small businesses in your career, what has changed over the last 20, 30, 40 years? What do small businesses need to be thinking about in 2024 versus maybe how it was 20, 30 years ago or are things kind of the same? What is your perspective on that? 

Sekou Kaalund (08:40):

I think as a positive, what has changed is access to information. So now you can, whether you need to create your LLC, their online services, whether you need to understand what the grants or programs may be available, more of that information now is at your fingertips through, again, the access to information we have. What hasn't changed is the challenges. Some may face around funding of their business. And with that it means there's an I increased need for you to understand what is it that you're trying to do? What are you solving for? What's this client base that you're perceiving? You're going to solve an issue or create a value added service? And then having that clarity in the business plan. So I think even now where maybe a couple of decades ago you could have only have had the idea and some hit and miss and get there. 


I think with business formation happening at a much more rapid rate in terms of small business, you have to have that clarity on what you're solving for from a marketplace standpoint. And then with that business plan understanding how do you pressure test that so all that becomes more relevant versus pie in the sky, I'm going to do X, Y, Z. You do want to have a blend of your innovation and creative ideas with the practicality of how this is going to work. And so I think that how this is going to work piece is certainly elevated because that is a first pass of the viability of your idea. If you're able to take that feedback evolve and adjust, then you can understand how you roll out and execute at a greater scale. 

Nic Cary (10:34):

I love that. It's basically we start with our passion. We figure out what problem we're trying to solve, we really understand our customer, and then we keep iterating from there. Love that. Yes. Talk 

Sekou Kaalund (10:45):

To us. I'll only just add one thing too. You have to be able to tell that story back to the business plan because if you let someone fill in the dots and connect the dots for you, they may get a different picture. And so really having clarity on these items, the only thing I have to judge if I'm thinking about investing in your business or if I'm making a loan or whatever it is, is how you tell that story. If you have the uncertainty, then how will I develop the certainty if you're still working it out? So really investing the time to understand, telling your story and your ideas and how you can evidence that it will work to the extent that it's a market opportunity. And talk to your friends, other small business owners talk to just friends that you have to say, Hey, let me practice this pitch on you. And again, leverage a variety of resources. Sometimes there's seminars so that you could really refine that pitch so that when you have that, you're knocking it out the park. 

Nic Cary (11:55):

Yeah, I think you're onto something that's so important here for small businesses, but also for individuals, which is to get good at their storytelling, to have confidence in it and practice it. And it's something everyone has to work on. No one just sprouts out of the ground as a perfect storyteller. They have to get better at these things. You can do that by practicing 'em. I wanted to ask you a question sort of tangentially related to this, which is we all sort of benefit by having good advisors, mentors, teachers, coaches, people around us that are mirror people, that are foils, people that help us see blind spots. Who are some of those characters in your life that have just helped you across your career or across your entrepreneurship or investment opportunities or just in life in general? Tell us a little bit about those personalities. What are they bringing for you and how do you cultivate those relationships? 

Sekou Kaalund (12:45):

You're touching on a critically important point, and that is mentorship. So for me, mentoring has been crucial to my career, and I can confidently state that I would not be here talking to you or being able to navigate what I've done in banking, were it not for the advice counsel and wisdom that mentors imparted on me. And so I want to say that mentoring doesn't stop. Even today, by many measures, people would say I'm successful, executive, et cetera. I still rely on mentoring. So it is almost like parenting. You're not only a parent when your children are smaller, you're a parent for their lifetime. But what I would say about mentoring is how you go about developing some of these relationships that matter. Part of it will be like telling your story. So I'll give you five quick things, telling your story. We've talked about the narrative. 


Well in this context is telling your story of understanding why you want to connect with someone, what is it that they experience wise possess that you feel will be additive or provide insight for your journey. So that's the first thing. The second thing I would say is when you do connect with people, demonstrate that you value your time back to communication, have a clear agenda and engage in active listening. So that becomes important, especially as you talk about developing an ongoing relationship. Three, I would say similar to number two, be very structured and effective in your communications because people aren't typically just waiting around to say, I don't have much to do today. When is a mentee going to call me so I can just wax poetically? Instead, they're balancing multiple priorities. So meeting with you is an intentional choice. So you want to structure your communication so that you do have effective discussions. 


And I would say four and five, I would create a diverse group of advisors and mentors, even if they don't have the term mentor, don't jump and say, Hey, I'm launching a business. You've been successful. Will you be my business mentor? How about instead, just create that engagement and dialogue and understand the insights that you need to extract and have a discussion. It may be a point in time, you may have five meetings, but don't lead with, Hey, I need a mentor and you're it. Because the person is probably thinking even though I'm giving, I don't have the bandwidth. I barely have time to do my personal stuff. And the last thing I would say, number five is look for opportunities to reciprocate. So perhaps you're helping someone else. And I think when you use those five steps in any order, but you develop organic engagement that can then unlock opportunities for you to ask those difficult questions, to take the feedback and to execute. 


The other thing I will say is don't expect a prescriptive here. Wake up in the morning, eat your cereal, work out, and then go have coffee. Your mentor isn't going to give you the step-by-step on what you need to do. And that's why I say that clear communication's important. I would not be where I am, and I would argue most people on this planet, you don't do it alone. You benefit from someone who's willing, even when there's nothing that you're doing per se to deserve their time, they're willing to invest because they may see something in you that you don't even see in yourself. They may see a version of where they are, and they know that their success was only possible because someone cared enough to invest in them. 

Nic Cary (16:53):

I think those moments happen for people at different times. It's like there are keys that have to unlock those things, and sometimes you're just, you're not ready for it yet or you haven't figured out how to make that ask. And I think your five sort of, I won't call the rules, I'll say thoughts to have about having good mentorship conversations and relationships are really, really important to hit home here, which is reach out to someone, but really know why you want to reach out to them and be thoughtful in your ask. And that really about respecting their time. And then you want to make sure that you have a structured conversation and that you're very serious about your intents with that. And then finally, I think you are dead on with this sort of working through a collection of diverse perspectives to help you see things that you didn't know were there. And then repeating this cycle and finding opportunities for reciprocity in it, I think was hugely, I think I got those right, but 

Sekou Kaalund (17:49):

Absolutely spot on. Yeah, we're going to have to, there's a business book in there somewhere, I think. 

Nic Cary (17:56):

Okay. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah. I love the role that mentorship and coaching plays for everybody is honestly, if you do a good job with it, it works for both really, really well. It creates this mutual benefit. And I think that's one of the things that I find when I work with young entrepreneurs and also when I seek advice from role models that I look up to, is to just sort of constantly open up my aperture of wisdom and looking at things and not necessarily coming at it with, well, I have to do the following 50 things in order to be successful. I don't think that's true at all. And you talked about that as well. So let's talk a little bit about a lot of small businesses, they start off and they go, God, if I just had money, everything would be easier. 


I would solve all these problems. And a lot of small businesses and a lot of entrepreneurs, they're comparing themselves to much bigger businesses at the very earliest stages. And I think there's this preconception that if they just had a lot of money thrown at them that they would fix all their problems right away. Talk to us a little bit about how to think about access to capital finance, how to become more fluent with it. It can seem like this really intimidating set of vocabulary and there's so many different words that people use. Give us a little bit of a mapping of it in your view, for how small businesses should think about working with banking relationships, seeking capital from other types of sources if they need it at all. When's the right time to think about that? Yeah, give us sort of maybe a short masterclass in that. 

Sekou Kaalund (19:24):

Yes. Yeah. So I'll start with an important statement and that I'll look at you in your face to all these business owners, you are necessary. And by that I mean the US economy is driven by small business. Two thirds of the net job creation over any decade is basically driven by small business. And so recognize the importance that what you're trying to do plays not only for your local community, your state, both for the national economy as a whole. The second thing I would say, as you think about the financing aspect, it goes back to having that clear vision of what you want to do. There's a proverb that says, without vision, people perish. And there's a shift to it. Another translation says, without vision, people wander aimlessly. And so as a small business owner, without that vision, you may delve into multiple things and say, okay, lemme try this. 


No, no. Well that didn't work. Lemme try that. Versus having the clarity that you need in order to stay the course and stay focused. And so that clarity will then enable you to focus on some of the challenges that you're trying to solve or some of the things that you need in order to successfully get your business up and running. As it relates to the finance, it is probably easy to have a rich aunt or uncle. Unfortunately, many of us don't have that. And so without that, then you have to even be more prudent on how you're leveraging opportunities. So perhaps you're working somewhere and trying to launch your business, recognize what is the best point for me to move full-time into my business venture? Or how am I going about saving in a disciplined way if I know that at some point I'm going to try to launch this? 


How am I building relationships and socializing the ideas so that there may be people who are willing to engage, invest, and help out as it relates to banking and won't do a US bank commercial? But one of the things I'm proud of that we've launched is this business access advisors. And so what their job is is simple. It's not to talk, sell you a product, it's not to do anything except help you as a small business owner launch and teach you the answers to the test as it relates to financing and help you think through markets, et cetera. And I would venture to say, not all banks, but I know I've launched a similar effort at my prior institution, have these roles where you can actually talk to someone. It is not in every branch. So you might not be able to walk in the branch and say, Hey, where's that business access advisor, but understand where some of this exists, whether it's through A-C-D-F-I or another institution, just to really have those structural foundational business conversations. 


And then the more you learn, then you can begin to elevate your language to the banking speak to be able to speak in terms that they can understand. So recognizing what you will need to talk about, whether it's, let's say you've launched and you've been in business a year or two and you have cash flows, and being able to talk about where your business is going and having knowledge around what is impacting, it becomes critical. And some of those conversations, whether through nonprofits, CDFIs, banks that have a function, which I strongly believe in this function of business access advisors that can help you shorten your learning journey as well as they can put you in touch, any of these organizations with sometimes other organizations that may have funding or insights or technical assistance that can help you on your journey. So part of this journey is a knowledge journey. 


You're going to have to, just as you want to be innovative about your go to market, you're going to have to be innovative about your gain insight and knowledge. And so part of that will, I would do that upfront if you can, because then if you're launching your business, you have as much of the insights as possible so that as you continue to make progress and momentum, you know where to tap in. So it may not, day one, may not be the first day to call a bank and say, I need a half million dollar line. I have this idea. I'm going to go ahead and tell you that the likelihood of that being approved is very, very, no, it's not. It's not going to be approved. So what are the things that you need to do to take that idea, to test it with the market, to engage with a bank, open up banking accounts. And those are some early foundational steps that matter because what you don't want to do is begin to co-mingle and have your personal accounts with your work accounts because then it makes it hard for a bank to underwrite. And so these are the things, understanding upfront, what's the knowledge insight you need? What are the business services you need so that you're not spending time later trying to correct challenges that you created on the front end? 

Nic Cary (25:07):

Love this. So yeah, shorten your learning journey, have a learning mindset. And I think one of the things that's critical is about seeking these conversations out so that you can upskill, you can develop a little more fluency with the language and there are people out there that want to help. And it's all just about getting your story out and learning and about building confidence in doing that. It doesn't need to be specifically intimidating, it's just about the practice of it. And I think there's some real good wisdom in there. And I'll put one more out there, which is definitely don't commingle your personal funds with your work and business ones. It will be an issue if you do that. So the earlier you can segregate them. And it's always hard at the beginning, but the right path to take 

Sekou Kaalund (25:52):

Sometimes, oh, go ahead. Go ahead. 

Nic Cary (25:55):


Sekou Kaalund (25:56):

I was just saying that becomes important, your personal credit on occasions, there's certain times where you may do a personal guarantee or they'll look at your credit as a proxy. So it just totally depends. But before we talk about the type of capital you want to equity debt, angel investor, if you don't have the basics that we just talked about down business plan, all those other conversations become a moot point because you won't be able to have a dialogue to attract the capital if you don't have the fundamentals of what you're trying to achieve. 

Nic Cary (26:33):

Yep. Alright, let's wrap it up with one last question. A lot of people are very intimidated about starting a business and pursuing entrepreneurship can feel really scary, like a whole new type of responsibility. What tips can you give our listeners in the small businesses out there for how they can think about managing that stress and beginning that journey? 

Sekou Kaalund (26:56):

What I would say, we'll start with the reward and the reward beyond financial measures is that you're acting on your passion. And because you're acting on your passion, when you do face the tough time, whether it's a corporate environment, government or nonprofit, it's your passion that will propel you to carry on. And so know that when you're able to do this, there was a statistic in the prior role, I used to quote that for black business owners, they had eight times the net worth of black non-business owners. So again, there's this great opportunity with small business and you may have personal satisfaction that you're addressing a challenge or meeting a particular market opportunity. So recognize that just because you are passionate doesn't mean that the journey becomes easy. Again, your passion makes it easier for you to deal with the challenges and obstacles, but when you make it through, that's when it can be rewarding that all of the large businesses in our country, the majority started as small businesses. 


And so recognize that there are people who have blazed the trail. Their path may be different, they may have access to more resources, et cetera, et cetera, but don't focus on what, you don't have to keep that and make that preclusion from focusing on getting what you need. So just recognize it comes with the territory. But guess what? If you're working in a corporation, you also have challenges. You also have risk. So don't look at it as one is a risk-free option. The only risk-free option is doing nothing. And that gives you the return of what you're putting into it, nothing, right? And so what you want to do is then just have, as we said, that clarity, that sounding board, mentors, advisors, and then access to the resources you need so that you can avoid unnecessary obstacles. And so you can do it. You believe in yourself. 


There's others that believe in you. And I would just say, take that energy, take that enthusiasm and passion, but direct it in ways that you best accelerate your pathway. But recognize, you may have to pivot. You may have said, I'm going to launch this business, I'm going to turn left. And you might say, oh, I need to actually turn right. I have a friend that launched a business, left a Fortune 500 company, it's now a publicly traded company, and I was advising this person, why would you do that in this form, et cetera. And he pivoted and got all other insight and they shifted what the business was. That is okay. That is a sign of win that you're able to take the feedback, whether it's market or from people to adapt and adjust your business to achieve the ultimate success that I believe is possible for you. 

Nic Cary (30:04):

All right, I love that. Thank you for those amazing concluding remarks. There are a few things that I circled through our conversation here second, that I think really resonated through all of this, which is one, your personal passion for entrepreneurship and small businesses in palpable. And I think one of the things you said that really stuck out to me was just you are necessary. And those are the entrepreneurs and the small businesses out there that are building the things we need that are clothing us, that are feeding us, that have imaginations for stuff we don't even know we want yet. And it is so critical that you pursue those passions. And I think your starting point about speaking about passion is so relevant because as you mentioned, it doesn't necessarily fix all your problems for you, but it creates this deep reservoir of motivation that will allow you to persevere through the obstacles that'll inevitably find their way to you. 


And you just keep solving one through the next for the next. And you can find that sort of longitudinal reward out of solving problems for people, helping create wealth for you, your family, your communities and beyond, and to stay the course with it. And if you do need to make a little bit of a pivot, that's absolutely okay. Do it with information and then keep trying. And the market and the world will give you a perspective and you can keep pursuing it. And I think the last bit that we have to comment on is just how we both know that the value of having advisors and mentors and coaches and people around you to think through your ideas to challenge you, but for you to also challenge 'em about their perspectives is really healthy. And to have a structured, comprehensive dialogue when you have those conversations that's honest is going to give you superpower. 

Nic Cary (31:41):

So thank you so much for coming on the Sky's the Limit podcast today. From earning your first buck with your parents to working in the small business to now working and one of the biggest businesses in the United States, and then helping the next generation of American entrepreneurs, you can really see the story arc work its way through everything you told us about today. So thank you so much. We really appreciated your time today. So at, we connect underrepresented entrepreneurs with volunteer business professionals for free. one-on-one mentoring. We all to provide business guides to all of our members, plus free monthly funding opportunities. So you can win grants at Please sign up for free today. If you like what you heard, you can subscribe. 

Outro (32:25):

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