Executive Turned Investor Spurs Entrepreneurship, Renaissance for Baltimore City
It took an illness to open John Cammack’s eyes to Baltimore.
After nearly 19 years at T. Rowe Price where he ascended to senior management, building the company’s largest division, Cammack retired in 2009. He was physically and mentally burnt out, symptoms of what was later diagnosed as Chronic Lyme Disease.
“It was actually a blessing in disguise,” says Cammack, who fought the illness for several years. “The illness made me slow down and think about what was really important to me.” It was during those these initial years after retirement that he learned about all facets of Baltimore, a city that he only superficially knew through his involvement as chair of the United Way of Central Maryland and as a senior executive at T. Rowe Price.
While recovering at home in Ruxton, Cammack took it upon himself to schedule 100 meetings with a diverse range of people, who educated him about the social, economic and racial dynamics of Baltimore. He concluded that Baltimore could be a haven for new companies and entrepreneurs that could revitalize the local economy and social sector. “I wanted to reset and do social impact work versus other options or retiring,” he says.
His first initiative was to help Susan Magsamen launch Curiosityville, a digital platform that prepares children to successfully enter the first grade. “Working with Susan validated how much I admired and enjoyed working with entrepreneurs.” The company was sold to Houghton Mifflin in 2014 for an undisclosed price.
Today, Cammack calls himself an “uber angel investor.” He involves himself with companies in selected sectors, including education, behavioral health, cyber security and brain fitness.
As he immersed himself further in Baltimore, Cammack thought about the role of entrepreneurship. He realized there was a need for reinvestment in Baltimore to continue its growth and create jobs and philanthropy. Baltimore’s ecosystem needs more Kevin Planks (Under Armour CEO), he says.
“If we have 100 or 500 or 750 (entrepreneurs) doing their thing, in time the odds are we will have more Kevin Planks building companies that create thousands of jobs, and widespread prosperity,” Cammack says.
His support of startups grew, and he joined organizations throughout the city including Betamore, aimed at improving the ecosystem and mentoring, training and educating young entrepreneurs. Today, he’s a member of the board of directors and chairman of the 95-member advisory board. He’s also a member and former chairman of Venture for America, a group that places top collegians who want to be entrepreneurs in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich. The group places 25 workers in Baltimore each year who learn on the job during two-year employment contracts, before hopefully launching their own companies. He also chaired Baltimore Corps, which recruits and places extraordinary individuals in one-year placements with government agencies and the not-for-profit sector.
“Cities compete for talent, and I’m a believer Baltimore will be better off if we can attract a generation of millennials to live and work here who are game changers in their respective fields,” he says. In total, he’s found his way onto five boards of directors in and around Baltimore, networking and aligning himself with others to generate social and economic impact.
Besides the mentorship and guidance he provides to young entrepreneurs, his support also is financial. He deploys the capital he generated during his time at T. Rowe Price and counts 20 Maryland companies who have received investment capital over the last six years, a role he says is essential to the success of startups. Cammack is involved in the
75-member Baltimore Angels and Blu Ventures, both venture capital organizations that invest in early stage companies.
“I believe Baltimore will be a better place if these types of companies succeed and grow in our city,” he says. “The city needs people who are capable of contributing beyond their immediate interests, by solving complex problems and building great companies. We need to support entrepreneurs from across our city and all walks of life.”
Cammack’s guidance stands above the commitment of most other investors, who provide dollars and not much else.
“Most investors don’t take on an active involved role. They spend time looking for companies, assessing prospects and deciding where to make an investment,” says Paul Silber, a full-time angel investor who collaborates with Cammack. “John is willing to take and spend a lot of time working with companies. He’s altruistic, wanting the best for the company and helping companies have a greater chance of positive outcomes. He’s helping companies and (then) helping himself.”
Although Baltimore remains more famous for its documented social challenges, Cammack believes the city will become a haven for social and traditional entrepreneurship in areas like biomedical and pharmaceutical products, medical and educational technology, and cyber security. “Over time, we can create a unique ecosystem reflecting our regional assets that can be the driver of economic growth,” he explains.
“There is so much going on here and there are a number of new companies starting to demonstrate real promise,” says Cammack, who runs his endeavors through his company, Cammack Associates LLC and the associated Cammack Family Gift Fund. “My original focus was educational technology, but I branched off to pursue good opportunities that will create jobs in Baltimore and give me a shot at a great return on my capital.”
His dedication is not lost on others with whom he collaborates. Christy Wyskiel, senior advisor to the president, Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, also worked at T. Rowe Price but met Cammack through their efforts to mentor and invest in entrepreneurs in Baltimore. She started a few companies with support from Cammack as an investor and advisor. After she joined Johns Hopkins, she brought him on to help as a mentor in residence. He coaches teams, connects faculty and students with advisors and investors, and helps connect the dots throughout the ecosystem including to Betamore and the Baltimore Angels.
“His passion for entrepreneurship as a key to Baltimore’s future is infectious. He has galvanized the angel community, the entrepreneurs and industry to take notice of the great things happening with young companies in our city,” says Wyskiel.
One such young entrepreneur is Kel Guerin, founder and chief technology officer for READY Robotics, who met Cammack through the mentor in residence program two years ago. Hearing Guerin’s plans spurred Cammack to connect READY Robotics to others who helped secure space at the City Garage incubator, gain investment from Sagamore Ventures, Plank’s venture capital arm, and hire corporate counsel. Cammack provided key guidance and advice, and ultimately became an integral part of the team that is driving READY forward.
“His network of connections is astounding, his positive attitude is always a boon when things get tough, and his unfailing commitment to the success of Baltimore is an inspiration,” says Guerin. “He truly believes in the greatness of Baltimore and what the city is to become, and his considerable activities are a key piece of why Baltimore is growing so fast.”
After 12 years in San Francisco as an entrepreneur and early-stage investor, Anders Jones moved to Baltimore 18 months ago to invest and started his company Fabric Wealth. He knew Cammack and reconnected upon his move to Charm City. Immediately, he was introduced to other entrepreneurs and advocates. Within a few weeks, he knew the “who’s who” of Baltimore’s entrepreneurial scene. Today, they have co-invested in three companies and Jones witnesses first-hand Cammack’s mentoring skills and his willingness to “jump in and help.”
“He is very passionate about the rising success of Baltimore as an entrepreneurial hotspot, and he is doing everything in his considerable power to help it,” Jones notes. “He is an invaluable asset to the ecosystem.”
Cammack calls it a virtual cycle of success. New companies open, add jobs, get people to stay in the city, the tax base increases and in time wealth is created that can get reinvested in the city. He’s the angel (investor) helping to make it happen.
“I can’t think of a more gratifying life than I’ve created,” he says. I95