We invested in evolving our Fellowship; his name is Riyaz.


Last summer during our our Strategic Planning, Camelback decided to start putting resources aside to hire a director who would focus on taking our programs to the next level -- what we called internally “Fellowship 2.0.” When we met Riyaz Gayasaddin last fall, we knew he was the one — and it was time to make it happen. We welcomed him to our team in February as our first ever Director of Design & Adult Development. Riyaz is helping Camelback deepen our practice on new and old workstreams, build an engagement and support strategy for past Camelback Fellows, and evolve our own internal culture with a focus on the pursuit of excellence.

While we bonded with Riyaz instantly because he loves food as much as the rest of us (c’mon y’all, we live in New Orleans -- you can’t not love the culinary arts!), we also knew he could help us take our work to the next level. Camelback decided to invest (literally with money, time, and energy) into this evolution. We believe it is important to highlight Riyaz and the work that we hold ourselves accountable for in this growth:

  1. We have the resources for the first time to build the vision and strategy for the post-Fellowship experience. We officially have 65 Camelback Fellows, and we have long wanted to do a better job of engaging them, promoting them, and also developing them.

  2. Every year, our Fellowship has evolved based on feedback, data analysis, and the needs we’ve seen in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We want this growth to be consistently cultivated across all workstreams. Riyaz is leading the improvement and refinement of the Fellowship learning experience -- and that means everything. The kind of organizations we support and the stage, the workshops and experiences we cultivate, the learning arcs and success metrics that Fellows meet. He’ll be our jedi master for figuring out what works best, what doesn't, and how we can find the sweet spot of improving. Riyaz supports all of our program directors with his curricular expertise and hands-on support for developing customized content for Fellows.

  3. Furthermore, he’s helping us codify our organizational knowledge and distill key learnings across programs. He’s also exploring and identifying opportunities to generate earned revenue.

Now that we’ve shared some of our big why for this position, we want to shine a spotlight on the who.

Riyaz in a strategy meeting with CEO Aaron. Photo by Muhammad Lila (intro to him coming in the next few weeks!)

Riyaz in a strategy meeting with CEO Aaron. Photo by Muhammad Lila (intro to him coming in the next few weeks!)

A Conversation with Riyaz Gayassaddin, Camelback’s new Director of Design & Adult Development

1. Let's start low-key. Tell me about book or TV show that you're enjoying right now.

RG: I am a big foodie so I love all sorts of cooking shows but I have been into "The Great British Baking Show".  I love the show because it is more about having a good time, making stellar bakes, and bringing in your identify more so than competition.  In terms of books, I just finished "Originals" by Adam Grant. I enjoy these sorts of books because I am always thinking about how we develop the strongest leaders possible.

2. When you think about your journey to this moment, what’s one of the early defining experiences?

RG: Being a son of immigrant parents have shaped who I am.  My parents settled in North Dakota and I was born and raised in predominantly white and Christian society; however, my parents were ruthless (in a positive way) to ensure we understood where we came from.  These experiences have led me to be an explorer of different cultures, people and places. It eventually led my partner and me to quit our jobs in 2017 and move to India for 1.5 years to be closer to where my family is from and learn more about my ancestry.

3. You've been in the education space for a while. Tell us about your leadership journey, and how you came to choose Camelback for this chapter of your work.

RG: I began my career in education in the classroom, teaching in West Baltimore.  Upon leaving the classroom, I joined full-time Teach For America (TFA) staff in Baltimore where I honed and deepened my passion for developing individuals, building culture and exploring my racial identity.  My desire to work on organizational leadership as well as my ever-evolving identity exploration brought me across the ocean to Teach For India (TFI) where I led a project on leadership development and management as well as worked on projects with the Senior Leadership Team related to strengthening culture, clearly defining roles, creating performance competencies, and retaining talent.  At TFA, I had the privilege of more deeply exploring what it means to be a person of color, specifically an Asian-American, in a largely black and white conversation, and how race and class impacts each of our communities differently.

One of the most defining experiences from that time was the relationship I built with a young man named Darryl. He was a former student of mine who I taught during my first year of teaching in 2008, and we kept in touch by having monthly dinners after he graduated.  Unfortunately, his life was lost due to gun violence in 2017. I think about him every day and the challenges that created for a difficult life for him.

As I was transitioning back to the U.S. after 18 months, I knew that I wanted to continue in mission-driven work and be able to leverage my experiences at TFA and TFI in my new role.  One of my good friends pointed me in the direction of Camelback because of positive interactions she had. Once I checked out the work and started conversations with the team, it felt like home.  A place where I could truly be my authentic self, take risks and not be afraid if the risk doesn’t fully pay off because the people around me would still support, care and love me. It has been a liberating feeling.

4. Camelback, and especially our original Fellowship program, exists at an intersection of education and entrepreneurship. What do you think about that juncture, and where do you think it may continue to evolve from here?

RG: This is an interesting question.  I had to think about this for a minute.  I think that education has been and can be an archaic space where innovation may not always happen or be apparent.  With entrepreneurs, I believe it brings fresh, innovative ideas to a space that needs it. Given the work that we do, our Fellows have thought about how to improve today’s education from a variety of angles, which is truly inspirational.

Camelback Venture and Fellow Map
5. When you were looking into Camelback in the first place, were there any Fellow(s) that inspired you?

RG: This is a hard question and I don’t know how to pick who inspired me but if you are asking, I will answer :-)

The first is Brandon Anderson and his organization Raheem AI. Given the police brutality that has gone public over the past years and my time in Baltimore, I have seen police violence be an issue in the communities I worked in.  It inspired me to see a platform that puts community policing in the hands of the users, the community.

Secondly, Vincent Cobb II and The Fellowship for Black Male Educators. As someone who has been in education for over the past decade, I have seen the need for the retention, development, and network for Black males in classrooms so it is inspiring for me to see an organization concentrate on Black males and recognize the needs for this community.

And even during the recruitment period, I started following a leader who actually became one of the Fellows in the first cohort I’ve been a part of! Samantha Pratt and her organization KlickEngage excites me because mental health has become less taboo over the years but it still plagues our communities and I do not think we give it enough light.  Since it is such a hidden illness it is easy to make excuses and ignore it, when it matters and we need to be cognizant that it is real and affects people in different ways.  

6. You’ve been with Camelback a few months now, even through our first Summit (you saw your first crawfish boil!). What has most surprised you about your work with Camelback so far? And what are you most excited about focusing on moving forward?

RG: The ability to take risks or they want to take risks and that is celebrated.  I think many organizations tell you to take risks but they actually don’t mean it and/or if you do take a risk and it doesn’t work out, you are fearful of your performance review.  I think that at Camelback we do lean into our value of Unafraid of Failure and it brings a level of comfort because, in order to disrupt the status quo, we need to try radical ideas, and sometimes they don’t always work out, but that is just one iteration and then we move onto the next.

I am excited to work with Camelback Ventures because I am passionate and driven by the mission and the impact we have had and continue to have with underrepresented entrepreneurs and communities.  I am excited to take risks, fail, disrupt the status quo and elevate the voices of our people. Since joining TFA back in 2008, I have grown stronger in my passion for work that is grounded in race, class, privilege and ensuring we are creating a more equitable society and I see CBV being a huge player in this.

7. Let's end with inspiration; share a quote that lifts you up.
Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another.
— Yuri Kochiyama

To follow our progress with Riyaz and our evolving work, sign up for our newsletter. You can also connect with Riyaz on LinkedIn or via email at riyaz@camelbackventures.org.