How Marcus Whitney Is Changing The Face Of Health Care
When I first met Marcus Whitney, he was sitting in a dunk tank on a hot summer day at a fundraising event for the Nashville Humane Association in Tennessee. I had a new puppy in one hand and three balls in the other. It was the first time we met in person, but long before I had a chance to send him plunging into the water that day, I knew exactly who he was.
Over the past two decades, Whitney has been a force in Nashville, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to collaborate and grow their businesses, especially in the field of health care. He’s a Nashville-based venture capitalist who started out as an aspiring hip-hop artist, college dropout and waiter before landing his first job as a self-taught computer programmer. And in January 2022, Whitney’s work culminated in the launch of Jumpstart Nova, “the first venture fund in America to invest exclusively in Black founded and led companies at the forefront of health care innovation.” Jumpstart Nova is a $55 million fund that invests in private health care companies in high-growth, early stages of development.
Whitney, 46, is a founding partner of Jumpstart Health Investors, a venture platform with over 150 portfolio companies, and he brought professional soccer to Nashville as co-founder and minority owner of Nashville Soccer Club, a major league team that has made the playoffs their first two years in play. He sits on the board of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, and Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership built to support Tennessee-based start-ups and entrepreneurs. He’s also the author of Create and Orchestrate, a bestselling book about claiming creative power through entrepreneurship.
I recently sat down with Whitney at his offices on the 19th floor of a high rise building in downtown Nashville to discuss the arc of his career, the role physical fitness has played in his entrepreneurial journey and the change he’s spearheading in the health care industry.
A Gaping Hole in Health Care
With those many accomplishments under his belt, Whitney found himself in a unique position in the summer of 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis,. “I remember looking at the world and thinking, ‘This is different,’” he said. “The conversations I was having with almost-exclusively white men in my business life were about George’s murder. There was a sense of empathy and curiosity about the Black experience in America that hadn’t been there before, and I definitely had to spend some time thinking about what my role was in that—what I could do.”
He wrote a letter to Nashville’s business leaders about how segregation was the law of the land when the health care industry was born. “As [health care] has grown as a commercial enterprise, some of the things that were fundamental about society at that time got baked in,” he said. “When you look at the makeup of the power structure—the boards, management teams, primary investors and entrepreneurs who receive capital—there’s a big delta between who sits in those seats and the country’s makeup.”
Having worked with many partners over the years who valued his talent and offered him growth opportunities, Whitney likes to “play in the primordial soup.” He enjoys being instrumental in the early phase of growth of his investment companies, and Jumpstart Nova was a natural next step to create opportunities for corporate and health care partners (like Eli Lilly, HCA, American Hospital Association and Bank of America) to invest directly in economic growth, health and racial equity nationwide.
To that end, his partner Kathryne Cooper joined Jumpstart Nova in August 2021 after serving as co-director and investment advisor for the West Coast Consortium for Technology & Innovation in Pediatrics and founding HealthTechDEI to deliver more inclusive investment strategies and capitalize on the wealth in diversity. “She has everything I was looking for in a partner,” Whitney said, “plus some things I didn’t even know I needed.”
Fitness and Entrepreneurship
Whitney seems to possess a sixth sense not only for strategic partnerships, but also for recognizing and leveraging his own weaknesses. In his book, he writes, “Until now, I have focused on stories of failure. There is good reason for that. I have learned far more from my failures than from my successes… Failure is not final… Entrepreneurship is a real-world experiential model of learning.”
When I asked him what he believes has contributed to the exponential growth of his career, he gave much of the credit to his mom. “At critical times in my childhood, when I could have gone one way or the other, she consistently told me the basic thing you would say to a kid in kindergarten: You can be anything you want to be. It’s a subconscious program running in my mind that sets the foundation for me to aim high.”
Whitney has also made a practice of heeding his body in trying times and responding with concrete changes to reinforce not only his career, but also his health. Three years ago, “I realized I had been working my ass off for 20 years,” he said. “My kids were out of the house, and I was only in my 40s. I didn’t feel old, but I didn’t feel healthy. I realized what people mean when they say, ‘This is a marathon,’ so I started doing martial arts. I roll in Jiu-Jitsu four times a week, trying to avoid getting choked out.”
“Being an entrepreneur can be very analogous to being an athlete—investing in yourself,” he added. “There’s absolutely a correlation to how well you execute in meetings… how well you write, code and design. The quality of the work is related to your well-being. If you don’t invest in that, your quality over time is pretty much destined to diminish. It’s a significant advantage. There’s an unspoken energy you give off when you’re in people’s presence. It matters.”
Whitney prioritizes sleep, time with friends and family, and not taking himself too seriously. “The statistics say that the thing you’re working on now is absolutely not the last thing you’ll work on, so have fun,” he said. “Don’t get too wrapped up in it, and take care of yourself.”
More Seats at the Table
In the end, Whitney told me, “We are all patients. We are all caregivers. We all use the health care system, and it employs more people in America than any other. It’s become abundantly clear to the industry—and, I think, even to the government—that the path to a better health care system is through innovation. That’s why venture capital is the place to do the work—also, obviously, in policy.”
Whitney is focused on shifting the makeup of the leadership infrastructure of the health care industry to benefit the care and economic development of everyone—not just underrepresented communities. More seats at the table, he says, “bring solutions for everyone.”
So far, Jumpstart Nova has invested about $5 million of the $55 million fund in qualified companies, including Teamwork to help families with children with autism, Alerje to improve safety and quality of life for people with life-threatening food allergies, Drugviu to help folks with autoimmune disease manage their health and participate in clinical research, and Cellevolve to bring novel cell and gene therapies to market.
Whether perched in a dunk tank to benefit rescue animals or supercharging untapped talent with much-needed infusions of capital, Whitney asks himself the same fundamental questions he asks potential partners and aspiring entrepreneurs: What unique value can you offer, and how can you deliver it most effectively to those in need of your services?
“Nova is not the only answer,” he said. “It’s an example of what can be done… of leading organizations and individuals coming together, bringing their time, talent and treasure to invest directly in Black founded and led companies that can be part of the next iteration of the health care industry. It’s not that complicated to do, and it has the potential to be transformational.”