Mel Williams ’88 has the career he envisioned for himself as a student at Carolina. The entrepreneur, venture capital investor, and co-founder and general partner of TrueBridge Capital Partners has taken his Carolina education and turned it into a successful business career.
“In a lot of respects, I have ended up doing professionally what I wanted to do when I was a student at Carolina,” Williams said. “Characteristics of what I do today match directly with the goals I had when I was at UNC. My education at UNC has helped propel me into the place I am today.”
Laying the Groundwork
Williams believes that UNC is such a special place in part because of the caliber of students it attracts. “One of the things that I loved about the educational experience at Carolina was the quality of my peers and the breadth and depth of experiences they had upon arriving at UNC,” he said. “I learned a lot from just being in an environment with a diverse set of people who were all smart, intelligent and driven.”
The opportunity to learn from some of the industry’s pre-eminent experts laid the foundation for his professional career.
“The quality of the professors was remarkable,” Williams recalls. “They were all leaders in their fields from both an academic standpoint and a research standpoint, and many from a practical standpoint as well. They were all dedicated to their craft of teaching. I had very strong relationships with some professors, especially within the economics department, who provided both academic and professional advice.”
During Williams’ college years, he exhibited an entrepreneurial mindset when he and a friend started a business on campus and were able to earn course credit for it. Their business, Carolina Cakes and Cookies, delivered store-bought birthday cakes and care packages on campus.
“It was a neat experience in terms of understanding a market and a market need, understanding consumers and consumer demand, and understanding how we can build a product and a service to meet those needs. Executing the business was a good experience. UNC provided the framework for all of that to happen.”
Into the Market
With all of the valuable knowledge gained from his time at UNC, Williams knew what he wanted to do.
“While I was a student, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to have a career associated with the capital markets,” he said. “I wanted to end up as a principal investor, and I wanted to work overseas—have an international experience or an international component to what I did professionally. I thought I would end up at a merchant bank somewhere because that’s what principal investing looked like back in the 80s. I thought if I could do that, and have an international component to that role, that would be incredibly exciting.”
After earning his MBA from Harvard University, working in the industry for a time, and co-founding two venture-backed companies, Williams became a founding member of the UNC Management Company. He credits his time with the organization that manages UNC’s endowment as the most intellectually engaging time of his career. It allowed him to move from operations to the investment side of the table.
After six years, his desire to build his own company resurfaced. He left the UNC Management Company to found TrueBridge Capital Partners with longtime friend and fellow Carolina graduate Edwin Poston ’89.
“When I look at what I do today, I’ve ended up squarely in the capital markets, albeit in the technology sector. We are principal investors at TrueBridge Capital Partners, and we have a huge international component to what we do because we invest capital around the world with a heavy emphasis on China and India. That gives me the opportunity to have a broad, global perspective, as well as travel internationally and experience different cultures and people, which I find fascinating.”
Once back in Chapel Hill, Williams wanted to become involved with the department that helped shape his career. He has co-taught courses, participated as a guest lecturer, and now serves on the Economics Department Advisory Board.
“The advisory board gives me a fulfilling opportunity to directly support a department within the university that was critical to my success in a tangible way,” Williams said.
He wants to do what he can to provide financial support for the department of economics as well.
“The university is an amazing place,” he said. “It has an amazing global reputation and changes the lives of everyone who passes through its doors. At the same time, the needs are significant. As I got to know more about the needs of the university in terms of maintaining its academic standing and reputation and continuing to do good work, I felt compelled to support the university in another tangible way—with dollars.”
It is his aim that his gifts and others’ will sustain the department into the future.
“My hope is that the department can use that capital to continue to maintain the academic reputation of the university, maintain the academic reputation in the size, scale, and scope of the economics department and continue to impact the lives economics students at UNC.”
As the third most popular major in the College of Arts and Sciences, the future of economics at UNC is promising.
“Seizing those opportunities to continue to strengthen the economics department and its role in the academic life at UNC requires capital. If my capital and others’ capital can help the department seize those opportunities to continue to build on its recent success, then that’s a win-win for everybody. It’s a win for me. It’s a win for whomever is going to contribute. It’s a win for students. It’s a win for the university.”
With the support of dedicated alumni like Williams, one can imagine that this vision, like Williams’ professional goals, will come to pass.
– Contributed by Mary Moorefield