Jeff Brokaw’s biggest nightmare is spending the rest of his working days in a cubicle.
“I seriously think I would rather sleep on a bench for the rest of my life than do that,” says Brokaw. “I would go insane.”
Brokaw, 33, is a self-taught coder, web designer and entrepreneur who estimates he’s had 400-500 clients in his roughly 18 years of professional experience. He is among the most recognized faces in Charlotte’s startup community who launched the local chapter of an entrepreneurs’ support and mentor group called Startup Grind. He’s also an associate with SierraMaya360, a venture capital firm that’s invested in young companies like Brewpublik, the beer delivery service.
Brokaw is also just as well-known for the conspicuous brown beard he has donned for about three years now.
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“People recognize me a lot more with it. People will say ‘Oh Jeff, that’s the guy with the beard.’ It’s like a marketing ploy,” Brokaw says.
Aside from the beard, Brokaw’s unconventional upbringing sets the young techie apart, too. From a young age, Brokaw says he never liked being told what to do, nor has he ever been satisfied doing just one thing at a time. That combination, while troubling for school teachers, served an entrepreneur like Brokaw well.
Seeking better job opportunities and lower taxes, Brokaw’s father moved him and the rest of the family down to Matthews from New Jersey when Brokaw was 3 years old. At the time, the Brokaw property off McKee Road was surrounded by a lot of nothing, and the area didn’t get cable until the mid-1990s.
So Brokaw, who was home schooled for much of his childhood, had to figure out other ways to entertain himself. The family would receive magazines with floppy disks from AOL advertising its services, Brokaw says, so he begged his parents to let him sign up for a free trial.
When he was home schooled for the first through sixth grades, Brokaw says his mother would assign him work on Monday, and he’d finish it all in a day. Being accustomed to a schedule like that makes the transition to regular school tough, Brokaw says.
“I’ve never liked being told what to do, when I have to be somewhere.”
He bounced around a number of small Christian schools in the years leading up to high school, and ninth grade was the last time he officially stepped foot in a classroom. He started doing web hosting work for a Dallas-based company before moving onto a stock brokerage firm when he was 16.
“It was the easiest job ever because 99.9 percent of what I did was ‘Hey, why don’t you restart your computer?’” Brokaw says. He spent the next decade freelancing in coding, web design, web hosting and digital marketing. Brokaw helped launch a firm called AppVested in 2013 to create and fund mobile applications, though he and his business partners ended up dissolving it a year later over a dispute with an investor.
“It was one of the best learning lessons I’ve ever had,” says Brokaw, who is married with two kids.
SierraMaya360’s managing partner, Amish Shah, calls Brokaw the “glue” of the firm who will get “anything and everything” done at the drop of a hat. Shah has tapped Brokaw to open a Charlotte office early next year for SierraMaya360, which will employ up to 20.
Plus, Shah, says, “He’s got the beard, he’s got the tattoos, he’s more in that hipster world. That’s what a lot of these entrepreneurs are. It’s the craft beer-drinking, ride-my-bike community that we have down here.”
Brokaw says he’s toyed with the idea of moving to Silicon Valley, the country’s capital of tech innovation. But he wants to stay in Charlotte, where he says entrepreneurs like him have more of an impact.
“The entrepreneurial community is definitely growing here. I think it would be kind of cheap to go and jump on the bandwagon, so to speak,” Brokaw says.
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