Welcome to the Upstream Leader Podcast. Today’s episode focuses on how leaders in the profession can begin to adopt emerging technology in what is traditionally thought of as a slow moving industry. Our guest is Solon Angel, an entrepreneur with an obsession for exponential growth and solving big problems. As a father and founder, his goal is to leave the world a better place than he found it.
Before founding MindBridge AI, Solon worked in fortune 500s and startups in San Francisco, the UK and France, Solon was a top 100 influencer in accounting as well as an active member of Fresh Founders, a nonprofit organization that supports entrepreneurs.
Solon is easily one of the most authentic, engaging, innovative individuals I know. He is generous and passionate about his work. Solon, welcome to The Upstream Leader Podcast Podcast.
Well, Jeremy, you’re starting by making me blush. Oh my gosh, you have to write this down and give it to my HR person, so I can ask for a raise!
I’ll be sure to do that! It’s great to have you. Well, I want to talk to you today about technology—which is no surprise—that’s actually how we had initially met a number of years ago, was talking about technology and artificial intelligence, and everything along those lines. But before I do that, I want to start off—this is a podcast for leaders. Talk to us a little bit about how you became the leader you are today.
Unfortunately, it was accidental. Now, if you ask me, how have I become the leader that I am today? First of all, the first thing that comes to mind is like, I’m not satisfied with the leader that I am today, so I’m never—I don’t think I’ve ever been happy to say “Hey, I’m a great supervisor, I’m a great manager, I’m a great founder.” Like I don’t remember ever sitting, saying, “I’m great at this.” Like, I think the moment you think that you’re good at this, you suck. Like you become arrogant, or like I don’t know, like, I think there’s always more to learn about your own self-awareness, and, you know, you always lead different teams, and guess what? Your leadership style has to adapt, depending on the people that come and go, right?
So the leader that I am today is different than the one I’ll be in a month or six months from now, probably, but I’ve become the one today, it was only because of the people I worked with. Like, I can tell you as of like, there was one of the leaders at my MindBridge, actually, three months ago, we get on a call, and at the end of the week, she tells me, “Solon, what happened to you?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “You’re off, you’re not just behaving like usual.” And I said, “Well, is that a problem?” She said, “Oh, no, no, this is much better.” And I was like, “So, can I continue like that?” She said, “Yes, it’s just so sudden,” right?
And what she did not realize is that for the past four months before that, by interacting with her and another colleague, I’d started in my head thinking about how can I adapt my style to them, not them adapting? Not because I’m the founder, that she should put up with me, put it this way, right?
So and then it was like three to four months of notetaking, reflections. And so that’s how I’ve become how I am today, by really paying attention to what others are demanding from me, right? There’s a book when I was in—I was 17 or 18 years old—and someone offered me, I didn’t pay attention to it, and then I read it not too long ago, actually. I think it’s called The Servant Leader or something like that.
And we talk about, you know, this, you know, the moments you have to call on your rank, you’re no longer in charge, right? So how I become the leader that I am today, is that: really paying attention. As much as it’s not that easy, right? When you are like in the middle of the action, doesn’t matter in our startup world, with all your personal responsibilities as a father and stuff. It’s very easy not to pay attention to it, right. But when people talk, pay attention, right? Like, simple as that.
Yeah. Well, and you said a couple things here that are really important. One is you have a desire to continually get better. And it doesn’t sound to me that you’ve ever sought out to become the best leader, the best founder or the best entrepreneur, but you’ve sought out to always become a better founder, a better leader, a better entrepreneur. And that’s something that I believe very strongly—that if we strive to get to “best,” we ultimately find the point at which we stop growing, because once we feel that we’re the best, it’s that complacency that you talked about. But if you’re always striving to get better, and better is the goal. Not the best.
Yeah, I would even add one thing to this—slightly better. Just try one day at a time. 0.1% every day. Don’t try to be better the way that you don’t know how to get, like, just slightly better, right? Just like one interaction at a time, for one month at a time, one day at a time, and you’ll see two, five years after that, you’re in a different place completely, if not a different dimension.
It sounds like you led before you were in charge.
Yes, very much so.
You were developing your leadership skills when you were helping other people become successful. You weren’t necessarily the leader, but you were leading. Is that fair to say?
The biggest misconception—if I had to talk to a sole contributor, in an accounting firm, or in the government, very frustrated in a corner, right—do not underestimate your leading capabilities, regardless if you’re managing a team or not. Regardless, if you’re put in a leader position, right? You don’t have to be given authority to have power bestowed by your action, right?
That’s so powerful.
You know, that’s, that’s something that really, I wish I knew earlier in my career. I would have been maybe a bit, a bit more assertive and a bit less brash sometimes.
Sure. Well Solon, let’s use that to then pivot to further ahead in your career. You mentioned you like things to move fast, you like to be a change agent, and I’m going to read you something from your website, if you’ll allow me that. It says your credo, you mention that you value courage, which is no shock based on what you’ve just described, it says your goal is to, “live a full life where I feel I created love to experience and pushed myself to expand my mental and visual horizons.”
As we think about you, as a change agent, someone who values courage, wanting things to move fast, you founded a company that leverages artificial intelligence in the accounting profession. So you’ve got this really fast-moving advanced technology, in an industry that—
I know. (laughs)
—if we’re all honest with ourselves isn’t exactly fast moving, known for innovation and known for change. Now, I firmly believe that our profession can change and is better at innovation than most would ever give the accounting profession credit for. But let’s talk about that a little bit. As a leader, you not only have a desire to push your horizons, but it sounds like you want to push other people’s horizons and expand their horizons as well. Can you talk a little bit about how that plays into what you’re doing at MindBridge and other places to really advance a fast-moving technology in a slow moving industry?
So I would start with the short answer: I don’t want other people to change their horizons. I actually don’t. I don’t have the desire to push or challenge others in their set, construct mindset. I just have fundamental different convictions, insights and data points. To say that I don’t want to live in their matrix—I just don’t don’t believe in their matrix (I think it’s a matrix). And I want to build mine.
And I have a very deep personal conviction that my matrix will be working better than theirs, that the humans living within that matrix will be happier, healthier, and they will not be to set anyone with guns to shoot anyone to, to drive that change. So I didn’t want to challenge anyone, right? Which is actually very hurtful, because, you know, I could see in some conferences at the beginning, that people were defensive, or dismissive, or rubbed off the wrong way thinking that I was trying to convince them. However, I wasn’t—I was not trying to convince anyone. I was just firmly, affirming my conviction for myself, not trying to change their world.
And it’s funny enough, when you do that, right? One-third of the people that don’t feel comfortable in the current state of the affairs and matrix, they’re all popping out their eyes just lighting up. When you just very quickly with the feet, it took sometimes, five minutes, right? Like they just pop up like they just like, “Yes!” right? They were not presented an alternative, right? They were just living in the matrix doing the same thing day in day out. And they just need to just do a sniff test very quickly, they like, just even defining it better than you, also building the matrix with you, and they’re building it even better than you thought it could be, right?
From all over the world by the way—all races, religions, you know, size of country, just, I mean, and one of them on this was Samantha Bowling, right? Like she’s the definition to me of an innovator, although she never wrote a line of code. Just because of her approach of the tool was slightly different than others, right? And Kristy [unclear] from BDO as well. And so, I think, you know, any underdog tries to want to change the landscape and I think women leaders in the profession are still a minority, and so they see things slightly differently from a position of leadership. Like Kirsty and Andy are quite effective, quite frankly, at driving change. So actually, I mean, I learned what change management is from another female leader in my organization as a startup, like, I thought I knew what it was, and she taught me stuff, right?
And if someone loves being in Excel day in day out, you have no right to judge them negatively for it. Now, if they mess up an audit, and like, you know then I have the right to judge you, right. But until proven guilty, you’re innocent. So it’s the same with emerging technology. There’s nothing wrong with Excel, the world runs on Excel, right? However, if you use Excel and you do a typo, and you erase a cell, and also it skews the whole outcome of the financial reporting, then we have a problem, right?
So there’s always context to everything. So now, why did I pick [the] accounting industry? Well, first, I was in a place of what they call the insider, right? I had spent more than half a decade, six to seven years serving the accounting profession. I use that really with humility, because I was not an accountant when I started, and did not ever thought that I would teach anyone with three letters behind them, how to do their job better. But I just listened to their problems… and listened and listened and listened. And then at some point, you know, I moved on to my career to leave that and go back into the pure startup play, turning around a startup. But then I looked around and was like, “You have the same problems,” right?
And then one day there was, I had, like, at the time, I used to have a PC—that’s more than 10 years ago. And then I had Microsoft OneNote. And every time I could, I saw patterns. Put it this way—glitch in the matrix, like patterns of problems as I’m writing them down. When I have more than five accountants telling me about a problem they couldn’t solve, I just wrote down that plan. And all of a sudden I had a list of 17 problems. And also then, I mean, 2014, watching a video of DeepMind presenting in Paris, and then also [suddenly solved] by one technique, 14 out of the 17 problems, right? Like 14 of the 17 problems observed are just solvable by one potential emerging technology, which was just published one or two years before, [unclear] out of Canada, right. And I’m in Canada, so I’m very close to them.
So I didn’t—a lot of people see it as hard. I didn’t see it as hard, because I was familiar with the space. I know auditors—how they think. I know what they value, what they don’t. I mean, auditor skepticism, right? Like they turn down the hype very quickly, right? If you look at some of Silicon Valley startup’s hype, they destroy it to pieces, rightfully. They’re not very receptive to traditional marketing techniques. And I love them for that. It made MindBridge and myself be much sharper, much more precise, in our value proposition definition, to a level of various organization I know have to do so much tangible proof points to get their first clients, right? And they literally put us in front of Pepsi, Coca Cola challenges, where they brought us a file, and say, “We already found the problem, so show us what you can do, we’re not going to tell which one of those two files have the problem.” Like literally hardcore, you know, like, we don’t buy until you’ve proven, you know, everything right? And then even asked to reveal a line of code, that whole thing.
And it was intense. But that, to me, is something personal behind… that, right? I have a very, very strong belief that the world stands on peace, justice and truth, right? Peaceful, truthful, justice-driven civilizations thrive, and so to me, I’m very—I was very unsettled with the, what I call the Jedis of capitalism, which is auditors and accountants, because they’re there to find issues—the forces of evil that can screw numbers, and corruption. It’s like, what I was observing is a bunch of Jedis with no lightsabers, right? That’s pretty much what I saw. And I just became obsessed about it.
It’s just like, there’s nothing more—like it didn’t matter how hard or not it will be, I was just firstly resolved that this needs to be fixed, and I still believe that. We are way at the beginning of what we need to do as an organization in MindBridge. And if people don’t believe the importance of, you know, data analysis on general ledgers and sub ledgers of a corporation, just look this week, the article in Vanity Fair, with Donald Trump’s investigators asking to access the general ledgers of his organizations, and why is it taking so long, and why it’s years after the—the reality by the way, he might be completely innocent, right? He might be completely innocent, he might be completely guilty. But until you have access to those little tiny files called general ledgers, and you run it through an analysis, you will not know if there’s, you know, evidence or not of wrongdoing.
And to me right now MindBridge is the only organization that has successfully digitized the scientific approach, you know, to do those quality processes that humans were doing before. And that is passionate for me. That will clean up situations of corruption in countries that I’ve lived in, it will build higher confidence.
Let’s look at the whole stock market and what’s going on right now. I mean, this is the golden age of fraud, right? Like, where people can go on Twitter, and they go “I think my stock price is too high,” things dump, they buy a bunch, and then the stock prices are really low. And the SEC is overwhelmed, right. So like, I think this is really big social tool. I really believe in social justice, in truth and accuracy, in facts and in numbers. I mean, I think all accountants have that in common with me. And I think that resonated, right? If you’re an authentic person—and people smell BS, right?—as conservative as some of the accounting leaders were, they know. They know what they can and can’t do. And many of them have exposed enough crimes, that they actually very quickly rallied to it.
So that’s a long answer to your question. But there’s a component of personal conviction with also the fabric of the profession, or the nature of the profession.
Solon, I want to go just a little bit deeper on that, in the few minutes we have left here. And adopting this technology, if you think about it from a leadership perspective, “Why should I adopt new technology?” It isn’t about efficiency. It isn’t about, “Can I have higher realization on my audits or on my jobs?” It’s, “Can we do our role, can we play our role more effectively by leveraging technology?” It’s not that technology does it on its own, it’s not that auditors do it on its own, it goes more to that augmented intelligence. How do you use the best of technology and the best of the people to be as effective as possible in that role? Is that fair?
Yes. But if you double click on that, right—it goes a bit deeper. So there was a philosopher in Greece, I forgot his name, that talked about when you look at the mirror, what do you see? And then there’s actually books and research, empirical research done in the US, actually, in the 80s, that have done things like this. They took humans, and they asked them every morning to keep their pants on, but look at themselves from the waist up in the mirror, and to describe themselves every morning. “What do you see in the mirror?” And technology—the relationship leaders have with tools—let’s call it tools, not technology—to enhance the workforce that they are in charge of is very reflective of “what do you see in the mirror”—of who you are as a person. Which matrix, mental construct, do you have towards change in general, and towards your role as a leader? And it’s a very personal thing.
Some people don’t care that their people do overtime—let’s just be very honest here. Let’s just cut through the crap. Some leaders. And then some others are deeply, deeply concerned about the well-being of their staff, and not to do overtime and hours. So just that statement there, you can see where I’m going with this, right? The technology brings new capacities. Whether those leaders want to engage in the discussion of what potential new capacities are there or not, is very reflective of what type of leadership they use, right?
And it’s extremely difficult sometimes. It’s like taste. I like blue, you like green, that’s your favorite color. Some leaders, until they fail miserably, will not question themselves in their approach to their relationship to technology. That’s the reality.
So how do we get them—because I love what you said there about technology as a tool. How do we get, you just said that leaders will not question it until they fail miserably. How do we get them to start questioning their relationship with technology and what you call the hardship zone? That orange zone? How do we get them to do that?
Yeah. Well, some of them you just have to let them fail.
Yeah, fair enough. So I want to talk a little bit now, Solon, about one of your newest projects. There aren’t a lot of people I know that could create an accounting club and make it cool. And Solon, you are probably the only person that comes to mind that has ever pulled it off, and as I think about it, you’re probably the only person I know that could pull that off. And you’ve done it using technology yet again. Again, technology being a tool—you’re using the tool, Clubhouse, which is a new app, it’s a new platform. And what you’re doing is now driving community, in a time where community is not exactly the most common thing. I mean, we’re not talking in person, we’re talking virtually. We haven’t seen each other in four years, when we used to run into each other at conferences frequently.
All the time, yeah.
So how are you using this platform? How are you using the tool? How are you using technology as a tool to create technology and drive change in our profession? And you’re not the one driving the change, you’re connecting people that are all looking to drive the change—you’re building that momentum. How are you doing that?
Sometimes people forget that accountants are humans, right? And sometimes accountants themselves, forget they’re human before all. I don’t know if you tuned into one of my interviews or sessions, right? What’s beautiful about technology—it’s the ultimate leveler. I think it just, it flattens everyone, I don’t need to be a member of a special organization with a membership fee, to be able to talk to thousands of people. I just need to take the microphone and talk. And if people are the ultimate judge, if I say something that’s not valuable, they walk away. They see something valuable, they stay.
I know accountants that first of all, they’re fathers, they’re mothers. Some of them play guitar. There’s a lot more than the very rigid, [sometimes repetitive profession] that they do every day. So actually, I find the way I do that is actually, I find quite a few of them, actually, because their job can be so sterile sometimes, actually, [they’re] even more interesting human beings, because they have a very balanced, personal hobby set and personal life.
And so what I focus on, right, is those stories. It’s like, we first start talking about, you know, simple question: “How are you doing?”
“What’s going on with you? How do you manage to be a single mother with two kids, and be in the middle of tax season,” right?
Like, let’s just start there. And then also, the first thing I do is, right away, this is very intentional. And I had actually to insist on that with some other people in the profession. But I really didn’t want this to be about me. I really did not want this to be about my company. I really wanted this to be a safe space for the profession to come together, really ask hard questions, and really openly, safely debate on stuff—on very controversial topics.
So the majority of the rooms are just very basic stuff like, “this is a room of people that study together,” the study groups pass the CPA exam, right? To me, those are the most exciting, where people get together and motivate each other to keep moving along, despite what’s going on with COVID, despite some of them going through family loss, right? There’s another room where I’m not allowed to be in. It’s women only in accounting. Like if you go in there, they kick you out! It’s made for that. It’s made to be space for women in accounting, right?
So by having that thought of, “This is first and foremost, to help other people”—and by the way, I didn’t start it for any professional purpose. I started it on Sundays, because of COVID. Because I was without my kids, and because I just wanted to get in touch with someone I hadn’t talked to in a long time. And so he you know, he popped on this and we started talking, right? It’s like, yeah, just very, like, accidental.
Yeah, well, accidental or not, you’ve done a marvelous job, and I would encourage everybody listening, if you’re looking to join a community that’s looking to the future and at the same time, enjoying today, and being willing to be grateful for today, there are so many great discussions in Clubhouse and the Accounting and Tech Club is wonderful.
Thank you, Jeremy. And we have a website now: It’s accountingandfinanceclub.com.
Very good. I appreciate that. We’ll get that in the show notes and the links for everybody as well.
Solon, I’m gonna end with three quick questions here that I want to get your thoughts on. And I’ve asked these—we’ll ask these of every guest—but the very first question, what is the one book you believe every leader should read?
Lucifer Effect, okay.
So, I don’t like the term—but like, I’m a shepherd, or I’m a mentor, or I’m an advisor, whatever you want to call it. I’m a friend of several founders and startups that are earlier stage than me. And I’m also a mentor, or whatever they call that, for some students. And one thing I always tell them is, “I will not tell you what to do that worked for me, because that worked only for me. I will tell you what absolutely not to do, which will result in absolute extreme red zone failure.” Right? “Do not underestimate compliance, do not underpay people, do not do discrimination.” Like there’s some things you just don’t do, right? And we don’t—everyone aspires to be the next Bill Gates, Elon Musk and read the books thinking that this is the recipe to be. And they underestimate that we might be making mistakes every day, really bad.
And so the basics, The Lucifer Effect, which is when things go really wrong—not in business, but in society at large—when leaders do wrong things. That book was written by Philip Zimbardo, who was the teacher, controversial, Stanford researcher that did the Prison Stanford Experiment. That book is absolutely underestimated by the business section. You know, everyone goes to the business section of libraries.
This book is in the psychology section. But this book is really important to be aware of. Definitely. 100%.
Okay. I appreciate that. The Lucifer Effect—I will add that to my to-read list.
Just a warning for sensitive hearts—it’s a hard book to read. This thing really analyzes like warzone and situations, for example, how former Yugoslavia and former Rwanda went from a peaceful society, to killing each other. You have to have a stomach for it.
I appreciate that. Yeah, that’s a good disclaimer there to add. I appreciate that.
Alright, second question: “The way we’ve always done things.” Quite possibly my least favorite phrase, typically as the response to “Why do we do this?” “It’s the way we’ve always done things.” We have plenty of those in our profession, and many of them are a barrier to change. What is the one way that we’ve always done things in the accounting profession you think leaders need to change?
That’s a great question. This is an important question, so I’ll take time to think about it. The way—the one thing we’ve always done in the accounting profession that needs to change.
I’m not sure I’m the best place to answer that question, to be honest, because I have not been a managing partner of an accounting firm, and knowing how hard—and they are cash-based businesses, right? It would be very presumptuous of me to pontificate [to] anyone on the one thing that has always been done and needs to change. That being said, and not to frustrate the listeners, I am going to try to put pieces and elements that I think matter.
But I think self. I think pride of the profession is a bit lacking, right. I think people think that accountants are very proud and I actually find they aren’t compared to what they do. And if you want to see how important they are—when COVID hit and sales plummeted, who’s the first person that the CEO or the operator or the owner of the business calls? When PPP loans were originating, who’s the first person? It’s the lifeline of the businesses. That profession can, and I’ve seen and I’ve heard countless times, situations, of an accountant literally saving lives.
There was—I have a personal story on that. A company was going bankrupt many years ago in Canada, about to go bankrupt, the guys on pills, about to get divorced. And then there’s like one accountant in the corner that just had pride of being like, he just was proud of his job, went above and beyond, and identified something that was just not running very well in the business. Just by asking a question. He didn’t have the answer. He just asked questions that made the business owner think and realize something. They shrank a third of the inventory they were carrying, and they went back from, you know, a couple of years after, they went from being about to go bankrupt, to actually being profitable. And along the way [unclear[ is not talking about divorce anymore. He sells his company, and he’s retired.
Like so, pride in the profession, is something that leaders of the professional need to foster. Celebrating the heroes. I was so happy when I see the CEO and president of the International Institute of Internal Auditors raising that book about “change agent.” The auditors [it’s the worst], they are the most underappreciated people ever. People don’t want them to come and ask questions. It’s very mentally hard, right? Most if you look, if you are on Fish Bowl, right, you will read those forums of anonymous—it’s heartbreaking bright young men and women, you know, like just wanting to get out of there, because it’s just not valorized by society, right?
So I think the one thing, before we talk about all of the things to improve—let’s just acknowledge for a moment and hold that thought that accountants are important. It’s an important profession. It’s a noble profession. And it’s a profession that needs to be proud of itself.
Solon, I absolutely love that. I don’t see that brought up often enough, frankly. As you mentioned earlier that the Jedis—they’re out there doing the good work.
Yeah, and some Jedis can turn [to] Siths. This creative accounting that happens once in a while. But that’s that’s not the majority.
No, that’s the exceptions, not the norm. The vast majority, and that’s what so many accountants go to school for—they don’t go to school just to be viewed as someone who’s coming in to say “gotcha” or do the compliance. They’re truly there to be the financial experts, the lifeblood of the company.
You worded that so well. Thank you for that.
Third and final question: For leaders that are looking to improve in how they’re able to really improve their relationship with technology as a tool within their firm, what is their next step? What would you recommend as their best next step coming out of listening to this conversation?
You know, that’s such a—wow! You really go straight for the kill with me today. That’s such a good question!
So the first step is to have a bit of technology DNA around, or, yourself, if you want first to construct your capability—which I recommend before you hire any technologies. The first thing you should do, right, is to hang out and talk more with people that are technology-savvy, that are digital native.
I used to have a mastermind group with three managing partners. We used to get together once a month on a phone call—actually before COVID we never had time with our busy schedule. And they would come to me and ask me questions. On new things for example, “Is blockchain blockchain useful or not? Why did you buy so much Bitcoin?” And we would just talk not about their practice, they just, you know, they saw me sometimes making very bold statements. And then, you know. But what mattered is not if they agreed or not, what mattered is the conversation and exchange with me and two other founders.
So I thought actually, I’m going to start with that with the Accounting and Finance Club, I’m going to restart doing those executive innovation, briefing rooms, innovation firms, right? No more than three: three people that find that they want to just hang out more with innovators and technologists, and just talk about everything and nothing. The sunshine, the sky. Just doing that, you’ll see also then naturally, as a leader, you’ll be more comfortable asking more questions in your organization, that will draw insights for you and knowing how to, you know, leverage technology better. That will change your relationship to technology, to start understanding the language of technologists.
I appreciate that. It goes back to that concept, “you’re the average of the five people that you surround yourself with the most”
Start surrounding yourself with technologists, you’re going to improve your relationship with technology.
Yes. 100%. It’s the same advice as choose your friends in life.
Yeah! And now you need to choose technology-savvy friends so that you can improve your relationship with technology. Very good.
Solon, thank you so very much for this conversation today.
Oh, it was a pleasure.
It’s been wonderful to be able to talk with you. See you again, and I look forward to talking again more soon.
For sure, Jeremy. Anytime. Thank you very much.
Thanks so much.
What a great conversation. Thank you again to Solon for sharing with us today.
I’d like to leave you with the four key takeaways: First, you have the opportunity to lead before you’re put in charge. Don’t let your title determine your influence or your ability to lead. Second, as Solon shared, it is often more powerful to share your passion and own convictions than trying to convince others to change theirs. Have confidence in your passions, in your beliefs, and stand firm in your thinking.Third, technology is not a solution; it is a tool that is used to provide solutions and can provide solutions in a number of different areas. And finally, to improve your ability to adopt technology, start spending more time around individuals that are passionate about technology.
Thanks again for joining us today on The Upstream Leader Podcast.