Craig Huffman

Driving Disruption: Craig Huffman Of Metro Edge Development Partners On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Craig Huffman.

Craig Huffman leads Metro Edge Development Partners as Co-Founder and CEO. A real estate private equity veteran with nearly two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, is spearheading the development of an exclusive five-story data center in the Illinois Medical District (IMD) in Chicago.

Most recently, Craig served as Co-Founder and Principal of Ascendance Partners, a Chicago-based real estate private equity firm established in 2006 and focused on commercial real estate investments in metropolitan Chicago. Ascendance was an early sponsor of institutional investment funds that acquired real estate in economically underserved communities of Chicago and has sponsored real estate funds for foundations, endowments, pension funds, family offices, and high net worth individuals. Notable Ascendance investors have included Bank of America, PNC Community Development Company, LLC, the Retirement Plan for Chicago Transit Authority Employees’ Trust, and the University of Notre Dame.

Before Ascendance, Huffman worked in diverse senior management roles in entrepreneurship, education, non-profit, and politics. Huffman serves on numerous philanthropic boards and is an advisor and investor for several emerging minority entrepreneurs. He holds a B.A. from Morehouse College and a master’s degree and MBA from the University of Chicago.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Growing up in a family deeply rooted in education, I was naturally inclined towards community service and educational initiatives. This background served as a stepping stone into real estate, a sector I found to be a logical extension of my interests. About two decades ago, I took the entrepreneurial leap, starting with residential properties and eventually expanding into data centers.

I’ve discovered a unique blend of real estate and technology in my current role. The data center industry is complex and often misunderstood, even within large corporations. We focus not just on the technology inside these centers but also on navigating the real estate and community aspects. This holistic approach aligns with our mission of creating high-impact, technology-driven developments that yield financial returns while making a positive social impact.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company uniquely sits at the crossroads of commercial real estate and cutting-edge technology. We’re not just chasing trends; we’re investing in assets that thoughtfully incorporate future-facing technology. This is crucial in an industry that has been historically slow to adopt technological advancements.

We pride ourselves on being disruptors in a young industry often plagued by groupthink. Our team isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, challenging the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. This curiosity allows us to explore new avenues that others in the industry might overlook.

But what truly sets us apart is our commitment to social impact, which has been a core value since our inception. Unlike companies that prioritize profit and then retroactively consider community impact, we’ve integrated social responsibility into our business model from day one. We believe that data centers should be not just in communities, but of communities. This philosophy is increasingly important as we see communities push back against developments they don’t understand. Our approach aims to bridge that gap, making us not just a real estate and technology company, but also a community partner.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curiosity Without Judgment: One of the pivotal traits that have guided me is a relentless curiosity. This trait was instrumental when I ventured into real estate, a field in which I had no traditional background. Despite the skepticism and outright laughter from my business school classmates, my curiosity drove me to learn, adapt, and eventually succeed. This open-minded approach has allowed me to navigate through uncharted territories effectively.

Tenacity: Entrepreneurship is a grueling journey, regardless of the scale. Whether you’re running a lemonade stand or a data center, the challenges are real and often overwhelming. My tenacity has been my anchor, especially when the path seemed unclear or the obstacles appeared insurmountable. This trait has helped me stay rooted in my “why,” enabling me to push through the hard times and come out stronger on the other side.

Cautious Optimism: Entrepreneurs are natural problem solvers, and while optimism is essential, it must be balanced with pragmatism. I’ve always approached my ventures with a sense of cautious optimism. This mindset has been crucial in assembling a team of experts, like Clune and T5, who complement my skills and share my vision. This blend of optimism and practicality has helped me turn challenges into stepping stones.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

In my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve found that leadership is not a birthright but a skill honed through facing challenges. One pivotal moment came when I had to make a tough call in my first real estate venture. My high school friend initially proposed the business idea but was not meeting the work ethic required to drive the business forward. Despite the emotional ties and his foundational role, I had to part ways with him to ensure the company’s success. This decision was not popular or easy, but it was necessary. It taught me that leadership often involves making hard choices that may not please everyone but are crucial for the greater good. This experience has been a cornerstone in shaping my leadership style, emphasizing accountability, and willingness to make difficult decisions. It’s a constant balancing act, where the survival of the many outweighs the comfort of the few. Leadership, in essence, is about making those tough calls.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

In business, “disruption” is the seismic shift that changes industries or creates new ones, often driven by technology or novel problem-solving. It’s not just innovation; it’s making existing solutions obsolete. In my industry, disruption is both a necessity and a strategy. It’s essential for staying relevant and competitive. Personally, I’ve embraced it by promoting a culture of continuous learning and calculated risk-taking. It requires courage, conviction, and a dash of “controlled craziness” to believe you can do something unprecedented and then actually doing it.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

In the data center industry, disruption is both essential and strategic. It’s vital because the field is ready for innovation; without it, we risk falling behind. Conversely, it’s a calculated move that demands careful planning. I’ve personally embraced this by fostering a culture of calculated risk and continuous learning. We actively pilot new technologies and collaborate with experts to stay ahead. So, for me, disruption is not just a buzzword; it’s a balanced equation of necessity and strategy driving us toward ongoing innovation.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

In challenging conventional wisdom, I’ve learned that adaptability, strategic disruption, and resilience are key. Being malleable has helped me navigate industry changes and become a more empathetic leader. I’ve also realized that disruption is essential for innovation but must be strategically planned. This insight has made me focus on the importance of foresight in leadership. Surprisingly, I’ve found that support often doesn’t come from where you’d expect. This has taught me the value of internal conviction, something I strive to instill in my team. These lessons have collectively shaped my leadership style, equipping me to guide my team through the complexities of our industry with a balanced approach that values adaptability, planning, and learning by listening.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Navigating the complexities of the data center industry with a disruptive idea was bound to meet resistance. Initially, we thought traditional real estate strategies would work, but we quickly learned that wasn’t the case. Instead of being immobilized by the pushback, it lit a fire under us. We remained flexible and open-minded, continuously keeping our ear to the ground. This doesn’t mean we wavered in our beliefs; rather, we listened to insights from customers and partners to navigate our way to success.

The experience taught me that your strong sense of purpose and belief can turn skeptics into mentors and cheerleaders. But this transformation requires hard work; your work ethic must match the scale of the disruption you’re aiming for. So, if you’re facing opposition to a disruptive idea, use it as motivation. Be open to feedback, but remain unwavering in your purpose.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

  1. Intentional Customer Listening: We go beyond surveys and feedback forms. Our process for securing anchor tenants involves deep, intentional conversations to tailor our services precisely to their needs.
  2. Calculated Creativity: Our culture isn’t just about thinking creatively; it’s about taking measured risks that lead to innovation and cost-saving solutions.
  3. Expert-Led Collaboration: We don’t just consult experts; we bring them into the room. Our open communication with subject matter experts keeps us at the forefront of industry advancements.
  4. Dynamic Learning Approach: We’re not set in our ways. Our “test and learn” philosophy allows us to adapt quickly, absorbing insights from the industry, community, and other experts to refine our strategies.
  5. Resourceful Networking: It’s not just about having resources but effectively leveraging them. Our strong industry connections provide us with invaluable support and talent to fuel our innovative efforts.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

My career trajectory has been anything but linear, starting in the education and nonprofit sectors before making an unconventional leap into real estate entrepreneurship. The expectation was that I’d falter, given the stark differences between these worlds. However, I focused on building strong teams to amplify my strengths and mitigate my weaknesses. One core belief that has guided me is that difficulties are prerequisites for success.

The surprises along the way have been numerous. For instance, people’s willingness to support you increases when they see your unyielding work ethic, even if they initially doubt your capabilities. I’ve also learned that success is never a straight path; it’s more of a zigzag journey requiring unwavering commitment to your core beliefs. This “stick-to-itiveness” is crucial because challenges are the toll gates on the road to greatness, whether in sports, business, or any other endeavor. It’s easy to aspire for success, but the real test lies in your willingness to endure the sacrifices and challenges that come with it.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

On a personal level, embracing disruption has catalyzed growth and self-discovery. It’s not just about taking risks in business; it’s about challenging my own comfort zones and preconceived notions. This journey has also had a ripple effect on my family, particularly my children. Unlike my upbringing in a family of educators with no entrepreneurial background, my kids have had a front-row seat to the highs and lows of my career. This exposure has influenced their perspectives; both have expressed interest in entrepreneurship. While I want them to pursue their own paths to happiness, I recognize that my disruptive choices have expanded their horizons, equipping them with financial literacy and a broader understanding of what’s possible. My willingness to disrupt my own path has not only shaped my life but also set a precedent for the next generation.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

Navigating the entrepreneurial landscape often feels like walking a tightrope, especially when you’re a pioneer in your field. The responsibility is immense, not just for the business but for setting the emotional tone for my team. In moments of difficulty, I often remind myself that my worst days would have been my father’s prayers. This perspective keeps me grounded and humbled, reinforcing that the challenges I face are not just about me but are part of a larger narrative. I hope that my journey can serve as a catalyst for change in the industry, making it less exceptional for someone like me to be at the helm of a data center development.

The path of disruption is arduous but fulfilling. It’s not just about overcoming external challenges; it’s about internal growth and the ripple effect it can have on those around you. I’ve seen this firsthand with initiatives like community engagement, which have started to influence even our competitors. It’s a testament to the power of disruption, not just as a business strategy but as a catalyst for broader societal change.

Even on days when the weight of the role feels overwhelming, I find comfort in the belief that we’re on the path to victory. It’s a journey that’s bigger than me, one that I hope will inspire others to not just be in a community but to be of the community that surrounds them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement, it would be centered around reigniting confidence in the concept of universal opportunity, especially among those who feel it’s out of reach. The focus would be on bridging the gap between those with resources and those without, particularly in the realm of technology and education.

I come from a blue-collar, working-class background, and I understand the skepticism many feel about the attainability of the American Dream. My movement would challenge companies, especially in the tech sector, to go beyond corporate social responsibility reports and genuinely ask, “What can we do to improve people’s lives on the front lines?”

For instance, what if we could demystify the world of data centers for young people? Imagine the light bulbs that could go on in their minds, possibly steering them towards careers they hadn’t considered. This is more than charity; it’s about empowering the next generation to connect to the “superhighway of education.”

In a nation that embodies both unparalleled excellence and glaring shortcomings, we have an opportunity to set a compelling standard. We need to ensure that the American Dream is not just a concept but a reality that can be achieved by anyone willing to strive for it. This movement would aim to make that dream tangible for everyone, regardless of their starting point.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

To further follow my work online, you can visit the Metro Edge website, where we regularly update our upcoming events, initiatives, and community engagements. We also have a strong presence on social media platforms like LinkedIn and X and Instagram, where we share insights, news, and updates about our projects and the data center industry. For those interested in more in-depth content, our blog features articles that delve into the challenges and opportunities in the realm of data centers and merchant development, as well as community development. We’re committed to not just being in the community but of the community, aiming to create universal opportunities for everyone. Stay tuned for our latest endeavors as we strive to make a meaningful impact.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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