Green Rush: What Went Down in Adelanto
Tami Abdollah is dot.LA's senior technology reporter. She was previously a national security and cybersecurity reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter for the AP in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times and for L.A.'s NPR affiliate KPCC. Abdollah spent nearly a year in Iraq as a U.S. government contractor. A native Angeleno, she's traveled the world on $5 a day, taught trad climbing safety classes and is an avid mountaineer. Follow her on Twitter.
The city of Adelanto sits 85 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles and may be best known for its prison — now a privately-owned immigration detention center. It's also where cannabis startup Genius Fund was pouring tens of millions of its investor's dollars last year.
Genius Fund's state-of-the-art cannabis production facility sits at the intersection of Muskrat Avenue and Rancho Road on a dusty stretch of the Mojave Desert, guarded with 8-foot-high fencing and razor wire.
Inside, shiny black tiled floors, chrome utilities and floor-to-ceiling glass walls give the facility a sleek, antiseptic feel. A table in the shape of a large aircraft wing spans its conference room.
The site has three buildings. One was used for CBD extraction, another was for THC extraction, and a third was for storage, according to local government planning and corporate documents.
The story is pieced together from interviews with more than 40 former employees and business associates, active and retired county officials, as well as federal and county law enforcement; state court records, arbitration, arrest and corporate records in the U.S. and Canada; other public records in six California counties; Genius Fund corporate records and emails. Some former employees and business associates spoke to dot.LA on condition that their names not be mentioned out of fear of reprisals.
This is fourth story in our "Green Rush" series. Read more:
Part 1: Rise and Collapse of LA's Genius Fund | Part 2: Growing Pains in Plumas County | Part 3: A Line of Failed Products | Part 5: The Sudden Death of Dmitry Bosov And His Dream of a California Cannabis Empire
At the compound, Genius Fund intended to produce barrels of THC and CBD oil and extract from their marijuana and hemp grows.
Many cannabis manufacturing businesses have moved to Adelanto in recent years. The city has become known for being friendly to the cannabis industry, in part because of its need for revenue. A third of its residents live below the poverty line.
But Genius Fund did little to help the city. A spokesman for the California Department of Public Health said "there has not been an active state cannabis manufacturing license at this address since April 2019." The company continued to manufacture cannabis throughout 2019, according to corporate records. A former employee who directly dealt with the issue at the compound told dot.LA the company was lacking permits.
A video promotion for Heli's Adelanto production facility, which was rebranded as Purest Biotech, shows the facility's interior.
The Agreement with Heli
Genius Fund, an L.A.-based startup, was run by Ari Stiegler and Gabriel Borden, two twenty-something friends who had lofty ambitions of dominating the cannabis market, first in the U.S. and then internationally. Funding it all was a more than $160 million bet from a Russian coal oligarch, Dmitry Bosov, according to corporate and court records.
To get it done, Genius joined up with Joseph "Joey" Ohayon and his business partner Evan Kagan to form multiple "Heli"-branded entities, in which Genius held a majority stake, according to court records and interviews.
Former employees described Ohayon, 31, as a smooth talker who often wore a designer shirt, baseball cap and tight jeans and traveled nearly everywhere in a cream-colored Rolls Royce with his head of security. They said he talked a lot about his criminal record of assaults. Arrest and court records in Florida show a conviction for felony battery.
To rapidly scale up their fledgling company, Genius Fund invested big into Heli's ventures, agreeing to spend over $21 million. Much of that would go to purchase THC and CBD biomass for Genius Fund's line of products, according to records later filed in an arbitration between Ohayon and Kagan on one side and Genius Fund on the other. Their 2019 business agreement — which was submitted in those arbitration proceedings — gave Genius Fund first priority for manufacturing THC and hemp products, as well as first dibs on the marijuana flower, pre-rolls and other products.
A video for Francis Racioppi's "Aim Small Big Miss" YouTube series. Video embedded from YouTube.
As Genius Fund's ambitions grew, so did its management team.
Francis Racioppi wowed the executives at Genius Fund with his background as a U.S. Special Forces officer and an executive at Snap Inc. Former employees describe him as a tall, intense guy with an athletic build. He was hired in April 2019 as the chief security officer. At the time, the company was moving in several directions at once to get its lab, grows, products and manufacturing processes off the ground.
He quickly rose up to the executive rank, convincing Borden and Stiegler that the marijuana business, which heavily depends on cash because it is illegal under federal law, had multiple security vulnerabilities that required new protocols.
Former employees said Racioppi placed cameras everywhere at the company's headquarters. They described him as relentlessly focused on his goals and often short with people and said he rubbed many employees the wrong way. He gained a reputation among the rank-and-file as someone to avoid, former employees said. They added that he surrounded himself with allies along the way.
"He was very textbook about pulling himself all the way up to the top," said one former employee.
Neither Racioppi nor his attorney replied to requests for comment on this story.
Within a month of his arrival, he was flying to Russia with Stiegler and Borden to meet with Bosov, two former employees said.
Racioppi hired a large group of employees — many were friends from his days at Snap or former military. They were paid hefty salaries, according to multiple former employees and corporate records.
At its height, at least 40% of Genius Fund's direct employees were security, accounting for at least half of the company's payroll costs, according to people familiar with the company books.
"I'm like, 'This guy [Racioppi] is literally about to stage a coup'," said an ex-employee, whose sentiments were independently echoed by his former colleagues. "He hired at least 20 of his military friends, all making exorbitant amounts per year. That's when I knew, this guy is going to take over."
Former employees also wondered whether executives, so taken by Racioppi's Special Forces background, failed to do even a Google search to find out why he left Snap.
The Wall Street Journal reported he was fired as Snap's head of global security in late 2018 after an investigation uncovered an inappropriate relationship with a contractor. Her contract was ended around the time she stopped seeing him.
As his prominence in the company grew, employees said they saw Racioppi try to gain Bosov's trust, in part by warning Genius Fund's principal investor of the company's financial situation. In his more than $3.5 million whistleblower retaliation lawsuit filed in April in federal court in L.A., Racioppi details his efforts to try to inform Bosov of mismanagement at the company.
One place where he saw the company's losses piling up: the compound in Adelanto.
Illustration by Candice
As he cracked down on waste, Racioppi and the company's finance team pushed Heli Ventures' Ohayon to provide more transparency on spending, and the alliance with Heli grew rocky. Arbitration records filed by Genius Fund accused Ohayon and Kagan of embezzlement and unjust enrichment.
Genius Fund executives purchased the Adelanto property for $7 million, according to documents submitted as part of Racioppi's lawsuit. One former employee told dot.LA the purchase was partly made to ensure Genius Fund could access the site should relations with Ohayon deteriorate further.
Kagan agreed with that latter assessment, telling dot.LA he tried to distance himself from the business as the drama unfolded.
"They bought it out of necessity to take control," Kagan said. "They were going to use that to evict [Ohayon]."
Roughly a year into working with the company, Ohayon allegedly threatened to go after Stiegler in a September 2019 conference call, saying, "I'll beat his ass up," "I'll fuck him up" and "I'll kill that kid," according to an application for a temporary restraining order filed by Stiegler and other Genius Fund executives later that month. Ohayon denied the allegation to dot.LA.
In a sworn declaration filed in court to obtain the restraining order, Stiegler said he grew increasingly worried about his safety and that he added round-the-clock personal security and bumped up security at all Genius Fund offices and at the Adelanto facility.
Bosov terminated Ohayon and Kagan's agreement with Genius Fund two days after the conference call.
As the company's legal team went through Heli's books, they were unable to locate more than $4.5 million in cash that had been listed on Heli's balance sheet just a couple of weeks earlier, according to documents filed in support of the restraining order.
Separately, arbitration records also allege the company could not find an additional $2.5 million and further alleged that Ohayon used some of the company's money to pay himself.
"Despite repeated requests for an accounting by Genius Fund," those documents state, "Ohayon has failed to provide one and failed to explain the reduction of $2.5 million in the cash log."
The filings also accuse Ohayon of contracting with several entities to pay $4 million to purchase 150,000 pounds of hemp. The market price at the time would have put the value at $259,500. One of those entities then purchased 3.5% of Heli Holdings, "which is merely an operational company with minimal assets and no revenue to date," for $4 million in cash. "Thus, effectively," the arbitration documents allege, "respondents paid themselves $4 million with Genius Fund's money."
Also in the documents: Genius Fund accused Ohayon of using the company's American Express card to pay for dogs, dentist visits and personal travel. They accused him of providing a company credit card to a friend unrelated to the business who used it for personal expenses.
Ohayon's partner, Kagan, told dot.LA that Ohayon had purchased dogs on the American Express to serve as security for the compound. He had originally wanted wolves, he said, but was talked down.
Ohayon initially declined to comment for this story. Later he sent an email response.
"These statements are false," Ohayon said, referring to the application for a restraining order. "They made these accusations solely to exert leverage and try to push me out and deprive me of my interest."
Ohayon said all hemp purchases were disclosed and approved by Genius, Bosov and his representative. He added that he never used his business credit card for personal expenses.
Ohayon said he sold the dogs and returned the money. The arbitration claims, he added, were settled.
Security footage shows Joseph "Joey" Ohayon and his security detail being let on to the Adelanto facility's grounds by the head of Heli's security.
Genius Fund appointed one of its own as a new interim head of Heli. A message to all Heli company employees reviewed by dot.LA told them that previous management had failed to make payroll and that Genius Fund would pick up the entity's tab. The next day, which was typically payday, the new interim CEO stood outside the company's Adelanto gate so that employees could pick up paper checks.
But things worsened. The following week no one showed up to work at Adelanto. Heli's new interim CEO surmised that Ohayon had threatened the employees or told them not to go in, according to documents submitted to the court in support of Genius Fund's application for the temporary restraining order.
"I never threatened them," Ohayon told dot.LA "They decided against working for Genius due to their conversations with other Genius employees."
Security footage from Sept. 26, submitted as part of the same application showed Ohayon's security staff attempted to take over the property. The video showed Ohayon and his security detail being let onto the Adelanto facility's grounds by the head of Heli's security. A minute-by-minute account in the court documents describes the company's vans barricading entrances and the apparent theft of "high terpene extract material" from the facility's refrigerator while more than a dozen armed security followed Ohayon around site.
Ohayon traveled to Italy to negotiate a settlement with Bosov, which was signed by Stiegler on behalf of Genius Fund, according to a copy submitted to the court in Racioppi's whistleblower retaliation lawsuit.
"We disagreed on some stuff, but at the end of the day Dima said: 'Hey, Joey gets to run this and Ari run that, let's just see what happens,'" Stiegler said.
As part of the settlement, the company renewed its relationship with Ohayon and Kagan, who agreed to decrease their membership shares in the Heli partnerships from 49% to 39% and withdraw their security operations from the Adelanto compound, according to court records in Racioppi's lawsuit. The settlement left the facility's security in Genius Fund's hands. The request for a temporary restraining order against Ohayon was partly granted in October, but was dismissed by the court 10 days later because none of the plaintiffs showed up for the next hearing.
Genius Fund's current owner, Gary Shinder, did not reply to repeated requests for an interview, but said in a letter that after significant examination, "I did not find anything that could support any allegations of embezzlement, theft, or mismanagement by Heli Holdings or its principals." He wrote that he instead found what was likely "the only successful project in the Genius Fund portfolio."
Genius Fund ended up pouring tens of millions into the Heli operation, but it was never profitable, according to Kagan and corporate records.
An image of the land Genius Fund purchased in Santa Barbara County.Photo submitted from a source who prefers to remain anonymous.
Cannabis in Wine Country
The company's relationship with Ohayon and Kagan went beyond the Adelanto property. In 2019, Genius Fund executives had also signed an agreement with them that included purchasing a 350-acre plot of land in Santa Barbara County's wine country — known locally as the Domingos family ranch — for $23 million. Most of it was paid in cash upfront, county and corporate records show.
Just a year earlier, the land records show the property had sold for nearly $655,000. It was appraised at the time of Genius Fund's purchase at roughly $5.5 million, according to court documents filed in Racioppi's lawsuit.
It was another hefty expense for the company that required Bosov to wire over cash infusions so that the company could meet payroll while vendors went unpaid, according to Racioppi's lawsuit, as well as several former employees and vendors.
Genius Fund called the Santa Barbara enterprise Genius Farm 2, according to property and corporate records. With proper permitting, it could have complemented Heli's other operations and helped fulfill the company's vision of creating a full ground-up supply chain for Genius Fund.
But according to former employees and court documents submitted as part of Raccioppi's lawsuit, Genius Fund went into the deal without a land use permit to grow cannabis — in a region protective of its wine crop.
Ohayon told dot.LA that was the result of infighting at Genius Fund. "Genius management sabotaged the project hoping to eliminate us prior to getting the final LUP [land use permit]," he wrote in an email.
"They had the seller and all consultants involved in that project sign NDAs to ensure that they didn't communicate with us" at a critical time in the permitting process. "Due to a personal vendetta, Stiegler was willing to 'burn the house down'," Ohayon said.
The company would never get the permit to plant cannabis in Santa Barbara. Months later, it would sell the land for millions less than what it was purchased for, according to property and county records.
Soon, Bosov would grow tired of just dreams.
This is the fourth in dot.LA's "Green Rush" series looking at the rise and fall of cannabis-related startup Genius Fund. Read part one, part two, part three and part five, and sign up for dot.LA's newsletter to be notified about new stories.
Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my contact on Signal, for more secure and private communications.
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures<p>Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.</p><p>In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.</p>
Dana Settle, Greycroft<p>Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.</p><p>"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/greycrofts-dana-settle-on-closing-funding-gap-for-female-founders-2019-12" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Business Insider</a>. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.</p>
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital<p>Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.</p><p>"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in <a href="https://www.mucker.com/more-funding-wont-magically-fix-your-startup/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a blog post for Mucker</a>. </p><p>Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.</p>
William Hsu, Mucker Capital<p>William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford. </p> <p><a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3048173/the-unexpected-and-hard-earned-lessons-from-a-dot-com-flame-out" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Fast Company</a>, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."</p> <p>These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."</p>
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures<p>Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.<br><br>He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.</p> <p><a href="https://dot.la/la-venture-podcast-jim-andelman-of-bonfire-ventures-2648143780.html" target="_self">In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll</a> earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company.</p>"It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures<p>Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently <a href="https://dot.la/hm-bradley-2649022900.html" target="_self">raised $18 in a Series A</a> round.</p><p>"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.</p>
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures<p>Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.</p><p>Though<a href="https://upfront.com/thoughts/announcing-upfronts-new-co-managing-partner" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> Upfront had attempted to recruit her</a> before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.</p><p>Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.</p><p><a href="https://dot.la/moving-from-the-passenger-seat-to-the-drivers-seat-upfronts-kara-nortman-named-managing-partner-2648493740.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.<br></p><p>"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"<br></p>
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures<p>Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.</p><p>Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders <a href="https://crosscut.vc/team/" target="_blank">on Crosscut's website</a> reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."</p>
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures<p>Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/@John_Livesay/when-google-bought-my-startup-81f1ee21488c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with John Livesay</a> shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."</p>
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures<p>Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. <a href="https://dot.la/brian-lee-los-angeles-venture-capital-2645125301.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."</p> <p>"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."</p> <p>His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.</p>
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners<p>Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.</p><p>He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.</p> <p>"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in <a href="https://moiglobal.com/alex-rubalcava-interview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global</a>.</p>
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures<p>Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blog</a>, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.</p><p>In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/finding-an-investor-who-is-in-love-with-you-d0badf1a3998" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Suster wrote about the importance of passion</a> — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.<br></p><p>"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."</p>
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Los Angeles is home to around 5,000 startups, the majority of which are in their young, formative years.
Which of those thousands are poised for a breakout in 2021? We asked dozens of L.A.'s top VCs to weigh in. We wanted to know which companies they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
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