Double Lives: Chris Rizik

"Wall Street's loss was Soul Street's gain. When April Hill quit the prestigious Goldman Sachs investment banking firm to pursue her dream of making music, some of her peers may have thought she was crazy. But from the first note of "The Search", the opening cut on her debut album Love 360, she proves herself an artist whose stock is most certainly on the rise…" writes Chris Rizik about this new artist in his review published in Soul Tracks, the number one soul music website in America.

Rizik, 47, founder and publisher of SoulTracks, is also making notes in both soul music and high finance. The prominent venture capitalist and co-founder of Ann Arbor-based Ardesta, LLC, runs a $100 million technology fund.

Making tracks

After becoming a CPA and graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Rizik joined Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright, where he rose to partnership by age 31. It wasn't long before he led its middle-market practice, helping to grow small privately owned companies. In 1999, he continued on that path by joining Rick Snyder, the former president of Gateway, Inc., to run Avalon Investments, a $100 million technology-oriented fund.

"We were very active in helping start-up companies and real active in creating a technology-based start-up economy in the Ann Arbor area, so we ran Avalon for a while and then decided to form Ardesta in 2000, with the notion of helping commercialize [universities' developments] in the area of nanotechnology and micro-technology. Nobody else was really doing that in that particular sector," Rizik explains, continuing, "You're going to find throughout the whole diagnostic area in life sciences, alternative energy, and particularly also in the communications area, as you're taking a cellphone and trying to fit more and more things on the cellphone that fits in your pocket, all those changes are going to be driven by small technologies."

Avalon and Ardesta have funded about 12 Michigan companies. Rizik figures that in the Midwest, their investments have created around 1,000 jobs paying about 50% more than state averages. Now the partners are putting another fund, Ardesta Ventures I, into their album. Michigan's 21st Century Investment Fund has committed to invest up to $7.5 million, and the Venture Michigan fund, another state-organized investment pool, is contributing an undisclosed amount.

Rizik is "a really smart guy ... It's interesting, he has a background in accounting and law but at the same time has this artistic side with the SoulTracks avenue of interest," observes Christine Gibbons, CFO of Ann Arbor-based Sensicore , an Ardesta portfolio company that has a lab on a chip technology used in water testing devices. She says that Rizik, as a Sensicore board member, has "a good sense of striking the right balance in terms of risk taking and resource management and all of the things it takes to properly direct an early stage company."

On yet another note, Rizik is also chairman of Detroit-based NextEnergy, which he dubs as "maybe one of the half dozen most important organizations in the state. … [Governor Granholm] sees alternative energy as the next big industry in Michigan, so that puts NextEnergy at the heart of the state's economic development plan."

His appointment to NextEnergy's board was a bolt of good fortune for the state. CEO Jim Croce says Rizik's advice on how to attract more venture capital resulted in a partnership with Nth Power, a top tier San Francisco venture capital firm focusing on the energy sector. The firm has invested $3.5 million in Michigan's alternative energy startups, with more forthcoming.

Soul ventures

The financier's venture into the heart of soul began early. The son of an accountant father and nurse mother who also sang in a St. Louis opera, Rizik was jazzed by the '60s and '70s Motown jams played by his six older siblings in their Flint home. "It just kind of hit me as a music that said something, that had a positive message and a depth to it," he recalls.

Soul streamed through his student days on the music beat for Michigan State University's paper, The State News. Later, as his finance career took off, he wrote music musings on airplanes – primarily biographies of talented but unheralded artists of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Noting a dearth of such coverage, he authored a few articles for the internet – which led to a couple of XM radio shows on biographies of classic soul stars. But he was more tuned into words, so "I went on eBay and found a web-building program for about 50 bucks, and Memorial Day weekend 2003 stayed up all night figuring out how to build a website."

And the worldwide audience came. Unexpectedly, Rizik had a new hit, a rebirth of a genre that dwindled in the '80s. Young vocalists sent him their CDs. " … I started writing about them and reviewing their albums, which were mostly ones they'd put together themselves and were selling independently, without air play," he describes.

Today's goal is to connect followers of classic acts like the Four Tops and Diana Ross with new artists like Frank McComb and Angela Johnson. He calls SoulTracks "a business in a way, but more like a mission."

Site visits and page views totaled over 1.3 and 3.2 million, respectively, in 2007; 1.8 and 4.3 million are forecasted for 2008. Rizik has composed over 1,000 soul artist reviews and biographies – and still loves tapping them out on his keyboard. A dozen other respected writers also contribute to the site, which profiles nearly 800 songbirds whose ranks are growing by 10 a month.

"Chris is just a great person to know in the mainstream and in the independent soul music movements. He's definitely a music lover and someone who pushes music that he believes in. And he was very instrumental in helping me to sell my first set of CDs on his website, as well as just pushing my name and my brand and my music," says Atlanta-based soul music singer and songwriter April Hill, who sang and wrote poetry for 15 years before releasing her first album, Love 360, in May of 2007. She feels fortunate to have been featured on SoulTracks and "very lucky for him to have reviewed me himself. That was very much a treat."

As the acclaimed website grew, Rizik felt that independents deserved their own awards show. "The Grammy Awards will not recognize these artists. They're not big enough yet, and the Grammys are sort of stuck in the major label world," he says.

So he brought virtual recognition to life by conceiving the SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards, held online for a few years until November 2007, when 500 artists from around the country convened for the live gala in Detroit. New York, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta also vied for hosting honors, but in tribute to Detroit's soul legacy Rizik kept the festivities in Motown. A triumph by all accounts, it was covered by press outlets world-wide, including Billboard magazine. The 2008 awards will be back in Detroit, potentially broadcast live on cable television, says Rizik.

The father of four, who is active in church and basketball coaching, has played many tracks in life. "He's got his hand in a number of different successful ventures. Arguably, Ardesta's been one of the most successful venture capital firms [in the state] and he's been a big part of that," says Croce. "He's a great asset to Michigan and we're very happy that he's chosen to build his career and livelihood and raise his family here in Michigan."

Tanya Muzumdar is a regular contributor to metromode. Read her previous article Two Wheel Revolution.

Check out the Soul Tracks website and donwload a free mp3 of Angie Stone's "My People" in celebration of Black History month! How cool is that?


Chris Rizik at the offices of Ardesta - Ann Arbor

courtesy press photo

Chris Rizik speaking at SoulTracks' Readers Choice Awards

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
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