WRITTEN BY BECKY LOFSTEAD
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.
It all started in 2012 on a bus.
During a three-day hackathon competition called StartupBus, Rodney Williams had an idea to develop a new technology that sends data over audio via a communication protocol called LISNR. And it was one of the ideas that won the competition.
Up to that point, Williams, BA ’06, Economics and Finance, MS ’08, Integrated Marketing, worked in new business development at Lockheed Martin and as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, where he was the first marketer to write digital patents.
Along with two other entrepreneurs, Williams co-founded LISNR — not an acronym for anything but a word that sounds like “listener.”
In ticketing, instead of scanning QR codes on phones at an event, the technology broadcasts encoded ticketing data via LISNR inaudible audio which is then decoded via the scanner app at the event gate. This makes the process quick, seamless and secure for the customer. For automobiles, the technology can be used to enter a car or pay for transactions out of the car.
Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, the company has grown to almost 40 employees — from software engineers and financial wizards to marketers and a leadership team he assembled from tech companies like Yahoo and Facebook. VentureBeat named LISNR one of the 10 startups to watch outside Silicon Valley in 2018.
Awards are piling up for this risk-taker. He was named by Ad Age as one of its 40 under 40 recipients for innovators in the world of media, marketing, technology and advertising. He was Black Enterprise’s 2016 Tech Entrepreneur of the Year. He serves on the board of two startups. LISNR earned the Cannes Gold Lion in Mobile Software Innovation award and was a 2017 honoree in mobile software at the Consumer Electronics Show, to name just a few.
His entrepreneurial spirit took off at WVU, where he recently visited for induction into the College of Business and Economics Roll of Distinguished Alumni.
“I’m originally from Baltimore, and actually came to WVU with my good friend from high school in the fall of 2002 to run track,” Williams said. “To make a long story short, the track team was dissolved in 2003, and while I was devastated, that’s when I like to say, ‘I became a student.’”
A dual finance and economics major, Williams pursued internships, including one at the National Energy Technology Laboratory; joined organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers — even though his major wasn’t engineering; founded WVU’s first multicultural fraternity Alpha Omega Alpha and an event and marketing company — and still managed to graduate in four years.
He finished his three WVU degrees and an MBA from Howard University by the age of 24.
“I like to fix problems by creating new ways of doing things,” Williams said. “So, at WVU, there was a diversity problem and I worked to fix it. At Procter & Gamble, it was the same thing. I fixed problems. Today, I’m still fixing things, but making my own rules. I saw a problem with the way devices talked to each other, and I found that data over audio could fix that across the spectrum. I guess the older I get, I try to fix harder problems.”