Why Attend the Opportunity Zone Expo, with Rich Zhang

Rich Zhang

Last year, the Opportunity Zone Expo hosted six live, in-person events. But due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, their 2020 conference will be entirely online. Learn how you can still benefit from attending, who you will meet, and how you can save 20 percent on last-minute tickets.

Rich Zhang is brand manager for the Opportunity Zone Expo.

Click the play button below to listen to my conversation with Rich.

Episode Highlights

  • A recap of the six Opportunity Zone Expos in 2019, and how I personally forged numerous valuable business relationships through the events.
  • How the Expo’s parent company pivoted from the EB-5 program into Opportunity Zones toward the end of 2018.
  • The basics of the EB-5, a U.S. Visa program created in 1990 that enabled foreign investors to obtain a U.S. visa by investing in an American business.
  • Similarities and differences between EB-5 and Opportunity Zone investment capital.
  • How developers and business owners are able to sometimes layer EB-5 and Opportunity Zone capital into their capital stacks.
  • Targeted Employment Areas (TEAs) vs. Opportunity Zones (OZs)
  • How this year’s Virtual Opportunity Zone Expo will differ from last year’s six events.
  • Some topics that will be featured at this year’s OZ Expo, including how the CARES Act impacts Opportunity Zones, the post-COVID world of development, and how investors can start their own Qualified Opportunity Funds and Qualified Opportunity Zone Businesses.
  • Who attends and benefits from attending the Opportunity Zone Expo.

Featured on This Episode

Industry Spotlight: Opportunity Zone Expo

The Opportunity Zone Expo is one of the leading platforms and event organizers dedicated to educating and networking for Opportunity Zones and Qualified Opportunity Funds.

Learn more about OZ Expo

  • Visit OZExpo.com
  • Use Promo Code OpportunityDb to Save 20%

About the Opportunity Zones Podcast

Hosted by OpportunityDb.com founder Jimmy Atkinson, the Opportunity Zones Podcast features guest interviews from fund managers, advisors, policymakers, tax professionals, and other foremost experts in opportunity zones.

Show Transcript

Jimmy: Welcome to the Opportunity Zones Podcast. I’m your host, Jimmy Atkinson. The Opportunity Zone Expo is one of the leading event organizers in the opportunity zones industry. I’m pleased to be joined today by their brand manager Rich Zhang. Rich joins me today From Irvine, California. Rich, thanks for coming on the show.

Rich: Hey, Jimmy, thank you for bringing me on. It’s honor to be here. You got so many great reviews on this podcast and I’m one of your fans. So just appreciate that.

Jimmy: Oh, fantastic, Rich and I’m pleased to be here with you as well. And forgive me I got to gush about the OZ Expo for a moment here. Actually, I personally attended three of the Opportunity Zone Expos that you did last year. I was at the Expo in Los Angeles in January, which I believe was the first one you guys did. I was at the one in Las Vegas in May. And then the one in Miami and November.

And the Los Angeles event in particular was incredible for me as it was really the first big opportunity zone event in the entire industry and the first event in the opportunity zone event space that I attended personally. And they’re really phenomenal events that you guys put on. I’m not just saying that, and I can actually back it up with why I think they’re phenomenal events.

I met numerous influential thought leaders in the industry at your events over the past year. It’s where I actually met many of my guests that I’ve had on this podcast for the first time: Craig Bernstein, Clint Myers, Shay Hawkins, Jessica Millett, Len Mills, Zale Tabakman, Jeremy Christensen, Reid Thomas, Jay Darby.

I mean, some really great people in the Opportunity Zone industry. My listeners will be familiar with many of these names, if not all of them. They’ve all been on the opportunity zones podcast at least once. And I met all of these people for the first time at the various Opportunity Zone Expos that I attended last year.

And probably the best story is my business partner at OZ Pros, Ashley Tison, first introduced himself to me at the OZ Expo event in Las Vegas just last year. So, I’ve formed a huge business relationship with Ashley, first met him face to face at an OZ Expo.

So obviously, I’ve personally developed a lot of really important relationships at the events that you guys have organized. I can’t thank you enough for all of the value that you’ve delivered to the entire industry over the last couple of years and I know you guys had big plans to do a few live conferences this year, and I was really looking forward to the one in Las Vegas that was supposed to be this month, June 2020. I love going to all these these these events across the country.

Now unfortunately, as our listeners are painfully aware, the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, and you’ve been forced into hosting a virtual conference instead, which is a bummer but it presents a unique opportunity as well and I want to get to that virtual conference event and talk about that with you a little bit later in the episode today. Again, I know you guys have a lot of great things planned for that.

But first I’d like some history on the Expo. I’d like for you, Rich, if you could tell me a little bit about the company, Opportunity Zone Expo. Many of our listeners are from familiar with you guys having come out of the EB-5 space, I’d like to really hear the story about when and how you first identified opportunity zones. And the process that you as a company underwent that led you to that first huge event in Los Angeles at the beginning of last year.

Rich: Yeah, totally, totally. And that’s a really great question. I’m sure a lot of your listeners probably want to know where we came from, how we got this all started, why we even started. But it’s it’s exactly that few stories you just shared in the beginning of right now where, you’re able to meet so many great people, we love bringing them together and we just love to see that history being made. And it’s always awesome, because we don’t always get to hear all these amazing success and relationship built stories, because obviously we’re that we’re busy hosting events and running around, making sure everything looks normal.

But it’s always heartwarming to hear because we know that there’s a reason why our attendees and sponsors always return. So just to jump right into it, right when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed and the 2017, we were busy, basically still running and building out and just being leaders in the EB-5 industry also as a, as a media and education platform. And through 2018, we kind of were just eyeballing opportunity zones and seeing where it would go, seeing if it would really get some traction. And honestly, we were getting pretty excited because we saw a lot of talk about it. We saw the social impact that could potentially have and just how much there was, there was so much buzz about it.

And so we decided, hey, let’s, let’s do it. Let’s take that risk, and let’s see if we can be that watercooler for the industry, so to speak. And so that’s why at the end of 2018 we started masterminding the conference. And lo and behold once we launched it off at the inaugural Opportunity Zone Expo, it was packed, as I’m sure you were there. It was packed.

And we had every single person related to the industry, every single stakeholder is meeting and greeting, having a blast, getting more information, and we even had just a wide variety of individuals there. And we knew when when that happened, we knew that we did the right thing.

And we’re just continuing to just be leaders in the industry to help establish more transparency in the marketplace. Continue disseminating education and information through all the mediums that we have besides our conference. So that’s kind of how we got started and obviously, you know, with the coronavirus pandemic, as you just spoke about things evolve and things change and we have to follow along suit, and so that’s why we’re here with this virtual conference now to me.

Jimmy: Perfect. Yeah, that Los Angeles event really was incredible. My only regret about that was that it was only one day. I think if you guys had known how popular it would have been, maybe you would have stretched it to two days but I know you guys kind of took the plunge headfirst. I’m not sure if you knew how popular it would be but it’s sold out and you were selling standing room only tickets I think at the door that day, which is which is incredible. It really was a huge event.

I want to learn more about what EB-5 investments are. You guys came out of EB5Investors.com and turned around and pivoted to opportunity zones in late 2018. What is an EB-5 investment though? Some of my listeners may be familiar, but for others and myself included, could you give us the very basics of what an EB-5 investment is?

Rich: Yeah, definitely. Jimmy I mean, EB-5 is simple yet complicated. So to explain it, it is a U.S. visa program that was created in 1990. And generally and overall it basically benefits the U.S. economy by enabling foreign investors to actually obtain a U.S. visa through investing into an American business by creating 10 new American jobs. And so far, there’s been close to half a million jobs created through the EB-5 visa program in the US. And so that’s kind of the gist of it, just to keep it simple. It can get pretty into the weeds if you really want to.

Jimmy: Right, but that job creation is one of the things that it has in common with opportunity zones, right? Because that’s, at the end of the day, that’s that’s a lot of what’s behind the Congressional intent of the opportunity zones initiative is stimulating the economy, particularly in low-income communities. And to do that you have to create jobs.

So yeah, a little bit of little bit of overlap there. And, you know, I know we were talking a little bit before we hit record here about if there’s a potential for anybody to use both programs, to layer EB-5 and opportunity zone investments, and you start educating me a little bit about how how real estate developers and small business owners who are looking for capital could potential layer both types of investments into their capital stack.

Can you explain a little bit about how that might work, just at a very high level? And maybe you can explain the similarities and differences between the two types of capital, EB-5 versus opportunity zones?

Rich: Yeah, hundred percent, 100%. So, there are a lot of similarities, Jimmy. It’s honestly a very symbiotic relationship that I see with EB-5 and opportunity zones. With EB-5, there is an option for a lower tier investment amount, essentially, to your point, it assists these lower income areas around the United States. In EB-5, they’re called targeted employment areas, otherwise known as TEAs.

And so very similarly, as the governor’s has designated qualified opportunity zones around the nation, it’s symbiotic in that sense. Now, they’re not too one-on-one together. Both are kind of different census tracts, at least EB-5 uses census tracts and OZs use their own method, but very, very similar in that sense. And so there’s plenty a lot in common. And I honestly believe that those who are looking to do one or the other day are very well positioned to maximize the benefits.

Now, it does require some careful structuring. And so I would obviously, I’ll defer any questions to your general counsel. But there’s a lot of similar goals in mind and ultimately was designed to bring new capital the struggling communities.

So as far as how you could put them together, typically EB-5, most of the time, it takes out that mezzanine debt level, whereas opportunity zones really fills in the equity side. And so you can see that really mix and matching well together, if your deal really fits the mold. And in that sense, you can kind of satisfy both requirements, then tap into this type of alternative financing.

Jimmy: Right, yeah, so if you’re a real estate developer or business owner, who happens to be in an opportunity zone that overlaps with a targeted employment area under the EB-5 provision, you could potentially accept both types of capital. and as you stated EB-5 really going into the mezzanine debt whereas OZ capital is equity. That’s that that’s a good basic description of how to do it, I suppose.

And yeah, we can get into the weeds and talk about this all day. But I didn’t want to belabor the point too much and really that’s where the tax experts and the tax advisors to to get into, but thanks for the the high level overview there, I appreciate that. Thank you, Rich.

I want to shift gears now and talk about your upcoming event. OZ Expo just a couple of weeks away now, going live on June 24 and 25. What do you have lined up? Peel the curtain back a little bit and give us a little sneak peek, if you can. Obviously I know it’s going to be online, instead of in-person this year, but how else will it be different from past conferences that you’ve thrown?

Rich: Yeah, Jimmy would we are certainly excited and very pumped up for this upcoming virtual conference, mainly because we actually have already hosted two virtual conferences with our sister company, EB5Investors.com. So this isn’t our first time and it’s not new to us.

And so it leads us into so much excitement because our first two virtual conferences in the EB-5 world was just so successful. And to that point, if you understand EB-5, you’re mainly dealing with international investors and folks who are really kind of trying to figure out their time zones with each other. And despite that, we still had a very successful offering, deals made, connections made, and just very, very sustaining and continue to push forward in the community for EB-5.

So we’re really pumped up to deliver that Opportunity Zone Expo. And kind of set up the site for a really good time for everyone to get together. But really what we’re looking at right now for the virtual conference, we got a packed schedule. It’s about a day and a half. The conference will be open essentially for 36 hours.

So I know that the agenda states it’s from 8:00 the first day, which is June 24 2020, its states it’s from 7:30am, to technically 3:30. But right after 3:30, if you could still be online, still kind of check out panels, talk to exhibitors, if you’d like to network with other attendees, as long as they’re online, so that rolls right into the second day, June 25. And that starts at 8:30am and closes out at 2:30.

So it’s kind of exactly like the conference, Jimmy, except you got to kind of follow with me here. It’s virtual. So imagine you’re kind of walking into a physical conference, you’re at the lobby. And just like in the virtual conference, you’re standing in the lobby virtually, you know, right before your laptop or whatever device you’re using, and it’s mobile supported as well.

But you’re actually in the lobby, and you can literally start chatting with attendees right then and there. Obviously, you can jump into the auditorium which posts the panels and we got a huge packed schedule, as I alluded to earlier, just a few topics, we’ll be covering some basic 101, and do some more advanced things. But we’ll be talking about what impact did the CARES Act had on opportunity zones, we’ll be going into obviously, the post COVID-19 world of development how prospective investors should really be looking at these opportunities.

And in the second day, we’ll talk a lot about just how potentially one might start their own Qualified Opportunity Fund or a Qualified Opportunity Zone Business. So really, we’re kind of going really into everything opportunity zones, and just keep it at the high level as well as kind of getting into the nitty gritties.

We got some great individuals on board a great lineup. As a matter of fact, we already have Scott Turner confirmed to be speaking. As you know, he’s the Executive Director of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council. And just to note, some of our past keynote speakers that we’ve had in the past like Mark Amodei, Congressman, as well as Doug Ducey, Governor of Arizona. We’ve also had individuals represent from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a several other mayors from different cities around the nation that’s really trying to tap into opportunity zones for the city.

So it’s a it’s a jam packed agenda. But back to my original point, you can from the panel room, whether you’re listening to a panel that’s live or reading about a panelist’s biography, you can also kind of ask questions live at the same time, which is really neat. Because it’s it’s kind of like how at the end of a panel at a physical conference, you can raise your hand. Well, during this Jimmy you can ask right immediately in the middle of it and interject without really interrupting anything. So it’s really helpful and efficient.

And not only that, but you can then kind of steer into the exhibitor hall, which is, you know, you you imagine yourself physically walking from a panel room to the exhibit hall. Well, this is just a click of a button, and you pop right into the exhibitor Hall, and you kind of scroll through, you’ll see everyone there.

And, you know, what’s the most amazing thing that’s underlying all this, Jimmy is that the entire platform is gamified. And it’s a new term to some people, but gamification has been around for quite some time now. But essentially, attendees are incentivized to actually interact with one another, to go talk to the sponsor booths, to go attend the panels. Because at the end of the day, the top 25 individuals with the most points actually can win up to A $250 Amazon gift card, which is pretty sweet, considering the price of the ticket, but it’s it’s something fun that we’re doing.

And really, at the end of the day, we’re kind of going back to why we even started Opportunity Zone Expo. And that’s because we want to bring people together, want to get transparency going on. And we want to, you know, help individuals network and meet each other, to put together what they need to, to have a successful deal or to do what they need to do to accomplish an opportunity zone. So we’re really pumped about that. I think that’s gonna be a really effective method, as we’ve seen from our last two events.

But not only that, we’re going to keep it dynamic. I know sometimes people might confuse a virtual conference with a webinar, but it’s completely different. It’s much more interactive, much more dynamic. We’re going to have live Zoom calls, where it’s kind of in a sense, a little speed dating session, where we’ll have a moderator who calls on individuals to kind of do a little a one-, two-minute pitch, just to kind of get some interaction going and it’s nice.

Some comments we had from our last event was that it was great to be able to interact with individuals during this uncertain time of not being able to connect with one or the other and making sure that we socially distance responsibly. This gives us that opportunity to really kind of hang out and get to know each other, not even just for business, but just to make lifelong friends and lifelong business partnerships, like you and Ashley Tison had, right?

Jimmy: Right. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Yeah, Rich. I mean, I’ll admit when you guys first told me your plan to go virtual, I was a little bit skeptical. I mean, I knew you had no other option, right? Like, you couldn’t put on an in-person conference like you had planned in the past, with everything going on. I was a little bit skeptical about how it would work because, you know, so much of having these events is actually shaking hands and meeting somebody face-to-face and obviously, we’re losing that this time around with this Expo.

But you demoed that platform for me, the virtual commerce platform you’re using. And so I’ve seen it and I can say, it’s pretty darn cool. And there are some benefits. Obviously, there’s a trade off. But you know, like you said, the ability to dynamically interact with the panelists during their presentation, be able to use that chat feature. That’s that’s pretty cool. And I think it’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds. I’m looking forward to it. And I’m optimistic it’s going to be a big hit with with the attendees there.

So you mentioned that the plenary sessions end at 3:30 but it’s really open, I guess, all night. So if I want to, you know, strike up a eight-hour-long conversation with Craig Bernstein and chat with him until one in the morning. I can do that as much as saying something like that.

Rich: Yeah, you can grab some virtual drinks and go to down.

Jimmy: That’s, well, there’s only only so much a virtual drink will do. I might have… I might have a couple real drinks on hand here at my home office. But yeah, man, I might have take you up on it. That’s that’s that’s pretty neat. If anybody actually sticks around afterwards and hangs out to chat with me. I’ll try to make myself available in the in the chat after-hours there, that would be fun.

Rich: You know what’s cool about that, too is stay you you are just so busy networking for the entire conference that you haven’t even had a chance to go out to one of the panels or to listen to them. Well, after this whole thing, the conference is technically wrapped up on the first day at 3:30, well, you can jump right into the education and, and go to town with that. And right kind of conserve your time and be efficient.

Jimmy: Right. Yeah, that’s that’s a great point. That’s a really good point. That’s pacific time? You’re stating the 3:30pm pacific time, I assume?

Rich: Yes. Pacific Standard Time.

Jimmy: Good. Got it. Okay. Just wanted to clarify that. And then Scott Turner is going to be one of your keynote speakers. That’s fantastic. He’s actually, you know, your conference is two weeks away now.

Scott Turner is actually the guest that I’m having on my podcast next week. So listeners of this podcast who then attend the Expo will get a chance to hear Scott Turner two weeks in a row, which I think is great because he’s a phenomenal speaker, very passionate about the opportunity zones program. I’m sure he’ll offer two different perspectives at the two different speaking engagements with the one with my podcast and the one with you guys as well. We will get to interact with him as well, to a certain extent. So that’ll be that’ll be great.

So yeah, the virtual conference. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s gonna be pretty neat. I’m curious to see how it all comes together. It’s not your first time putting on a virtual conference. As you mentioned, you’ve you’ve done a couple in the EB-5 space now. And you guys put on numerous conferences last year in the Opportunity Zone space, in person events, not virtual. I think you guys did six last year, you know, over the course of that time period, and maybe even going back further into, you know, back into late 2018, when you you guys were conceptualizing this idea of having an Opportunity Zone Expo… Rich, what has been the biggest opportunity zone challenge that you faced over that time?

Rich: Yeah, we’ve definitely faced our fair share of challenges. As you noted, we’ve had six conferences that… just to kind of rattle them off. The first one was LA, followed by Las Vegas, which was incredible. And then we went over to the east coast with New York, Chicago, kind of rounded out to Houston and Miami.

And we saw definitely our fair share of challenges, but nothing that we couldn’t overcome. And as we all are on the same boat to this day, we’re still overcoming. And I think honestly, you know, challenges come and go, and they too shall pass.

But one of our biggest things that we’ve been facing through building out education and transparency in the marketplace, is really just helping individuals and other companies and business owners to understand that the point of these conferences. Because a lot of, I think, some people may assume even not just conferences, but really just any outlet in general, it’s not particularly essential or useful. But to be honest, like we’ve been talking about during this whole show, an episode I mean, it’s the most effective manner of connecting with the right people and, and actually getting yourself out there.

There’s a reason why big brands in the world today continue to advertise and continue to market. Right. And there’s a reason for that. And so I think the biggest challenge is really educating individuals on on understanding how these outlets can be conducive to an ROI, though sometimes it might not be immediate, or instant, which I think I feel a lot of people expect nowadays but it’s residual, it’s over time. And, you know, I think you you always have a good story about that with Ashley, meeting Ashley.

And I’ve heard so many other stories as well personally, from investors attending our conferences who just randomly sold a bunch of Google stock and they’re looking to do whatever they need to do with it, all the way to folks that I’ve talked to where someone just wrote them a million dollar check on the spot. So I think a lot of times we can take conferences for granted, but there’s definitely a lot of effort put into it. There’s a lot of value to it as well, that most people just don’t see until they really kind of reap what they sow at the end of the day.

Jimmy: Yeah, I’m with you. I love the in person events, like I said before getting to meet people face to face, shake hands and, you know, forge that relationship from the very get-go, I think it’s important to meet face to face. But especially in in this industry, and and other financially related industries. I think it’s really important to be able to know the person that you’re writing the big check to, right? Or know the person that you’re going to be partnering with for 10 years or more on this Opportunity Zone program at least. These are long hold periods. It’s essential to meet people face to face eventually. And I know that this conference will not be face to face due to the ongoing challenges of of hosting in person events. But I’m hopeful you guys will get back to doing in-person conferences at some point in the near future.

Rich: Totally, totally. And, and actually to, to bring this point up as well. The tech platform we are using for the virtual conference actually will have video chat enabled. So you kind of will be face to face, Jimmy. And you will actually have that opportunity obviously, as long as it’s mutual, to get that one on one time, like you would at a physical conference.

But yes, you’re totally right, though, ultimately, physical conference are just kind of the king of the chain and, you know, there’s really nothing like it when you’re building rapport. For in person, so we are very much looking forward once this all is over and we are back to normal that will be putting on these incredible shows again, in person.

Jimmy: Perfect. Yeah, I really hope you do. I’m looking forward to when we can finally get out there again and be in person with each other.

So, Rich, who goes to your conferences typically? Who would benefit from attending an Opportunity Zone Expo?

Rich: Yeah, that’s that’s a really good question as well, Jimmy and honestly, it’s kind of hard to say exactly, which which individual comes. But I can give you a broad stroke of folks who have attended and just a list of a few on top of mind.

I mean, you’re obviously going to meet accountants and CPAs, that’s for sure. We’ve had multiple opportunities to connect with wealth managers, so we know they attend, as well as of course tax attorneys and any attorneys really, corporate transactional. You’ll also see a qualified opportunity funds of course, broker dealers, RIAs, institutional investors, banks and lending institutions and of course, these economic development agencies that are promoting their cities or their counties.

So those are kind of the full gamut. Honestly, we were like I said earlier, we’re kind of the watercooler of the industry. So everyone kind of hangs out at our conferences, no matter what they do, or what their role is, if it’s related to Opportunity Zones, they kind of come over and attend our conferences. So that’s who you could look to meet.

Jimmy: Fantastic. Well, Rich, I mean, this sincerely, I’m one of your biggest fans, one of Opportunity Zone Expo’s biggest fans. But before we go today, can you tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about you? And the Opportunity Zone Expo and and I know there’s there’s a way they can still buy tickets for the upcoming virtual conference. Is that right?

Rich: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. So tickets are still on sale online. They are going at $99 currently on sale and that will go up till the day of the conference. As far as getting in touch with me, you can reach me anytime through my email which is [email protected]. And obviously our website’s www.OpportunityZone.com.

And that will get you all the details of our conference as well. You can see all the speakers that are lined up, the agenda, our sponsors, of course, and thanks to our sponsors, most definitely. But obviously you can also get in touch with our other services we offerk, a lot of high quality education, our magazine so those are great ways to just get in touch with us.

Jimmy: Fantastic, Rich. Thanks. And for listeners out there today I will have show notes for today’s episode on the Opportunity Zones Database website. And you can find those show notes at opportunityd.com/podcast and there you’ll find links to all of the resources that rich and I discussed on today’s show.

I’ll be sure of course to link to the Opportunity Zone Expo website where you can buy tickets to their upcoming virtual conference, June 24 and 25 of this year 2020, just a couple weeks away now, and the price already low at $99.

But I’ve been working with rich and his colleagues over at the expo to bring that price down even further. So as a listener of the opportunity zones podcast, you’re entitled to 20% off, head on over to the OZ Expo website, and enter promo code OpportunityDb to save an additional 20% off of the already low price. And I hope to see you there virtually.

Rich, thanks for coming on the show today. I appreciate it.

Rich: Hey, Jimmy, it’s been a privilege to be on your show, and honestly an honor. I’ve gone through a lot of your episodes. And it’s crazy to imagine that I’m here as a guest. So I just appreciate everything you do for the industry as well. You’ve been pivotal to the growth of opportunity zones, and so just genuinely appreciate what you do here. And it’s been a lovely time here chatting with you.

Jimmy: Awesome. Thanks for the kind words, Rich. Take care.