By Joe Vanden Plas

StartingBlock Madison wanted an outsider’s perspective of Madison’s entrepreneurial scene and got a double dose of it Aug. 24 during a special program that drew about 150 local entrepreneurs to theMajestic Theatre.

Scott Resnick, executive director of StartingBlock Madison, invited entrepreneurial leaders from the southern U.S. to spend 24 hours in Madison to see first hand what the city has to offer. They then shared their first impressions during an evening program moderated by attorney Israel Lopez, owner ofMadison Noteworthy.

During the event, held as part of Forward Fest, Lisa Calhoun, founding partner of Valor Ventures, an Atlanta-based venture capital partnership, and Jill Van Beke, director of innovation and commercialization at Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership focused on supporting the development of high-growth companies, told local business leaders that Madison is on the right track in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“What Madison has is incredibly organic momentum, which in my mind makes it sustainable momentum, and I applaud everyone for that,” Van Beke says. “There are a lot of entrepreneurs getting engaged in more than just their businesses, and that’s mission critical for a startup community.”

Engaged to be entrepreneurs

Calhoun and Van Beke can talk about building entrepreneurial communities from first-hand experience.

Calhoun is the first woman to launch a venture fund in Georgia. A fourth generation entrepreneur, she has developed a national entrepreneurial network and has helped technology startups achieve more than $1 billion in exits.

An author of two business books — How You Rule the World: A Female Founder’s Survival Guideand The Content Marketing Field Guide — Calhoun was honored as an American Business Association Entrepreneur of the Year and elected president of the Entrepreneur’s Organization in Atlanta.

Van Beke works with entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors across Tennessee and the southeast region. Making her first visit to Madison, Van Beke was not only impressed by the city’s organic commitment to becoming a more vibrant startup community, but also the corporate involvement ofAmerican Family Insurance, a chief sponsor of StartingBlock Madison, and institutions such as UW–Madison. If the community can build on that corporate and institutional engagement by getting more large companies to match American Family’s outreach, it creates a sustainable model “if entrepreneurially led,” she states.

What is still lacking is more of the same. Additional corporate engagement is important and it comes in several forms, Van Beke notes. “It comes in sponsorship dollars, which are obviously critical for events and such,” she says. “It comes in the form of investment, such as the kind of investment American Family is making in StartingBlock Madison. It also comes in engagement on the market side. They [American Family] have an innovation group that is communicating what it’s learning to entrepreneurs who can then solve their problems. You want your entrepreneurs to be as market-driven as possible. You want them solving problems that the market has and even better yet, what the market will pay for.

“If you don’t connect the entrepreneurs and the corporate community — their customers, essentially — on a regular basis, early and often, you’re going to miss some really important synergies.”

In Nashville, corporate engagement is fostered by a Southern culture and entrepreneurship event called36|86, with the numbers reflecting the city’s longitude and latitude. The biggest struggle is to make sure various stakeholders are of a common mind with similar goals. “Even if the vision is different, there needs to be consensus on the path to get there,” Van Beke states. “Each stakeholder group comes with small ‘p’ politics.”

Calhoun notes that such groups have learned to develop silos to protect their interests. While those silos serve a purpose, they can get in the way of local and regional cooperation, but Calhoun saw evidence that Madison is at least attempting to remove barriers. “People tend to do business with people they know,” she says. “Here, there seems to be a lot of cross-pollination and discussion.”

Atlanta, which is blessed with a Top 10 technology talent pool and $1 billion in an annual research investment, has a number of additional strengths: an affordable cost of living, a good climate, and proximity to mountains and the sea. However, Calhoun acknowledges that even with 28 venture capital funds, Atlanta is just starting to figure out venture capital.

“The community is creating enough momentum that we’ve become venture capital starved,” she notes.

Cultivating D&I

Part of the answer to building a thriving entrepreneurial hub, Calhoun adds, is to build diverse, inclusive businesses because such businesses tend to perform better financially and diverse communities typically have more resources to address challenges.

That message has yet to hit home in Greater Madison. The 2016 Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Survey, conducted by the Madison Region Economic Partnership, shows the vast majority of local employers haven’t even taken the necessary first steps toward establishing a “D&I” program. In the survey, which was sent to a random sample of 2,474 employers, 86% of respondents acknowledged they do not have a written diversity statement, and 90% do not have dedicated full- or part-time staff to drive diversity and inclusion within their organizations.

Diversity doesn’t come naturally to people or organizations, Calhoun notes, and it takes sustained commitment. She notes that Atlanta now has hundreds of professional women who “code” and they are active in the technology industry and the community, offering proof that even the most male-dominated fields can be diversified.

Calhoun, a lifelong southerner, admits she had to work at diversity. “A girl from south Georgia does not grow up with a diverse group of friends,” she notes, “but you can cultivate it.”

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