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Madison makes good entrepreneurial impression

Entrepreneurial Energy: Scott Resnick, Jill Van Beke, Israel Lopez, and Lisa Calhoun offered a mostly upbeat assessment of Madison’s entrepreneurial scene.

Entrepreneurial Energy: Scott Resnick, Jill Van Beke, Israel Lopez, and Lisa Calhoun offered a mostly upbeat assessment of Madison’s entrepreneurial scene.

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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 the Majestic 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 of Madison 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 Guide and 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 of American 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 called 36|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.”

(Continued)

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