Scaling up for success

At StartingBlock, Chandra Miller Fienen welcomes a community of entrepreneurs with encouragement, flexibility, and bagels!

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Open less than four months, StartingBlock Madison is a shining beacon to entrepreneurship, and Chandra Miller Fienen, director of operations and programs, is leading the charge. “I always knew I wanted to work with entrepreneurs,” she states, acknowledging that there’s plenty on her plate as the nonprofit works to develop some of the community’s brightest — and possibly future — business stars.

Miller Fienen graduated from Monona Grove High School before heading off to earn a double major in political science and law and society from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She spent two years in Japan teaching English in a small town north of Nagasaki. Eventually her fiancé joined her, and they married there.

Opting to return to the States, the couple moved directly to San Francisco. “When you’re moving from Japan, you can move anywhere,” Miller Fienen says. She spent the next few years “getting smart” at the University of California Berkeley Law School while her husband pursued a Ph.D. at Stanford.

“I was practicing law out there but we were at a point where we had to pivot and decide whether I should become a partner in the firm and stay, or move back to the Midwest. We decided we’d be happier in Madison.”

So they packed up their belongings and headed east — on a tandem bike!

We spoke with Miller Fienen recently about that decision and how she arrived at StartingBlock.

In Montana, Miller Fienen and her husband on their transformative trek across the country.

IB: A tandem bike! How long did it take?
Miller Fienen:
54 days. We hopped on that bike, rode over the Golden Gate Bridge and kept going, stopping for ice cream and pie anytime we found it along the way. We arrived home on July 3, 2006.

IB: What led to that decision?
Miller Fienen:
We were making a fundamental lifestyle change, stepping away from the rat race of the Bay Area, and trying to rebalance our careers, family,
and what we wanted out of life. It required and deserved a transformational trip, and there’s nothing like 54 days with your spouse, connected via bicycle, to form that bond, which we still have.

IB: How did you get involved in the entrepreneurial sector here?
Miller Fienen:
I was appointed to a position with the Department of Commerce by then-Gov. Jim Doyle and working with entrepreneurs before deciding I wanted to be an entrepreneur. After joining an early-stage biotech startup based in Boston, I reconnected with the Madison entrepreneurial network and was introduced to Scott Resnick, who was working on an as-yet unknown pipedream of a project that would eventually become StartingBlock.

IB: Why do entrepreneurs seem to touch your soul?
Miller Fienen:
I love that core personality trait of not accepting the world as it is, looking for challenges, and coming up with better solutions. They take control of their fate and make their dreams come true. Who wouldn’t want to be around that?

IB: How are companies vetted?
Miller Fienen:
Fundamentally, StartingBlock targets scalable-growth companies. I like to say we’re tech focused, but not tech exclusive. So, a company might use technology toward their mission even if it’s not an IT-sector business. We see technology as both a vertical and horizontal sector. We’re looking for companies that have an idea, can scale up, and become a successful hybrid that will grow to 10, 20, or 50 employees and beyond.

IB: Are there rules for growth?
Miller Fienen:
Flexibility is really important to StartingBlock’s brand and ethos. We want to identify where we are, what our companies are doing, and what they need before setting up too many rules. The whole premise revolves around companies that churn and grow and keep the space innovative and fresh.

IB: How many companies have committed thus far?
Miller Fienen:
Fifteen that have reserved space. Another 10 to 15 companies have flexible access much like coworking space.

IB: How are they adjusting?
Miller Fienen:
They’re settling in and have been incredibly enthusiastic and proud to be part of StartingBlock’s first core. They’ve been patient, too, as we opened before construction was completed. It’s a true partnership, and my role is to be as responsive to their needs as possible.



IB: What’s your vision for StartingBlock?
Miller Fienen:
I want entrepreneurs and the local community to understand that this is a place for innovation and entrepreneurship, and when they visit, the place will be buzzing with activity and offer a diversity of company types. We’re rowing together and putting Madison on the national map.

IB: Tell us something about you that might surprise people.
Miller Fienen:
I am on a quest to make the world’s best Montreal-style wood-fired bagels, and I’ve been using the StartingBlock community as my test group! They get bagels in the morning, there’s coffee in the building, and happy hours in the evenings. StartingBlock entrepreneurs need tradition and a culture, so we try to find things that are different and bring people together.

IB: From whom do you get your inspiration?
Miller Fienen:
My parents. My mom was an entrepreneur and ran the It’s My Business program for the Community Action Coalition for low-income or disabled people, teaching them to use entrepreneurship to rise above poverty. My dad [Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona] is such a courageous, thoughtful politician.

StartingBlock Madison Inc.
821 E. Washington Ave., #200
Madison, WI 53703

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