Lighthouses and force fields are perhaps unexpected references at a panel discussion about startup communities.
But both made appearances at Tuesday evening’s Cap Times Talk, “What Madison does well — and could do better — for startups.”
The hour-long panel, held at downtown coworking hub 100state, covered a variety of topics, from the identity of Madison’s startup scene to its relationship with government, but discussions of inclusiveness and retention of talent dominated the conversation.
For the panel, “inclusiveness” meant drawing minorities into the Madison startup scene, as well as reaching out to other entrepreneurship communities in the state.
“There are many people in this community who aren’t in the ecosystem now,” said Amy Gannon, co-founder of The Doyenne Group, a local entrepreneurship organization that focuses on supporting women-run businesses. “There are plenty of potential ideas and people that need to be supported.”
Madison, like many other startup communities, has been called out for its lack of gender and racial diversity.
“I do think, the more inclusive we are, the better we are as a community,” agreed Willie Hakizimana, founder of Export Abroad, a startup currently operating out of 100state.
The key to fostering an inclusive culture, panelists agreed, is to encourage cross-programming and interaction between Madison industries, institutions and startup organizations, like 100state and the as-yet-unopened Starting Block.
Troy Vosseller, founder of gener8tor, a Madison and Milwaukee-based incubator, added that creating “lighthouses” in the community — obvious places for entrepreneurs to go for resources, including networking, mentorship and professional services — is critical to engaging diverse audiences.
“I think that allows outsiders to better connect with the ecosystem,” Vosseller said.
Panelists also pointed out that collaboration between Madison and other entrepreneurial hubs in Wisconsin would benefit all.
“I think sometimes it comes down to being thought of as a zero sum game,” said Eric Martell, chief information officer at EatStreet, a Madison company that helps restaurants set up online ordering and delivery systems. “With over half of the nation’s venture capital going out to Silicon Valley, it’s not worth it to think about how we can get people to move from Green Bay to Madison, it’s more important to think about how we can build awesome stuff together as a state.”
Panelists called out the Madison startup community’s relationship with the Milwaukee startup scene in particular.
“There’s not a lot of interaction, I think there’s a perception by both communities that the other is farther away than it is, or less accessible than it is,” said Vosseller.
“If we could get rid of the force field in Lake Mills — supposedly that’s where it is — I think we could overcome that challenge,” he joked.
Panelists also spoke about the importance of retaining entrepreneurial talent, both potential startup founders and high-impact employees, in Madison.
Maurice Cheeks, Madison alder and vice president of business development at MIOsoft, a Madison tech company, said a lack of diversity in the community negatively effects employee retention.
“It is difficult, sometimes, for people of color to move here and stay here,” Cheeks said. “If you can’t find your ‘tribe,’ if it’s difficult to connect, that becomes a retainment challenge.”
Retaining more University of Wisconsin-Madison students after graduation, as well as twentysomething Epic employees who may be ready to move on, is another goal, according to Greg St. Fort, executive director of 100state.
“This is one of the best schools in the world — how do you retain that talent?” he asked.
Martell, who launched EatStreet when he was a student at UW-Madison, agreed that students could be an excellent source of creative and diverse talent.
Though challenges were acknowledged, the tone of the panel was upbeat, and reflected positively on the startup community’s growth in recent years.
“We’re still pretty new at this,” said Kevin Little, vice president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, pointing out that neither 100state or gener8tor, both represented on the panel, existed five years ago.
“Imagine what five years from now could possibly look like,” he said.