Rachel Neill hasn't always been a startup junkie. The health tech guru landed her first job in the criminal justice field, working as a research analyst with the National Council on Crime & Delinquency.
But since then, Neill has grown into a local entrepreneurial leader.
For the past four years, she has served as a senior officer with Nordic, a health care consulting company focused on Epic Systems' software.
Neill also organizes 1 Million Cups, a weekly entrepreneurship meetup. Every Wednesday morning, business and nonprofit leaders give 15-minute presentations on their startup or project at the downtown Madison Public Library's third floor. Neill has been at nearly every one of the events over the past two years, making introductions, kicking off discussions and directing people toward the free coffee.
Last week, the coworking group and startup hub 100state announced that Neill would be joining its board of directors.
And on top of that, Neill has recently shaken things up by leaving Nordic to launch her own startup, a staffing agency for health tech companies. She sees the new Carex Consulting Group as an opportunity to help Madison's startup community thrive.
Call me crazy, but it seems you're really into startups. Why?
First of all, it helps drive economic growth here, right? If we get really great companies, and have investors that are going to pour money into companies in the area, that's great for the community.
The other part of it is, I was a teen mom. I had a kid when I was 16, and I was set up to not really succeed in life, or have many options. I barely got a high school degree. But I was fortunate enough to get into an Ivy League school. I graduated with honors, and got a full ride to law school.
But there's a lot of people that don't have that opportunity. And because of whatever their life circumstances are, they're not able to become productive citizens because of requirements like a bachelor's degree to get an entry-level role.
I see startups as an alternative to college, an alternative path to people who want economic stability.
What's the point of an event like 1 Million Cups?
The startup community is somewhat segregated from the rest of the community. What we really hoped to do, our original mission, was to bring more diversity into the tech scene. We wanted to see more women, more minorities or people of color.
I would walk into rooms, especially in startup events, and I would be the only woman in the room. And I wanted to see that change.
First, I started 1 Million Cups, saying, "Hey, here's a woman who's leading, and maybe more women will come out." Then I started Carex, and we're a female- and minority-owned company. I want to use that to say, "Hey, you can go do this. You don't have to be an old white man."
With respect to 1 Million Cups, do you think you're achieving that goal of creating a more diverse startup community?
I think we have a good number of audience members that come out who are female, who are getting plugged into those startups. And we also have a good number of female presenters. I don't think as many as we would like, but we have seen our diversity increasing.
It strikes me that compared to other pitching events, 1 Million Cups has a very friendly, supportive atmosphere. How intentional is that?
We describe it as a nice "Shark Tank." We try to intentionally set the tone. We end every conversation with the question, "How can we as a community help you?" We ask that to every single presenter.
We intentionally set it up too so that the audience feels comfortable coming. Anyone who reaches out to me, I'll say, "I will meet you at the door if it's your first time coming." Because we want new people to come to 1 Million Cups, and to see what our startup scene has to offer.
What's your take on the Kauffman Foundation ranking Wisconsin last in the nation in entrepreneurial activity?
I think Madison's different than the rest of the state. I think when people think about the state being dead last, I'm sure there are communities that don't have startup hubs right now. Green Bay's starting to get involved, along with the Fox Valley. But there are places I haven't been to up north where I'd be shocked to find that kind of entrepreneurial activity, and I'd imagine that weighs into the report.
To put a positive spin on it, we have nowhere to go but up. It's a chance for the community to pull together and work with other communities to figure out, how do we move up on this list?
One thing is, how do we get Milwaukee and Madison to better connect? Growing up on the coast, an hour-and-a-half commute was a lot people's daily commute. It wasn't a big deal. It's very interesting here, talking to people in Milwaukee and Madison — they're like, "An hour-and-a-half? It's so far."
As a Nordic leader, you have had a unique perspective on how Epic Systems affects the startup community. How would you describe the role it plays?
Epic brings in talent from across the world. Their hiring practices are pretty regimented. If you interview at Epic, they're only taking the top 1 percent of applicants. It's almost like you're applying to a top-tier college again. And so, they bring diverse perspectives here. They give the people that they hire a chance to really learn a lot in a short amount of time.
They have a high turnover rate, so people end up burning out there fairly quickly, and they're looking for their next thing. They might not have family obligations yet, or are tied to having to work in a corporate environment right away, so it gives them a chance to explore. They also have the one-year noncompete, so it gives them a good chance to plug into a place like 100state or startup ventures.
A lot of those people end up going off and trying to solve problems, additional problems, and create spinoffs. So then you have Healthfinch, Moxie, Bluetree, Redox — spinoffs from people who were at Epic. I think that they have a huge impact.
What do you make of the idea that Wisconsin has a risk-averse culture?
I think the recession opened people up a little bit to more risk, because it took away the safety net. As we're coming out of the recession, the unemployment rate in Madison is 2.6 percent. Nationwide, it's 4.6 percent. It's an employee market. People are going to be able to hopefully spend more money, be open to a little bit more risk, and as some of these startups get bigger and they succeed, their stories help people believe in the power of joining something that's really cool and meaningful.
So tell me about this new thing you're doing. What is Carex all about?
We are a female and minority-owned company. It's myself and my two co-founders. We want to help keep talent in Madison. We want to help these startups grow their talent base and become successful. And we also really want to help plug people into open opportunities as the talent market becomes more competitive.
We find that a lot of times, when people are leaving Epic, one of the reasons they leave Madison is, they've been in a bubble. They don't really know what's happening in our community. They work a lot of hours, so they're not really plugged into anyone else outside of Epic. And a lot of them haven't had other jobs. So they don't know if they're marketable. They don't know what exists here.
We look to be that bridge to say, "Hey, we can tell you what companies would really value and appreciate your skill set. We can find a company that wouldn't conflict with your non-compete, so you can stay employed. And we can plug you into the Madison community." And our hope is that people then don't just say, "Well, I left Epic, so I'm just going to go back to Texas." We want to keep the innovation here.