Startup haven Speak Easy taps new executive director

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The Speak Easy, a members-only collaboration space for entrepreneurs, has tapped Indianapolis entrepreneur Danielle McDowell as its next executive director, the not-for-profit announced Tuesday.

McDowell, 31, succeeds Denver Hutt, 28, who announced in May that she was stepping down after helming the organization since its founding in February 2012. McDowell co-founded a cosmetology reviews site in 2011, underwent a major pivot in spring 2013, and sold the business to industry heavyweight Sally Beauty Holdings in summer 2013.

Danielle McDowell mugDanielle McDowell

The Broad Ripple resident beat out several dozen applicants, Hutt said, and started the new position Tuesday.

"I think Danielle will be fantastic," Hutt said. "She brings the experience of founding a company and later exiting that company to her role at The Speak Easy, where she will lead a community of others looking to follow on that same path."

Hutt will help with the transition this week, she said, and start a new job Aug. 31 as economic and community development liaison at the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors, or MIBOR.

McDowell steps in as The Speak Easy works to appeal to all entrepreneurs, not just those in the technology space. Located south of Broad Ripple at 5255 Winthrop Ave., the organization formally changed its mission in spring 2014, effectively opening the door to brewers, designers, artisans and more.

In a memo to The Speak Easy's roughly 250 members Tuesday, McDowell said she was thrilled to take on the new role and that entrepreneurs in Indianapolis have several attributes that help the community thrive. But she also noted that the ecosystem here needs "more startup businesses, more resources, more innovation, and more funding."

"Indianapolis is known for a lot of things; my goal is to help put Indiana and Indianapolis on the map as an innovative state to start a business," she said in the note.

In a phone interview, McDowell said she's been a Speak Easy member since its inception, using its resources for her reviews company The company transitioned to a hair products e-commerce firm called Jada Beauty (later Loxa Beauty) in March 2013, even at the objection of some investors. Sally Beauty Holdings acquired Jada Beauty that August.

McDowell left Sally Beauty in February with no specific plans, ultimately falling into business advising. She said she kept seeing similar challenges in the startups she aided, from finding resources and help with accounting to struggling to communicate the upside for investors during pitch sessions.

"There has to be a more effective platform for me to get this information out," McDowell said about her business advice. "So when I saw The Speak Easy job [become available], it was an 'Aha' moment."

McDowell was born in Culver, an Indiana lake town about 35 miles south of South Bend. Her grandfather and father were entrepreneurs, and she spent her early teens helping with marketing and pricing at her father's movie theater business.

She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2006 with a bachelor's of business administration in marketing. Her first job out of college was with the Indiana Pacers, selling season-ticket packages to mostly businesses.

Sales wasn't her thing, so she jumped ship that same year to ChaCha, a Q&A search startup launched by Indiana tech guru Scott Jones in 2005. She was a marketing communications manager there, and her duties included recruiting ChaCha's contractor "guides" and presenting to venture capitalists from around the country.

McDowell left ChaCha in 2009 and worked for a digital marketing company and a website development firm before co-founding in July 2011.

McDowell has a husband and two children, as well as one sibling, a brother who works for in Indianapolis. She said she hopes to further local success by collaborating with other similarly focused organizations and by "igniting and inspiring and nurturing the companies and professionals at The Speak Easy." 

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