Kristen Cooper: C-level execs fuel economy by supporting startup founders

Keywords Opinion

kristen cooperI recently attended a meeting with community leaders to prepare for the 2019 Tech Census by Powderkeg. The firm’s CEO, Matt Hunkler, explained that tech companies grow faster when C-level executives from large companies consistently get involved with their startup communities.

The 2018 Tech Census revealed that Indy’s C-suites are not nearly as engaged in the startup ecosystem as those in cities such as Cincinnati, Nashville, Denver and Boulder.

C-level executives in these cities are connecting founders to potential partners, clients and investors more rapidly and consistently than are Indy executives. CEOs are making phone calls to introduce founders to potential clients, partners and investors. Chief financial officers are reviewing and tweaking multiyear projections drafted by first-time entrepreneurs. Chief marketing officers are making connections to successful sales talent and marketing firms and advising on proven methodologies to acquire and retain customers.

Indianapolis could easily become more competitive on a national level if C-level executives became more actively engaged in the Indy startup community. One particularly opportune area for this engagement is with women-owned startups. If chief information and chief technology officers in Indy spent more time becoming acquainted with and mentoring female founders, Indianapolis could become a national model for a vibrant and more equitable startup environment.

If you are in a C-suite, there is ample opportunity to engage. Here are a few ways you can extend your network, identify investment opportunities and build relationships that can both help your company grow and benefit the startup community.

Attend events focused on startups.

If founders are serious about scaling a tech company, they eventually pitch at Powderkeg. If you want to meet Indy’s tech leaders, get a ticket to Techpoint’s Mira Awards. Community-focused startups head to PitchFeast to test out their pitches and compete for funding raised from that evening’s ticket sales. Agriculture and life sciences founders are regulars at Purdue Foundry events. Entrepreneurs who are serious about taking their product or service to market or scaling their company can be found developing their skill set at Startup Study Hall. (Crowds at PitchFeast and Startup Study Hall are consistently diverse and attract women.) First-time investors are learning and listening to pitches at Startup Investing 101 hosted by The Startup Ladies.

Your time is limited. If you want to maximize your opportunities at an event, call or email the event organizer ahead of time to say you plan to attend. The organizer can review the guest list and let you know whom you need to meet, and can also make a formal introduction at the event.

Invite founders to be your guests.

Universities and law firms do this well. If you are already going to a networking event, purchase an extra ticket or two and invite a founder who could benefit from attending. Spend time at the event introducing your guest to people in your network. If you’ve scheduled a more casual coffee or lunch to touch base with a client or colleague, bring a founder along to meet your contact.

Ask women about their companies at networking events.

Please let me explain why this needs to be said. One week ago, I was sitting at a dinner with about 50 of the most influential people in Indianapolis. Each person was invited because of extensive networks and knowledge about a particular topic.

Two very respected, accomplished and well-known men sat on either side of me. I initiated conversation with each of them. After I patiently listened to each share who he was, what he had accomplished, and his role with the initiative everyone was discussing at dinner, there was a natural pause in conversation. At this point, most people reciprocate and say something like, “Tell me about you.” That didn’t happen.

After a very pregnant pause, I asked each gentleman, “Would you like to know what I do?” In both cases, I was permitted a brief description of myself and my company.

In the midst of my second conversation, a very accomplished business owner came over to say hello. While the gentleman I was speaking with thought the CEO was coming over to connect with him, the visitor actually came over to compliment the work of The Startup Ladies. It took another CEO to validate that I was a woman worth listening to. The dynamic of our conversation changed immediately and dramatically in my favor.

This experience was very frustrating and happens to women all the time. It’s time for men to initiate professional and productive conversations with women at every event.

We need the residents of Indy’s C-suites to take an interest in our growing startup community, attend relevant startup events, engage in meaningful conversations, and mentor first-time founders. Most important, we need the city’s biggest breadwinners to invest in startup ventures so founders can hire talent and begin scaling.

If we’re going to be competitive on a national level, we need our C-suites to come down from the ivory towers and play (without ego) in the startup sandbox.•

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Cooper is the founder and CEO of The Startup Ladies.

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