Rise of the Rest Summit – an inspiring trip

Last week I had the pleasure (honor) of spending a couple days in Washington, D.C. with 129 other startup ecosystem builders from across the country. Steve Case and his team at Revolution have a thesis that too much attention/investment is going to startup ecosystems on either coast and a great swath of the country is being ignored. They refer to the movement as the Rise of the Rest and over the past three years have visited over 25 cities via roadtrip – hopping from town to town in a big, tricked-out tour bus. Cincinnati was one of the first stops in 2014 and it was a watershed moment not just for me personally, but also the burgeoning StartupCincy ecosystem that was just beginning to take shape.

Significant Milestone for Cintrifuse and StartupCincy

In the course of our work at Cintrifuse, there are times when you feel like you’re isolated; like no one can relate to the purpose or value of your work.

First of all, we’re working with startups, which is already a narrow subset of the business world. Then, you add in that we’re not exactly located in an historic tech hotbed like San Jose or Austin – it can feel like you’re on an island. Last week, I felt completely different: it was a ballroom FULL of islands and it was magnificent! These were professional people spread throughout the country doing THE EXACT SAME THING I’M DOING. Working with dynamic leaders, visionary executives and fresh talent who have a healthy disrespect for the status quo. SteveCase copy

Back when Case and crew (including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker) made their way to the Queen City, StartupCincy wasn’t quite a thing and Cintrifuse was sequestered in a corner of Cincinnati’s central business district, decidedly unhip and lightyears away from our current home of Union Hall.

Looking back now, what they’ve done (Revolution) is to build a network across the country of like-minded builders – a community of communities – who now can lean on each other, stay encouraged and fight the good fight together. And at the Summit we all jumped in ready from the word ‘go:’ no icebreakers needed.

Key Learnings

Over the course of a jam-packed 36 hours, we were immersed in content. A fireside chat with JD Vance (recent Revolution partner, author of Hillbilly Elegy and Middletown, Ohio native) and Steve kicked things off and sparked an impromptu 10 minute #StartupCincy love fest. It’s been my goal to get Steve (and now JD) back to town to kick off our first StartupWeek this October – this conversation just concentrated my reserve.

The agenda was stuffed with city-specific case studies to panels of journalists to a trip to Capitol Hill. There was even a harrowing bus ride through the narrow streets of Georgetown (not recommended) to visit the folks at Halcyon House (recommended). Herewith are three highlights that stuck with me.

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1 – Policy leaders ARE listening and want to do their part to encourage entrepreneurialism (and subsequent investment). During the Summit, we heard from members of congress on both sides of the aisle and from all parts of the country – not just tech focal points. There was a long line of us weaving through security at the Russell Building and one employee asked as she was going home, “Are you all entrepreneurs? Great! Because this country needs you!” Truly, innovation has to be a bi-partisan effort. Probably the best quote of the session was from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), “Despite our current political dysfunction, it’s never a good idea to bet against America.”

2 – Programming, Programming, Programming – from pitch events to speaker series to workshops to fireside chats, getting the community together is important to ROTR cities – and easier to do than in larger ecosystems. While Silicon Valley probably doesn’t have a Slack channel like we do in StartupCincy, it’s our forum to discuss hackathon themes, air general gripes and connect people to each other. No more place is this evident than at 1871. Howard Tullman’s presentation was impressive and not just in his clever way of bending the five slide rule. Sure they’re blessed with space (175,000 ft2!), but they’ve got a special sauce brewing in Chicagoland and it’s my goal to unabashedly imitate their playbook.

3 – Diversity is an advantage to ROTR cities. While coastal ecosystems famously (infamously?) lack diversity, those of us outside of those cities have learned to harness our individuality. In fact, you’ll see much greater strides as far as diversity and inclusion in cities like Cincinnati where things tend to mobilize faster (than the coasts). Sure, those regions may have larger populations, but we’re able to address issues with a SEAL Team Six approach.

In the past month – in fact over the course of just 7 days – two of our prominent startup founders were appointed by Governor Kasich to the Boards of Trustees of major universities: Rodney Williams (CEO, LISNR), University of Cincinnati, and Rod Robinson (CEO, ConnXus), Miami University. Not only does this speak to the respect given to entrepreneurs locally, but both gentlemen are African-American. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but we’re making tremendous strides.

From Kathryn Finney (Digital Undivided) at the Summit, ‘You can’t solve a problem you can’t quantify.’ She drove home the point about female startup founders (specifically black females) and how we as a group must strive to be more inclusive.

I have two favorite Steve Case sayings.

The first: If you want to go fast – go alone. If you want to go far – go together.

The second has to do with the fact that, our country was once a startup; an idea itself built by entrepreneurs. Now it’s the leader of the world because it has the leading economy. We need to make sure we’re investing in entrepreneurs all across the country and investing in startups.

IMHO, when you combine these two quotes you get the gist of the Rise of the Rest movement – let’s lift up the country by working together and focusing on supporting entrepreneurs. So a big thanks to Anna Mason, Steve Case and the rest of the Revolution crew for a job well done.

The Summit was inspirational. It’s now on me (us) and the rest of the ROTR cities to do our part and take the ball from here.

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