tej dhawan's random musings

Month: April 2018

The Venture Educationalist

Why do capitalists create scholarships?
I sat at my alma mater’s annual Scholarship dinner the other night. Hundreds of diners consisting of professors, students, parents, and donors enjoyed performances, listened to speeches, and conversed around their tables. Statements from the keynote triggered a thought and I drafted this post by typing in the title and the lede right at the dinner table.
Pi515 is a non-profit based in Des Moines, Iowa and run passionately by Nancy Mwirotsi. It seeks to deliver computer science education to children whose families sought refuge in our community. A remarkable lift for a vulnerable population in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness through education. The startup community in Des Moines recently connected to this non-profit through the leadership of Brad Dwyer and Ben Milne – technologists, investors, and community leaders who found reason to support Pi515’s mission and put their money and networks behind it. WHY?
Next Level Ventures, is a Des Moines-based venture capital firm that invests solely in Iowa-based companies. Its managing partner, Craig Ibsen is seeking to build a non-profit that would democratize computer-science education across the state while our academic infrastructure moves at its velocity to create the discipline. A state like Iowa increasingly depends on a shrinking workforce as it seeks to retain its role in feeding the nation through ideas and food and cannot wait for the academic deliberation cycle to find and deploy solutions.
Brad Feld, managing partner of globally respected Foundry Group and its many ventures, routinely invests in education through his personal and professional networks, including a personal match he and his wife Amy provided to Pi515 during a conferecne in Des Moines. His leadership in NCWIT (National Center for Women in Technology), Defy Ventures (inmate education), and more are representative of support for education at diverse intersections.
Fred Wilson of and Union Square Ventures routinely speaks about, invests in companies focused on, and invests directly in education focused on the sciences.
Back to Central College, the keynote speaker and outgoing chair of our Board of Trustees, Lanny Little, spoke of being able to attend college, create a remarkable banking and finance career spanning decades, endow his own scholarships for future generations of students. He was able to attend purely due to a scholarship funded by the family behind Rolscreen Corporation (now Pella Corporation of Pella windows). Why did a family focused on growing a global business in a tiny midwestern town choose to invest in a kid from Phoenix, AZ?
Lanny spoke about venture capitalists who invest in a different type of growth outcomes. Their outcomes aren’t as focused on a capital return directly to themselves; rather they focus on the outcomes to society through enabling education and viable careers for those who couldn’t otherwise afford a chance toward upward mobility. This mobility is clearly visible in the city of Pella where family philanthropy from Pella Corporation, Vermeer Manufacturing and other corporate partners has allowed several generations to educate those who often remain within the community thus ensuring its economic stability.
Similar investments are visible in the angel investor communities. Though created for capitalistic intent, many angel investments seek to grow businesses through a form of ‘for-profit philanthropy”, one referred to in this Brad Feld’s post circa 2006.
I am glad there remain altruistic and capitalistic reasons for investment in education, especially for those who are increasingly distant from it due to cost and social friction. I am grateful to the person(s) who chose to endow a scholarship that enabled me to attend college. And I am honored to know this breed of Venture Educationalists – capitalistic investors like Brad Dwyer, Ben Milne, Craig Ibsen, Brad Feld and others enabling K-12, college, vocational and non-traditional education.

As the community evolves, challenges persist

I wrote this guest post for Clay & Milk after a wildly successful community conversation (Monetery) hosted by Dwolla. The original article is linked here and save in my blog for archival.
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Thank you Ben Milne for rebooting the conversation about our startup community during Monetery on March 20, your Dwolla team shined as a cohesive cohort of individuals.
I fondly remember from your launch events during the nascent days of Iowa’s startup community.
These are my reflections as an ‘aging’ member of Iowa’s startup community:
Brad Feld spoke for the first time in Iowa as a guest of Thinc Iowa conference in 2012. On the heels of Big Omaha and produced by its parent company—Silicon Prairie News—Thinc brought speakers from near and far. The event engaged about 400 people as attendees and sponsors observed one of the first startup conferences in Des Moines.
As a partner in now-defunct Startup City Des Moines, I sat and listened intently to messages from startup founders and advocates. Brad spoke from the heart about the newly introduced topic of Startup Communities, his eponymous book, and a nifty video produced by Kauffman Foundation. He followed up the conference talk with a fireside chat at Startup City with a couple dozen individuals from the community.
Fast forward to Monetery when Brad returned as one of the panelists to a Des Moines stage. As I sat in the back of the room once again listening to the same engaging Brad—whose blog I follow regularly—I couldn’t help but say to myself:

Things change yet they remain the same.

Des Moines’ startup community has grown significantly over the past six years. We have received an undeserved (in my opinion) amount of accolades and recognition, attention reminiscent of a future we want rather than a future we’ve developed.
Yet have risen, from the rubble of defunct incubators (StartupCity) or startups of 2012 (Pikuzone, Sharewhere, Real Estate Fan Pages, Mens Style Lab) such amazing entities as Global Insurance Accelerator, Funnelwise, Gravitate, Gain Compliance, Clinicnote and more. Geoff Wood remains the tireless advocate for the city’s startups and lone rangers; Mike Colwell has even more startups seeking his sage advice.
We have made amazing strides in connecting members of our corporate communities through these accelerators and brought several hundred (yes, several hundred) mentors who regularly volunteer their time and talent to grow startups. These have funded, bought the startups’ products and adopted the agile and nimble mindsets that are consistent with the startup lifestyle. Our chambers of commerce are no stranger to startup conversations and its leadership remains present, engaged and connected to new and established companies.
Des Moines may be a rare community whose chamber’s CEO is also an advocate for startups, invested in his own family’s startup (Homeditty) and knows the difference between startup (correct) and start-up (incorrect).
What hasn’t changed is the newcomer’s hunger for information. No matter the number of books, blogs, videos, guides and tweets, the new entrants to the startup community are seeking that early meetup, the startup weekend and the reassurance that there is funding for those who are sweating and bleeding on their way to success. There remains the same ‘failure rate’ from which new startups MUST be born.
The government is neither an ally nor an enemy – simply a feeder and supporter amongst many.
What we need is a continued conversation about these topics. Topics that will return to the Des Moines stage on April 5 with AccelerateDSM and then again in September with the Midwest Angel Syndicate’s meeting of angel and early-stage investors. Conversations that happen at Gravitate’s Full-Time Founders meetup. Conversations that need to happen at more venues, without relying upon Ben’s generosity (despite knowing that if he’s in town, he’ll likely show up and contribute!)
I’ve taken away the following from this recent conversation:

  1. When Drive Capital talks about funding 10 companies out of 3,500 applicants – they are exposing a very meaningful statistic – they funded 0.29 percent of the applicants. Startups need to do a LOT more to make their case for someone’s investment.
  2. Diversity remains a catalyst toward success. We, like a majority of the country, have a long ways to go to add this catalyst in startups, venture firms, cities, communities and teams.
  3. Awesome ideas, like Pi515, can starve to a quiet death without friends and allies. Kudos to Ben Milne and Brad Dwyer—who created a fundraiser last year for Pi515—for stepping up to the plate and writing a check that injected life into Nancy’s dream.
  4. We clamored for and got corporate partnerships. Now, the startups must step up, identify, and help solve the problems our corporate partners want solved.
  5. Let’s quit asking for reduced government regulation. If California can birth and incubate startups in one of the country’s most regressive entrepreneurial regulatory environments, regulation is a red herring.

Thanks, Ben, and the Dwolla team for the reawakening.

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