August 15, 2016

Q&A with Loren Ridenger: Changing the face of beauty

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By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Loren Ridinger has been changing the face of the beauty business as well as internet shopping for more than 20 years, and the entrepreneur and senior executive has no plans to slow down. “It’s not in my blood,” she says.

With humble beginnings working out of their rental home’s garage at the time, she and her husband, JR, co-founded internet retailing giant Market America in 1992, in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the company is still headquartered. Earlier this month, the company held one of its twice yearly empowerment conferences there, hosting 25,000 people, and she gave the opening speech. Today, the Ridingers live in Miami Beach, and each February, the Market America World Conference takes over AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, bringing about 25,000 people to town.

Market America | Shop.com has generated more than $5.5 billion in accumulated retail sales and individuals have earned more than $2.9 billion in commissions and retail profits, the company said. In addition to the U.S., the company operates in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Mexico and Spain.

Ridinger also founded the award-winning cosmetics line Motives, her first line. She also created the solution-oriented personal care line Fixx and the jewelry collection Loren Jewels. Her daughter Amber is also an entrepreneur, having created DNA Miracles, a line of body and wellness products designed for babies, children and expectant mothers. Loren speaks about entrepreneurship regularly and has mentored young entrepreneurs. Last year, she partnered with Miami Beach startup Flat Out of Heels to create a line of shoes for the young fashion company.

Active on social media, Ridinger blogs regularly on www.LorensWorld.com, named one of Forbes’ Top 100 websites for women, and her fashion blog, www.MyFashionCents.com, often speaking about inspiration and women’s empowerment. “I use my voice wherever I can to make a difference,” she says. “The message cannot be heard enough. Sometimes thousands of people have to read for one of them to get it, but if one of them gets it, that’s all that matters, right?”

Loren Ridinger, senior executive vice president of Market America, serial entrepreneur, fashionista, mentor, mom and grandmother with a third grandchild on the way, surrounds herself with successful people and those who want to be. She calls Jennifer Lopez and Eva Longoria good friends. Still, Ridinger is a self-described private person, who puts socializing at the bottom of her priority list as she manages her many ventures and adventures.

She took time out this month to share her views about Market America, entrepreneurship, what’s next and the importance of knowing your “why.” Here are excerpts of that conversation.

Continue reading "Q&A with Loren Ridenger: Changing the face of beauty" »

June 05, 2016

Q&A with EcoTech Visions’ Pandwe Gibson: Going green from ground up

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EcoTech Visions team, from left: Tamara Wendt, director of sales and manufacturing, Pandwe Gibson, CEO, executive director and Justin Knight, director of marketing, at their new facility, 670 NW 113th St. in Miami, for green manufacturing companies that is still under construction. PEDRO PORTAL 

 

When Pandwe Gibson set out to build EcoTech Visions, an incubator for green manufacturing businesses, she had no team, no funding and no space. Three years ago it was only a big vision that lived on her iPad, which she shared with anyone she could get to listen.

What was the vision? EcoTech would help “ecopreneurs” in its incubator launch and grow, including connecting them with grants and other resources. EcoTech would also hold programming such as coding courses, green internship programs and fellowships to help prepare the workforce in underserved communities to transition from blue collar to “green collar” jobs.

Gibson wasted no time bringing her big idea to life.

By the end of 2014, and after knocking on many doors and winning initial Miami-Dade County and Community Redevelopment Agency funding, Gibson moved EcoTech into its first location, a small space west of Interstate 95 with communal office space and a community garden, and with a handful of incubator companies she had already begun working with. Although the building had no space for manufacturing, a key goal of Gibson’s, it served as a minimal viable product. A few months later, EcoTech secured some additional office and classroom space in another Liberty City building, which allowed the company to expand its programming. The EcoTech team began forming, and EcoTech began attracting more green companies.

Last month, EcoTech Visions began partially moving into its new Miami headquarters space it leased to own at 670 NW 113th St., in the newly designated “green corridor.” Upon buildout, plans call for the building to provide 24,000 to 25,000 square feet of multilevel co-working space, offices, event space, maker space and manufacturing facilities. EcoTech will also use its Liberty City space during buildout.

Today, 26 companies are members of EcoTech (ecotechvisions.com), and the EcoTech team now numbers seven.

EcoTech Visions recently announced the launch of Digital Citizen, a technology boot camp that aims to provide real-world technology programs and entrepreneurship training to local underserved communities, funded by $200,000 from the Knight Foundation. The first cohort will begin June 20 and will run for eight weeks in the evenings at D.A. Dorsey Technical College in Liberty City. Applications for the boot camp are being accepted at etvfoundation.org/digitalcitizen.

“This program is desperately needed not only to fill the tech staffing gap but also to combat the economic hardships and growing income gap in inner-city Miami,” Gibson, CEO "of EcoTech, said in announcing the launch and funding. “We all succeed when the best and most diverse solutions are brought to the table.”

Since its founding, EcoTech has created 15 new jobs and more than 300 students graduated from EcoTech Visions workshops and certification programs, Gibson said. It has secured $10,000 start"up prototyping grants for nine incubator companies and assisted in securing seed loans for three of its ecopreneurs, Gibson said. It was named 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Beacon Council, among other honors.

By the end of the year, Gibson hopes to see buildout of its headquarters get under way and be completed in one year. Plans include an urban vertical garden across the entire front of the warehouse-style building, space for creating prototypes and light manufacturing as well as co-working and a rooftop cafe.

Appropriately, the building is planned to be entirely powered by solar energy.

“Our goal is to have a net-zero-energy building,” said Tamara Wendt, EcoTech’s director of sales and manufacturing, explaining that there is currently only one other much smaller net-zero building in Miami. “Presently, we have on-site office space and will be holding events here. We expect to have our injection-molding equipment installed by early July and will move into production, warehousing and fulfillment.”

The Miami Herald toured the new EcoTech location last month and sat down with Pandwe Gibson to discuss EcoTech Visions and what’s ahead for the company.

Q: What’s your mission for EcoTech?

A: Our mission is to create opportunities for businesses to grow and to bring green manufacturing jobs to Miami.

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: In the next two years, to have at least five breakout companies. That sounds very ambitious, doesn’t it? But we already have some companies pursuing multimillion-dollar contracts, and when we start seeing the production actually occurring from here, that is very exciting.

The first year [in this building], we will be in massive construction, but we are starting with injection molding and I think we can make a lot of progress in the beginning with that one vertical. We provide the equipment, and there are a lot of businesses that have different molds and prototypes we can help. We plan to have two different machines.

Q: How are you funding all this?

A: We have private funding and public funding. We just completed a seed round of half a million dollars. We have public funding from Miami-Dade County and the CRA totaling about half a million and are pursuing more grants from the county. We recently found out we received a grant from the Knight Foundation. It’s a combination.

Q: Is EcoTech a for-profit or a nonprofit?

A: We have two arms. The for-profit is the maker space, the physical space that you are in, and the services associated with the production equipment. … The nonprofit really focuses on helping to facilitate training, the programs we administer.

Some of those programs are coding education boot camps and a green manufacturing internship program. These programs help prepare the community and workforce for careers in green manufacturing.

Q: Tell me about a few of your incubator companies.

A: Geeks Global is an internet services provider and sustainability-focused technology consultant. Darrell Russell and his team help greenify businesses by using technology like LED lighting, windmill-powered Wi-Fi towers and other innovations. Make The Homeless Smile Miami is an organization started and led by powerhouse community activist Valencia Gunder. They transition homeless Miami residents off the streets and into self-sustained lives. HBCNS LLC, run by Dawn Davis, is a distributor of water-based, biodegradable, protective coatings including the nation’s only non-slip coating. It’s main product is called Strong Seal. (All three entrepreneurs are pictured below with Gibson)

Earthware, led by Michael Caballero, is a producer of compostable cutlery, cups and containers for a better world. The company is committed to the restoration and preservation of our planet by replacing landfill-destined products with 100 percent compostable, tree-free products.

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Q: What do you do for member companies?

A: You can do prototyping here, you can have office space here, you can hold events here, you can run your company here, prototyping and distribution — it’s a one-stop shop and it is sorely needed in Miami.

Q: Explain what the “green corridor” designation is and what it can do for the neighborhood where EcoTech is?

A: The Green Corridor was created by proclamation by the Miami-Dade County Commission and stretches along Northwest Seventh Avenue from 79th Street to 119th Street. It is the first green corridor of its kind in the United States created with the purpose of establishing a citywide, countywide, statewide and regional hub of sustainable and environmentally friendly businesses. The Green Corridor and EcoTech Visions promote economic opportunity for the community where they sit and far beyond.

Q: Where do you see EcoTech in five years?

A: In five years, we want to start multiplying. We want to be in other communities, such as Los Angeles. When you look at the two markets, Miami and L.A., there are a lot of similarities. We are already forging relationships there. California is probably the largest green-tech community in the country. Connecting the two will help infuse vitality and innovation into Miami and help move us as a country into a really great space in green technology.

Q: What is your vision for the vertical garden covering the front of the building?

A: Ted Caplow, of CappSci and Miami Science Barge, is designing a game-changing vertical farm based on work by his company, BrightFarms Inc., which creates hydroponic farms for Whole Foods amongst other clients. The vertical farm will be a hydroponic system to grow organic produce inside a glass and screened-in enclosure on the façade of EcoTech Visions’ new building located at 670 NW 113th St. Installation and ongoing maintenance and production will be managed by Urban Green Works working with marginalized resources including women recently exiting incarceration. In addition, an aquaponics system will be incorporated by Fruit of Life Organics, one of our incubator companies, to grow organic fish and produce in one system that recreates the natural water cycle.

Q: There are even plans for a rooftop café?

A: Yes, and we will serve food from our vertical garden.

Q: What’s next for EcoTech?

A: We’re taking applications to fill out our pipeline of companies, educating people on the opportunities in green technology, and educating entrepreneurs on what is available in terms of funding so they can succeed by being clean and green.

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

Read more entrepreneurship Q&As on this blog by going to the Q&A category.

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from left, EcoTech Visions'  staff Carlos Vazquez, Kenyona Pierre, Marisabel Lavastida, CEO Pandwe Gibson, Tamara Wendt and Justin Knight, at their new facility, 670 NW 113th St. in Miami, under construction. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com



 

March 04, 2016

Q&A with Melissa Krinzman: Homegrown venture fund gets running start

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By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

A number of early-stage investors are just beginning to dip their toes in the Miami startup market, meeting entrepreneurs and mulling over a few deals. But in just two years, one fund jumped right in and created quite a splash.

Already one of the most active early-stage funds operating in South Florida, Krillion Ventures is a $50 million homegrown venture fund founded by two longtime Miami investor/entrepreneurs. Jeffrey Miller is a prominent South Florida business and civic leader. He has been an active investor for nearly 30 years, with most of his holdings in the real estate, banking and energy sectors. Entrepreneurship is in the Miller DNA: His father, Leonard Miller, took Lennar public; today it is a Fortune 500 company and one of the nation’s leading homebuilders. Melissa Krinzman has a 20-year history of launching, growing and advising private companies and nonprofit organizations. She has been active in the entrepreneurship community as a speaker on capital raising and a judge of business plan competitions across the country, including the Miami Herald’s Business Plan Challenge.

“Krillion was born out of a desire to make South Florida an even better place to live and work,” Krinzman said. She met Miller more than four years ago through the Ransom Everglades School: He was chairman of the board of trustees, she was on the alumni board. “We were both Miami natives, career entrepreneurs, had experience growing businesses as well as nonprofit organizations, and shared a common vision about the importance of access to quality education for all children,” she said.

After many discussions about the imminent growth of South Florida’s tech sector and the corresponding need for active “hometown” early stage venture funds to support these nascent companies, they joined forces in January 2014 as managing partners to launch Krillion Ventures (www.krillionventures.com). They picked up the pace significantly in 2015 and closed the year with a total of 17 investments, including an equity crowdfunding platform for startups, an electric scooter-sharing company and a startup aiming to make it easier for consumers and businesses to use digital currencies.

Today, the firm actively invests in financial services, transportation, logistics, real estate and healthcare startups, and has developed a “Miami First” strategy. Eight of its 17 investments are from South Florida.

“We believe that local investors have an exciting opportunity as well as a responsibility to invest in and support South Florida’s next wave of high growth companies that will contribute to more and better local jobs and talent retention,” she said.

Still, Krinzman sees a potentially nasty venture slowdown ahead and believes entrepreneurs need to batten down. The Miami Herald talked to Krinzman about the firm’s first years and plans for the road ahead.

Why a ‘Miami-first’ and not a ‘Miami-only’ focus?

Like all venture capital funds, our primary goal is to earn a return on our investment. We call ourselves a “Miami-first” fund because we prioritize the review of and investment in opportunities in South Florida. Within two years, we have made eight investments in South Florida-based startups, which is approximately half of our portfolio. We have also made investments in early stage companies located in cities such as New York City, Boston and San Francisco. The relationships we make and insights we gain from these investments help our Miami entrepreneurs, and vice versa.

Why have you selected the verticals you have?

For the first two years, we decided not to focus on any verticals. We wanted to cast a wide net and see where it would lead us. This is evidenced by the diversity of our current portfolio. But at the end of 2015, we decided to take a note from New York City’s tech sector. In my role as founder and managing director of Venture Architects, a firm dedicated to helping startups raise investment capital, I saw that the New York-based companies that gained the most traction were the ones innovating in the verticals that New York dominated such as advertising, marketing, financial services and fashion.

So, after a rigorous analysis, we selected five focus areas in which we believe Miami has innate strength — financial services, real estate, health, transportation and logistics — and where we can provide value beyond our dollars invested. Moving forward, our investments will primarily fall into these categories.

What stage do you invest in?

We are making initial seed stage investments from $50,000 to $250,000. Once the company shows traction, we’ll then provide additional investment capital through their Series A, on a deal-by-deal basis. We prefer to be active investors and often take advisory board or director seats.

A differentiator is your nonprofit strategy. How did that develop?

In addition to supporting South Florida entrepreneurs and the overarching technology community, we are also committed to local education and civic initiatives. We believe that one can’t thrive without the other. For example, independent of Krillion, in September 2014, Jeffrey and I were part of the team that opened Beacon College Prep, a nonprofit charter school located in Opa-locka with 240 students in K-3, focused on developing college-bound students. Additionally, Jeffrey is chairman of the board of Breakthrough Miami and supports many cultural, educational and community organizations. And in a few weeks, Krillion will host an event for local investors and entrepreneurs to learn about The Miami Foundation’s leadership agenda, which is looking to the future and addressing transportation congestion, sea level rise and the need for more public spaces — all issues that impact the quality of life for South Florida’s current and future entrepreneurs.

What attributes do you look for in founders?

As we say on our website, we are seeking “one in a krillion.” We review both referred and unsolicited pitch decks from all over the country and hold office hours once a month to meet with local entrepreneurs. Thus far, we have backed entrepreneurs who believe passionately in their goals to solve a problem but who, at the same time, are willing to learn and be flexible. We believe that passion, tenacity and fearlessness are essential. But if not mixed with the ability to accept and process feedback, we’ve seen these three attributes quickly become negatives. We’ve also found that the entrepreneurs who have taken the time to educate themselves about the process and the etiquette of raising capital are the ones who shine.

Please tell us about a couple of your most recent investments. What attracted you to them?

Our two most recent investments were made in December 2015 and both are Miami-based companies — MealPass and Sktchy.

Mealpass is co-founded by Mary Biggins, one of the founders of ClassPass, a membership program for fitness classes across multiple gyms and studios that has raised $84 million from prominent venture funds.

For a flat fee of $99 a month, members can choose to eat lunch at one of over 50 restaurants each day. MealPass launched in Brickell in January and in downtown Boston earlier this month. From the moment Mary started to walk us through her business model, it was clear that she was a seasoned entrepreneur, highly analytical, and extremely focused and hardworking. We also liked that MealPass has a subscription business model and offers a significant cost savings to budget-conscious office workers.

Sktchy, founded by Jordan Melnick, is an app where users submit photos of themselves for inspiration and artists draw, paint or sculpt portraits. The before-and-afters can be discovered and shared on the app. With Jordan, it was clear that he had a deep understanding and connection with his audience and a steadfast vision for Sktchy. We immediately saw the simplicity, usefulness and addictiveness of the app, as well as the significant opportunity to provide a marketplace for these talented artists to sell their sketches. We believe the company is poised for exponential growth and can’t wait for the marketplace to launch in March so that the sketches can be purchased from the talented community of artists.

What keeps you up at night?

The venture investing and valuations have recently begun to lose velocity, a repeat of 2000 and 2008, when the venture market slowed to a crawl. In my mind, the only question is, how long will this one last? Having experienced both of the downturns up close and personal, it wasn’t pretty. But most local entrepreneurs that I have spoken with haven’t even begun to think about gathering the hurricane supplies that they’ll need to wait out the storm.

Investors are already putting on their battle gear. Those who have horses in the race are running the numbers to figure out which ones they are going to bet on and which are being released into the pasture. And they have already slowed down their decision-making and will wait out the storm in order to acquire new investments at attractive valuations.

On the other hand, optimists by nature, I haven’t seen many entrepreneurs suiting up. Our advice to entrepreneurs is to educate themselves about the past two market downturns by reading the recent articles by investors and entrepreneurs who survived them, revise their game plans and pro-actively cut costs to make sure their businesses will continue to thrive during the lean times ahead.

In general, how would you characterize the deal flow you have seen from South Florida?

Drawing from a broad and diverse gene pool, it is not surprising to us that potential deals in South Florida come in all sizes, shapes, colors and patterns. And we’ve seen a steady increase in the pure number of South Florida-based companies that are seeking investment capital. From our perspective, both are very good things.

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

Melissa Krinzman

Investor: Managing partner of Krillion Ventures, a $50 million Miami-based early stage venture capital firm that actively invests in financial services, transportation, logistics, real estate and healthcare startups.

Business planning: Krinzman also founded Venture Architects, a business planning firm that has positioned early and growth stage companies for success in the capital-raising process since 1998.

Previous experience: Part of founding teams for three prominent, national nonprofit organizations.

Board appointments: Vice chairwoman of the board of The Miami Foundation as well as a board member of Beacon College Prep and the Ransom Everglades School Alumni Board. She also serves as a board member or adviser for a number of Krillion Ventures' investments.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and American studies from Tufts University.

Three most recent books read: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; The Most Important Thing Illuminated: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks; and The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools? by Dale Russakoff.

More about Krillion Ventures: KrillionVentures.com.

September 30, 2015

Q&A on SBDC at FIU's first 20 months: 900 entrepreneurs served, and counting ...

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Since early 2014, the Florida Small Business Development Center at Florida International University has helped more than 900 South Florida entrepreneurs. The SBDC’s services are free and available to the community.

Jacqueline_Bueno Sousa_TORSO SHOTJacqueline Bueno Sousa, the program’s founding regional director, said SBDC at FIU looked at the landscape and needs in Miami-Dade County’s entrepreneurial community so that the services it offered would be value added. It settled on focusing on scalable existing businesses as well as startups, and particularly ones with global ambitions. In fact, one program it is starting later this year will focus on helping young companies go global from day one as well as helping existing companies reach new markets. “We have a focus on helping our companies grow globally because we think that is a game changer in terms of the local economy,” Sousa said.

SBDC specializes in offering entrepreneurs one-on-one counseling, and in many cases entrepreneurs get access to a team of SBDC consultants who specialize in different areas, such as finance, distribution, government contracting or marketing, Sousa said. The office, with 14 consultants, also has held a number of training programs and workshops in partnership with FIU’s Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center and IronHack coding school.

SBDC at FIU (sbdc.fiu.edu) is part of a statewide network that includes offices in Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties and is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the state of Florida and other public and private partners. SBDC at FIU is also supported by FIU’s College of Business, where the office is based, and private funding.

The Miami Herald talked with Sousa about the SBDC at FIU’s first 20 months and what’s ahead.

Q. What is your one-liner for SBDC?

A. SBDC at FIU helps businesses grow and succeed.

Q. What services do you offer a small business?

A. We have a team of highly experienced business consultants who work one-on-one with small- and medium-size businesses to help them succeed. We have experts in finance, marketing, international business development, contracting, HR — all the major areas in which businesses experience growth challenges.

Continue reading "Q&A on SBDC at FIU's first 20 months: 900 entrepreneurs served, and counting ... " »

August 02, 2015

Q&A with Robert Hacker: On scaling social entrepreneurship, finding partners, thinking big

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Hacker picRobert H. Hacker often advises entrepreneurs to go after the “big opportunity.” The same advice holds true for social ventures, and he’s written a new book on it, Scaling Social Entrepreneurship: Lessons Learned from One Laptop per Child, available in  paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.

Hacker, who teaches social entrepreneurship courses at FIU’s Honors College and MIT’s Sloan School, spent 3 1/2 years as CFO of One Laptop Per Child, an organization with a mission to provide every child in the developing world with a connected laptop. Big opportunity, scaled globally. How did the organization do it? One key was by successfully creating the worldwide 1:1 computing for children movement early on, Hacker says.

While improved education worldwide and corporations committing a sliver of their profits would go a long way toward solving the world’s biggest humanitarian problems, Hacker says, the for-profit entrepreneurship model is built for scaling social ventures. Just as with entrepreneurship without the “social” modifier, tackling large, worldwide problems is more effective than tackling smaller problems and you can achieve efficiencies of scale.

Final Cover SSEHow big is the opportunity? The population of the developing world will reach 4 billion by start of the 22nd century and the population of the world’s least developed countries will total another 3 billion people –- a nearly three-fold increase from this century, Hacker writes in the book.  In the book that is well-researched and rich in examples, Hacker, who spent 20 years working in Asia and Latin America and is also the author of Billion Dollar Company, explains ways to scale social entrepreneurial ventures in light of their unique challenges such as lower operating returns and less startup capital.

Hacker, who also manages the GH Capital consultancy and writes the Sophisticated Finance blog, talked with the Miami Herald about his views and work in social entrepreneurship.

Q. Why do you think the private sector can do a better job on social problems than government and non-profits?

A. The private sector represents a better option to solve social problems because they have better access to capital and a history of innovating to solve customer problems. However, now customers expect their brands to be genuinely involved in solving social problems. The private sector now finds it to be in their self-interest to solve the problems if they want to maintain their customer loyalty.

Q. Why do you think that the morality (or lack thereof) of capitalism is a theme that never goes away?

A. The question never goes away because the critics make their case better than the capitalists. But as I quote in the book, The Economist estimates that approximately one billion people escaped poverty in the twenty-year period ending in 2010 through the benefits of capitalism. That fact, and the progress it represents, is hard to legitimately challenge.

Q. Who do you think is the best example of social entrepreneurship today?

A. Toms Shoes. Toms Shoes  has successfully grown a company that is committed to both shareholder returns and social engagement at scale. Its recent private equity investment demonstrates that professional investors see no conflict between the social mission and future financial returns. 

Q. What is the key to scaling social entrepreneurship?

 A. The most important key to scaling social entrepreneurship is not capital or partners but rather to plan from the very beginning to achieve scale.

 Social entrepreneurship by definition has lower financial returns, which means such organizations generate less cash internally. Therefore, these organizations have less ability to iterate on business model due to lower cash reserves. They need to execute well right from the beginning, which requires very careful business model development and planning.

Q. What was the key to OLPC's early success?

A. OLPC's early success is attributable to its achieving the status of a movement, a worldwide movement. Nicholas Negroponte created a learning movement for 1:1 computing for children worldwide. While it might appear a daunting task, I would point out that a young girl from Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was also able to create a worldwide movement. 

Q. What are three takeaways from your book?

A. Choose for-profit status for a social entrepreneurship project because it gives you better access to capital.

Partner with the private sector because they have the resources and can be motivated to support social projects.

Solve one social problem well and let others solve the myriad of other problems.

Q. Where do you see social entrepreneurship in South Florida?

A. Social entrepreneurship is in its infancy in South Florida but also worldwide. Many people are still not familiar with the concept despite the example of Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank and the teachings of CK Prahalad who coined the phrase "the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid." However, the Honors College at FIU and the University of Miami Business School have active programs to introduce and facilitate student involvement in social entrepreneurship. These efforts, combined with community support from Knight Foundation, the Center for Social Change and EcoTech Vision to name a few, will increase awareness of social entrepreneurship and generate positive results in the community.

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

July 26, 2015

Q&A with Nico Berardi: Connecting startups with investors

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

56 BM Q&A Nico Berardi 0624Accelerated Growth Partners, a Miami-based angel investment group, relaunched a little over a year ago with a couple of key goals: to expand its network of active angel investors to help bridge the funding gap in South Florida and launch investor-education workshops aimed at broadening the pool of investors interested in early-stage ventures.

With funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the organization began meeting and Nico Berardi was chosen to lead the effort, acting as the connector between entrepreneurs and prospective investors. Berardi, AGP’s managing director, is the former U.S. CEO for TECHO, a nonprofit that mobilizes youth volunteers to fight extreme poverty in Latin America. Under his watch, the organization expanded and fund-raising doubled.

In a short time, Berardi’s track record at AGP has been impressive, too.

AGP Miami (agpmiami.com) was not a new organization when Berardi took over, but it had slowed down considerably. The group invites entrepreneurs seeking funding to pitch their businesses, and members can decide individually whether to fund them. Since Berardi took over, membership has quadrupled to more than 80, and more significantly, members have invested in nine South Florida startups. It’s now the largest local angel group.

“We sent out a survey to all our members, and what came across the strongest was the co-investor intellectual horsepower. The group represents so many industries, there is likely someone in the group that knows the particular space. We have seen really good deal flow, and our members are engaged. At each of our pitch meetings, we have had 50-plus of our members show up,” said Berardi.

Berardi meets with roughly 450 startups a year and sends the most qualified startups through the AGP screening process. The screening committee will then decide whether they will present to the AGP membership, typically with one member championing the investment. One startup company, ClassWallet, has been funded twice. The other companies receiving funding in year one of the relaunch were: Everypost, Weebee, Videoo, Blackdove, Stadson, Hair Construction, Waleteros and Nearpod.

“Because we are an up-and-coming ecosystem, a lot of our entrepreneurs don’t understand how to work with investors, and a lot of investors don’t know how to work with entrepreneurs. That is something we can work on,” Berardi said. “The entrepreneurial team brings an entire skillset, and we bring capital and experience. Most of the time, you need both.”

To be sure, startup funding is often cited as a key missing ingredient as Miami works to build up its entrepreneurial ecosystem. While there is plenty of wealth here and family offices proliferate, the money is typically not going into technology plays and local startups.

To help begin to fill that ecosystem need and make sure AGP has a growing roster of active investors to fund more companies, as well as double down on existing investments, Berardi and the Knight Foundation, together with partners such as Northwestern’s "Kellogg School and Greenberg Traurig, launched a series of workshops this year to train potential investors.

“This was an experiment. We said, ‘Let’s start shooting information,’" space="1"” said Berardi. Each of the six educational sessions were themed and led by experts in those areas. The result: standing-room-only workshops. “People were thrilled to get the content. Now we are talking about the second cycle. Is this going to move the needle, and are we going to have 100 new investors? We don’t know yet.”

This summer, Berardi was chosen to join Class 20 of the Kauffman Fellowship, 40 emerging leaders of venture capital and angel investing organizations from around the world that will meet regularly to learn about investing and leading capital ecosystems. The Fellowship’s goal is to develop a worldwide network of innovation investors who provide smart, connected capital to fuel entrepreneurial change, and Berardi is excited about bringing back what he learns to Miami. “The better investors we can be, the better we think we can help our companies,” Berardi said.

The Miami Herald spoke with Berardi recently about AGP’s first year and what is ahead.

Q. AGP relaunched just over a year ago. What were some of the highlights of the year?

A. The highlight was to realize how much a friendly platform to connect entrepreneurs to investors in an efficient way was needed. We made 10 investments into nine companies totaling $1.8 million. Membership stands at over 80 investors.

Q. What will be your metrics for success in year two?

A. Deal flow is king. As long as we keep on finding really interesting companies being built from or moving to Miami, we will continue to be active. We aim to make 8 to 10 investments per year.

Q. Do you think the quality of deal flow will continue?

A. We’re very optimistic because of all the new things coming to town. Existing institutions like the Venture Hive and Endeavor in town continue to do good work, while many others are drawing up plans to open shop. Large conferences like eMerge Americas and SIME bring a lot of attention, which then attracts entrepreneurs and organizations. The large tech firms are also paying attention; Twitter opening its new Brickell office is a key example. Infrastructure is becoming more robust, too — service providers are tailoring their offerings, coding schools are growing, and co-working spaces have proliferated. It is the combination of all these things that make us very optimistic.

Q. What kind of companies do you look for to potentially take to the members, if they make it past the screening process?

A. We have a strong preference to invest in South Florida-based companies. In fact, all nine companies we have invested in have key strategic operations here. From a stage perspective, we look for companies raising between $250,000 and $1.5 million that are in the market already. We usually steer away from beta, prototype, pre-launch companies. In a way, we come in after friends and family and accelerators but before an institutional Series A. Once a company fits within that sweet spot, we look for a combination of really big markets or attractive vertical niches and outstanding management teams.

Q. Tell me about a couple of the companies that got funding?

A. ClassWallet is an exciting company at the intersection of fintech and edtech. Today, in the U.S. alone, there are $23 billion worth of cash transactions that occur in K-12 classrooms every year! With cash, there is no accountability, no transparency and is very time-consuming from an administrative standpoint.

NearPod is also in education. They identified that smart devices took the classroom by storm, and today they represent a learning barrier for teachers to overcome. Their technology empowers teachers to create and deliver content that leverages those same incredible devices. Their platform is bringing the learning experience to the 21st century.

Q. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs seeking investment from AGP?

A. Don’t think about building a fundable company. Focus on one thing and one thing only: building an amazing product that your customers will love. That is what will draw our attention.

Q. Why did AGP launch an angel educational program?

A. The local community of investors has not been exposed to early-stage tech investments enough. Historically, it has been mostly real estate, public securities and a bit of private equity. While we have some of the smartest investors in the world in those areas, they are very different from investors in tech. Our hypothesis was that not many people were investing in tech because they lacked the know-how to do so. The premise then was that by educating the community more, people would get involved by understanding that tech is a great way to diversify your portfolio. We wanted to solve that problem by educating the community to leverage their intellectual horsepower with the financial capabilities.

Q. And how did your first education series go?

A. We honestly did not know what to expect but had two amazing partners that believed in our premise. Having had Kellogg and Greenberg Traurig co-organize the series really helped in having people step off the sidelines. All the speakers were volunteers we got from the community, and most of the success is due to their involvement, so a big shout-out to our speakers.

Q. Do you plan to continue the series or have other plans in the education area?

A. Absolutely. Having heard the feedback from the attendees, we are back at the drawing board for a second cycle starting in the fall. Stay tuned.

Q. What do you hope to bring back from your Kauffman Fellowship experience that is just getting under way?

A. Two things, mainly. The first is technical training. As I mentioned before, tech is very new to our investment community, so having more sophisticated investors will strengthen the ecosystem. The second is being able to plug in the Miami ecosystem to the global VC world.

Funding risk is perhaps the biggest risk Miami-based startups face. It’s a win-win situation if AGP can co-invest with the best VCs at a global level. More entrepreneurs will want to work with AGP because that will increase their chances of success.

Q. From your perspective meeting with so many entrepreneurs every month, how do you think our ecosystem is progressing?

A. There’s a natural hype that comes with a growing, improving ecosystem. That means more companies in quantity but not necessarily in quality. There starts to be a lot of noise coming from “want-a-preneurs.” I take it as a great sign, and we just have to be efficient at cutting to the next cycle.

Q. And, more specifically, the capital ecosystem?

A. Definitely a lot of activity. Some funds have taken the plunge and opened offices locally, while others are peeking in, ever more "aggressively. It’s not uncommon to grab coffee with a visiting VC every other week.

Q. What role do family offices play in all this?

A. Family offices understand there’s something going on that they want to be a part of. Most are not trained in VC and haven’t yet developed a strategy that fits within their broader portfolio. From what we’ve seen, the traditional VC model has not proven very successful when it comes to engaging them. A hybrid model is needed, and it’ll be interesting to see how the story unfolds.

Q. If you could wave a magic wand and add one ingredient to the ecosystem right now, what would it be?

A. I’ll cheat and mention two. One is more accelerators. If you look at developed ecosystems, the main accelerator alone will be working with 150+ companies a year. While the Venture Hive is amazing, we need more companies to go through programs like that. The second ingredient is investors across the board. More angel investors, more seed funds and definitely more VC funds.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

Nico Berardi

Titles: Managing Director, AGP Miami. Kauffman Fellow.

Age: 26.

Experience: Former U.S. CEO for TECHO, a nonprofit that mobilizes youth volunteers to fight extreme poverty in Latin America, for two years, and before that was TECHO’s director of development for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Honors: Speaker at the Global Economic Symposium, TEDx Miami and the Center for Hemispheric Policy and the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Participant in the Kellogg Innovation Network, Clinton Global Initiative and the PODER Business Awards. Selected as a Young American Leader by Harvard Business School, Top 100 Innovators of Argentina by BGH, GameChanger by the Miami Chamber of Commerce and showcased at Yahoo! The Innovators series.

Education: Bachelor’s in economics, Universidad Torcuato di Tella, Argentina.

Favorite book: ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell.

Best advice received: There are over a thousand variables determining your success. How much effort you put in is the only one you can do anything about.

July 20, 2015

Q&A with Kim Gramm: FAU Tech Runway's journey has only just begun

Kimgramm2

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Like the entrepreneurs it supports, Florida Atlantic University’s entrepreneurship hub for students and the community is very much a startup, too.

Tech Runway launched just a year ago. Its second accelerator class is underway and a third will be joining in the fall. But for Kimberly Gramm (pictured above), Tech Runway’s co-founder and associate vice president, it has been a six-year journey, and she has big dreams for the entrepreneurship center.

Tech Runway’s physical space next to the Boca Raton campus and executive airport is impressive — and unfinished, but ready for possibility. The 27,500-square-foot warehouse, where hurricane glass windows were once made, is now an open canvas. Most of the large garage doors have been replaced with glass to let the natural light in and watch the planes taking off. There is plenty of open space for events, and 15 work areas have been glassed in to create areas where resident startups can brainstorm with their teams on whiteboards, practice pitching, meet clients or hold meetings with their board of mentors. A 5,000-square-foot section off to one side is the “Tech Garage,” which hosts high school and college students weekly for robotics. Gramm envisions a full-blown maker space to come there. Once a year, engineering students build an electric race car from scratch in the space (a garage door was left so it can get in and out). Open rafters present possibilities of a mezzanine for more creative meeting areas — the sky’s the limit.

“We are putting together renderings and talking to architects to build out the space so that it becomes the hub we envisioned it to be,” said Gramm, while giving a tour of the facility. “The idea is to be a home for Tech Runway companies as well as a place for FAU to prepare innovative minds to become an entrepreneurial pipeline to Tech Runway.

“Exposing the high school and university students to this space is really important to us. You get students applying their STEM learnings in robotics programs, creating prototypes, even building electric race cars that compete. Spaces like this allow the mentors, the investors, the entrepreneurs and the students to have these creative collisions.”

Gramm was hired about six years ago to develop an entrepreneurship program. She started as the director of the Adams Center for Entrepreneurship with a handful of programs including the FAU Business Plan Competition.

“That was really a proof of concept,” she said. “What we found is what the marketplace wanted to see was more support and resources to entrepreneurship being driven by the university. The idea was to create an internal ecosystem, a gateway to launch.”

At Tech Runway, companies get a real-life curriculum in customer acquisition, developing a minimal viable product and attracting first round capital. Tech Runway gives each company a $25,000 grant, a 16-week bootcamp and collaborative workspace for a year, she said.

Tech Runway also provides structure and connections. Companies develop a series of milestones with their mentors whom they meet with weekly, and they don’t pitch to investors until they are ready. Tech Runway helps them get their first sales. After about a year, Tech Runway companies will typically graduate, once their lead mentors agree they have met their milestones. But the space is continually being restocked because there will be two classes — Tech Runway calls them Venture Vintages — accepted each year going forward. It is also growing its programming for students and supporting faculty startups.

“The university is committed to making this a longstanding resource for our community,” she said.

We spoke with Gramm recently at the Tech Runway offices. Here are excerpts of that conversation:

Continue reading "Q&A with Kim Gramm: FAU Tech Runway's journey has only just begun" »

April 13, 2015

John Sculley: On South Florida, customer-centric strategy and moonshots

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

John sculleyWhere can South Florida make its mark in technology?  John Sculley, now an investor and mentor to entrepreneurs, shared a few ideas.

"There has never been a better time to build a transformative multi-billion dollar company," said Sculley, the former Apple and Pepsi CEO who lives in  Palm Beach. His new book  Moonshot! Game Changing Strategies on How to Build a Billion Dollar Business and video series offer advice for entrepreneurs, real-world examples as well as plenty of war stories from his Apple days.

In his book, he writes about how the exponential growth of mobility, cloud computing and Big Data analytics has a caused a power shift from producers to customers being in control and how entrepreneurs can take advantage of the shift, presenting a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs. "Customers now pay more attention to the opinions of other customers than they do to large incumbent companies... I’ve never seen anything on the scale of what is happening now."

Sculley may be best known for firing Steve Jobs during his Apple tenure -- and he told CNN in an interview recently he wished he had invited him back --  but his corporate career actually began in 1967 when as a  Wharton MBA grad he was hired by Pepsi-Cola Co. as a trainee.  Three years later, he became the company’s youngest vice president for marketing, applying his ideas about “experience-based marketing” to the Pepsi Generation campaign, including the Pepsi Challenge taste tests. By 1977, Sculley was Pepsi-Cola’s youngest CEO.

Since being forced out of Apple in 1993, Sculley has founded several companies and today is a mentor to about 15 startups in a diverse array of industries including  telecommunications, financial services, healthcare,  Internet services, consumer marketing and outsourcing services.

He invests in several companies in South Florida too, including 3Cinteractive, MDLIVE,  OpenPeak and PDQ Restaurants. Sculley talked with the Miami Herald about his investments, where he sees opportunities and how he sees South Florida's tech ecosystem evolving.

Q. Where do you see the best opportunities?

A. One of them is right here in Florida and that is healthcare. Healthcare is a $3 trillion annual spend, it’s incredibly inefficient, its rules are fought by special interest groups and there is a legacy of incumbent large customers and government institutions that don’t change quickly.

We’re moving into an era of healthcare where customers are taking a much bigger role in their own health and wellness. The reality is setting in ... not only is health insurance more expensive, the result is that customers are discovering that there is not more transparency in what things cost -- for instance, if you wanted to check prices on a hip replacement… if you want to schedule an annual physical, or have the flu, just to see a doctor takes an average of 20 days, and it will likely go up.

I am involved in MDLIVE; we think we are in one of the hottest industries of all, which is telehealth, where we do virtual doctor visits. We have experienced incredible customer satisfaction. We  are growing like crazy -- it’s a South Florida company that is at the sweet spot of a fundamental change in healthcare. And it's completely supportive of customers making choices for better services.

For a face to face doctor visit, $150 is typical. For a virtual visit, the typical price is less than $50.

Walgreens and MDLIVE made a big announcement on how they are working with MDLIVE in their pharmacies to create virtual visits with certified doctors who could write prescriptions ... and that can all be done on a smartphone. We are moving into an area where technology is revolutioning the way customers can have customer-centric services.

Q. What are some of the other South Florida companies you are involved with as an investor or mentor?

A. OpenPeak of Boca Raton -- we are doing all kinds of mobile data services. We run AT&T's wireless data platform and we do it for other carriers as well. I am chairman of 3C Interactive in Boca; we are a mobile marketing cloud company doing really well.

I’m also chairman of PDQ Restaurants, a South Florida franchise for fast-casual dining. We’ve built out six restaurants so far and and we will continue to rapidly expand in South Florida.

Another one is 800razors.com -- we are building a company for the ultimate shave. We can sell a five blade razor of similar quality to the market leader for half price and around it we sell a whole range of personal care products, for pre-shave, after shave, shaving crèmes, beauty crèmes, all designed to give men and women the ultimate shave experience. It’s not in South Florida but a number of its investor are in South Florida.

Q. How do you see South Florida evolving as a tech center?

A. I think South Florida is a particularly good place to build healthcare companies because first of all we have a large market. The most expensive part of the healthcare system is chronic care patients and a lot of them live right here in Florida – and it is a place where technology can make a huge difference. For example, the average chronic care patient is something like 5 percent of the population but the healthcare costs are  80 percent. One of the big costs is when these chronic care patients are discharged from the hospital; if they are readmitted within 30 days, then the hospital has to pay the cost of those patients, and that is an incredible risk overhead for the hospitals.

These are big problems that need solutions and there is a lot of talent in South Florida that could deal with everything from assisted living and nursing services to all kinds of specialties like dermatology to doing virtual therapy; MDLIVE just bought a company in that space. It is incredible all the new solutions coming that are enabled by digital health.

Q. Where do you see challenges in South Florida?

A. In Silicon Valley,  there are so many role models to look to and so much experienced talent around. In South Florida we have smart people too but we tend to be more narrowly focused in terms of the industries the experience comes from. Look at healthcare or travel or real estate. Rather than create a new industry, it is logical to build strength around the industries we already have -- but recognize that the incumbents may not be the role models.

The role models will come from other places and other industries. Look at Uber: It’s worth $40 billion, there are a lot of lessons to learn from Uber that can be applied to healthcare, travel and other industries. And one of the lessons is is it is not about investing in technology, it's about a different way to solve a customer problem. … before Uber, the taxis were doing $140 million in San Francisco, now Uber is a $400 million industry there and the incumbent taxis post-Uber are still $140 million. Uber redefined the industry in a transformative way and came up with a better service … that dramatically changed and expanded the market.

  Book CoverQ. What are three takeaways from your book, Moonshot!?

A. There has never been a better time to build a transformative multi-billion dollar company. Moonshot! will not only tell you why but will tell you how. The book is filled with stories of successful entrepreneurs, about the things they’ve learned building their companies.

The power of the marketplace is shifting to customers in control and if you want to build a really successful company you have got to have a customer plan, and I explain what a customer plan is, how to build a customer plan and how it can make the difference between being largely successful and moderately successful.

The third thing is about the importance of finding a mentor. Entrepreneurs don’t always go to business schools, and business schools are oriented to helping their students learn how to become executives in large established organizations and you get case histories about decisions that senior executives make. But that isn’t what entrepreneurs are interested in. They want to know how do you raise capital, how do you recruit talent to a team, when your back is against the wall after you have made a serious mistake how do you pivot from that and come out of it alive, how do you turn failure into an asset?

We learn from our mistakes, not from our successes. If anything, people become a victim of their successes. It is only when you make a mistake that you learn. Moonshot! is all about having an insatiable curiosity. If you aren’t curious about the world around you, you are probably not cut out to be an entrepreneur.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg 

March 30, 2015

Q&A with Mary Spio: Down-to-earth advice from a rocket scientist

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

SpioWhen Spio was 16, her parents spent everything they had to send her to the United States for a better life.

Her first job was at a McDonald’s, but after a while she found her way into the Air Force. “It was when I was in the Air Force that an engineer pulled me aside and told me I was really great at fixing electronics; and that I should look into becoming an engineer. I did and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

After six years with the Air Force, she went to Syracuse and the Georgia Tech for engineering degrees, and she was soon working at satellite communications firms, some while in college, where she designed and launched satellites into deep space on a NASA project, headed up a satellite communications team for Boeing, and pioneered digital cinema technology for LucasFilms that redefined the distribution method for major motion pictures.

With a continued interest in media, Spio turned to entrepreneurship about a decade ago and has never looked back — even though at one point she was voted out of her own company because her investor wanted a white male at the helm.

Now Spio heads her own company once again, Miami Beach-based Next Galaxy, a developer of innovative content and tools for virtual reality. Its flagship application is CEEK, a social VR hub for accessing entertainment, education and branded experiences. One of her newest products, CEEKARS 4-D headphones, is out this month and Spio is currently running an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for the product. In January, Spio brought the B.I.G. Summit to the New World Center on Miami Beach, and her conference explored ways to use virtual reality across a broad spectrum of industries.

She also has a new book out. In It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Achieving Uncommon Success,sheoffers advice and insights by exploring the distinct actions and attributes that successful leaders across many fields share as they challenge old precepts and create worldwide impact.

The Miami Herald met with Spio recently in her Miami Beach office. Here are excerpts of that conversation:

Q. Why did you decide to write the book?

A. After working with the U.S. Department of State visiting and speaking at all these different countries like Pakistan, South Africa, Ukraine and Russia, I kept getting a lot of the same questions. I said I need to put something together that shares what I have learned along the way. To do that, I had to go back to my foundation. I had been studying game-changers for a long time and never realized it.

When I was young and living on my own in New York … I was working in McDonald’s, back then my idea of success was going from fries to cashier. But I started reading. My first book was Sumner Redstone’s A Passion to Win — I read it over and over and over and over, I could connect to something in there — overcoming challenges. I also read about Bill Gates. As I read about these people who I admired, I thought there was more that I could do. It gave me the courage to try new things.

As I traveled later on, I got to meet all these game-changers, more than 100 over time. As a scientist I said, how do I codify this?

A lot of times when I speak, some people say it is easy for you to say because you are a rocket scientist. But I was like those people, thinking technology is for those other people. Even when I went into the Air Force, I really didn’t know technology. The more I learned about it, it’s really not rocket science. For anyone who thinks technology is for those other people, this is the book for them and it has steps you can take to leverage tech for what you want to do. It’s a combination of my observations and discoveries; this is my personal playbook, these are the people I go to over and over again when I am having a hard time and it keeps me going.

Q. Is there one particular trait among all these game-changers?

A. I think it’s courage. Most of these people are almost crazy. When you do anything new, there is opposition and shaming that comes with it, and these people didn’t care about that. It’s not fearlessness; they have the fear but they act in spite of the fear. It’s also the scientific mindset. As an engineer, I know failure is not failure, it is just an experiment. In entrepreneurship too, I realize these founders have the scientific approach to success. It’s OK to fail. It’s not failure, it’s feedback.

Q. How did you fall into technology — and stay?

A. I was the kid that always tore the radio apart, I wanted to know how it worked, how, how, how, how — I drove my parents crazy. In the Air Force testing, I scored very high in electronics.

In the Air Force, I was usually the only woman, but it felt like home. I enjoyed what I was doing.

And when I was working on Gen2Media, my last company, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. There is more to the movie industry than what happens on the big screen, there is so much excitement that happens behind the scenes.

A big part of why women and girls don’t go into technology is they don’t want to be in the lab all day. But there are so many opportunities, there are so many other options.

Q. Is that also why you also created the B.I.G. Summit?

A. Yes, I go to a lot of virtual reality conferences. Ninety-nine percent of everything I was seeing is games, shoot-’em-up games. I think enough is enough — what about healthcare and education and all these other things?

That was the idea of the B.I.G. Summit. We are looking at healthcare, we are looking at education.

Q. What were some of your biggest challenges along the way?

A. I felt like a kid in the candy store coming into tech because I was pulled in so many ways; it surprised me to see how much my perspective was needed. When everyone is the same, everyone thinks the same way and you miss a lot. But not all of what I have experienced was positive.

At one company, for example, I had a boss who was racist and sexist, the work environment was not ideal. … Fortunately I was recruited by Boeing where my experiences were all wonderful. Culture starts at the top. I worked at Aerospace Corp. under a woman CEO, and my experience there was phenomenal. While at Georgia Tech they let me work remotely from my dorm room. From Boeing on I never felt any type of discrimination [as an employee], I felt right at home.

But as an entrepreneur raising capital, I ran into challenges. When I launched Gen2Media, we were doing a million before beta. We had an investor come in to help us raise capital — and he said he was having a hard time because no one was writing checks to black women and he needed a white male at the helm. Then he got my other partners (they were all equal partners) on his side — I was forced out of my own company.

This was a company I built with every dime I had. … We had 26 employees. That was toughest thing I have gone through, and it happened not because of something I did but because of who I am. I am a black woman and that is not going to change.

I was pregnant at the time. I took some time off [about two years, 2010-2012], moved in with my family for awhile, started writing the book, did some consulting but mostly spent time with my son and family in London.

Q. And then?

A. When I was ready to go back to work, I put my resume out there, and heard from Amazon and NBCUniversal and others, but I decided I really wanted to build my own company again. I participated in a Google for Entrepreneurs program and we visited Facebook and I saw the Oculus [the virtual reality headset maker that Facebook later purchased]. I always loved 3D movies. I tried it on and I said “oh my god this is exactly what I want to do for ever and ever.” Everything was leading up to this point. It was religious for me. I said I would love to watch a movie this way, I would love to deliver education this way, healthcare this way. I said I gotta build something that I can enjoy this thing with.

Then I went to a Samsung conference, saw the Gear VR [headset] and said this is the way to change the market but content is going to drive it. We dove headfirst into developing content, not just as an entertainment means but as a way to do medical training. We partnered with Miami Children’s Hospital to develop these models for CPR and also anti-choking. As a mom I think this is super important. With the Google Cardboard [a very low cost VR headset], you can have a headset and you can experience it affordably. We are also working with the schools.

I want to make a different kind of impact. All these companies are spending billions to to teach kids to kill; no one wants to hear that but it is true. I think we can be more intentional about what we program for kids. Whether we are putting them on the moon, or they are flying through the sky, why can’t it be a learning voyage? It can be a lot more than just killing. That is the impact I am trying to make with Next Galaxy.

Q. Who are your heroes?

A. Oprah definitely. Bill Gates, Larry Page and Elon Musk because of their moonshots; they set out to do something extraordinary for humanity.

Also Mark Cuban, Mark Zuckerberg and Laurie Clark. Laurie was the first female mentor I ever had, she was one of the first SVP at Staples, she was also on the board of Suncoast Motion Pictures, GamePlay, etc. and not only gave me advice but walked me into decision makers there and at Sony. My very first mentor in business was Yoav Cohen; he was instrumental in the growth of JDATE, also co-founder of Genesis Media. He made a huge difference in my career with advice, opportunities and introductions, including to Laurie Clark. Also, Leslie Hielema, the first female president of the Orlando Chamber and a dear friend and mentor.

I believe mentorship is super, super important as it provides not just guidance but access. Once you get in the door, what you do is up to you.

Q. What is the best advice you have ever received?

A. Don’t clip your wings to fit in someone else’s box. It came with a story from my father. … Your value comes from your difference, not your similarity.

Q. When do you think we will see mainstream adaption of virtual reality technology?

A. I think mainstream adaption will come from mobile phones, and I think it will happen very quickly. I think we have about 15 months to go.

Mainstream adaption is going to be based on content outside of gaming. Everybody currently is looking at gaming because that is what they know, but movies, concerts, sports healthcare, medical training, all of that is going to eclipse gaming and it is going to be from smartphones. Last year there were over a billion smartphones that were shipped out, everyone has a smartphone in their hand whether they are in India, Ghana or Miami. They are looking for what to do with their phones, they want a different kind of experience ... Imagine I can deliver Intersteller to you and you can be in the experience and all you have to do is flip your phone, download CEEK and watch it that way. … Our goal is to make VR as simple as turning on the TV. That’s when mainstream adoption will happen.

Thanks to the Samsung Gear VR, I think we will get there much faster than anyone predicted. I am curious about what Apple has, you have Microsoft with Hololens. It is going to happen on the mobile phone, not on the Oculus Rift.

Q. You moved here last year. How are you finding South Florida?

A. I love it! I came here for the beaches, but the community is why i am staying. The support is here. There are so many people who are very serious about turning South Florida into a tech hub. There is a big opportunity with the third wave of the Internet for us to do exactly that.

Opportunities abound here, and it is fantastic to be a part of building this ecosystem. There are great people here: Manny Medina, Rokk3r Labs, and Felecia Hatcher and Michael Hall of Digital Grass. It is a great time to be here, like the early days of the Internet. The one thing missing is seed capital. That needs to change. Here you have lot of opportunities but the money is not here. We raised our money in New York, and had to fight tooth and nail to be here.

Q. What is the biggest takeaway you’d like readers to take from your book?

A. Their voices are needed today, not tomorrow. We are all techies and you can make an impact leveraging technology and you don’t have to a rocket scientist to do that. The book offers practical advice on ways to get started, testing your model and making your mark on our world.

This is all stuff I have been through and I have used whether it was going from McDonald’s to Boeing, or when I lost everything and had to come back again. A lot of my mistakes are what I draw from — this is my playbook and I am opening it up and sharing it with others.

Q. What advice do you have for students interested in tech?

A. I think it is a great time to be in tech, stay up to date with the industry. It'a not just what you learn in the classroom, read the trades, the daily newspaper, you need to know the industry.

Also, find someone in your industry you admire and try to connect with them — with all the social networks around this is very possible today. You might have go reach out to hundreds, before you find one person, remember they get thousands of emails so don't give up or get discouraged just because you contact one person and don't hear back. Keep searching.

 

Mary Spio

Current position: CEO of Next Galaxy Media

Career highlights: Patent-holding deep-space scientist at Boeing and other companies. Serial entrepreneur and consultant. She has worked with and/or provided content development, marketing and technical expertise to over 200 leading retailers, corporations and entertainers including Microsoft xBox, Tribune News Company, Coca Cola, Toyota, Mary J. Blige and Lebron James. Spio is on the USA Today panel of CEOs, presidents, founders and chairmen where she advises on leadership trends annually and is a speaker for the U.S. State Department on innovation and entrepreneurship.

New book: “It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success.”

Age: 42

Lives in: Miami Beach

Education: Majored in engineering at Syracuse University and earned her graduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science, with an emphasis on deep-space communications, from Georgia Tech.

Favorite movies: “Avatar,” “Unforgiven” and “The Butler.”

 

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

March 29, 2015

Q&A: Technion's role in Israel's Startup Nation immense

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

TPeretz Laviehe Technion developed into a world-class research university out of necessity.

As President Peretz Lavie explains it, although the Israeli university’s roots date back to 1912 as an engineering school, it wasn’t until 1948 that Technion began its transformation into a leading research institution. Simply put, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion believed the new state of Israel needed aeronautical expertise to power its Air force to defend the country; now aeronautics is one of the largest industrial complexes in Israel, he said.

 And that was just the beginning, Prof. Lavie said. “We have become a world class university, with 3 ½ Nobel laureates and a global presence, and we are the cornerstone of Startup Nation.”

The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology is a public research university in Haifa, Israel that offers  degrees in science and engineering, architecture, medicine, industrial management and education. With 18 academic departments and some 50 research centers, it is often grouped with  Stanford and MIT, universities that have played outsized roles in building their entrepreneurial ecosystems. Israel's movement, powered by Technion, is dubbed Startup Nation. The USB flash drive, drip irrigation, a Parkinson’s drug, the Iron Dome air defense system, the data compression algorithm used in pdfs, and instant messaging are some of the inventions developed at Technion or by alumni.

Prof. Lavie, who grew up in Israel but earned his PhD in physio-psychology (a precursor to neuroscience) at the University of Florida, joined Technion in 1975 to set up a sleep research lab. He worked his way up and became president in 2009. He’s also started two medical device companies and two medical service providers.

In 2011, a bid by a consortium of Cornell University and Technion won a competition to establish a new high-tier applied science and engineering institution in New York City. A state-of-the-art tech campus, the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, is being built on Roosevelt Island, while the campus is currently housed in Google’s mammoth New York offices.

Technion is also establishing a technological institute in Guangdong Province, China. As part of the agreement, the Li Ka Shing Foundation will donate $130 million to Technion – the largest donation in the university’s history.

Lavie talked with the Miami Herald when he was in town earlier this month for an American Technion Society board meeting. Here are excerpts of the conversation.

Q. How did Technion become a powerhouse for high-tech?

A. In 1969, the Technion established a micro-electronics institute, when no one had heard of it. After the ‘67 war, we needed night vision devices and infrared sensors, there was no knowledge in Israel but Technion established the institute to produce the first semiconductors.  ... If you ask anyone where the high-tech sector in Israel started, everyone would say ’69 in the Technion. This is where they started to teach microelectronics, this is where semiconductors were produced, this is where it all started. …

The same year the faculty split into electrical engineering and computer science, these two are the backbone of the Israeli high tech sector.in 69 The Technion also decided to open a faculty of medicine. It was again prophetic -- the decision was made because in the future, medicine and technology would work hand in hand. This is why Israel now is an empire of medical devices.

Today, a 10 minutes’ drive from the Technion you will find Yahoo and Google and Intel and H-P and Philips and GE and now Apple, relying on Technion students and Technion graduates.

I just completed a study on companies established in the last 20 years by Technion graduates.  Of the 2,000 companies, ... 169 were established outside Israel, mostly in the U.S., the rest, more than 1,800 were in Israel. The number of jobs was 100,000, the mergers and acquisitions [activity] was $28 billion, the total money raised was $6 billion. ... And if you ask them why they are doing it, they want to change the world; it’s not the money.

Q. Sounds like you don’t have a problem with brain drain.

A. Brain drain is not an issue and I’ll tell you why. Intel is largest tech employer with 8,000 or 9,000 jobs. Intel in Israel was started by a Technion [graduate who moved back from the U.S.]. Same with Applied Materials, same with Apple, and others.

When we established a branch in New York together with Cornell, everyone said ‘oh, you will cause brain drain of Israelis to New York.’ I said ‘no, what we will do is attract second generation Israelis in the U.S., including as faculty members.

I don’t think all immigrant groups have a deep sense of responsibility. A large number of Israelis feel a lot of responsibility for Israel. Israel is a startup experience on its own; there is a shared sense of responsibility.

Q. What has Technion’s role been in the tech boom of Israel?

A. MIT did a study on universities that turned their areas into ecosystems of innovation and entrepreneurship. … MIT and Stanford were No.1 and 2, and Technion was no. 6 -- it changed the ecosystem of its country. When they asked the experts to rerate only the ones in challenging environments, Technion was no. 1.

Great universities need to attract top students, to attract top faculty, and the third is a mission. A university must have a mission. The mission is part of the Technion DNA -- To serve the country, to serve mankind. During the Russian immigration wave of the ‘90s, a wave of a million people within a span of five years, Technion stood up to the challenge. We increased the number of students by almost 30 percent in one year. We have a pre-academic center for minorities, every year we have 700 of them, and students are accepted without affirmative action; 67 percent are making it [into Technion].

Arab Israelis 10 years ago were 7 percent of the Technion students. The dropout rate was 40 percent. We started bringing the top kids from all the villages into the program, appointed them a big brother or sister, and held regular discussion groups. Fast forward 10 years, 20 percent of our students are Arab and the dropout rate is 13 percent, about the same as the Israel population. 48 percent of those students are Arab women in all the faculties.’

Q. What about overall?

A. 37 percent women. But electrical engineering is still 15-20 percent. We are trying to move that. We started programs in the high schools, k-12, and to attract girls into science, math, physics.

Q. What other factors led to Startup Nation?

A. Two major characteristics I found are characteristics of Israelis. First, risk-taking behavior. ... The army service teaches you how to take risks. ... The second one is acceptance of failure. There are many countries where failure is not an option. In Israel, failure is part of the learning curve.

Then there is the emphasis on education, a Jewish tradition. But we don’t teach the materials, we are taught how to learn; it is a lifelong experience. I hear this  from our alumni, ‘we are taught how to learn … There is not a situation where we cannot cope.’

The fourth is the government during the ‘60s had the right policy when they started to support research, in companies.

Q. How is your global expansion progressing?

A. Mayor Bloomberg, I admire him for his vision. When I met with him, I said why Technion? He said I am envious of Silicon Valley and Route 128 [in Boston] and I want New York to be the capital of technology.

We are now temporarily at Google headquarters in Chelsea, I asked Eric Schmidt why, and he said we want to be close to you. You need the nucleus of academic excellence that will attract faculty, students and customers. This is a unique to have a degree in applied science and engineering. No excuses. Its tailor made for the industries of New York. We started with The Connective Media, including a major publication. Next year we have are going to open The Healthier Life. The third one is The Built Environment, to open in 2017.

We would like to be close to you. This is the key.

.... [In China,] hopefully we will get the greenlight and start in 2017; we have appointed a leader already. Cornell and China were our first expansions, and we won’t do anymore. With 14,000 students and 600 faculty, we can’t spread ourselves too thin. But I must say we became the most courted boy on the block. We have strategic agreements with the University of Michigan, Toronto, MIT, Cornell and several leading European universities. It’s exciting."

Q. What brought you to  Miami this month?

A. I was here for a board meeting of the American Technion Society. The backbone of our support has come from the American Technion society established in 1940. Without their support we would just be another college in the Middle East. We don’t get research and development funding form the Israeli government … I travel here and crisscross the country twice a year to meet our supporters. This is amazing, the dedication, the love for our institute -- now we have third and fourth generation families that support Technion.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. 

See related story on Miami startup delegation's knowledge exchange in Israel as part of AJC's Project Interchange.