Since March 2014, Rebecca Lovell has been working for Seattle’s Office of Economic Development as the city’s startup liaison, and is heading up the city’s Startup Seattle initiative. Created based on the recommendation of a technology industry task force that first convened in 2012, the position serves to meet the needs of a changing technological landscape in which small groups of people can apply their talents and bring their ideas alive to make a big difference.
In an interview with Government Technology, Lovell explained her role with the city and her desire to make the role irrelevant.
What do you do as Seattle's Startup Liaison?
My primary role is to connect startups to resources. I do that through our website, through meeting with entrepreneurs face-to-face, and beyond that, I work on improving the health and success of the startup community by expanding the talent pipeline, particularly with young women and students of color who have been historically underrepresented in technology.
It is also my job to promote the success of the region so I can measure and track activity from new startups to investments to other success stories. I’m also working on supporting the next innovation district here in Seattle [in the University District]. That’s several prongs of the overall campaign to make Seattle the best place in the world to start up.
Is there anything that sets Seattle apart from other cities or regions?
I think the good news is when you think of the success factors of a startup ecosystem, we have so many of them already. We have this great research institution in the University of Washington. We do have some solid investors who are really focused on Seattle area businesses. … And Seattle has 27 co-working spaces.
What my role is is maybe a little bit unique compared to other geographies. It’s really about connecting the dots, whether it’s helping entrepreneurs navigate the existing ecosystem -- and that is the vast majority of what people come to me with in office hours. A lot of what I do is make introductions, connect them to other resources, so I play kind of a triage role if you will.
The other piece, too, when it comes to the talent pipeline is we have youth afterschool programs, community leaders who are engaging youths, and they have all the willingness and ability in the world, and what we’ve been missing so far is access and opportunity. So one thing I’ve done with this role is to connect students – and I’m really focusing primarily on girls and students of color – to visible, accessible role models in the tech and startup community. They’ve visiting tech companies, they’ve had hands-on experiences with weekend events, which I underwrote and co-organized.
They’re not all going to go into startup tech, but we want to open the possibility for them and give them these really meaningful professional experiences like a startup weekend to help inspire them along the way. It’s really playing that role of convener and dot-connector that I think is one thing that’s special about the way the city’s chosen to engage in the ecosystem.
Have you encountered any cultural barriers in trying to reach black or Latino youths?
The way I have chosen to navigate this is that I believe organic outreach makes the most sense. Me just showing up and trying to apply some schema doesn’t make any kind of sense. I feel like any organism would reject that type of a transplant, so I reach out to community leaders, whether it’s women engineers, African-American community leaders who are working with students in after-school programs, and make sure that I am connecting them with role models. So when we did this tech tour, I arranged that five engineers of color would be available to do a Q&A with students after they toured the awesome facility. So they’re not hearing from me about why it’s so awesome to be a tech entrepreneur. They’re hearing from people who are like them and accessible and visible and have carved out meaningful career paths for themselves. So I think that sort of peer-to-peer connection is the most powerful tool that we can engage in social change. And the same goes for women. I had this group of five women engineers talk to a group of young women who had gone through a coding summer camp at the University of Washington.
If your budget were to be cut in half, what’s the one program you would keep?
I think as we look at budget cuts, the way I would re-prioritize is where can we build capacity? And frankly, even with the same budget, that is a challenge. Instead of doing the work myself, it’s about empowering others to continue to work, to create a playbook for, "Here’s how we do tech tours, here’s how we do coding boot camps, here’s what we’re thinking for hackathons and internships." So it’s all about creating that playbook and working myself out of a job, one community at a time, and that’s the goal.
Some of the other aspects of the program in terms of tracking our progress, in terms of promoting our work, in terms of supporting the innovation district, there are other entities that are doing some of that. They may not be doing it at the city level, but it’s at the state level. The private sector is taking care of co-working spaces. The one piece I think is so important for the public sector to engage in is a social justice element. There’s no private party right now who is advocating across the city for youth engagement and not just education, but hands-on entrepreneurial experiences. So if I can only do one thing, it would be to continue and scale to capacity building the work that we’re doing in underserved youth communities around tech startups.
What was the idea behind creating the Startup Flowchart? Did you feel there was a lack of clarity in the community about how to get started?
Yeah, exactly. It’s not necessarily rocket science if you’ve been doing it for 10 years, but a lot of the entrepreneurs I meet with are new to startups. They have great technical chops or business chops, they just need to have a checklist of what to do, because so many of them are asking me, "What does it take to get funding?" Well, gosh, we’ve got all these other things we’ve got to check off your to-do list before you’re investment ready. So that was the goal, because something like 38 percent of the people I met with needed help understanding the financing landscape and, more often than not, we backed into customer validation, "Do you have a co-founder," all of these success factors you really need to get in line before you seek outside investment. So I found value, again, along the lines of working myself out of a job in housing that in one place, so people had an easy, one-stop-shop.
What advice would you give to someone in your position or similar, perhaps coming from a city not quite as developed as Seattle?
One thing that I learned very quickly is that if you’re resource-constrained and one person, you can’t create all the content, you can’t produce all the events. The role, and my mantra, I keep reminding myself, is that it’s about aggregating best in breed, curating so it’s meaningful to the community, and promoting. So, again, I’m playing this sort of connector, convener, megaphone type of role, versus being in production mode, because that is not scalable yet. You have to ask yourself what can scale. So in doing so, one of the first things I did was make the most exhaustive list I could of existing community leaders, such that I could connect them to students or introduce them to entrepreneurs who are struggling with a market strategy, and so knowing who your own personal resources are in terms of entrepreneurial leaders in the community, and engaging them and making the community the best it can be, that’s where success lies.
If you read Brad Feld’s Startup Communities, entrepreneurs are the beating heart of this ecosystem, and my job is to connect them to all the other planets that are in their orbit, if you will. So thinking about scale, thinking about aggregating, curating and promoting, and thinking about empowering leaders and building their capacity to carry on your work -- that is what I believe success will look like over time. And we have already had some experiments that are showing some great promise.