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Vox Popular | May 2016

   
 Photo by Don Perry

Q&A with Leslie Lynn Smith

RSVP Editor Rachel Warren met with Leslie Lynn Smith, president of EPIcenter (The Entrepreneurship-Powered Innovation Center) to discuss the organization’s mission of creating 500 companies and 1,000 entrepreneurs in Memphis by 2024 through four areas of support: Idea Creation, Development, Funding and Growth. Smith, the former CEO of TechTown Detroit, discusses her passion for economic justice and her plans for a more vibrant Memphis.

What is the mission of EPIcenter?

Smith: The EPIcenter was born out of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle’s moon missions. The moon missions center around such topics as green spaces, education, clean spaces and entrepreneurship. These were the goals that Chairman’s Circle created to help Memphis become a more dense and vibrant city. One of those moon missions was to create 500 jobs and serve 1,000 entrepreneurs over the course of 10 years. It was from there that the idea for the EPIcenter was hatched. The EPIcenter is the hub of that entrepreneurial movement designed to create those companies and serve those entrepreneurs. We work to co-create the vision for that work with our partners, stakeholders, and community members and set the strategies for executing against that vision. Secondarily, we are trying to attract additional resources to that body of work so that we can create programs that fill gaps and strengthen organizations that are already doing great work but need additional investment to be truly extraordinary and grow into other areas of the city. Lastly, really we want to measure, evaluate and communicate the impact of that work. We believe that when we have created that, we will not only have started a bunch of companies and served many entrepreneurs, but, also, we will have been a significant part of creating an engaged and vibrant city, which, to me, will be the true measure. EPIcenter is housed at Memphis Bioworks, our host. When the Chairman’s Circle launched this initiative, they looked for a partner in the community who could add experience and was a trusted partner that could house this initiative during its earliest startup phases. It has been a perfect partnership. 

What attracted you to working with EPIcenter?

Smith: I was doing very similar work in Detroit since 2008. Part of those years, I worked as a state employee focused on the macro-innovation economy. Then in 2010, I ran an organization in the city doing very similar things to EPIcenter – systems management and collaborative impact stuff. We were working on trying to move Detroit forward, post-bankruptcy and during the aftermath of the crash of the auto industry, and focus on a new innovative economy. We tried to find ways to adapt entrepreneurial programming into 2008 Detroit at a pace that would allow us to expand the economy but also to attract capital, talent and bigger corporations into the sphere of activity in Detroit. I think that largely has worked. Over the course of that time, I become deeply, personally and professionally interested in economic justice and how these strategies are typically focused in city centers. I wanted to make sure that those resources and those opportunities for economic growth were moved throughout community and not stuck in the middle where so few have access to them. We built programs that literally carried those opportunities and resources into communities and into areas across the city of Detroit. We learned a lot about what the conditions of under-invested communities are like and what the challenges of marginalized communities are and how they vary city from city. These challenges include issues of transportation, infrastructure, safety, lighting and access to quality childcare. We really learned to bring together folks and solve complex problems. I came to believe that some of the things we were learning in Detroit could be adapted across the country and into other American cities because I don’t actually believe this narrative that it’s Memphis against New Orleans against Little Rock against Nashville, etc. I think American cities are in a pretty significant fight to stabilize across the nation, and we have to learn from each other and learn best practices. I thought that there was some value in my being in a new environment and providing what I learned from Detroit, not as an overlay or as a solution, but maybe as a perspective that we could bring to the conversation. Memphis was very interesting for me for many reasons because I feel that it is a city with a real determination and commitment to be extraordinary. There is a will here to do hard and courageous things. I felt drawn to that.

What are some of the things you will be focusing on in the next couple of months in Memphis in terms of entrepreneurial growth?

Smith:  My first year at EPIcenter was really my year of discovery, finding out who is doing what and studying their impacts and struggles and so forth. Also, I studied how we can be good partners to these entities. We had to tear down some walls of concern or competition and address issues, perceived or real issues, of scarcity of resources and the competition that is developed as a part of that mindset. We had to really come to understand what the resource needs are, what programmatic strengths that could be scaled were, and where programmatic gaps were that needed to be filled. In the strengths, we have found the local accelerators, which are really nationally competitive and regionally very productive, are attracting an astonishing number of people outside of the region into Memphis, which is a really interesting element of our strength. One of the things we are doing this year, which is the year of action, is bringing all of those accelerators together for the “Summer of Acceleration” in an unprecedented collaboration for the region and, we think, possibly the country, but also we do this with the hope of creating that culture and community of entrepreneurship that we talked about really through the sheer density and intersection of all those activities. I expect the results to be very, very powerful. One of our opportunities is, I think, using some of the really impactful programs as model for other communities. Two that really stand out to me are Advance Memphis and Community LIFT. There are dozens of others, but I use those as examples of things that are working really well in the communities where they sit. I think that if the programs from these two organizations were prototyped and laid across other communities, they could add value almost instantaneously. Another of our goals is figuring out how we fund those initiatives to be spread across the community. The third thing we have done is identify where those gaps are. There are a couple of gaps that we are most concerned about. One is the city’s capital space and that is really just making sure that community-based entrepreneurship to tech-based entrepreneurship has capital moving out all stages of company development. Right now, in the high-tech space, there is some good pre-seed and seed funding. We do pretty well there in the high-tech spaces. To pull together anything beyond that, we are struggling. In Memphis, we don’t have the capacity right now for this and we have been going outside of the city to find it. So I see real potential in building some funds across that continuum here. On the community-based entrepreneurship side, you’ll hear it, and I hear it constantly, we have plenty of capital. While we do have plenty of capital, that capital is not being fully deployed. You can have capital but if it is not moving into the market then it’s not the right capital. So we are looking at more flexible, lower-sized, lower-priced capital that can work in those earliest stages so that entrepreneurs can build into being able to access all of this capital that is currently situated in Memphis. Another area that we are focusing on right now are organized talent programs. In Memphis, we don’t have the benefit of having a bunch of serial entrepreneurs. We only have a small handful of them and, unfortunately, they are all actively involved in their next startup. We are trying to develop an executive entrepreneur-in-residence program, which we hope will attract some serials who are on the sidelines. We have also been thinking about venture fellows. Lastly, we are working to better connect startups to costumers. We have this Chariman’s Circle made up of all of these potential customers, and we are not engaging them as effectively as we could be. I believe that is the case just because, at the moment, we don’t have someone here waking up everyday thinking about that issue. It has always sort of been an afterthought. Sometimes, I meet people whose business is based here in Memphis, and their company is growing well, but most of their customers are all located outside of Memphis, despite the fact that they are personally and professionally based in Memphis. That for me is a real opportunity to bring this group of companies together that haven’t yet tapped into the Memphis market. I want to get them in front of Memphis consumers and close these deals locally because, if that business’ capital comes from outside along with their talent and revenue, then that company is at risk of leaving Memphis. The more capital, talent and customers they can get here in Memphis, the better chances we are going to have of keeping that company here. We say this a lot, the resources for entrepreneurs are hidden in plain sight. EPIcenter is trying to shine a light on those resources and make sure there aren’t any holes in the demonstration of those resources. We also see that everyone in Memphis is aware that there is an entrepreneurial movement headed their way. They can see and feel it. We are hosting events in uncommon spaces as well so that we are going to people and not the other way around. We recently met at the Lester Community Center to speak about tech in the city. Soon, we are going to do a meeting the National Civil Rights Museum and at CoWork Memphis. We want to shock people a bit about how they think about this by doing things that are out of the ordinary, which we think is important as we are changing hearts and minds.

What makes Memphis a good fit for potential entrepreneurs?

Smith: I think we have an entrepreneurial legacy. I think we have played in industry sectors that are critical to the American narrative, particularly in things like music. I think that the entrepreneurial activities of Memphis still live on today. The single most important logistics company in the world was founded here, so there is this rich and deep heritage from grocery stores to hotels. I think that spirit lives and breathes in the soil here. I think Memphis is a city on the rise and people that want to be a part of building the future of a place will find room for themselves here. The city is open to taking risks and being bold. It is just a great place, physically and geographically. In terms of affordability, when you are launching a business, Memphis is very affordable when it comes to acquiring top-notch partners, space and access to support such as fairly priced lawyers and accountants. That is a huge advantage for a startup company. The most important part about Memphis to me is that Memphis just has a real vibe. It is a wicked cool place to be. It is a complex city but that makes it fun and real.

Where would you like EPIcenter to be in the next five years?

Smith: I am in the process of raising $100 million to fuel this work here locally over the next 10 years. We know that is how much it takes because we used that model in Detroit and, also, because we created that model based on multiple other cities in similar conditions. My big audacious goal is to get us, as a community, to make a significant commitment to this work so that we can be the significant impact that we so deeply desire. We don’t want to miss this opportunity by glossing over it.