How can Fort Wayne compete in the global economy? Electric Works could be key

How can a city like Fort Wayne compete in the global economy?

Travis Sheridan, President of the Cambridge Innovation Center’s (CIC) Venture Café Global Institute, believes the answer comes down to two words that go hand-in-hand: Entrepreneurship and inclusion.

Last week, Electric Works invited Sheridan to speak on both topics at two free, public events in Fort Wayne, offering the Summit City a glimpse of what his organization is doing around the world—and a vision for what it could accomplish in northeast Indiana.

Venture Café began in 2009 out of a coworking space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a way for all residents of the Boston area to grow their knowledge and launch businesses. 

The idea was to level the playing field for innovators by hosting free, weekly events on Thursday nights called Thursday Gatherings with workshops, talks, forums, pitch events, hackathons, and more open to anyone who wants to attend.

Over the years, Venture Café has added onto its vision and events, expanding to St. Louis, Missouri, in 2014 where Sheridan lives and leads operations.

Today, the organization has a network of Venture Cafes in communities around the world—from emerging markets to established global capitals.

Joyce Chen, Global Expansion Lead for Venture Café, says the organization connects entrepreneurs both within their cities and with a broader network of creative thinkers everywhere. She and Sheridan hope to expand this network to Fort Wayne in the near future—if and when the Electric Works campus becomes a reality.

Part of the proposed $220 million project will repurpose the former General Electric campus as a mixed-use innovation district with up to 80,000 square feet of space for early-stage businesses.

But after 10 months of lengthy negotiations with developers, the City of Fort Wayne has yet to finalize agreements for the project to begin.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Sheridan to learn more about his journey as an entrepreneur, his vision for Venture Café Global Institute, and his view on how an inclusive community of innovators could develop in Fort Wayne—with all bets hinging on Electric Works.

Attendees mingle at Venture Cafe St. Louis.

IFW: Tell us about your background. What got you interested in working with startups in the first place?

TS: I have a varied background because I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, it was probably only three years ago that I nailed it and understood.

Academically, I studied organizational psychology, and I started doing some change management consulting for mid-sized California companies.

The companies were usually run by 45-55-year-old white males. They would be the CEO that would hire me to come in and figure out what was wrong with their organization. 

I’d spend three months in the organization, and by the end of the three months, it was pretty obvious what was wrong: The person who hired me.

So I had to play this little game where I would get the second half of my retainer while I handed them the report at the same time.

It was probably 2005 when I wanted to get out of that line of work. I wasn’t happy doing it. A friend of mine (in California) was running a business incubator, and I had no idea what that was at the time. (It houses and helps early-stage companies.)

So we were having a drink one night, and he said, “Hey Travis, instead of working with 20-year-old companies that are toxic, what if you could work with an entrepreneur on Day 1, so they don’t have to hire you 20 years later?”

So that’s how I got into working with startups.

What I like about it is, this organization I was working for at the time was funded through economic development dollars, and it essentially said, “We’re going to shift our focus. We can chase smokestacks, or we can build smokestacks. Let’s get into building smokestacks.”

IFW: You live in St. Louis, Missouri, now. What brought you to St. Louis?

TS: My wife and I lived in California, but my wife is a librarian, and public librarians aren’t paid very well in California, so we started looking elsewhere. She has family in St. Louis, so it was very much like a Fort Wayne sort of story.

She boomeranged back. I came with her. We landed in economic development here, and four years ago, I was given the opportunity to launch Venture Café in its first expansion in St. Louis, so it’s been great.

IFW: You launched the first branch of Venture Café in St. Louis in 2014. But how did Venture Café originally begin?

TS: It started with the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC). It’s a shared workspace out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded in 1999.

About 10 years into their existence, they were doing well. Tenants were moving into the building. But the tenants went to the CEO and Founder Tim Rowe, and said, “Tim, this place is great, but how do we get to know each other? It’s cool to be here, but real estate without heart is just space.”

So Tim thought about it, brought some smart people together, and said, “What if we create a bar or a restaurant? People like to hang out at bars and restaurants.”

That was the initial idea, so that’s why it’s called Venture Café.

But then they started doing some research and seeing how people interact at bars and cafes. People don’t usually just come up to someone they don’t know and start a conversation. The other part about cafes is, people often put their headphones on and get down to work.

So they thought, “Let’s think of the term café in more of a European sense of the word. Let’s think of it as a way to bring smart people together.”

So that was the focus in 2009, and in 2010, it launched in Boston at CIC.

Venture Cafe offers free presentations and weekly events for innovators.

IFW: At your talk in Fort Wayne, you spoke a lot about invitation and access—how merely inviting people to something is different from making resources accessible to them. How did Venture Café break down barriers and make itself accessible to the broader Boston community?

TS: CIC is expensive as an office space, so Venture Café had to figure out: How do you provide access to the talent that’s here if a person can’t afford to be working in here, and how do you reach a broader community than the folks who are already here?

That was the idea behind the programming for Venture Café.

It started with a Thursday Gathering that runs 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and happens 50 times a year, so every week they’re doing it. Then there’s generally 8-12 educational sessions that go on each week, as well, on Tuesday and Wednesdays.

So it’s like a small conference every single week for free.

It’s free to attend, free beer and wine, and for the people who are presenting, it’s not a pay-to-play environment.

IFW: So how does it work? How is it funded?

TS: A lot is through corporate sponsorship. Venture Café is a nonprofit organization, so it can apply for grants.

The corporates like it because in Boston, over the course of a year, about 25,000 people attend. The grant funders like it because, over the course of a year, that’s 500 free education sessions that are available to the community, so it hits a lot buttons, and it’s a safe place for people to come and explore.

In 2012, they started looking at expansion, and it takes a few years to expand, so St. Louis was their first expansion city, and that’s where I jump into the story.

Venture Cafe St. Louis has a cafe-like environment.

IFW: Why did Venture Café look to a mid-size, Midwestern city like St. Louis for its first expansion?

TS: When they were looking at expansion, they initially thought: “We’re in Cambridge, so let’s go to Cambridge analogs. Let’s go to San Francisco, Austin, Tel Aviv, London, New York.”

Then they realized that those markets were satiated, so they said, “Let’s do something else. Let’s go back to our origins. We started in 1999. What communities look like Cambridge circa 1999?”

They were looking for the existence of higher education, like Harvard and MIT, and investment in the creation of an innovation district.

They were looking for places where the political and civic leadership were all doubling down on innovation, and that’s how they discovered St. Louis.

St. Louis has Washington University’s medical school and St. Louis University’s medical school, as well as a 200-acre innovation park that was still relatively young at the time.

It also has a low cost for risk, and that’s a very key piece: Where can you have some calculated risks?

Venture Café also played a leadership role in developing Cambridge, so they wanted to play a leadership role in St. Louis, too. We talk about innovation as a process to improve the human condition, and we know it’s not just about tech.

Innovation in healthcare means better quality of life. Innovation in education means smarter people, and innovation in the arts means more accessibility. Of course, innovation in commercial settings means money, too, so it’s all going to improve the quality of life.

That’s our vision now: We go to places where we can play a leadership role in developing, but at the same time, we can’t only be in those emerging markets.

We have to be in the substantial markets as well or else these emerging markets don’t have resources for growth.

It’s good for a city like St. Louis or Fort Wayne to be in the same network as New York.

IFW: The real crux of Venture Café seems to be its weekly programming. Tell us more about those events.

TS: The programming that happens on Thursdays really brings multiple disciplines together. One of my favorite nights was a night on “risk,” and there was an acrobat and an attorney that sat side-by-side who gave talks on risk.

They both approach risk very differently, but their jobs both involve risk or mitigating risk, and there was a funny thing that happened.

It was a male attorney and a female acrobat, and in the middle of the conversation, the attorney turns to the acrobat and says, “I’m surprised you’re not wearing a leotard.” Because he was wearing a suit and tie.

It could have been taken as a very sexist remark, but without missing a beat, she turned back to him and said, “Unlike you, when I’m off work, I don’t wear my uniform.”

Why that’s so important about Venture Café is, each one of these people has a tribe, and usually, their tribes never interact. The artists and acrobats hang out with other artist and acrobats, and the lawyers hang out with other lawyers.

But at Venture Café, we bring these worlds together around the things that we all have in common, like the issue of risk.

This is not scientific, but I like to say that people are 98 percent similar and 2 percent different, and what makes Venture Café so cool is that we invite all of those 2 percents to come to the same room, and show that we all really get along.

Attendees at Venture Cafe St. Louis listen at an event.

IFW: A large part of your work is focused on inclusion and creating inclusive environments for entrepreneurs of different ethnic and financial backgrounds. Tell us more about that.

TS: By nature, innovation districts are elitist. Usually, it’s higher price points for rent and people with higher education in university. Even entrepreneurship itself tends to be geared toward people who have a safety net.

But that’s not the case for our most disenfranchised groups—be it women or minorities or immigrants or refugees.

I get really angry when people give talks on “celebrating failure.” That’s stupid. For some people, failure is catastrophic.

I always say: “Celebrate failure is the battle cry of the privileged.”

If you’re going to celebrate it, then you’ve got a huge safety net under you—either parents or venture capital or you’re employable in some other way.

So what we want to do is, we want to normalize failure instead.

IFW: How do you do that?

TS: I have a story I like to tell about my wife and I when we were first dating.

She was sitting across from me, and she said, “Travis you make me so happy.”

I responded with a stupid remark that I didn’t even think about at the time.

I said, “No, I create an environment in which your happiness is the most likely outcome.”

It’s a really nerdy, pragmatic way to look at it.

There might be a small niche on Etsy where I could sell that greeting card. (laughs) But I use that story a lot because that’s actually what we try to do through Venture Café.

We don’t make anybody successful. We don’t make stuff happen. But what we do is we try to create an environment in which success is the most likely outcome—or success is more likely than failure.

We’re not here to celebrate failure. But we say, “We have a bell curve, and on that bell curve, sometimes there’s going to be failure.

“So how do we mitigate that? How do we say that you’re going to have nine successes and three failures this year?”

That’s where the community comes in. It’s about people connecting with people.

IFW: Where do you see opportunities to create that type of community in Fort Wayne?

TS: I’ve had conversations this week with some of the economic development people in town, and I’ve been asking: What are you doing to build smokestacks? How are you building your next Sweetwater?

I think Fort Wayne is at a crossroads. There’s going to be decisions made that will greatly determine the future of Fort Wayne, and I don’t want to sound ominous, but I think that’s where Fort Wayne is.

In order for Venture Café to explore the city more and know that this is a city trending in the right direction, there are two things.

One is Electric Works has to happen. That’s not because I’m a lobbyist for Electric Works, but because Electric Works is a signal to the community—to Indiana and to the rest of the country or world—that Fort Wayne is serious.

Electric Works is a mixed-use, multi-phase development that seeks to create a hub of innovation in northeast Indiana.

For example, we’ve been working in Bilbao, Spain, and Bilbao has a Guggenheim. It’s a statement to the world that they are passionate about the arts, and it puts them on the map for that.

I see something like Electric Works as being Fort Wayne’s Guggenheim. It’s a cultural asset that is relevant to the world.

But what I sometimes see from elected officials is, they’ll say, “It costs $100 million to do this project, so what can we do for $40 million?”

That is really tragic to me because you end up still spending money, and not getting the impact you want. Then they’re like, “See, it didn’t work.”

You can’t do 90,000 square feet of Electric Works. You have to do Electric Works, and you have to have the intestinal fortitude to push in and wait.

This is not going to be an overnight success. This is going to be a heavy lift.

So Electric Works is the first thing. The second thing is sources of capital.

This goes back to an earlier conversation about disrupting economic development. I do not like current economic development practices of business attraction that is smokestack chasing—talks about: How can we get companies like Walmart to come here?

In this ecosystem, you should still be doing business attraction, but lop off zeros on both sides of the equation—smaller companies, creating smaller numbers of jobs.

You have to buy talent. There’s a program out of St. Louis called Arch Grants that I love, and that’s all it is. It’s St. Louis buying people’s talent to go there with their business.

The concern is, there aren’t enough ideas or startups in Fort Wayne right now, so you have to buy them.

Fort Wayne business leaders, sponsors, and community members pose with Sheridan during his visit.

IFW: What are some actionable ways Fort Wayne can follow St. Louis’s lead on buying talent?

TS: My recommendation to Fort Wayne is do a three-year pilot project, and offer a cohort of 20 $50,000 grants per year. Don’t space it out. It’s like: Here are 20 companies, and they’re coming to Fort Wayne right now.

You’re infusing people into the ecosystem immediately.

It costs $1 million, and it’s more like a $2 million budget because you’re subsidizing some of their spaces, as well, or you’re giving it away at Electric Works. That kind of thing.

But guess what? That isn’t much money. Those 20 companies will come with at least two people, usually a two-person founding team, not counting their partners or spouses that will come with them.

But let’s say they come just the two people. Twenty companies, and you get just the two people. That’s enough. That’s job creation, and it’s also hedging your bets.

Of those 20 companies, that’s 20 new smokestacks that you’re looking to build—not chase, but you’re building. And some of them are going to be good. And some of them aren’t. But you’re still creating jobs.

The organization in St. Louis that does this has like a 98 percent retention rate—not a success rate, but a retention rate.

That means, more than 90 percent of the people coming from elsewhere to St. Louis for a $50,000 grant are staying. Their obligation to stay there is one year, and they’re free to go after that. But they’re staying, and what’s been really great is, we’ve had a number of these entrepreneurs publish articles on websites like Mashable and some of the other tech beats about “Why I moved my company from San Francisco.”

They’re telling other people, “You need to look at St. Louis.” It’s their voice now.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.