#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Courtney Klein, Founder at SEED SPOT, and C’pher Gresham, National Director of Expansion at SEED SPOT (Phoenix, AZ)
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What’s your role in the Phoenix ecosystem?
Courtney Klein: Having co-founded SEED SPOT 5 years ago, my role has varied from convener, organizer, inspirer, partnership builder, and ultimately a champion for ALL entrepreneurs. As SEED SPOT has grown into a national organization, I get to share the magic and stories of the Phoenix ecosystem and SEED SPOT.
C’pher Gresham: While in Phoenix, I was focused on galvanizing a community around SEED SPOT entrepreneurs and highlighting the work on a national scope. As I have transitioned to being based in DC and working with municipalities nationally and globally, I am actively looking for resources and partnerships that can aid Phoenix and its entrepreneurs.
What does SEED SPOT do?
Courtney: As an early stage incubator for social ventures, we are the biggest advocate and supporter for our entrepreneurs. We provide them with an immense amount of support ranging from top tier mentors, access to content experts, and other needed resources when going from back of the napkin idea to a growing venture. We run a series of programs—a 5-day Boot Camp for specific populations, a 12-week Evening program for working professionals, and an intensive 14-week Full-time program. These programs meet the entrepreneurs at the stage appropriate for them.
SEED SPOT doesn’t stop with only serving adults, but we run SEED SPOT NEXT that brings social entrepreneurship education to middle and high school across the country. SEED SPOT NEXT prepares students to help prepare and support the next generation of entrepreneurs. We work any type of school; public, private, charter, montessori or independent. Through SEED SPOT NEXT, we run two programs: one full year course taught during school hours by a teacher trained in our curriculum, and one after school program that empowers a teacher or administrator to host an extracurricular course.
Overall, we are a feeder to a growing ecosystem, tapping into very early stage ideas and helping them blossom into reality. We do this by bringing together a community of mentors, experts, and many other resources that every entrepreneur can capitalize on to start up a new venture.
C’pher: I agree, we are collaborative and work with organizations that typically do not engage in entrepreneurship training and ecosystem building. Two examples, we work with Univision and the International Rescue Committee to expand our reach into all communities in Arizona. This is core to our role—we build on ramps into entrepreneurial ecosystems for diverse communities and support entrepreneurs that are too young or not scalable enough for other entrepreneur support organizations.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in Phoenix in the past year?
Courtney: Each year Phoenix continues to grow and shine. There have been more groups coming to Phoenix and shining the spotlight on the ecosystem—from the expansion of Galvanize to Steve Case's Rise of the Rest tour—the momentum is only continuing to build. Not only are entrepreneur support organizations looking at Phoenix, so are national media outlets! There have been numerous features of Phoenix based entrepreneurs in publications and outlets ranging from Good Morning America to the Huffington Post.
What is the biggest challenge you face in Phoenix?
Courtney: Educating investors on impact investing is a challenge. There are more than 114,000 millionaires in Arizona, more than triple the amount that live in neighboring Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. However, many of these potential investors see social entrepreneurship as a philanthropic effort when in fact SEED SPOT alumni ventures are both profitable and impactful. This is an issue across the board in impact investing, not just in Arizona, but we are seeing more investors leverage their capital to drive financial returns and impact.
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
Courtney: There are a number of incredible players in the startup ecosystem that are doubling down and investing in startups in Arizona. For example, Phoenix has a number of great coworking spaces, such as CO+HOOTS, Desk Hub, and Galvanize. We’re also home to Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University, and a number of other schools with programs that prepare students to work for, invest in, and create their own startup companies. Additionally, we’ve got a very involved corporate community: law firms like Perkins Coie, Weiss Brown, DLA Piper, and Hool Coury do a lot of work with Phoenix’s startups, and some even offer scaled payment systems or pro bono services.
Oh, and we can’t leave #yesphx and the StartupAZ Foundation off the list! #yesphx started as a hashtag for startup activity in our community, but has grown into a resource that works to connect and share the awesome things happening in our ecosystem. StartupAZ is a resource to encourage more high growth companies to scale and provide more connections for founders.
C’pher: As the National Director of Expansion, I have had the honor of working with other ecosystems around the country. There are several recurring themes in most communities around access to capital, access to mentors, and a cluster of industries. In Phoenix, there are a cluster of amazing founders and companies, such as the founders at Insight, WebPT, Local Motors, Infusionsoft, and Lifelock, that all are involved in the ecosystem. The commitments of individuals to raise the tide in Phoenix has made it a very special place to be a founder and much easier to be directed to the appropriate resources.
What are the most unique features of your startup community?
Courtney: From the beginning the Phoenix community has been supportive and collaborative. The ease of access for entrepreneurs in Phoenix is something we consistently hear as a huge asset. Most folks are open to a conversation or a meeting with an early stage company and you cannot find that type of access in some cities.
C’pher: As a transplant from the East Coast to Phoenix, the first thing I saw in Phoenix was a lack of ego. This impressed the heck out of me and I saw this mentality created more trust, collaboration, and ultimately a supportive environment for early stage business growth. You can see some of this paying off in a place like Phoenix’s Warehouse District, which is having a renaissance and becoming a central hub for startups and technology (Galvanize just opened its new location in this neighborhood, for example).
Are there specific public policies that have enabled innovation or startup growth in Phoenix?
Courtney: We introduced and passed the Benefit Corporation legislation in Arizona back in 2013 with the awesome support of Goodman Schwartz public affairs team. We wanted to put Phoenix on the map early for being a state that welcomed businesses that were launching for public benefit.
Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers (engaged with them on policy issues, hosted them at SEED SPOT, etc.)?
Courtney: At the national level, we have had several representatives from Congress come on tours of our space, and Congressman Schweikert has spoken to SEED SPOT ventures on a few occasions as well. The Small Business Administration has also been a big supporter of our efforts, and SEED SPOT actually was a recipient of one of the agency’s Growth Accelerator Fund Competition grants in 2015 and 2016.
C’pher: Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has also been a huge proponent of our growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. He regularly speaks at startup-related events and attends meetings, meetups, and startup weekend programs. He also helped host Steve Case and the Rise of the Rest tour here last October, bringing national attention to our startup community.
If you had one wishlist item for something policy leaders could do to help your startup ecosystem, what would it be?
Courtney: Invest in entrepreneurship education in the K-12 system. We need more problem solvers and we have to start earlier. SEED SPOT NEXT helps to bridge this gap, but it would be great if policymakers did more to support this type of learning.
What is your goal for the next year? The next 5 years?
Courtney: To continue to grow a movement of impact-driven problem solvers. We are excited to have a second location in Washington, DC and we plan to continue expanding SEED SPOT NEXT youth-focused program to high schools and middle schools across the country.
What are some other startups to watch coming out of Phoenix (or SEED SPOT, more specifically)?
C’pher: This is the hardest question to answer! We love every founder we work with and celebrate them every single day. You can see SEED SPOT Full-time program alumni here.