#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Kelli Nowers, Vice President of Inclusion and Community Relations at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center
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.
Nashville’s startup ecosystem is fueled by the same creativity and enterprising spirit that earned the “Music City” its nickname. This week, we spoke with Kelli Nowers, who attributes Nashville’s success to Tennessee’s new Angel Tax Credit and the city’s ability to build upon its industrial past.
What’s your role in the Nashville-area startup ecosystem? How did you get involved working with startups in Nashville?
I am the VP of Inclusion and Community Relations at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center (EC), so I lead our organization's diversity and inclusion initiative and our partnerships with other entrepreneurial support organizations in Nashville. I have worked at the EC for almost four years and have seen incredible growth not only in our city as a whole but in the startup ecosystem specifically, which is so exciting! I started at the EC as an intern and have worn many hats since then.
Can you tell us more about what your organization does?
The Nashville Entrepreneur Center is a non-profit community organization with a mission to connect entrepreneurs with the critical resources required to create, launch and grow businesses. We offer startup curriculum, an Advisor Program, and industry immersion Portfolio programs (Project Healthcare and Project Music). We are also building Navigation, a service that connects entrepreneurs to the best-fitting resource in the city for their business needs.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened for Nashville's startup scene in the past year?
TN Angel Tax Credit to support early start up investment (see more info below)
What makes Nashville an ideal place to start a company? What is the biggest challenge you face in Nashville?
Tennessee as a whole is such a startup-friendly state, shown through organizations like LaunchTN, which leads a unique network of regional Entrepreneur Centers to connect startups with the mentors and investors they need to move from concept to market. Nashville specifically possesses many of the intangibles needed for a conducive startup environment: collaboration, creativity, and inclusivity. With 26+ colleges and universities and 11 vocational and technical schools in close proximity to the city, there is a unique talent pipeline, and the non-existent state income tax is a plus for most people looking to start a company. Most of the time, people in Nashville are eager to provide you support or connections, a benefit that still exists as a “small town in a big city”.
A challenge entrepreneurs face in Nashville is access to capital outside of the healthcare industry.
What industries have historically thrived in Nashville? How has this shaped the startup ecosystem there?
Nashville is widely known as Music City, so naturally we have a dense community of music industry professionals and organizations here; CMA, Sony, CAA, and BMI to name a few. However, the $10 billion music and entertainment industry is only second largest after Nashville’s $38.8 billion healthcare industry, lead by HCA Holdings Inc., CHS, and St. Thomas Health Services among others. These industry giants contribute to the abundance of partnership opportunities, capital and industry insights available for startups looking to disrupt the healthcare or music industries. Nashville’s proximity to these major players and decision-makers is definitely seen as an advantage and has shaped the influx of startups moving in to the city.Additional thriving industries in Nashville include travel and leisure (tourism), Printing and Book Publishing (Ingram Content Group), and Transportation Logistics.
Tell us a little more about Project Music and Project Healthcare?
Project Music: Based out of Music City, Project Music is the Nashville Entrepreneur Center’s leading action to foster innovation within the music industry, a core business vertical in Nashville's economy. To meet the unique needs of music-minded entrepreneurs building music-centric businesses, the EC is providing a year round music entrepreneurship focus that brings music, tech and business leaders together to nurture startups desiring to grow music industry revenue. Project Music was developed in partnership with the Country Music Association.
Through Project Music’s Portfolio program, we leverage the full support of our expertise and the Project Music network to accelerate the success of select music-minded entrepreneurs. This program is open to entrepreneurs running growth-oriented startups in the music industry. Enrolled entrepreneurs are provided with year-round, industry-leading on-demand support and quarterly programming. Program spots are limited and applications are competitive. Participants do not need to be based in Nashville, but must be able to attend a minimum of four, in person, intentionally curated events over the course of the year.
Project Healthcare: Project Healthcare is the Nashville Entrepreneur Center’s leading action to support transformation in the healthcare industry. The EC strategically focuses on healthcare entrepreneurship, bringing healthcare, tech, and business leaders together to nurture startups desiring to grow healthcare industry revenue. The initiative’s capstone is Project Healthcare Portfolio, a year-round program providing industry-leading on-demand support and quarterly programming.
Through Project Healthcare’s Portfolio program, we leverage the full support of our expertise and the Project Healthcare network to accelerate the success of select healthcare-minded entrepreneurs. This program is open to entrepreneurs running growth-oriented startups in the healthcare industry. Enrolled entrepreneurs are provided with year-round, industry-leading on-demand support and quarterly programming.
Program spots are limited and applications are competitive. Participants do not need to be based in Nashville, but must be able to attend four, in-person, intentionally curated events over the course of the year.
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
First, great partnerships. There has been a push to highlight and invest in ecosystems outside of the typical Silicon Valley, Boston and New York City ecosystems which has been beneficial for Nashville. Steve Case and the Rise of the Rest tour, which came to Nashville in 2014, is one of the biggest examples of this. The EC also has a partnership with the Google for Entrepreneurs Network that connects tech hubs and entrepreneur programs internationally to share best practices, industry insights and create sustainable ecosystems. Another input I think of immediately is the growth of entrepreneurial support organizations, like ours, that have been established to service many different types of entrepreneurs from high-growth to lifestyle, healthcare to fashion, those looking for investment or those just looking for help with Quickbooks. There really is a resource, mentor or event that can meet the needs of anyone looking to start a business.
Are there specific public policies or government initiatives that have enabled startup growth in Nashville?
The Angel Tax Credit is up to $50,000 applied to the Hall Income Tax liabilities of angels who invest in pre-qualified startups. By incentivizing support from new and existing angels, the credit creates more financing options for entrepreneurs. The Angel Tax Credit incentivizes support from new and existing angel investors, thereby providing more early stage capital for Tennessee startups. Angels can earn up to $50,000 in tax credits against their Hall Income tax liability for their investments in pre-qualified startups.
How involved are your government representatives in the Nashville startup space?
Nashville’s Mayor’s office, specifically the office of Economic and Community Development, has been highly involved in the EC’s work since our inception in 2009. Matt Wiltshire (Director, Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development) and Justine Avila (Executive Director, Music City Music Council) are also engaged members of the EC Board of Directors. We have collaborated on programming for Metro employees to think more innovatively (Ideas to Reality) as well as programing for the Mayor’s Arts and Business Council focused on teaching artists to think entrepreneurially (Periscope Program), hosted the Mayor’s Public Investment Plan hearings (an innovative new approach to budgeting that has challenged Metro departments and agencies to think creatively about how they can collaborate on pilot initiative), and have received financial support for the ongoing work of the EC. Not only are representatives involved in the startup space, they have made it a priority to bring the innovative thinking of Nashville’s ecosystem internally in order to run a better local government.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
No state tax on SaaS sales - Tennessee is currently one of 16 states that does not exempt SaaS sales from taxes.
Makerspace allowable in homes in urban areas
Are there some startups to watch coming out of the Nashville-area?
GreenLight Medical - GreenLight Medical is an enterprise cloud service that enables collaboration between hospitals and suppliers to streamline the approval, procurement, and payment of new medical products. They work with hospitals, physicians, value analysis committee members, and medical technology professionals to increase the efficiency of value analysis for new medical technologies. They pitched at Google Demo Day in 2017.
Jammber - Jammber is an online platform and mobile app for professional project management. Their tools and technologies create simplified paperwork, accurate credits and faster payments for the entertainment industry. Jammber places itself at the intersection of art and commerce and data for the entertainment industry. An online platform which optimizes team projects, paperwork and payment aspects of the business. Jammber is an alumni of the EC’s inaugural Project Music cohort.
Please Assist Me - Please Assist Me Inc is a tech based comprehensive in-home personal assistance solution that handles weekly tasks for the busy lifestyle. Services include grocery delivery, dry cleaning, laundry, mail, light housecleaning and other services coordinated through one mobile app platform. Their business model leverages economies of scale to lower costs and provide an economical service for our customers while realizing a healthy profit margin.