#StartupsEverywhere: Conway, A.R.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Kim Lane, CEO, Conductor

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.

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Conducting Innovation in Arkansas

When most people think of Arkansas, they think of Little Rock, home to President Bill Clinton, or maybe Bentonville, the birthplace of Walmart. But what entrepreneurs think of is Conway, located in Central Arkansas, home to the Conductor. Kim Lane, the Conductor’s CEO and all-around ecosystem builder, has seen the region change dramatically with the help of the public and private sectors. Kim and her team work closely with policymakers to develop policies that encourage entrepreneurship. Healthcare and education are top on her policy wishlist.

Tell me about you. What’s your background?

I’m the CEO of Conductor. Launched in 2016, the Conductor is a public-private partnership with the University of Central Arkansas and Startup Junkie Consulting. We aim to drive innovation, entrepreneurship and economic empowerment in Central Arkansas. I am also the founder of Kim Lane Ltd. Co., where I provide thought leadership as a consultant for Facebook, Inc., and serve as a Regional Representative for the Kauffman Foundation, managing all of the 1 Million Cups chapters in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Puerto Rico. Additionally, I am a Startup Huddle Ambassador for the Global Entrepreneurship Network.

Prior to this, I was the Director of Operations at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. In addition, I also served as the inaugural Digital Director and Online Editor of Arkansas Money & Politics magazine. With my experience as a journalist, I was covering startups and entrepreneurship in Arkansas, and was passionate about driving more attention to the state’s entrepreneurship movement. I effectively made entrepreneurship my “beat” and covered demo days, entrepreneurial events and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I then assembled a team of entrepreneurs who contributed to the magazine, and developed a platform for them to promote their sixty-second elevator pitches on our website.

Can you tell me more about Conductor and its programs?

We take an entire community approach and work closely with the University of Central Arkansas, the City of Conway, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and the city’s utility company, Conway Corporation. It’s important to note that everything we do is free.

One of our flagship programs was our Mentor Network. We have subject matter experts in different industries — for example, banking, marketing, or HR. The program gives entrepreneurs time to be open about a specific challenge or opportunity they are facing, and allows the mentors to provide direct feedback and guidance.

We’re currently working with Conway Corporation to develop the Arnold Innovation Center, which will provide free coworking space for the community. In partnership with the City of Conway, we will be moving into City Hall. The coworking space has the potential to reach a lot of rural entrepreneurs and serve as a convening place for entrepreneurs.

We also run the 10X Growth Accelerator. Conducted in partnership with Metova and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the scale-up-oriented accelerator provides targeted support to Arkansas-based, growth-oriented ventures with additional focus on offering recommendations for improving software scalability and protection from cyber threats. More than 20 Arkansas-based companies have graduated from the 10X Growth Accelerator. In just five months since the first cohort graduated, one company has already seen a 10X increase in subscribers, and multiple others have added new jobs and seen dramatic increases in sales. Alumni companies unanimously say that the program is valuable for scalable companies in the state.

High School Startup Day is a program I am really proud of -- it’s presented in partnership with the Conductor and Junior Achievement of Arkansas. At the event, we aim to give students a platform to identify and analyze real-world problems, and collaborate with their peers to conceptualize tangible solutions. We’ve run multiple High School Startup Day events in Conway, and in 2017, the program was piloted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it reached more than 400 students. This year, the Global Entrepreneurship Network adopted it into their international playbook, giving countries around the world the opportunity to run the impactful event.

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Looking at your work with Startup Grind, how is it different from your work at the Conductor?

I serve as the Director of Startup Grind Central Arkansas. Startup Grind has become embedded into the ecosystem and is one of the community's favorite events. It’s a good time to learn about life and business advice. We have had speakers from all walks of life from the Mayor of Conway to the Governor’s Chief of Staff.  In 2019, we will host Representative French Hill.

How involved are lawmakers in your ecosystem?

In Conway, everyone is extremely collaborative. We work closely with the Mayor of Conway, the Governor of Arkansas and U.S. Congressman French Hill and many local lawmakers. Entrepreneurial policy is really important to me, and it’s exciting to connect entrepreneurs with their lawmakers so we can all work together to make a difference in the ecosystem.

This year, we participated in Startup Week Across America with Representative French Hill, and that was amazing. We did a number of events. The Congressman came to our Makerspace and got hands on making squishy circuits. From there, we hosted a roundtable lunch with area entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs discussed their issues on the federal level, from access to capital to healthcare. It served as a great way for the Congressman to get to know local businesses, and for the group to brainstorm ways they could work together on a federal policy-making level. To finish the day, the Congressman conducted a site visit and learned about Edafio, a local IT service management company. The Congressman participated in a radio interview shortly after his visit, and noted his time with the Conductor as his favorite part of visiting his districtur during recess.

I’ve been invited to join the Kauffman Foundation on Capitol Hill in April to attend advocacy training workshops and meetings with federal policymakers. The best part is that I get to bring an entrepreneur from my community with me. We will be inviting entrepreneurs from our community to apply for the chance to go to D.C. to attend these meetings; airfare will be covered for the entrepreneur. I’m really excited about collaborating with the Kauffman Foundation to create these types of opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Describe your personal role in the Arkansas startup ecosystem in three words.

Catalyst, supporter and empowerer.  

You spend a lot of time with startups. What do they need? Are there trends?

We have free consulting and see every type of business possible from college students to people that have been in business for over five years. We see patterns, especially when companies are getting started.  We often teach the main tenets of entrepreneurship like conducting customer discovery research and thoroughly validating the problem the entrepreneur is solving. We often utilize research from the Small Business Administration and the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center. We look at financials, market research, developing value propositions and more. We also work extensively with high-growth companies. Through our intensive, targeted mentorship, we help these companies develop a scalable infrastructure, put a growth plan in place and more.

What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the Central Arkansas ecosystem in the last year?

A highlight was definitely our visit from Rep. French Hill -- that was a major demonstration to the entrepreneurs in our community that a policymaker on the federal level cares about the work they are doing, and that they have a voice in entrepreneurial policy.  The Governor has also been very involved with our movement, and spoke to the cohort of Arkansas-based companies in our 10X Growth Accelerator. When we launched, we were doing really impactful work on a local level in Central Arkansas, and now, just two years later, our programs are being scaled internationally (like High School Startup Day), and we’re giving entrepreneurs a platform to share their voices on a national level. It’s really exciting and fulfilling work. Additionally, our entrepreneurs are seeing major successes, which is incredible. These little successes build up to really move the needle -- it’s been incredible to see the impact we’ve had in Arkansas, and I can’t wait to see the ongoing outcomes of our work.

What is the biggest challenge the Central Arkansas ecosystem still faces?

For me, I am more inspired than not by our challenges. We have pockets of impoverished communities and opportunity zone legislation has the ability to change that. While this means the communities need help, it gives us the opportunity to reach these people. It’s now our job to let people know we exist as a resource to them. We have to think about how to reach people in rural communities. In many cases in small communities, people are focused on seeking, rather than creating a job. Through our programming and mentorship, we can help change that paradigm, and help people build new companies and create new jobs for the community.

From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?

A top issue is workforce. We need more talent for skilled positions and this is not only a federal level problem. It starts locally with education. Another issue is healthcare. It can be a hindrance to becoming an entrepreneur. Why would you leave a full-time job with benefits to launch a new company? What do you do about retirement? Overall, we need to lower the barriers to entrepreneurship. These are issues the entrepreneurs in our community have vocalized to me, and they put these on the Congressman’s radar when he visited with us.

We also should develop policies to encourage entrepreneurship from an early age, and show young people that entrepreneurship is a viable career path. At the Conductor, we are actively thinking about how we can expose students to entrepreneurship, and encourage them to think innovatively. Anyone can be an entrepreneur, and we’re passionate about spreading the entrepreneurial message to people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I’d like to thank the whole Conductor team. It’s a massive team effort and I could not do it without them. In addition to working with an incredible team of experts and thought leaders, we also work closely with students at the University of Central Arkansas. By creating jobs for students at the Conductor, we give them real-world experience and integrate them into the entrepreneurial ecosystem -- it’s a win-win for all parties.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email jen@engine.is. Give us your feedback here.