#StartupsEverywhere: Las Cruces, N.M.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Zetdi Runyan Sloan, Director of Arrowhead Accelerator Programs, Arrowhead 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.

Helping Entrepreneurs Thrive Across New Mexico

Based in the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center works to connect startups and entrepreneurs across the state with the resources they need to innovate and expand. Zetdi Runyan Sloan, director of the center’s accelerator programs, uses her own entrepreneurial spirit to help startups--particularly those operated by underserved entrepreneurs--grow through mentorship programs and networking opportunities. Zetdi and the rest of the team at the Arrowhead Center tirelessly advocate for entrepreneurs across the state, and are continuing to push state leaders to recognize and further support the state’s diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem.  

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Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?

I’m an NMSU graduate. I’ve been with the Arrowhead Center for a little over 10 years now, and I think that my interest in building out entrepreneurial ecosystems is driven by the fact that I come from a family of entrepreneurs.

My husband is an entrepreneur. I also had a software startup myself that ended up failing, so I think I have a pretty good insight into, at least, what not to do.

Tell us about the work you do at the Arrowhead Center.

My focus for the last few years has been dedicated to building out a program that is accessible to underserved entrepreneurs. Those are - minorities, female, and rurally-located entrepreneurs.

We’re doing that by building a system-wide network of accelerator programs that are offered virtually. And we’re using a shared-economy model--leveraging the resources and expertise of individuals in various rural communities across New Mexico--to provide access to a robust network of experts and technical assistance providers. We have about 40 mentors that are available to anyone who participates in this program. The accelerator programs are called ‘sprints’ and they vary in length and industry focus. They’re unique in that the virtual format really opens the door for entrepreneurs who would’ve otherwise not been able to participate.

In line with that, we do a lot around women entrepreneurship initiatives. I just finished with a women’s entrepreneurship conference last week. We had about 130 female entrepreneurs come in, and it’s a very different kind of conference because all of our speakers are exclusively female entrepreneurs themselves, and the vast majority of the audience are either aspiring entrepreneurs or successful female entrepreneurs providing mentorship and lending insights and best practices. It was our third annual conference, and it was a really fantastic opportunity for female entrepreneurs to network, get inspired and empowered, and actually walk away with the tools and resources they need to start a venture.

I’m also launching next week an open list of female entrepreneurs in New Mexico, and I’m going to share this with economic development organizations, entrepreneurship development organizations, and others who are in charge of running entrepreneurship or startup-based programs or services. I’m doing this so that there’s this really robust depository of female entrepreneurs in New Mexico that can be called on to fill speaking roles or mentor roles, so there are essentially no excuses for not having equal representation.

What makes New Mexico’s startup ecosystem unique?  

One of the most commonly noted challenges has been funding, but we’re advancing in that area. New Mexico has recently launched a number of funds in the last year and a half or so.

What’s really unique is that you can work in stealth mode here. You can run a bunch of different tests and probably not catch a lot of national attention, which is sort of great if you’re conducting early customer development work.

And somewhat out of desperation, because of the socioeconomic status of our state, people are really driven to start businesses, because in some cases that’s the only opportunity that they have.

What’s are the most exciting or important developments that have happened to New Mexico’s ecosystem in the last year?

Generally across New Mexico, you’re seeing a shift in mindset from the leaders in the state. There’s been a focus from the state level down to the county and city level to emphasize the importance of entrepreneurship, creating safe and supportive environments for startup. So I think the shift in support, and being vocal about it, have been the most noticeable developments.

Are there any policies at the federal, state, or local level that have helped New Mexico’s ecosystem?

At the state level, New Mexico developed the Catalyst Fund--a $20 million fund-of-funds created to increase seed and early-stage investment in New Mexico. As a fund-of-funds, the Catalyst Fund will invest in existing and emerging portfolio funds. That is what spurred this recent development in the last year of multiple funds. They’ve provided matching fund opportunities to at least six different funds.

What are the biggest that challenges startups across the state still face?

A lot of this starts with changing mindsets. New Mexico has a tendency to sort of wallow in our rankings in a lot of areas, in terms of education and unemployment and general socioeconomic status, instead of celebrating our successes.

I think a lot of that starts with leadership. We need to see more celebration of those successes that have taken place, whether that’s job growth or ability to fundraise while staying in New Mexico.

I would say that’s really one of the biggest next hurdles, and really trying to put New Mexico on the map. We really do have a tremendous amount of expertise in the state because of the national laboratories. We have the highest concentration of PhDs in Los Alamos because of Los Alamos National Lab. We have large military installments and a lot of federal work that’s taking place, so we have a lot of really intelligent people, and a lot of nationally and internationally impactful work that’s taking place here. So learning to better leverage that and share our stories is important.

From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your state’s ecosystem?

New Mexico is such a geographically disparate state that, in order to maintain economic vitality in rural communities, economic development organizations need to continue to be financially supported.

What is your goal for the next year? The next five years?

One of our main goals is to share stories of resilience, especially featuring those underserved or under-highlighted entrepreneurs--those women, veterans, minorities, and rural entrepreneurs--in an effort to inspire others to take the gamble and pursue entrepreneurship as a career path.

As a result, we would hope to see an increase in underserved entrepreneurs applying the tools and the education that they’re learning through our state’s startup programs and taking that next step.

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 edward@engine.is.