#StartupsEverywhere: Memphis, T.N.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Leslie Smith, President and CEO, Epicenter

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.

Leslie Lynn Smith Headshot.jpg

Becoming the King City of Innovation

Memphis has served as the epicenter of music for great stars from Elvis Presley to B.B. King. The city has also become an epicenter for the region’s ecosystem, led by Leslie Smith, the president and CEO of Epicenter. Leslie and her team work to identify gaps in the ecosystem and work collectively to fill those for gaps for the region’s growing population of innovators. The Epicenter team focuses on telling the stories of entrepreneurs to educate lawmakers on policy issues that matter to them, including access to capital and healthcare.

Tell me about you.

I am an adopted Memphian, and I love the complexity and grit of this place. I was born in Detroit and have lived in Memphis for the last three and a half years. The challenges and opportunities of both of these great American cities are very similar, and in their nuanced differences I'm learning to expand my worldview, grow through my discomfort with change, and connect new and long-term relationships to enhance the vibrancy of both places and myself.  

I am married with three amazing children who have all adopted and devoured this city. We love living in a place with such authenticity and soul, and we have great confidence in the creativity and resilience of Memphis and its people.  

We are humbled to play a small role in the city's evolution by supporting local dreamers, makers, and doers.

What’s your personal role in the Memphis startup ecosystem?

I am the president and CEO of Epicenter, our region’s nonprofit ecosystem hub. I lead a team that drives strategy and measures impact among a collaborative network of economic development, academic, corporate, and government partners to increase support to new and existing tech startups, creative and community-based businesses, student entrepreneurs, and others across industries and stages of growth. The Epicenter team and our partners connect these entrepreneurs and their innovative ideas to programming, capital, customers, and talent in order to create a just, inclusive, and growing economy that accrues to all Memphians.

What keeps you up at night? What gets you up in the morning?

Truly, the center of my professional life is our entrepreneurs. My team and I wake up every day thinking about the opportunities our organization and our network of partners can provide that will help local entrepreneurs start or scale their businesses. Conversely, what keeps me up at night are the barriers to those opportunities and the behavior changes needed to address such pervasive issues like poverty – and how entrepreneurship can play a role. Most of all, our work is centered on ensuring those we serve mirror the demographics of our majority African American city.

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

Our role is to identify gaps in our ecosystem, and, not surprisingly, what comes up most is access to capital. We’ve approached these gaps with a “capital stack” concept, which prioritizes access to a variety of capital types – from angel investment, to bank debt and equity – all designed to help entrepreneurs scale no matter their stage of business. For example, we’re piloting a Friends and Family Fund, designed for small entrepreneurial businesses in the Memphis area to meet a one-time capital milestone. It is also intended to fill a gap where investments from “friends and family” may not be available to an entrepreneur – this is often the case in underrepresented communities, such as entrepreneurs of color and women. This year, we also launched the $15 million Memphis Small Business Opportunity Loan Fund, a partnership with Pathway Lending, a regional nonprofit CDFI. The fund is intended to improve access to capital, particularly for minority- and women-owned businesses. Initial capitalization of the fund was provided by Pinnacle Financial Partners, First Tennessee, and Regions Bank.

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

We’ve seen a lot of momentum in our community this year. Many of our local entrepreneurs are thriving and meeting exciting milestones. In May, we welcomed the Rise of the Rest bus tour to our city, which catalyzed a lot of local interest in our entrepreneurial movement. We also announced a fundraising milestone of $40 million to support entrepreneurs in the region, bolstered by an initial grant commitment of $10 million by FedEx Corp. The $40 million in local investment from philanthropic foundations, economic development organizations, corporations, financial institutions, and individuals is being used in a number ways, including to pilot and scale innovative entrepreneurial programming, provide capital resources directly to entrepreneurs, support local partner organizations that serve entrepreneurs, and add industry experts and infrastructure that support the entire local entrepreneurial community and culture. We’ve recently activated an angel investor and advisor club, and we're already seeing investment and connections coming from that group. So, for me, the most exciting thing about this year is that our local funders and stakeholders are seeing entrepreneurship as a viable economic development strategy, and our local citizens are seeing opportunities in entrepreneurship for themselves.

How are you working with another ecosystems around the state or country?

We’re closely aligned with markets across our state, thanks to our strong partnership with Launch Tennessee, the statewide public-private partnership that is part of the Department of Economic and Community Development. We’ve also made meaningful connections with leaders in cities like Detroit, Birmingham, Little Rock, Jackson, Miss., St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as others through our membership in organizations like InBIA and SSTI. To truly move this work forward, I think it’s important to leave your own city on occasion to connect and learn from other markets and to share best practices, but also be open and transparent about our common challenges.

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

In the Memphis/Shelby County region, the economic development community is collaborating to think boldly about economic solutions that are right for our region. We believe that shifting from a business recruitment strategy to intentional investment in local startups and small businesses will yield more jobs and more personal wealth. On a federal level, I’m proud to be on the board of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, which advocates for federal policies that benefit entrepreneurs. In the coming year, we want to be more proactive in telling our entrepreneurs' stories to our state and federal legislators, which we think helps connect the dots from entrepreneurship to our economy.

We have talked about healthcare being an issue facing entrepreneurship. How can policymakers help?

This is an issue we’ve talked about a lot locally but have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of solutions. What we do know is that we don’t want healthcare to be a barrier to entrepreneurship. We don’t yet have an answer, but ideas we’ve considered are pooling entrepreneurs into a healthcare purchasing group or hosting workshops to help guide entrepreneurs through the healthcare purchasing process.

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

We are working through our 10-year strategic plan, and we’re on track to really grow and scale some of our pilot programs and capital solutions across our region and more deeply into our neighborhoods. We’ve built out a robust data and metrics platform that will allow us to report out some initial impact we’ve measured from our work over the last three years. And we’re always striving to amplify the untold stories of local entrepreneurs. Memphis is constantly overlooked and underestimated as an entrepreneurial ecosystem – and we’re about to prove that notion wrong.

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.