Medium-Size U.S. Cities Offer Opportunities, Lessons to Young European Entrepreneurs
When you ask most people to name innovation hot spots in the United States, major hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, and San Francisco are usually the first to come to mind. But if you ask an entrepreneur from Austin, Denver, or Seattle, they will proudly tell you that big opportunities often hide in much smaller cities. That is why each year, the U.S. Department of State sponsors the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI), a fellowship program that connects European and Eurasian entrepreneurs to U.S. mentors in diverse medium-size cities for a week-long immersion. During that time, fellows dive into the distinct culture of their placement city and learn about the uniquely U.S. way of doing business from local investors, government officials, and, of course, fellow entrepreneurs.
While entrepreneurs in highly competitive megacities often find themselves pitted against their peers, smaller ecosystems provide an opportunity to connect in a much more nurturing and collaborative environment. As Seattle mentor Pradyumna Misra explained, “Entrepreneurs learn a lot from like-minded people undertaking similar challenges and experiences. They become part of an informal club, a support system, and a network of their peers, mentors, and coaches. This creates an expectation that those receiving help and guidance provide help to others.”
Entrepreneurs in medium-size cities also benefit from having an investor culture where the relationship between founder and investor goes beyond a simple loan. “It’s harder to get noticed on the coasts,” said Austin mentor Jennifer Milspaugh. “The support you garner is often superficial as investors and others move on to the next big thing. Here, you get to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.” Investors benefit from this dynamic as well; in ecosystems that allow deep relationships to form, they often get to know founders over the course of many months in an advisory role. Doing so allows them to invest more strategically and therefore see higher returns.
In an environment based on such deep relationships, entrepreneurs not only need to believe in their business, but also to be able to articulately tell their story and develop precise “asks” when talking to potential investors. That is why developing a strong, customizable pitch is critical to a start-up’s success. In countries where there is a less ingrained culture of self-promotion, adapting to the directness of the U.S. approach can be daunting. Learning to pitch effectively is therefore one of the major foci of the YTILI program and, unsurprisingly, the area in which mentors often provide the most support.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed between the European ecosystem and the United States is that folks in the EU can get governmental (financial) support at the very early stages of launching a business, which is great,” said Milspaugh. “U.S. businesses often don’t have that advantage, so our entrepreneurs have to be polished and clear about what they’re creating to get buy-in. This is something that everyone can learn from, because learning how to tell your story is so important to finding the people who can champion you along the way.”
Just as the fellows learn about U.S. society from their mentors, the mentors learn from them in return. As Denver mentor Barbara Bauer, who has participated in the program for the last two years, said, “I’ve learned about their home countries and ecosystems, the challenges they face and how the different players engage. I’ve learned about the fellows’ personal courage and innovation, and we’ve formed long lasting friendships and professional relationships. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to be part of the program.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.